SeaWorld Bogus Critique Of Blackfish

Despite insisting that Blackfish is having no impact on its business, SeaWorld continues to invest heavily in a PR counter-attack on Blackfish and the former trainers who appear in the film.

It’s latest minute-by-minute critique of Blackfish was perhaps the most detailed, and most tediously off-base, critique it has issued yet.

Below you will find the Blackfish production team’s rebuttal. What’s notable is that SeaWorld continues to massage and manipulate the facts even as it tries to accuse Blackfish of mis-representing the facts. What’s also notable is that SeaWorld continues to try and distract and divert from the core issues raised in Blackfish about the wisdom and morality of killer whale captivity, without ever directly addressing those issues.

I guess we can keep going round after round on this, but the facts simply are not on SeaWorld’s side. And it seems clear that the public is beginning to understand a very different, more credible, and increasingly troubling version of killer whale captivity than the narrative SeaWorld has been promoting for the past 50 years.

Comment Highlights From The Debate Over Blackfish

The back and forth over criticism of Blackfish in this post is generating some great comments. I wanted to call out a few:

First, from former SeaWorld Jeffrey Ventre, who I mentioned in the post, and who features prominently in Blackfish:

Tim, thanks for writing this. Just for clarity, I worked directly with Tilikum (as opposed to just being around) especially when opening the stadium. In the a.m., a Sr Trainer is usually paired with one or more junior staff, and conducts morning sessions, including exercise, play, learning, relationships, husbandry and more. In 1994-95, i usually opened 1-2 days per week. This involved direct, hands on contact with Tilikum. During show situations, I was typically with a waterwork animal (Kat/Tai), thus would rarely work him in shows, but it did happen, from time to time. In regard to fame and fortune, I’m personally down (net loss) about ten thousand due to hotels, travel expenses, and lift tickets involved with places like Park City and Sarasota. In regard to speaking out, and as stated at the SFF Q&A, most of us got into this position by default. We did have an opinion, which we’ve shared. Had other current and former marine mammal trainers stepped up to the plate, there’d be plenty of “fame” to spread around. None of us have a history of activism. If any current or former trainers want to join our expanding group, please track us down at Voice of the Orcas.

Jeff was good enough to include this video that conveys some of how Blackfish was received at the Sarasota Film Festival:

Next, this thoughtful comment and perspective, from Dana:

I am by no means an ex- marine mammal trainer but I would like to share my story with you. I grew up and still live in Ohio about 45 minutes from what was the Ohio SeaWorld. I grew up at Shamu Stadium. When I was 17 I had been accepted as a student for a internship/career workshop (at this time the park was Six Flags). A week before I was to start my internship working at Dolphin Cove I received a phone call that I will never forget. “We must cancel your internship because the park will be closing down permanently. We are very sorry.” I didn’t let this setback stop me from my dream. I went to college at Kent State Univeristy and graduated in 2011 with a B.A. in Psychology. During my undergrad at Kent I was fortunate enough to become a professional dog trainer. I figured if I could not work at SeaWorld I may as well train animals somehow! Today I have 5 years of professional dog training experience and I am an AKC Evaluator for their Canine Good Citizen Program. I am currently working towards my CPDT (Certified Professional Dog Trainer) title. My 5 years of experience training dogs has also allowed me to gain valuable insight to the marine mammal industry. The past 5 years has allowed me to reflect on Dawn’s death, read the book “Death at Seaworld,” watch several whales die including a few of our past Ohio whales- (Sumar, Kalina), and allow me to form an opinion for myself. It took me a long time to come to my conclusions. I am very anxious to see the film “Blackfish.” In response to Robin and Future Orca Trainer : I am that person who has gone to college, spent thousands of dollars, earned a degree, and I have 5 years as a professional trainer under my belt so I could one day become a marine mammal trainer. I am not ashamed but rejoiced that I could find a career that I love. I may never train a killer whale but sure can train dogs! I can direct my passion to the animals that really need training. Thousands of dogs need help in shelters and dogs that are rescued from shelters often need training. If SeaWorld and their IPO continues to skyrocket as Blackfish becomes more public there are other career paths you may take that will fufill your dream. Jeffrey, thank you for being a voice for the orcas. If I can share my voice even as a professional dog trainer, I am happy to.

Plus, this honest comment from Lexie, who wants to be an orca trainer but is open to at least seeing and hearing what Blackfish has to say:

I like how in this article, it states that this movie shows how great and passionate Dawn Brancheau was with her job, I’m very glad this isn’t demeaning her in any way. I also like how it briefly explains who was interviewed in the movie, and their history with the SeaWorld Parks. The thing I do not like, however, in the “teaser”, they showed Katina and her trainers, and that gave me the vibe that every time a trainer enters the water with an orca, there is some sort of aggression shown, which isn’t true. They were performing a simple stunt and the clips they showed makes it look like the orca is going after the trainer. Nevertheless, I’m interested in seeing the movie. I am, indeed, a pro-cap, and I have a dream much like several others: I want to be an orca trainer, and unlike some of the other pro-captive people, I don’t resent the movie without even seeing it, and I’m interested to see what they have come up with. However, a movie isn’t going to change my mind about the career I want, nor are peoples’ comments. I’m really hoping other pro-captive people watch this movie as well, because it’s not a valid argument if you don’t understand both side, so we’ll see.

Finally, this wasn’t left as a comment, but it is a post on the blog of Jenna Costa Deedy (from an essay she wrote in 2011 for a Human Growth And Development Class), whose feelings about Blackfish got this useful discussion of Blackfish going. It helps explain where she is coming from, particularly with regard to former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove’s decision to speak out and participate in Blackfish:

John. J Hargrove is a killer whale trainer at SeaWorld San Antonio who I first met in August 2010 during a camp that I attended at the time. There, John shared with us his story of how he got started in working with killer whales before going on to share some stories about his experience working with these large marine mammals. He has been working with killer whales at SeaWorld parks in California and Texas, and Marine Land in France for the past eighteen years. His intellect and life story is a very interesting case of how one person’s passion for animals and the sea can sometimes result into a life-long career of working with them over a long period of time. John’s story is very unique because not only does it focuses on the life story of a boy from Orange, Texas who grew up to be one of the world’s most influential whale trainers, but also, a story about how he has grown to love and appreciate the animals he works with everyday.

Jenna’s whole post is worth reading, and her connection with Hargrove helped fuel her dream and determination to become an orca trainer. Which goes to show how complex and emotional the whole issue of orca captivity is.

Addressing Some Criticism Of Blackfish

Here’s an interesting comment posted by “Future Orca Trainer” in the Comments section of this post about the Q&A that followed the Blackfish screening at the Sarasota Film festival last Friday:

An email from Jenna Costa Deedy, author of The Winter Dolphin Chronicles:

I think that Blackfish is just a movie that is doing more injustice to Dawn’s memory and the whole 2010 SeaWorld tragedy by making money off the whole situation. Yet, I find it funny that of all the five ex-trainers featured in that movie, only one of them did work with Tillikum and I don’t why the other four get to have a say on his case all because they are “activists” who once worked at SeaWorld for a period of time, but only John Hargrove worked longer than eight years at two SeaWorld Parks in San Diego and Texas, but NOT Orlando. It would not surprise me if SeaWorld and Dawn’s family intends to sue the filmmakers of the movie for defamation of character and emotional distress because a lot of people have come to the point where they are just getting tired of seeing Dawn’s death being exploited for money when they should honor her memory based on how she lived her life.

Though I strongly suspect that Jenna Costa Deedy (who has a blog and apparently is an aquarium intern) has not seen the film, I am highlighting the comment because I want to address some of the points, which seem to be making the rounds on internet forums. I hope people who support SeaWorld and killer whale captivity will have the courage and open-mindedness to see Blackfish. And that we can continue to debate the issues raised. So here’s a start:

1) Of the five ex-SeaWorld trainers featured in Blackfish, one was a Tilikum team leader (who got in trouble with management when he refused orders to start masturbating Tilikum every day to stockpile his semen). The others, however, all spent time around Tilikum. The only ex-trainer who was not around Tilikum much was John Hargrove, though he did spend some time at the Florida park (even though he never worked there). And Hargrove does not speak about Tilikum.

Update: Carol Ray, one of the former-SeaWorld trainers in Blackfish, e-mailed to clarify that she had left SeaWorld Orlando by the time Tilikum arrived. So the three trainers in Blackfish who had direct experience with Tilikum, and speak about him in the film, are John Jett, Jeffrey Ventre, and Samantha Berg.

2) None of the trainers were “activists” while they worked at SeaWorld. They were all thrilled to be SeaWorld trainers. It was the experience of working at SeaWorld that changed their views on issues related to keeping killer whales in captivity.

3) More broadly, while the story of Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau is the backbone of the movie, Blackfish delves into issues that ALL SeaWorld’s killer whales face. John Hargrove, for example, discusses the separation of young calves from mothers, and an incident in which Splash and Orkid pull a trainer into the pool and nearly drown her. The former trainers who were interviewed all speak about their personal direct experience, and are not asked to speculate about topics about which they have no first-hand experience or knowledge.

4) I don’t know whether any of Dawn’s family has seen the film, and what they think of it if they have. But Blackfish does everything it can to be respectful of Dawn, and her love of working with killer whales. Her death is not shown (though the Dine With Shamu Show that led up to her death is reviewed and dissected to show that Tilikum’s work with Dawn just before he killed her was not as flawless as SeaWorld has asserted). And, most import, Blackfish honors and defends Dawn by strongly rebutting SeaWorld’s initial effort to suggest that she made a mistake, when in fact she was following SeaWorld protocols with the same professionalism and discipline that made her such a great trainer. In fact, that is one of the major takeaways of Blackfish. Dawn is not defamed in any way in the film. She is portrayed as a passionate and talented killer whale trainer who was let down by the system in which she worked, and suffered the ultimate tragedy.

5) None of the trainers in Blackfish were paid anything to participate. They agreed to be interviewed because they want people to understand the reality of killer whale captivity as they experienced it. Anyone who knows anything about the economics of documentary film-making knows that almost all documentaries lose money. People nevertheless make them because they are passionate about a subject, and passionate about telling stories. That was what motivated the making of Blackfish. If it ends up making any money, it is the investors who will be rewarded for the faith they had in Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director, and in the importance of explaining what happened with Tilikum and Dawn. And if that is the case, hopefully they will turn around and invest in another great documentary production!

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