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Cover 08/07/2013

New documentary 'Blackfish' puts SeaWorld on the offense

SeaWorld says doc is nothing more than a fish tale

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

“It makes no attempt to tell the story of SeaWorld or killer-whale display in a complete, objective and honest way,” Jacobs says. “The film focuses on a handful of incidents over our 50-year history at the exclusion of everything else. People have been interacting with marine mammals at SeaWorld parks hundreds of times a day, every day, for nearly five decades. If Blackfish were interested in a complete, fair and unbiased view of the zoological display of killer whales, it would have mentioned that fact. It doesn’t because it is something closer to animal rights propaganda than journalism.”

SeaWorld’s public scorn of Blackfish has been a public-relations bonanza for the little independent movie, which is suddenly on the tip of everyone’s tongue as “that movie about SeaWorld” and has the “anti-cap” and “pro-cap” camps jabbing at one another on Facebook, in comment threads on stories and blogs on the Internet. But the film itself, critical as it may be, is far less inflammatory than the pre-emptive posturing that’s gone before it.

It begins auspiciously enough, with former SeaWorld trainers talking about how they’d come to work at the parks, their love for the killer whales they trained, the joy of being able to develop deep bonds with massive, intelligent beasts. But after multiple montages of happy people interacting with compliant whales, the film gives viewers a glimpse of what direction it’s going to ultimately take. Trainers talk candidly about how they got into the business, and, in perhaps one of the most surprising revelations made by the film, they discuss just how little experience some of the trainers had before being hired to work at SeaWorld. “I always thought you needed a master’s degree in, like, marine biology to be a trainer,” says Carol Ray, who worked at SeaWorld from 1987 until 1990. “Come to find out, it really is more about your personality and how good you can swim.” Other trainers talk about being bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed newbies who got dream jobs at SeaWorld, with little care, concern or understanding of just how fragile the relationship between human beings and killer whales could be. After showing some clips of Dawn Brancheau at work, a fellow trainer recalls: “She had so much experience, and it made me realize that what happened to her could happen to anyone.”

The film quickly then moves into darker territory, with former trainers including Ray, Samantha Berg and Jeffrey Ventre providing firsthand accounts of baby whales being separated from their mothers at SeaWorld parks, large adult whales being kept in isolation in concrete pools and given nothing to interact with, whales expressing frustration and boredom by acting out, and perhaps most chilling, the events leading up to Brancheau’s death – a death they clearly believe could have been avoided if SeaWorld were more invested in animal welfare and trainer safety than in ticket sales.

Critics point out that most of the former trainers interviewed haven’t been with SeaWorld for years – most of them were gone by the mid-1990s, more than a decade before Tilikum dragged Brancheau under the water to her death. But there’s one trainer interviewed in the movie, 39-year-old John Hargrove, who was with SeaWorld in San Antonio until just last year. He says Brancheau’s death and its aftermath was the breaking point that drove him to finally sever ties with the company in 2012. He says he had been “disenchanted” with various things happening in the parks during his tenure there (he worked with killer whales for 14 years, eight of which were at SeaWorld parks), but it all came to a head for him when Brancheau died. He says he realized that, despite the husbandry and care the animals receive, and having trainers who cared for them deeply, the whales at SeaWorld parks were not getting what they needed to live happy, healthy lives. And SeaWorld, he determined, was unlikely to ever agree.

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