Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?): 6
“We’re deeply transformed by them, the killer whale is an animal that does that.” - Dr. Christopher Dold, SeaWorld’s Vice President of Veterinary Services
“Killer whales are 100 percent not suitable to captivity.” - Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of Blackfish
The above quotations reflect a fundamental disconnect as to the ethics of SeaWorld’s use of killer whales or orcas for our entertainment. From the viewpoint of Dr. Dold, the appropriateness of using orcas for these purposes lies in the effect they have on us - i.e., people lining up to be wowed by these awesome animals translates into both commercial and moral currency. But from the perspective of Cowperthwaite, as reflected in her documentary Blackfish, the focus is upon the quality of life for the orcas and the safety of the trainers.
The Blackfish narrative centers around an incident that occurred on February 24, 2010, which prompted an investigation by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). An orca named Tilikum killed a well-regarded SeaWorld trainer named Dawn Brancheau in front of about a dozen dining spectators while she was directing the orca to do tricks in preparation for a show. (NOTE: Blackfish only shows segments of a video shot by a spectator in the minutes before Dawn’s death, and as of the date of this article, videos circulating around the internet claiming to be footage of Dawn’s death are not authentic, but rather videos of other orca incidents.) SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment argued that Dawn was pulled in the water due to the “novelty” of her ponytail, and as such, the incident was attributable to trainer error. After conducting administrative hearings, OSHA disagreed and ultimately required that there be a barrier between the trainers and the orcas during the shows. SeaWorld has appealed the decision.
With compelling footage and numerous interviews – including several former SeaWorld trainers – Blackfish not only traces Tilikum’s history from his capture in the wild in 1983, including two prior incidents involving fatalities, but documents several other unfortunate events involving other SeaWorld orcas. The documentary also introduces us to the science behind these animals - primarily, how intelligent and social they are and how they behave in the wild. And although formally relegated to the end of the film, the message is clear and modest: Boycott SeaWorld until it stops using these highly intelligent and dangerously misunderstood ocras for our amusement. The overall effect of Blackfish is sobering and sad.
I rarely use the term irrefutable in reference to any sort of documentary. As a natural born skeptic, I am not particularly impressed by the quantum of facts that crowd-pleasers like West of Memphis (2012) omit in the pursuit of demonizing the enemy. In most cases, there is another factual side to “the story,” even if the persuasive weight of each narrative differs in the eye of each beholder. But sometimes the facts are what they are, and the fundamental conflict at stake is philosophical. In this sense, Blackfish succeeds not so much in changing the moral disposition of the viewer, but in forcing us all to pick a side by challenging the notion that there is a middle ground. The pretense that SeaWorld relies upon – that orcas can be trained into mutually healthy relationships with their human captors – is all but obliterated. That said, Blackfish barely scratches the surface when it comes to exposing the more general dichotomy of SeaWorld promoting conservation and the environment while simultaneously breeding these animals as a means to rather frivolous ends. To put it simply, the argument that we need orcas confined in a tank performing circus tricks to raise our awareness of just how magnificent these creatures really are is inexplicable and insulting.
SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment refused to participate in the documentary. Why would they? Besides being busy with a $2.5 billion initial public offering last April, the conventional corporate wisdom dictates remaining silent in the media when it comes to unflattering portrayals in documentaries. (e.g., In response to Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005), which may be one of the broadest corporate critiques ever put to film, the company issued a two-page us-versus-them script for store managers to be read to employees.) So it is particularly curious that on the eve of the wide theatrical release of Blackfish, SeaWorld took the seemingly unusual measure of sending an email – not to the media in general - but to approximately 50 of the top movie critics. (See “Sea World’s Unusual Retort to a Critical Documentary,” New York Times (July 18, 2013).) To this skeptic, the only thing shocking about SeaWorld’s email was how non-responsive it really was. Indeed, rather than addressing relevant facts from the film, SeaWorld’s email reads more like a series of lessons in Corporate Public Relations 101. The following is the complete email of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment (in green) accompanied by the responses of the filmmakers (in red, as quoted from “SeaWorld Unleashes 8 Assertions About ‘Blackfish’ and Filmmakers Respond,” Indiewire, July 15, 2013):
SeaWorld’s Rebuttal - Part I:
“Dear Film Critic:
I’m writing to you on behalf of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. You may be aware of a documentary called ‘Blackfish’ that purports to expose SeaWorld’s treatment of killer whales (or orcas) and the ‘truth’ behind the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
In the event you are planning to review this film, we thought you should be apprised of the following. 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.’
The film’s most egregious and untrue allegations include:
· 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.”
Response of filmmakers: “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.”
Lesson #1 in Corporate Public Relations 101: When doing damage control, the strawman is your friend. In any case, SeaWorld’s response seems to miss – or simply ignore - the ethical fruit of the poisonous tree. As far as SeaWorld is concerned, what the captive-born orcas don’t know (i.e., thousands of years of evolution in the open sea) won’t hurt them.
SeaWorld’s Rebuttal – Part II: “· 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.”
Response of filmmakers: “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.”
Lesson #2 in Corporate Public Relations 101: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Is the life expectancy data relied upon in the documentary really controversial? (See, e.g., “Killer whale,” wikipedia.org (citations at footnotes 71 and 75).) SeaWorld never really presents any divergent data – only the patently questionable proposition that 40 years is not long enough to determine whether or not the average life expectancy of orcas in captivity is less than 25 years. Nonetheless, SeaWorld’s response brings us to Lesson #3 in Corporate Public Relations 101: Generously round numbers up/down as necessary to support your message. (In this case, “40 years or so” = 47+ years, as SeaWorld acquired the original Shamu, its first performing orca, in December 1965.)
SeaWorld’s Rebuttal – Part III: “· 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.”
Response of filmmakers: “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.”
Lesson #4 in Corporate Public Relations 101: If the science is not on your side, at least be sure to use scientific terms. Actually, I did not hear the word “bullying” used in the documentary, but no matter. SeaWorld cannot refute the filmmakers’ assertion that the environment of captivity is not even remotely similar to their existence in the wild – much less the painfully obvious point that orcas have hundreds of miles of ocean to escape the [insert whatever term you like for destructive] behavior of other orcas. So where some people say “bullying,” SeaWorld says “raking.” In any case, SeaWorld’s appeal to the evils of anthropomorphizing language is especially ironic considering how integral anthropomorphizing its orcas is to its commercial endeavors.
SeaWorld’s Rebuttal - Part IV: “· 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.”
Response of filmmakers: “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.”
Lesson #5 in Corporate Public Relations 101: When doing damage control, the general denial is your friend. Does SeaWorld argue the two separations of calves from mothers documented in Blackfish did not occur? Nope. Does SeaWorld respond by presenting numbers about how many calves are not separated from their mothers? Nope. Does SeaWorld argue that these separations would be just as necessary in the wild as they are in captivity? Nope. We are simply told that Blackfish is “misleading” and “SeaWorld does everything possible to support the social structures of all marine mammals” … in tanks and with nets.
SeaWorld’s Rebuttal – Part V: “· 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.”
Response of filmmakers: “Again, we are unsure whether SeaWorld has undertaken a careful review of Blackfish. The film never depicts SeaWorld as using punishment. We are confident the trainers would not acquiesce to such overt tactics. Yet although 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.”
In the film, the topic of punishment-based training is clearly discussed by interviewees in the specific context of Sealand - a park unrelated to SeaWorld where Tilikum was housed and trained after being captured in the wild. (See Lesson #1 in Corporate Public Relations 101 above.) Nonetheless, do the last four sentences of the filmmakers’ response really need to be said?
SeaWorld’s Rebuttal - Part VI: “· 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.”
Response of filmmakers: “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.”
Lesson #6 in Corporate Public Relations 101: Affirm only the communications of your employees who tow the party line and deny/ignore all others. In this respect, local media reports of the OSHA hearings seem to confirm the contention of the filmmakers. (See “Spotter Saw Trainer Struggle to Free Her Hair,” Orlando Sentinel (9/22/2011).)
SeaWorld Rebuttal – Part VII: “· 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.)”
Response of filmmakers: “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.”
So where would this rogue law enforcement official – who was not a witness to the incident - get all this bad information immediately after the incident? SeaWorld: Certainly not from SeaWorld the company or any of its authorized representatives! In any event, you can see for yourself the video of the initial press conference in question here, which leads us to Lesson #7 in Corporate Public Relations 101: Always be spinning! In the video, right after the Orange County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jim Solomons speaks, SeaWorld Orlando President Dan Brown took the podium – without correcting law enforcement’s characterization – and simply stated that “one of our most experienced animal trainers drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales this afternoon.” What is particularly notable is that Mr. Brown, accompanied by two heads of Animal Training, immediately took the opportunity to assign a rather innocuous cause of death while neglecting to reveal what would have been obvious to anyone who was present at the incident (even before the autopsy officially cited “blunt force trauma”) – Dawn’s scalp had been pealed off her head and her left arm had been severed and swallowed by the whale. Are lies by omission really lies? Nope. Once more, Mr. Brown concludes: “As soon as we know more information, we will certainly get back to you.” And that brings us to Lesson #8 in Corporate Public Relations 101: When not spinning, always be building plausible deniability.
SeaWorld’s Rebuttal – Part VIII: “· 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.”
Response of filmmakers: “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.”
In Blackfish, one interviewee suggests that Tilikum and the other captive orcas could suffer from “psychosis.” But one former SeaWorld trainer interviewed in the film directly disputes the notion that Tilikum’s purported craziness caused Dawn’s death. And yet another former SeaWorld trainer attributes Tilikum’s behavior in the incident as a result of “frustration.” (See Lesson #1 in Corporate Public Relations 101.)
Nonetheless, at the OSHA hearings, a SeaWorld security officer who witnessed the incident testified that it appeared to him that Tilikum pulled Dawn in the water by her arm, and the witness that SeaWorld proffered at those hearings in support of the “Ponytail Theory” admitted on cross-examination that he did not actually see Dawn’s hair in Tilikum’s mouth. (See “Spotter Saw Trainer Struggle to Free Her Hair,” Orlando Sentinel (9/22/2011).) You can also see copies of other written witness statements taken by law enforcement that indicate that Dawn was pulled in by her arm, as well as the one of the last frames of a visitor video before Dawn was pulled into the water, here.) Regardless of what may be inconsistencies in the eyewitness testimony, we can learn a good deal about SeaWorld’s response from what it characterizes as “all evidence” – i.e., only that which supports the party line. (See Lessons #2 and #6 in Corporate Public Relations 101.) It is with that in mind that one should consider the persuasiveness of the catchall conclusion of SeaWorld’s email to the movie critics:
SeaWorld’s Rebuttal - The Conclusion: “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.
SeaWorld is proud of its legacy of supporting marine science and environmental awareness in general and the cause of killer whales in particular. Our point in sending you this note is to make you aware that what ‘Blackfish’ presents as unvarnished reality is anything but. We don’t expect this to settle the debate, but rather we hope it will begin one. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Fred Jacobs.”
And this brings us to Lesson #9 in Corporate Public Relations 101: When doing damage control, just keep repeating words like “misleading” and “inaccurate” over and over in the hope that someone will start to believe it. SeaWorld does not offer much in the way of controverting facts. Nor does it question the trustworthiness of any of the former SeaWorld trainers whose interviews form the heart of Blackfish. Indeed, if this is the best an official spokesman can do to rebut the assertions made in the documentary (i.e., “the most egregious” of its “misrepresentations”), then the veracity of any of SeaWorld’s characterizations seems to be as suspect as the film suggests.
The mere fact that SeaWorld would send the email to movie critics leads us to Lesson #10 in Corporate Public Relations 101: Control the message. So how well did it work out for SeaWorld? As of the date of this essay, Blackfish enjoys an average rating of 83/100 among 30 critics on metacritic.com and a 96% “fresh” rating among “Top Critics” on rottentomatoes.com.
Blackfish is in theaters now and is scheduled to air to a much larger audience on CNN in October.