It's rare that corporations targeted in documentaries hire a film publicist to make sure that critics and journalists are informed of the company's response to a film. McDonald's didn't work to do damage control with film writers when "Super Size Me" opened, though there were rumors it would. It's common for industries and corporations to erect damage control mechanisms for the public. In the famous case chronicled in the New Yorker
, David Koch seems to have pulled his support of WNET because they aired Alex Gibney's "Park Avenue." "Gasland" director Josh Fox's follow-up to his fracking exposé makes clear the natural gas industry's attack on his film.
This weekend, indie film publicists had competing clients, when SeaWorld lashed out at Gabriela Cowperthwaite's film "Blackfish," the Sundance documentary that was picked up by Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films. Starting with the death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, "Blackfish" tells the history of SeaWorld and other like theme parks and notes the ways in which the conditions at these parks are harming the whales that are kept in them and are putting humans in danger.
READ MORE: Interview: 'Blackfish' Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite Discusses Suffering Orcas, Trainer Death, and Why SeaWorld Hasn't Seen the Movie
After keeping mum for some time, this past Saturday, SeaWorld released a list of eight problems they had with the film through film publicity outfit 42West. The list of issues with the film came addressed to "film credits" with the subject line "A dishonest movie." SeaWorld's assertions were introduced by saying, "
Although 'Blackfish' is by most accounts a powerful, emotionally-moving piece of advocacy, it is also shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate. As the late scholar and U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously noted: 'You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.'"
After enumerating their complaints with the film, the letter ended, "These are only the most egregious of the film’s many misrepresentations. 'Blackfish' is similarly misleading and inaccurate in its account of the other fatal incidents in which Tilikum was supposedly involved, what happened at Loro Parque, the training and qualifications of SeaWorld trainers, and the care and living conditions enjoyed by SeaWorld’s orcas. And the list goes on…and on."
"Blackfish" opens in Los Angeles and New York this week, and it expands to other markets in subsequent weeks. It will air on CNN this fall.
Below are SeaWorld's eight assertions (which, as noted above, could have been more), and the filmmakers' response to them. Though the situation is clearly complicated, the filmmakers rightly point out that
the film often does portray some of the perspectives addressed in SeaWorld's assertions. Potential viewers beware, SeaWorld's assertions involve spoilers.
SeaWorld Assertion 1
The insinuation that SeaWorld stocks its parks with killer whales captured from the wild. In fact, SeaWorld hasn’t collected a killer whale from the wild in more than 35 years; more than 80% of the killer whales at SeaWorld were born there or in other zoological facilities. Film Response:
It is not transparent to us whether SeaWorld has watched the film carefully. We were very clear in the film that the majority of whales at SeaWorld parks these days are captive-born. In fact, we have a graphic showing that many of those captive-born calves are Tilikum's offspring, the whale who has a proven track record of killing 3 people.
That said, there is a whale called Morgan at a marine park in Spain which houses SeaWorld-owned whales. Morgan was caught in the wild and was placed in Loro Parque where she will be bred and perform alongside the other SeaWorld whales. SeaWorld Assertion 2
The assertion that killer whales in the wild live more than twice as long as those living at SeaWorld. While research suggests that some wild killer whales can live as long as 60 or 70 years, their average lifespan is nowhere near that. Nor is it true that killer whales in captivity live only 25 to 35 years. Because we’ve been studying killer whales at places like SeaWorld for only 40 years or so, we don’t know what their lifespans might be—though we do know that SeaWorld currently has one killer whale in her late 40s and a number of others in their late 30s.
In the wild, average lifespan is 30 for males, 50 for females. Their estimated maximum life span is 60-70 years for males and 80-90 years for females. In captivity, most orcas die in their teens and 20s and only a handful have made it past 35.The annual mortality or death rate for orcas is 2.5 times higher in captivity than it is in the wild. These are not controversial data.
In the film, we depict what seems to be a deliberate attempt by SeaWorld to misrepresent these well documented data to their visitors.SeaWorld Assertion 3
The implication that unlike killer whales in the wild, killer whales in zoos or parks—and specifically Tilikum, the whale involved in Dawn Brancheau’s death—are routinely bullied by other whales. The word “bullying” is meaningless when applied to the behavior of an animal like a killer whale. Whales live in a social setting with a dominance hierarchy, both at SeaWorld and in the wild. They express dominance in a variety of ways, including using their teeth to “rake” other whales, in the open ocean as well as in parks. ·
SeaWorld does not show an understanding of basic behavioral biology in this statement. It is true that social animals like orcas do have dominance hierarchies and they are maintained via behavioral interactions. The film asserts that in the wild, whales can also flee conflict. Whales at SeaWorld cannot escape from a negative social interaction and are therefore confronted with conflicts that have proven to be injurious and even fatal.
Furthermore in the wild, these hierarchies are among family groups and are maintained with minimal aggression. In the wild, no orca has ever been known to seriously injure or kill another orca, inside or outside of their social group, in any interaction. Certainly minor injuries occur, and scars may remain (including nicks in dorsal fins and scratches on saddles), but no serious injury inflicted on one wild orca by another orca has ever been recorded, when observing live animals or in examining dead ones.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article identified the PBS affiliate David Koch stopped funding as WNYC, which was incorrect. WNYC is a New York public radio station. WNET (thirteen) is the television network in question