by Andrew Rybarczyk
I remember clearly the news coverage of the death of Dawn Brancheau when the incident first occurred at SeaWorld in February of 2010. It was shocking that an incident like this could occur at any park especially one as high profile as SeaWorld Orlando. The stories that followed were equally as shocking revealing such facts as the number of injuries trainers have sustained and even the number of deaths Tilikum the orca has been involved in. So when the film Blackfish debuted this year at the Sundance Film Festival, my interest in SeaWorld and particular the Tilikum story were rekindled. COASTER-net has covered many of the stories and responses in recent week, but I thought that the best way to explore this topic was to see the film myself. What follows is not a true review of the film but rather a response to the issues that the film raises and my thoughts on them.
Issue 1: SeaWorld utilizes punishment training
This issue was quickly jumped on by SeaWorld and rightfully so. The movie does talk about Tilikum's early life and how punishment training was used to mold his actions. However, this was done at Sealand of the Pacific and not SeaWorld. Although later in the film, it is shown that Tilikum is "punished" through not receiving a fish when he performs wrongly while at SeaWorld, but even the film does not point out this as true "punishment training."
Issue 2: SeaWorld captures animals wresting them away from their families to perform in shows.
Another issue that SeaWorld quickly jumped on saying that they have not captured a whale in over 35 years. A portion in the film is dedicated to showing the capture of whales and tries to paint the orcas as emotional animals who are greatly distressed when such an event occurs. It is however, how Tilikum was obtained but not at SeaWorld's order.
Issue 3: Tilikum's aggressiveness is a learned behavior through years of mistreatment.
Tilikum's first home was a miserable place to live for any orca let alone three. Forced to sleep at night from 5PM to 7AM in a 20 foot deep by 30 feet across enclosed "pool" with three other orcas created a early environment of suffering and pain. Tilikum suffered injuries as the other two females attacked him each night. With nowhere to run or hide, he was forced to endure this environment for over seven years. The film claims that this will eventually lead to his aggressive behavior. It should also be noted that this is where Tilikum was involved in his first death of a human. During a show, one of the trainers accidentally put their foot into the water (trainers did not ever swim in the water or go into the water at all) and one of the three whales grabbed her and pulled her in. Eyewitnesses interviewed by the film clearly claimed it was Tilikum who pulled Keltie Byrne in, however others have disputed that it was him and rather point to one of the two females. Once in, Tilikum was directly involved in the trainer's death as she was thrown around and drowned by the whales. The film tries to paint a picture of a tortured animal, who found a rush of excitement when this occurred and that he would try to repeat this behavior in the future. I believe there is no doubt that Tilikum's early life could easily lead to aggressive behavior later on. Given these facts, it's hard to believe that any animal wouldn't lash out in aggressive ways. Even SeaWorld seems to have thought the same, with various safety precautions put in place once they obtained Tilikum from Sealand after the park closed due to the incident.
Issue 4: Trainers at SeaWorld are ill prepared to deal with killer whales and are not notified of the inherent dangers of working with them.
The biggest surprise to me was the number of former trainers that spoke during the film. All seemed to love their job as trainer but have since become disenchanted with their overall experience. It seems as if Dawn's death hit many of these trainers very hard. Dawn was regarded as a model trainer that was a stickler for safety. It could be summed up that many felt if she died then any of them could have died at any given time. Many of the trainers commented that they were not informed of Tilikum's past or even of incidents that occurred at other SeaWorld parks across the nation. SeaWorld disputes this fact in their statements pointing to their safety precautions and other rules such as forbidding training into deep water with Tilikum. This I believe was one of the strongest points of the film. Most of the trainers interviewed seemed to echo similar sentiments of fear and naivety towards their jobs with no real response from SeaWorld. they seem genuine in their comments but I do find it hard to believe that intelligent people don't recognize the inherent risks. Maybe it was youth, maybe a fear of losing one's spot that led to these trainers ignoring what seems to be obvious, that these whales can be dangerous creatures.
Issue 5: Tilikum is too dangerous of animal to keep in captivity or in shows.
Already mentioned was Tilikum's involvement in the death at Sealand. He was also involved in or responsible for two more deaths. In July of 1999, a man was found dead on the back of the whale. The official report said he died of hypothermia, but others question if Tilikum killed him because his clothes were ripped from him and bite marks were found. The third death was the most publicized because it involved the death of experienced and veteran trainer Dawn Branchaeu. I'm not sure if the film does a superb job making the case against Tilikum in particular, but they do make a convincing case against all killer whales in captivity. Cited and shown in the film are various other incidents that resulted in death or of close calls that could have easily led to more deaths. 70 plus incidents have occurred with killer whales in captivity all around the world. The problem is not exclusive to SeaWorld with many other deaths or injuries occurring sometimes even with SeaWorld's killer whales that are sometimes loaned to other parks.
Issue 6: SeaWorld breaks apart family units in their ownership which contributes to the animal's unhappiness.
One of the most heart breaking scenes in the film is when the baby whales are taken away from their families to be sent to different parks for what is argued to be for financial reasons. The formers trainers claim that after these events, the mother whales go through emotional anguish where they no longer perform daily activities like they did before and even make high pitched sounds trying to locate their missing baby. Throughout the whole film, they also try to make the case for killer whales being highly intelligent and engaged in a concept of self and society. I am not a marine biologist and I have no idea if this is indeed true, but it is discouraging if it is that the park acts in such a way.
Issue 7: Tilikum is fathering most of the new animals being used at SeaWorld and his aggressiveness is being handed down to these new baby whales.
To me, the film sent mixed messages about this. The film claimed that 54% of all whales that SeaWorld owns currently have the genes of Tilikum. They insinuate that in doing so his aggressive behavior will be passed down to his calves. I find fault with this theory because earlier they claim that aggressive behavior is a learned behavior from mistreatment. So which is it? Do the animals learn aggressiveness or are they naturally aggressive? A learned behavior cannot be passed genetically on to offspring. You cannot have it both ways in this instance and the film tried to argued both to make their point.
Issue 8: SeaWorld lies about incident that happen to maintain their public image.
This issue I thought was argued best by the film. It is clear the spin machine is constantly in operation when it comes to simple facts such as the life expectancies of animals in the wild versus those in captivity and the percentage of whales with curved fins in the wild versus in captivity. These are small lies being told by tour guides and spokespeople, but the more egregious lies are those told about the incidents that happen at the park. I find it difficult to believe that anyone could make a mistake reporting the actual circumstances surrounding a death involving the whales with the amount of surveillance in the park. However, this is exactly what happened on both of the death's Tilikum was involved in at SeaWorld. In the case of Daniel Dukes in 1999, details are still sketchy. The night watch trainers saw nothing and no video equipment recorded anything. This may be able to be explained away because it happened at night, but the case of Dawn Branchaeu cannot be. In this case, numerous witnesses were present at a "Dine with Shamu" event and witnessed the event. Some even had video running. At first it was reported that she slipped into the water. It wasn't until eyewitness reports refuted this that SeaWorld changed its story that she was pulled in by her ponytail. Still, eyewitnesses refute this as well saying she was pulled in by her arm. These lies to protect the company are inexcusable. With as much video surveillance going on in the park especially around a pool that has an animal in it on a day where park guests are present, wouldn't you assume that there should be some video evidence to be able to clearly say what happened? Yet, we do not have this certainty. This is just one example of the park lying or trying to place blame on the trainer that would eventually result in injury or death. After viewing this film, I can no longer trust any report put out by SeaWorld Parks as being legit and it discourages me.
I went into this movie thinking I would leave defending SeaWorld. However, after viewing the film, I cannot say that I am a supporter of the company. I believe there are inherent risks of working with animals like this especially killer whales. I am not going to try to become a killer whale psychologist or a member of PETA saying that it is immoral to hold animals in captivity. Though not represented in the film, SeaWorld does some outstanding work rescuing animals from life threatening situations in the wild. Some of these animals will not be able to be returned to the wild. In these cases, I believe captivity is the best option for them. Now could tanks or holding areas be larger relative to the animals size? Absolutely. Is mistreatment of animals in these scenarios immoral? Absolutely. Throughout the film, even the former trainers were split on what the ultimate fate of SeaWorld should be. Some thought that it is immoral institution and in years will be looked back as such when it is gone, while others said the institution is fine but just needs to be reformed. I tend to side with the latter. Parks such as SeaWorld provide opportunities for people to get interested in these animals. With the increased emphasis on conservation recently found at SeaWorld parks, that exposure is even more important.
On the other hand, it has been made clear to me that killer whales may not fit the mold of an animal that should be doing a show with trainers in the water. There are just too many uncertainties with these animals who can be temperamental but more importantly can be unpredictable. One simple mistake that may have zero aggressive intentions could lead to a trainer's death. SeaWorld has also been quick to say that many of the incidents are those of "play" and not aggression. If you are to believe this, it leads to my theory of unpredictable behavior that is just too dangerous. I think all killer whale shows should be considered for retirement or at the very least have stringent safety precautions so that trainers can't be put into danger in the water.
Finally, what was made most clear to me was the sad incident of another big business corporation lying to protect company profits. This is not an exclusive problem to SeaWorld but it a societal problem found in numerous corporate entities. I tire of having to mistrust corporate America. I understand wanting to protect yourself and your company but at some point it just becomes immoral especially when something as tragic as a trainer's death has occurred.
So when I look at all this, I begin to think where I stand on SeaWorld. I think SeaWorld does a lot of good things in the world. I think those things such as animal rescue and environmental awareness can continue, but without SeaWorld's resources, it would be difficult to do it at the same level. I understand corporate profits drive these programs. However, I believe SeaWorld is in the position where they could have the best of both worlds. As stated before, a simple first step would be to re-evaluate who goes into the water with killer whales. I saw the Shamu show before and after the 2010 incident, and both were good. Is it fun to watch people jump out of the water on the nose of a killer whale? Sure. Is it just as fun knowing that their lives are in some danger? At that point I'm not so sure it's needed. A second step, SeaWorld could take would be to stop the corporate spin machine and corporate lies and focus on transparency and truth instead. If those will lead to poor business, maybe they should evaluate what they are doing and trying to make it right so both can coexist. The bottom line is animals live outside their natural habitats everywhere, whether they be in zoos or aquariums or even at your own home with your pets. The issue is how are those animals treated and how they are cared for. If SeaWorld can rectify these issues, then I think most rational people would still support them.
So in short, I still have concerns about the park. I think their corporate morality needs to change and I think they need to keep trainers out of the water with killer whales. I do have doubts about further supporting SeaWorld and all of their parks with the only vote I have, my money. I'm torn looking at these facts but at the end of the day though, I believe the good outweighs the bad. I'm hoping that in the future SeaWorld can stop being so defensive and protective and start doing the right thing by all: the trainers, the workers, the company, the animals, and the park guest.