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!