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.