Blackfish Fallout: Debunking A Slander

Real life and real art.

It’s a classic PR technique. When you don’t like the message, and the facts are not on your side, distract and confuse the debate by attacking the messengers.

Since I first started reporting on Tilikum, SeaWorld and orcas in captivity, there have been efforts to delegitimize the former SeaWorld trainers who had the courage to step forward and talk openly about the reality at SeaWorld. They were disgruntled, they were fired, they weren’t experienced and knowledgeable, they were simply seeking 15 minutes of fame. Every possible charge was leveled against them in response to their criticisms of SeaWorld’s practices, in the hopes that the public would not listen to what they were saying about the lives of killer whales in captivity, which is, after all, the core issue. Here is an early rebuttal to those attacks.

Now a new and even more explosive charge has been thrown into the debate swirling around Blackfish, the documentary which has brought the issue of killer whale captivity before a global audience: that one of the trainers in the film was fired from SeaWorld for intentionally abusing an animal.

As far as I can tell, the charge was first aired at the recent International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association (IMATA) conference in Las Vegas (at a session critiquing Blackfish). The below, for example, comes from one account of the IMATA conference (love the session on penguin media training):

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Abusing an animal is the worst charge that could be leveled against anyone who cares about animals, and since that casual and sly slander has been happily bounced around on social media without much scrutiny, how about we look at the, you know, facts.

The accusation involves Dean Gomersall, who worked at SeaWorld from 1987 to 1994. In 1994 Gomersall was working at the Sea Lion and Otter Stadium (after running the Whale and Dolphin stadium). One day he was doing a training session with two small-clawed river otters, called Trixie and Bubba. The session involved sending the two otters to a target, and then calling one to the exit gate (the other was supposed to remain on the target). No big deal, except Trixie was in heat. Gomersall could call Bubba to the gate without any problem, while Trixie remained in the enclosure, on the target. But if he called Trixie to the gate, Bubba would not stay on the target, and would not let her go. With the session going poorly, Gomersall took a break, and left to go work with some other animals. Before he did, he slid down the plastic slider on the exit gate, which was used to keep the otters from messing with any other otters on the other side of the gate.

Gomersall, back in the day.

Fifteen minutes later he returned, opened the gate, and saw blood all over the floor of the enclosure. As best Gomersall could figure, Bubba must have stuck his nose under the gate as Gomersall was dropping the slider down, and the slider cut Bubba’s nose (Gomersall hadn’t noticed anything because you can’t see through the slider). He immediately called for help and Bubba was treated. The next day, Gomersall was called in by management and told he was being fired for injuring an animal and waiting 15 minutes before telling anyone.

Gomersall says he was not surprised when management twisted the facts (accusing him of knowing the otter was injured and waiting before telling anyone; “Why would I do that?” Gomersall says) to create a firing offense. He knew he was already under scrutiny because had been complaining persistently about the misuse and living conditions of a Pacific Walrus called Garfield, a troubled (and potentially dangerous) animal who would cooperate with almost no one other than Gomersall, and as a result was treated harshly. In addition, Gomersall had refused a request to work at Shamu Stadium, because he had become uncomfortable with the idea of killer whale captivity and did not want to work with captive killer whales.

After being fired, Gomersall was escorted out of SeaWord’s Orlando park by Robin Friday, who had a long and successful career as a trainer and manager with SeaWorld. He knew something was off. “Dean you are getting really screwed here,” he said, according to Gomersall. “I don’t know what the hell happened. But if I ever go somewhere else I would hire you in a heartbeat.”

Gomersall was angry at the way in which SeaWorld had misconstrued what happened to drum up a firing charge. But when he looks back now he is glad that SeaWorld forced him to walk a different path. “It ended up being the greatest day in my life because it changed the way I think about everything,” he says. “Lots of trainers walk away on their own. I wish i had done that.”

Since SeaWorld Gomersall has gone on to work in marine mammal rescue in southern California. Does that sort of commitment to helping animals seem consistent with the charge of animal abuser?