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It has been a very eventful week on the Blackfish vs. SeaWorld front. Today, the documentary was snubbed by the Acadamey for an Oscar nomination, but the impact the film has made on the public (without a nomination) continues to grow. Months after the documentary went mainstream, SeaWorld and its supporters are finally breaking their silence. A new barrage of attacks against the movie have been launched. Three of these have come from the pro-SeaWorld website micechat.com.
The first blow came from former Shamu trainer Bridgette Pirtle who was involved in the making of Blackfish. Bridgette came forward last week on Mice Chat making what appear to be damning claims about the documentary and those involved. This, I assume, is supposed to have fans of the documentary shaking in their boots. Unfortunately, the interview only reveals how vague and fickle Bridgette’s opinion on the captivity issue is.
Why Bridgette left SeaWorld in the first place is vital in understanding her position. However, there is no clear answer to this question out there. In an interview with Gwen Williams (Screen name: Freedom For Orcas) in September 2013, Bridgette stated that the catalyst for her anti-captivity enlightenment was the young killer whale Halyn becoming injured due to the poor state of the facilities at SeaWorld. I personally was told by Bridgette that the reason for her change of heart was Tim Zimmermann and his prominent anti-captivity writings. This new interview with MiceChat, states that Bridgette’s leaving was a response to her family’s tearful pleas after Dawn’s death. Perhaps the truth is a combination of these three different stories. Regardless, it seems as though Ms. Pirtle has been spun up and just can’t get the whole truth out. This is telling in her new interview where she paints a picture that former trainers approached her about the movie Blackfish. In fact, she approached them in late 2012 looking for a chance to be in the movie. Unfortunately for her, the film was already in post production — but that didn’t stop her from threatening legal action unless she was afforded some involvement with the film. As a result, Bridgette provided some last-minute footage to the film makers and a short clip of her with a whale is shown.
Although she had a very small part in the making of the movie, Bridgette found friendship with the Blackfish cast and followed them to screenings and Q&A sessions. In one post-Sundance interview, Bridgette praised the documentary , cast and crew:
“As the credits rolled, seeing my name within those of so many individuals I admired was amazing … I felt such a sense of awe and gratitude. I am very thankful that there are people like Gabriela, Tim and Manny that are capable of creating such an impactful film. I am very thankful for Sam, Jeff, John J., Carol and John H. for having the courage to speak out and the influence to inspire individuals like myself to find the strength to share the truth with the world.”
This is a complete 180 from the tune she is now singing which criticizes the documentary as misleading. The cast and crew that she was so fond of are now being attacked on a personal level and those former trainers who welcomed her as a new animal advocate are condemned by Bridgette for being too inexperienced in current killer whale training methods to be allowed a voice in Blackfish. Not only did she approve and gush about the film after its first screening, but she allegedly saw Dawn Brancheau’s ghost in the audience and claimed that Dawn approved of the film as well.
The interview is lacking in direct responses toward the film’s message itself, and Bridgette’s own opinion about the issue is not made clear. She states that SeaWorld should end its captive breeding program and phase out its entertainment features, but the pro-SeaWorld interviewer (MiceChat) never explores why she feels this way (probably for fear that she may say something negative about the marine park.) Although Bridgette says that she is against killer whale captivity, she states that she would definitely take her children to watch performing killer whales at SeaWorld which seems like a huge contradiction. It is entirely possible that Bridgette has had a drastic change of heart in the past few months, but one must question: why? The movie has not changed, nor has its message. My intention here is not to attack Ms. Pirtle personally, but to reveal how questionable her word is on this topic and encourage others to take her opinions with a grain of salt.
The second attack from captivity supporters was an interview, also on MiceChat, with former trainer Mark Simmons. While Mark appears to be more put together than Bridgette in his statements, the interview largely focuses on his personal feelings of deceit. He claims that he would not have taken part in the film if he had known that some of the former trainers were going to be involved. The director of Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, stated that she could not divulge who was involved in the film at that time, and Mark agreed to do the interview anyway. It seems as though he was taking a “risk” when he agreed to do the interview without knowing who else was in the movie. This is hardly the fault of the film maker or a flaw with the film itself. Mark does touch on some claims Blackfish makes, but instead of dismissing those claims as false, he tries to rationalize them. For instance, mother killer whales and their calves were separated, but it was okay because killer whale mothers allegedly abuse their older calves after becoming pregnant or giving birth to a new baby. There is no evidence to suggest that this is true in a captive environment, and it certainly is not normal wild killer whale behavior.
Mark is not just a former SeaWorld trainer, he is also Founder and Vice President of “Ocean Embassy,” a company that deals in foreign, large scale dolphin capture. Reading his interview in this context is very revealing. Is a man who aids in dolphin captures for a living credible in his opinions on animal welfare? Even most captivity supporters would say no.
MiceChat attempted to deal another blow in the form of a report entitled “Dissecting Blackfish.” The report doesn’t actually dissect the documentary, however. It largely focuses on David Kirby’s book “Death at SeaWorld”, as well as irrelevant topics like PETA and Keiko’s release. The parts that do mention Blackfish do not address the claims of the movie. Instead, it discusses the film’s funding and editing techniques. The report is also quite deceptive in that it is written to appear like a scientific paper. This was probably done to make the document seem more credible than it truly is.
The last attack comes from former SeaWorld trainer Kyle Kittleson. He recently published an article on his blog all about The Truth Behind Blackfish. Like most other attacks against Blackfish, this article also avoids addressing the film’s message. Kyle simply states that Blackfish is a lie and none of its claims are true, but fails to actually refute those claims. Kyle also filmed a video interview where he speaks against the film by employing illogical arguments.
“I know virtually every trainer at SeaWorld Orlando and trainers all over the world that work at other facilities,” Kyle states, “and none of us would work weekends, nights, miss holidays with our family, not get paid very much…if we thought that these animals weren’t being cared for.”
This argument boils down to: “Captivity is okay because I show up at work.” which is hardly a convincing argument.
SeaWorld itself has gotten in on the action by creating a whole new website dedicated to the claims in Blackfish and a new video series: “The Truth is in Our Parks and People.” The first video addresses the practice of separating killer whale mothers and their calves. SeaWorld boasts: “We have Katina with two of her babies. We recognize this and keep them together as a family.” What they fail to mention is that these are only two of seven of Katina’s babies. The others were taken from her. Ironically, the display photo for SeaWorld’s website that states “We do not separate killer whale moms and calves” features Takara, and her baby Kohana. Kohana was separated from Takara and flown off to Spain when she was just four years old. Takara herself was taken away from her mother, Kasatka. The story of their separation is told by former trainer John Hargrove in Blackfish.
SeaWorld have reportedly been desperately urging staff in morning meetings to blog like crazy about how great their job is in order to keep the businesses’ reputation afloat in the public sphere. However, former SeaWorld staff have appeared to be stepping forward left-and-right in comments and in forums to defend Blackfish (most of them anonymously). Such as this “ask a former SeaWorld employee” thread at babycenter.com, and this one revealing “SeaWorld’s biggest secret” on micechat.com. Former SeaWorld trainer Melissa Dawn (also known as “Mermaid Melissa”) also rep’d Blackfish on her Facebook page and said that she had cut ties with the Orlando park. I think we can expect even more attacks from the pro-captivity front in the near future. However, I can’t help but feel they are a little too late. Blackfish has already drawn first blood and the damage dealt will continue to grow. Unfortunately for these captivity supporters, the public is just not buying their counter-attacks.
Since the release of the scathing documentary, Blackfish, on DVD and its public airing on CNN, SeaWorld has been the target of an increasingly enlightened public. Their upcoming event “Bands, Brew and BBQ” loses its main event as 8 of the 10 scheduled bands bail out in Blackfish‘s wake. The Florida Attractions Association defended SeaWorld by calling its “attackers” “radical extremists” and urging supporters to vote on a poll at tmz.com. The plan backfired as 56% of the 220,000 votes are to shut down SeaWorld. All of the uproar has SeaWorld’s majority owner, Blackstone Corp, running for cover from the sinking ship. In recent weeks, they have sold 19,500,000 shares and sought to invest their money elsewhere.
SeaWorld recently released an official letter from their zoological team in response to Blackfish. The letter touches on six points brought forward by the documentary. All of the points are deceptive or contain false information which could easily sway anyone who is unaware of the truth. This is especially worrying since SeaWorld has so far published this letter in eight national newspapers. The lies need to be exposed:
“SeaWorld does not capture killer whales in the wild.”
This point is fairly misleading given that the film Blackfish never claims or even implies that SeaWorld is still capturing killer whales. The wild capture segment of the film opens with a clear date: 1970, and in case the dated footage doesn’t indicate its age, narrators explicitly state that this was a past event.
However, SeaWorld responds to the segment by saying that it has not captured killer whales in 35 years. Not because the practice is wrong or cruel, but because they found other ways to stock their tanks: through captive breeding. SeaWorld describes their breeding program as a “groundbreaking success” in spite of the fact that it has produced several inbred and hybrid animals, a 50% infant mortality rate, and multiple instances of infant rejection. Not to mention the upper-limit for captive born orca longevity is only 25 years. It cannot be denied that the captive killer whale gene pool is heading toward a dangerous bottle-neck, and when it does reach a critical state, SeaWorld and other aquariums will call again for the capture of wild killer whales. This is currently happening with beluga whales and SeaWorld was recently among several U.S. aquariums who requested to import wild-caught belugas from Russia. SeaWorld finally adds that “only two” of the whales they caught from the ocean are still surviving. One is led to question why they would shoot themselves in the foot by adding this fact. It implies that most of their wild-caught killer whales have died prematurely, and fosters more questions about the species’ well-being in a captive environment.
“We do not separate killer whale moms and calves.”
This statement is blatantly false and even SeaWorld contradicts it by saying that the whales ARE moved but only to “maintain a healthy social structure.” The bond between the mother and calf is recognized as being “important”, so it seems strange that maintaining a healthy social structure should involve the severing of that important bond by removing the young from its established family and placing it in another tank with strangers. In fact, Taku, Unna, Ikaika, Takara, Kohana, Keet, Keto, Skyla, Tuar, Shouka, and Trua are just some of the whales (still living) that were separated from their mothers by SeaWorld.
“SeaWorld invests millions of dollars in the care of our killer whales.”
SeaWorld claims that in the past 3 years it has invested $70 million in its killer whale habitat. That’s an average of $23 million a year. This might sound like a shockingly large amount of money, but in the course of 9 months SeaWorld spends $99 million on food and goods. What exactly the money is being spent on is unknown. The killer whale “habitats” have not been updated since the 80’s, and according to former trainers, millions of dollars may be spent on the set and lighting at the stadium – would this be considered an investment in the killer whale habitat?
“SeaWorld’s killer whales’ life spans are equivalent with those in the wild.”
The average lifespan of a wild male killer whale is 35 and for a female it’s 60. SeaWorld may have six whales that have exceeded the age of 30, but four of them are females who would normally reach 60 years in the wild. In other words, only two of SeaWorld’s whales have reached the average life span of a wild whale of the same sex, and two whales out of the countless whales that have lived at SeaWorld parks is not a very impressive number. It certainly does not represent an average, but an exception. In the film Blackfish, SeaWorld educators claim that captive whales live longer than wild whales, so it appears that has now been retracted and changed.
“The killer whales in our care benefit those in the wild.”
This is a nice statement but what is there to show for it? Populations of wild killer whales are endangered and have been for decades, so where are the “significant real-world benefits” of this research?
“SeaWorld is a world leader in animal rescue.”
This is a very common red herring that SeaWorld uses to detract from the real issue. Rescue and rehabilitation efforts are irrelevant to the topic at hand which is the ethics of killer whale captivity. Even so, the claims made need to be addressed: “The millions of people who visit our parks each year make possible SeaWorld’s world-renowned work in rescue, rehabilitation and release.” In fact, these efforts are very under-funded and are supported largely by government grants and donations, not ticket sales.
SeaWorld and supporters say that the public should do research and look at the facts before making a decision about killer whale captivity. The public is now seeking the facts and that is why the Blackfish movement is now in motion – full steam ahead.