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Dear Film Critic: SeaWorld vs. “Blackfish”, a documentary about Tilikum the whale and the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau

July 17, 2013

Tilikum at Sea World Orlando

Though it doesn’t open in Orlando until sometime in August (stay tuned for more coverage when the film comes out), the initial NY/LA release of Magnolia Pictures and CNN films’ Blackfish is coming this Friday, and buzz is beginning to build about the film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, which seeks to shed light on the problems of long term orca captivity.

The film — and the promotion of the film — is highly critical of SeaWorld in particular, and of the practice of sea mammal captivity for the purpose of entertainment in general, featuring interviews with more than a half-dozen former trainers from SeaWorld’s three parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio.

The film’s main focus is on Tilikum, the largest orca currently in captivity, who has been responsible — at least in part — for three deaths since being captured in the wild in the early 1980s. The latest came in 2010 (shortly after another trainer’s death in Loro Parque in Spain in 2009), when head trainer Dawn Brancheau was reportedly pulled underwater by her ponytail after a routine performance at Dine with Shamu in the Orlando park. (The real Shamu died in 1971, which is sort of like finding out that there is no Santa Claus.)

(This video cuts well before anything goes wrong.)

Due to the controversial nature of the film, SeaWorld Entertainment sent out an email to film critics over the weekend that alleges that the allegations made against them in the film are allegedly bogus. You can scroll to the bottom to read the email in its entirety, but in summary, the email warns to take the film as a “powerful, emotionally-moving” direct appeal in advocacy of orca rights but that the film shouldn’t be taken as fact, calling the film “shamefully dishonest”.

The email claims that claims in the film about SeaWorld’s practices — removing orcas from the wild, removing them from their family structure, bullying amongst captive orcas and whether or not the lifespan of a wild orca is significantly longer than a captive orca — are “deliberately misleading” and that what the film “presents as unvarnished reality is anything but.”

On Death at SeaWorld author David Kirby’s blog, he refutes many of the claims SeaWorld has made to refute the claims that Kirby, Cowperthwaite and former trainers Samantha Berg and John Jett have made against them, most notably that SeaWorld had tried to spin the story of Brancheau’s death as trainer error. Kirby writes:

It wasn’t until guest eyewitnesses alerted the media that SeaWorld came out with the “ponytail” theory. But the assertion that Dawn’s ponytail floated into Tilikum’s mouth is neither supported by the video evidence that we have, nor by more than one eyewitness account. It would appear that Tilikum grabbed Dawn by the arm or shoulder. In fact, according to some witnesses, the trainer, Jay Topoleski, who reported the ponytail grab, was not even looking at Dawn when Tilikum took her down.

Of course Blackfish will invariably bring up comparison to The Cove, Louie Psihoyos’s 2009 documentary about the capture and slaughter of dolphins in a secret cove in Japan, and there is good reason for that comparison. But the nature of the incidents in Blackfish make this a trickier, more nuanced subject than the direct approach that Psihoyos was able to make when he captured video of the fisherman in Taiji slaughtering dolphins for not being cute enough to be sold to marine parks.

Obviously SeaWorld is not going to just go away or volunteer to shut down their most famous attractions in exchange for a more tranquil and educational zoo-like park, especially since they became a publicly traded company earlier this year (SEAS).

And because of poor health and bad teeth, the societal structure of orca pods, or having been born in captivity and not having the skills to survive in the wild, many if not most of the captive orcas — including Tilikum — are simply not good candidates for a return to the wild.

There is also the dirty, shameful truth that SeaWorld is fun (when you don’t know any better) and many people don’t consider the feelings of the orcas after they leave the show. They appear to be so happy and playful during the shows and through the glass. There are tons of family photos in my mom’s albums of us smiling in SeaWorld, me sitting in a little dolphin stroller. I’ve seen Tilikum perform, and teenage me didn’t give as much a damn about movies as he did about being a marine biologist thanks to a swim with dolphins experience. But a positive experience for one isn’t so positive for the other.

The thing is that the expressive eyes and the upcurve both the orca and dolphin have in their mouths make them appear to constantly be happy and smiling. They don’t look lonely or miserable, like a bullied teenager or like a dominated spouse. They look pleased to have done a backflip for some fish. They look playfully mischievous for having splashed you in Shamu Stadium. Those bastards are grinning the whole time!

This, it seems to me, is the biggest problem that orca and dolphin advocates have to overcome. I don’t know how they’ll do it, or if they even can.

Blackfish is tentatively scheduled to open on Friday, August 2nd at the Enzian (but has already been pushed back once by holdovers at the theater) and will air on CNN later this year. 


Dear Film Critic:

I’m writing to you on behalf of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. You may be aware of a documentary called “Blackfish” that purports to expose SeaWorld’s treatment of killer whales (or orcas) and the “truth” behind the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

In the event you are planning to review this film, we thought you should be apprised of the following. Although “Blackfish” is by most accounts a powerful, emotionally-moving piece of advocacy, it is also shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate. As the late scholar and U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously noted: “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”

The film’s most egregious and untrue allegations include:
· The insinuation that SeaWorld stocks its parks with killer whales captured from the wild. In fact, SeaWorld hasn’t collected a killer whale from the wild in more than 35 years; more than 80% of the killer whales at SeaWorld were born there or in other zoological facilities.

· The assertion that killer whales in the wild live more than twice as long as those living at SeaWorld. While research suggests that some wild killer whales can live as long as 60 or 70 years, their average lifespan is nowhere near that. Nor is it true that killer whales in captivity live only 25 to 35 years. Because we’ve been studying killer whales at places like SeaWorld for only 40 years or so, we don’t know what their lifespans might be—though we do know that SeaWorld currently has one killer whale in her late 40s and a number of others in their late 30s.

· The implication that unlike killer whales in the wild, killer whales in zoos or parks—and specifically Tilikum, the whale involved in Dawn Brancheau’s death—are routinely bullied by other whales. The word “bullying” is meaningless when applied to the behavior of an animal like a killer whale. Whales live in a social setting with a dominance hierarchy, both at SeaWorld and in the wild. They express dominance in a variety of ways, including using their teeth to “rake” other whales, in the open ocean as well as in parks.

· The accusation that SeaWorld callously breaks up killer whale families. SeaWorld does everything possible to support the social structures of all marine mammals, including killer whales. It moves killer whales only when doing so is in the interest of their long-term health and welfare. And despite the misleading footage in the film, the only time it separates unweaned killer whale calves from their mothers is when the mothers have rejected them.

· The accusation that SeaWorld mistreats its killer whales with punishment-based training that’s designed to force them to learn unnatural behaviors. SeaWorld has never used punishment-based training on any of its animals, including Tilikum, only positive reinforcement. And the behaviors it reinforces are always within the killer whale’s natural range of behaviors.

· The accusation that SeaWorld trainers were not adequately informed about Tilikum. From the time Tilikum first arrived at SeaWorld, all trainers were warned—both as part of their training and in writing—that they were not allowed in the water with him. In fact, as was widely reported and covered at length in the OSHA proceedings, Tilikum has always had his own set of training protocols and only the most experienced trainers have been allowed to work with him.

· The accusation that SeaWorld tried to “spin” the story of Dawn Brancheau’s death, changing its story several times and blaming her for the tragedy. As the movie itself shows, it was local law enforcement—not SeaWorld—that issued the initial report that Dawn had accidentally fallen into the water. SeaWorld’s account of what happened—that Tilikum had grabbed Dawn’s ponytail and pulled her in—never varied. And the company has never blamed Dawn for what happened. (The person in the film who did was not a SeaWorld spokesperson.)

· The assertion that Tilikum attacked and killed Dawn Brancheau because he was driven crazy by his years in captivity. Tilikum did not attack Dawn. All evidence indicates that Tilikum became interested in the novelty of Dawn’s ponytail in his environment and, as a result, he grabbed it and pulled her into the water.

These are only the most egregious of the film’s many misrepresentations. “Blackfish” is similarly misleading and inaccurate in its account of the other fatal incidents in which Tilikum was supposedly involved, what happened at Loro Parque, the training and qualifications of SeaWorld trainers, and the care and living conditions enjoyed by SeaWorld’s orcas. And the list goes on…and on.

SeaWorld is proud of its legacy of supporting marine science and environmental awareness in general and the cause of killer whales in particular. Our point in sending you this note is to make you aware that what “Blackfish” presents as unvarnished reality is anything but. We don’t expect this to settle the debate, but rather we hope it will begin one. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Fred Jacobs.

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  • Rsey104

    If anyone feels strongly about the rescue/aid work that
    SeaWorld does they might like to give a donation directly to The SeaWorld and
    Busch Gardens Conservation Fund—bypassing the amusement park/circus aspect of
    the business altogether.

    Put your money where it can do the most good—and the least harm.

    The world’s largest captive orca, Tilikum, literally lives backstage at an entertainment venue.

    Permanently. Night and day. For life.

    For 30 years, everything that was ever important to Tilikum has been taken from him. His freedom has been taken. His family and his home have been taken. His health and vitality have been taken.

    Even the ocean has been taken from Tilikum.

    In the process, three young adults—Keltie, Daniel, and Dawn—had everything taken from them, too.

    And for what?

    Every time Tilikum circles the pool splashing water on people he makes a rich corporation a few dollars richer.

    Orcas don’t thrive in captivity. They don’t belong in captivity.

    It was a bad idea in 1964. It’s a bad idea today.

    It’s time for change.

    I look forward to seeing this film.

  • JYK98

    I’d rather give to Oceana or other conservation organizations that are not affiliated with SeaWorld. Given their shameful treatment of the captured orcas and how little they spend on actual educational efforts, I don’t quite trust they’ll use my money appropriately. Plus, they now have even greater incentive to drive profit since becoming a publicly-traded company.

  • Rsey104

    Good thoughts, JYK98.

  • killerwhale

    “They look playfully mischievous for having splashed you in Shamu Stadium. Those bastards are grinning the whole time!
    This, it seems to me, is the biggest problem that orca and dolphin advocates have to overcome. I don’t know how they’ll do it, or if they even can.”

    Positing the lowest-denominator of group-think stupidity is the least likely way to affect enlightened change. maybe you’re on the side of Sea World? Hmmm? Orca and Dolphin advocates are here positioned outside the group therefore making the group so-called anti-orca advocates? is this your point? is the “group”, in 2013, still so lustful of animal cruelty and banal circus events that you cannot place advocates inside the group making us all careful and kind citizens of the world? are you once again trying to divide us? you don’t know if pro-animal people can overcome the basest feature of a whale in order to argue what?the group’s ignorance of captivity’s insanity? who is the group? obviously they are not advocates here. who are they? where do they come from? what socio-economic class do they belong? just say it-i will-the group-think of sea world is one of consumeristic low to middle zog force american t.v. culture and your opinion is they are just too far gone in the rabbit hole to make any difference. like if they begin shopping at whole foods and going to enzian to see this movie. JUST SAY IT! you don’t want them to change because their standard sets your class on a higher ranking giving you the perspective of analysis and power. YOU DON’T WANT THE AMERICAN TO EVOLVE. they might demand better food from the places only you shop. they might stop going to sea world and send thousands of area jobs down the drain. they might stop shopping at tacky malls and start going to your favorite winter park boutique. they might even start showing up at your favorite prohibition-era bar and asking for your special drink(only you know…..). you want to keep your secrets. you want to leave them behind. you want to forget they even exist. don’t you. don’t you. don’t you.

  • MichelleO

    No matter what SeaWorld has to say the fact remains the same. Tilikum is in captivity and not in the wild where he should be. As Rsey104 says, this poor animal has had everything taken away from him. STOP THIS ABUSE NOW. Whales belong in the ocean.

  • MichelleO

    I also wanted to just bring a positive slant to this whole ugly debacle. It is because of Tilikum that we as a society are realising that we must no longer be a part of this cruelty. He has brought to the fore a debate that will probably rage on for a few years but I do believe that eventually these horrid amusement parks will be scrapped completely. Unfortunately he has had to suffer for many, many years and three people have lost their lives. We must sit up and take note and do our bit to ensure that their lives were not wasted and Tilikum’s sufferings were not in vain.

  • Seth Kubersky

    Thank you for proving Rob’s point. The unhinged incoherence (noble as the intent may be) of the above comment is exactly why marine animal advocates will always have an uphill battle convincing John Q Public…

  • Phil H

    @ Killerwhale –

    Your post is incoherent and rambling and stopped making sense after you quoted the author.

    I would agree that the “looks” of the cetaceans in captivity fool the lesser-educated layperson into thinking that they are happy animals. A shark looks mean and aggressive, whereas a dolphin or killer whale does not. There is no place for these intelligent creatures in captivity.

    They are social and smart mammals who can travel a hundred miles in a day, should they wish. How can any pool compete with that?

    Set them free.

  • MK

    No orca,dolphin,sea lion any animal deserve to be in captivity for our pleasure. Sea World of course is going to deny the truth because they are making a ton of money. They want your business. The documentary just wants the public to see what really goes on they want what’s best for the orcas and dolphins that is a life in the Ocean with their own pods. People that want to keep engaging in taking their kids there are just ignorant or simply don’t care. It’s selfish they care about entertaining themselves and their kids. C’MON people these huge mammals are in a concrete pool. Sea world parking lot is larger than what they keep these orcas and other sea animals in. They don’t even get the pleasure of eating live fish. It is slavery in my opinion. It needs to cease along with all mistreatment and cruelty to animals that can’t speak for themselves. Someone has to be their advocate. Shut places like Sea World DOWN!!!