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SeaWorld Unleashes 8 Assertions About 'Blackfish' and Filmmakers Respond

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire July 15, 2013 at 11:06AM

The escalating battle between "Blackfish" filmmakers and SeaWorld continues.
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Blackfish

SeaWorld Assertion 4

The accusation that SeaWorld callously breaks up killer whale families.  SeaWorld does everything possible to support the social structures of all marine mammals, including killer whales.  It moves killer whales only when doing so is in the interest of their long-term health and welfare.  And despite the misleading footage in the film, the only time it separates unweaned killer whale calves from their mothers is when the mothers have rejected them.
           

Film Response

The calf-mother separations that are mentioned in the film both involve two of the most responsible and bonded mothers in SeaWorld’s collection, both of whom have had multiple calves taken from them. The separations are said to be driven primarily by introducing new breeding options to other SeaWorld parks and by fulfilling entertainment and other husbandry needs.

We are surprised that SeaWorld has brought up calf rejection, an issue the film does not address and a phenomenon that is extremely rare in wild orcas. In the wild, females generally have their first calf around 13-16 years of age. Because SeaWorld has bred their females as early as 5-6 years of age, these females have not learned proper social behavior, they have not learned how to mother a calf, and may ultimately reject and injure their calves.

SeaWorld Assertion 5

The accusation that SeaWorld mistreats its killer whales with punishment-based training that’s designed to force them to learn unnatural behaviors. SeaWorld has never used punishment-based training on any of its animals, including Tilikum, only positive reinforcement. And the behaviors it reinforces are always within the killer whale’s natural range of behaviors.   ·        


Film Response

Again, we are unsure whether SeaWorld has undertaken a careful review ofBlackfish. The film never depicts SeaWorld as using punishment. We are confident the trainers would not acquiesce to such overt tactics. Yetalthough these accounts are not depicted in the film, multiple trainers are aware of incidents where animals may be fed substandard amounts of fish before VIP shows to encourage their cooperation or where a male killer whale might be put in with a group of whales who have been previously aggressive with him in order to encourage complicit behavior.

We find the claim that SeaWorld killer whales perform behaviors “within the killer whale’s natural range of behaviors,” to be false. Wild killer whales are never observed performing front flips or vertical jumps to touch objects, neither have they been observed to spin 360 degrees on land. A killer whale supporting a human who rides, "surfs", or leaps from the animal's rostrum does not fall within a wild killer whale’s repertoire either. These are unnatural, trained behaviors only observed in marine parks and reinforced by food.

SeaWorld Assertion 6

The accusation that SeaWorld trainers were not adequately informed about Tilikum. From the time Tilikum first arrived at SeaWorld, all trainers were warned—both as part of their training and in writing—that they were not allowed in the water with him. In fact, as was widely reported and covered at length in the OSHA proceedings, Tilikum has always had his own set of training protocols and only the most experienced trainers have been allowed to work with him.

Film Response

The film asserts that trainers were not told the details of what happened to Keltie Byrne when Tilikum arrived at SeaWorld and not told the details of what happened to Daniel Dukes at the time of his death. The details behind the reason for Tilikum’s training protocols were not adequately explained, and Tilikum was often characterized as having been “associated” with previous deaths, and was described, even in the OSHA trials as an animal who “was possessive of objects” that fell into the water. The OSHA legal counsel had to push SeaWorld to admit that these objects sometimes included humans.

SeaWorld Assertion 7

The accusation that SeaWorld tried to “spin” the story of Dawn Brancheau’s death, changing its story several times and blaming her for the tragedy. As the movie itself shows, it was local law enforcement—not SeaWorld—that issued the initial report that Dawn had accidentally fallen into the water. SeaWorld’s account of what happened—that Tilikum had grabbed Dawn’s ponytail and pulled her in—never varied.  And the company has never blamed Dawn for what happened. (The person in the film who did was not a SeaWorld spokesperson.)    ·        


Film Response

It is our understanding that the local law enforcement representative who claimed Dawn Brancheau slipped and fell, issued this public statement after he emerged from a private meeting with top SeaWorld officials. Video documentation exists depicting SeaWorld Animal Training staff standing directly behind him as he makes this apparent “misstatement”. We are unclear as to whether SeaWorld is accusing the Orange County Sheriff’s Office of fabricating this story.

Several SeaWorld trainers to whom we spoke claim that SeaWorld management and senior management routinely and repeatedly blamed Dawn Brancheau for being too complacent.

Seaworld Assertion 8

The assertion that Tilikum attacked and killed Dawn Brancheau because he was driven crazy by his years in captivity. Tilikum did not attack Dawn.  All evidence indicates that Tilikum became interested in the novelty of Dawn’s ponytail in his environment and, as a result, he grabbed it and pulled her into the water. 


Film Response

Although eye witness accounts and a video of events just prior to the take-down seem to strongly contradict the notion that Dawn was pulled in by her ponytail, it is most important to note that according to SeaWorld’s own Management during courtroom testimony, Tilikum was desensed to ponytails and therefore did not find them a novelty. The brutal nature of the prolonged, aggressive attack and the facts in the autopsy strongly suggest that Tilikum’s behavior was anything but novel curiosity. These facts were internally corroborated by senior level training staff at SeaWorld.

This article is related to: Blackfish, Documentary, Sundance Film Festival, Magnolia Pictures






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