The Tili Files: SeaWorld’s Permit Application For Tilikum Reveals Complacency

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After years of persistent FOIA appeals, dolphin advocate Russ Rector has managed the very worthwhile feat of getting NOAA to release more than 1000 pages of documents related to SeaWorld’s purchase of Tilikum, Haida, and Nootka from Sealand Of The Pacific. I am going through them and posting some of the details and insights that the documents contain.

My first post, about the back and forth SeaWorld and NOAA had over how SeaWorld planned to deal with the fact that the three killer whales it was purchasing from Sealand had killed a trainer, is up at The Dodo.

SeaWorld’s take on whether Tilikum, Haida and Nootka’s behavior was normal, and whether SeaWorld was set to handle the three whales in the aftermath of Keltie Byrne’s death, doesn’t look so great in light of what followed with Tilikum’s life at SeaWorld. NOAA, which gets credit for pressing SeaWorld on the question of how it might deal with killer whales that had killed, was clearly not that impressed by SeaWorld’s complacency. Nevertheless, they ended up granting the permit.

You can download the full set of permit-related documents here, and I’ve also embedded them below:

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.

Perhaps A Shamu Pause To Install Some Fast-Rising Pool Floors?

SeaWorld has long been considering the use of fast-rising floors in its show pools to help alleviate safety concerns related to waterwork. Perhaps they are finally ready to proceed with the Florida installation:

“One Ocean,” SeaWorld Orlando‘s iconic killer-whale show, will be taking a break in early 2014.

The theme park will be doing routine maintenance on the main performing pool at Shamu Stadium, a SeaWorld official says. The work will begin in early January. “One Ocean” is currently on the park schedule posted on its website through Jan. 5.

The Dine With Shamu experience will also be suspended for the first part of next year.

During the closures, SeaWorld Orlando will offer “Shamu Up Close,” which will include above-water and underwater interactions and a look at training techniques.  It will be held in the Dine With Shamu space and accommodate hundreds of guests at a time, a spokeswoman says.

“One Ocean” and Dine With Shamu will return sometime in the spring, SeaWorld says.

Shutting down the cash-gushing Shamu show for a period of months is not “routine maintenance.” I have no knowledge that a fast-rising floor is on its way (previous on SeaWorld’s fast-rising floor here). But if I was a betting man….

[Also worth noting: this will be a very interesting experiment in how important the Shamu show is to SeaWorld’s gate revenue].

Blackfish On CNN

Last night, CNN Films aired Blackfish, and gave the issue of killer whales in captivity extraordinary exposure. (If you missed it, CNN will re-broadcast Blackfish this Sunday at 9 pm EST).

As part of the lead-up I appeared on Crossfire, with hosts Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. Across the table, taking the opposing view of killer whales in captivity, was Grey Stafford, Director of Conservation at the Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium.

You can watch part of the discussion here (it was a tough night for Stafford, I think; not even Newt Gingrich believes SeaWorld’s killer whale program is on the right track):

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During the CNN broadcast, CNN assembled a great team to tweet live during the broadcast. Sadly, due to some sort of technical glitch my prolific effort to add background details to the film somehow never made it onto the Live Blog. But it’s worth checking out anyhow! And I think they will do it again during the re-broadcast of Blackfish on Sunday.

Overall, I was amazed and impressed by how many people CNN managed to engage in the issues and in the film. Yet another humbling lesson for a writer in the power of the visual medium!

Blackfish Blows Up

Former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove talks killer whale's with HBO's Bill Maher.
Former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove talks killer whale’s with HBO’s Bill Maher.

It’s been a big week, with Blackfish opening last night in LA and NYC. And I guess it was getting enough notice as the open approached that the suits at SeaWorld, or corporate owner Blackstone, got twitchy. After mostly ignoring Blackfish for the past few months and I guess hoping it wouldn’t get much public notice, SeaWorld hired PR firm 42 West to lead a campaign to blast the film. I analyze how that’s going over at Outside:

But now, with Blackfish getting good buzz and opening tonight in New York and Los Angeles (as well as in many other US cities and abroad in coming weeks), the billion-dollar theme park hasbroken its virtual silence on the film and has belatedly started to fight. In an e-mail blast to film critics last weekend that called Blackfish “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate” (you can read SeaWorld’s complaints, and the Blackfishresponses, here) and in interviews with ABC News and the New York Times, SeaWorld is doing what it can to try to inoculate audiences and the public against the critical portrayal of how SeaWorld over the years has managed Tilikum and its captive orca entertainment business.

The challenge for SeaWorld’s PR effort, even though its e-mail broadside quoted Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s well-known aphorism on opinion and fact—“You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts”—is that the facts are not really on SeaWorld’s side.

SeaWorld’s attack on Blackfish has generated so much media that I can’t come close to keeping up with the Google alerts. But if you want a sense of what sort of critical reception Blackfish is receiving, Rotten Tomatoes has a compilation of reviews.


A Comic’s Take On Killer Whale Training

Comedian Doug Stanhope pulls no punches….at all. You’ll cringe at points, especially in his treatment of Dawn Brancheau, but boy does he nail it.

(h/t Jordan Waltz)

Blackfish Goes Wide

After a long festival run, Blackfish is finally hitting general theaters. There is a premiere in LA tonight, and then it rolls out in selected theaters across the country.

Here’s the current schedule:

play dates

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New York, NY: Sunshine Cinema 5
New York, NY: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center
West Los Angeles, CA: The Landmark 12

Berkeley, CA: Shattuck Cinemas 10
Cambridge, MA: Kendall Square Cinema 9
Chicago, IL: Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema
Evanston, IL: CineArts 6 – Evanston
Maitland, FL: Enzian Theatre
Manhasset, NY: Manhasset Cinemas 3
Minneapolis, MN: Lagoon Cinema
Montclair, NJ: Clairidge Cinemas 6
Mountain View, CA: Century Cinema 16 – Mtn View
Philadelphia, PA: Ritz 5 Movies
San Diego, CA: Hillcrest Cinemas
San Francisco, CA: Century Centre 9
San Francisco, CA: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas
San Rafael, CA: Regency Cinema 6
Santa Ana, CA: South Coast Village 3
Washington, DC: E Street Cinema
White Plains, NY: Cinema 100 Quad

Atlanta, GA: Midtown Art Cinemas 8
Austin, TX: Arbor Cinemas at Great Hills 8
Austin, TX: Violet Crown Cinemas
Aventura, FL: Aventura Mall 24 Theatres
Baltimore, MD: Charles Theatre
Boca Raton, FL: Living Room Cinema 4
Frontenac, MO: Plaza Frontenac Cinema
Houston, TX: Sundance Cinemas Houston
Lake Buena Vista, FL: Downtown Disney 24
Miami, FL: O Cinema
Portland, OR: Fox Tower 10
Rancho Mirage, CA: Century @ the River 15
Royal Oak, MI: Main Art Theatre
Seattle, WA: Seven Gables Theatre

Gloucester, MA: Cape Ann Community Cinema

Albuquerque, NM: Century 14 Downtown
Boulder, CO: Century 16
Columbus, OH: Gateway Film Center 8
Denver, CO: Chez Artiste
Las Vegas, NV: Century Suncoast 16
Madison, WI: Sundance Cinemas Madison
San Antonio, TX: Santikos Bijou Cinema Bistro 6
Santa Fe, NM: The Screen
Santa Rosa, CA: Summerfield Cinemas 5
Sarasota, FL: Burns Court
Scottsdale, AZ: Camelview 5 Theatre

Albuquerque, NM: Guild

Bellingham, WA: Pickford Film Center 3
Cleveland Heights, OH: Cedar Lee Theatres
Ithaca, NY: Cinemapolis 5
Kansas City, MO: Tivoli @ Manor Square
Rochester, NY: Little Theatre

Charlotte, NC: Manor Theatre 2
Dallas, TX: Angelika Film Center and Cafe
Honolulu, HI: Kahala Theatres 8

Gainesville, FL: Hippodrome – Gainesville

Boise, ID: The Flicks 4
Dayton, OH: New Neon Movies
Knoxville, TN: Downtown West Cinema 8
Pelham, NY: Pelham Picture House

Bradenton, FL: Lakewood Ranch 6

Tilikum Back In The Day

A Tilikum “Splash” segment from the video archives of former SeaWorld trainer Jeffrey Ventre.

From the show producer: “Oh boy, where’s he going?”

Nowhere, it turns out. Tilikum has been doing this segment for almost three decades since this was shot. And a lot has happened over that period of time.

OSHA vs. SeaWorld: Hearing Update

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Local 6 was in the courtroom, and Local 6 has a report on how the day went:

In court Thursday, SeaWorld lawyers said the company consulted with marine mammal experts from the Georgia Aquarium and Atlantis Resorts in the Bahamas to establish its own minimum distances trainers can interact with killer whales. Neither facility houses killer whales.

According to SeaWorld Animal Training Curator Kelly Flaherty Clark, trainers are now required to stay three feet away from killer whales if they are kneeling on a flat surface. Trainers must be 18 inches from the edge of the pool if they standing near the whales, she said.

Clark testified that trainers may still touch a killer whale or rub its back while standing next to the animal on a submerged ledge in the pool, as long as the trainer is positioned along the side of the animal’s body between its blowhole and tail. The trainer must stay away from the whale’s mouth and tail and have an escape route if the whale were to move, said Clark.

Under cross examination by OSHA lawyers, Clark acknowleged a killer whale can potentially spin 360 degrees on the submerged ledge as a trainer stands next to it. OSHA lawyers point out that it is up to the employees themselves to determine whether the whale might attempt to hurt them.

“Everything we did was about making sure my employees were safe,” testified Clark, who said no SeaWorld trainers have been injured since Dawn Brancheau was drowned by a killer whale in 2010. “We haven’t even had a scraped knee.”

Judge Welsch must know more about SeaWorld and killer whales than he ever dreamed possible. Following the hearing he will rule on whether SeaWorld had a good excuse for missing last July’s deadline to be in compliance with his ruling that trainers must maintain a minimum separation or work from behind a barrier.

I don’t think he will care as much about whether SeaWorld has suffered any scraped knees, as he will about the question of whether SeaWorld had any legal justification to ignore his ruling and avoid compliance. Some judges might take that hard.

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