We recently sat down with former SeaWorld Trainer Bridgette M. Pirtle to talk about her involvement with the production of the film BlackFish. We were amazed by what we learned, and we think you will be too.
Bridgette Pirtle first visited SeaWorld when she was 3 years old, and immediately became obsessed with whales. In 2000, Bridgette was accepted into the killer whale apprentice program at SeaWorld San Antonio and began working with sea lions, otters and bottlenose dolphins, which lead to 10 years of experience with killer whales and eventually becoming a Sr. Trainer.
On February 24, 2010, Bridgette and the other trainers were all called in by management and informed that there had been an incident in Orlando, and that it had resulted in the death of Sr. Trainer Dawn Brancheau. Bridgette was devastated by this news. Dawn was her hero, a person whom she looked up to. In the days and weeks after this incident, Bridgette’s parents and grandparents would tearfully plead with her to stop working with whales out of fear that what happened to Dawn could happen to her. In the end, Bridgette decided to leave SeaWorld in March 2011.
In September 2012, Bridgette began to look for ways that she could share her love for the animals that she worked with at SeaWorld, and this is when she discovered “Voices of the Orcas,” which is run by four ex-SeaWorld Trainers, Samantha Berg, Carol Ray, Jeffery Ventre and John Jett. When Bridgette initially spoke to the trainers, they told her that there was a movie in production about Dawn and Tilikum and that they were going to tell the truth.
When I asked Bridgette what that “truth” was, she explained:
“The truth is that it wasn’t Dawn’s fault. And that was the most important thing to me.”
It was after this call that Bridgette was introduced to Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish. Here’s Bridgett’s account of what Gabriela told her the film would be about:
“I thought she was making a movie that was going to be more respectable to the memory of Dawn, more understanding of the unique lives of killer whale trainers, the unique circumstances under which killer whale training is conducted now, and the loss that the current trainers felt and currently feel. I thought it would give some sort of closure; that it would give some sort of answer, create harmony, and it didn’t.”
We then asked Bridgette what her contributions to the film were. She responded:
“I contributed footage and insight into the recent context of killer whale training at SeaWorld. I was invited by the executive producer, Tim Zimmerman, to attend the film’s premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Although I was asked by the director if I could provide an interview for the film, I declined due to time constraints and an uncertainty about the path I was going to tread in this unknown and foreign territory. I did take part in a few ‘Q&As’ and agreed to hold off on sharing my own story and experiences until later, once a distributor had been obtained.”
In January 2013, Bridgette traveled to Park City, Utah, where she would meet with the others involved in the film – John Jett, Jeffery Ventre, Carol Ray, John Hargrove and Samantha Berg. While they were getting ready for a question and answer session, Samantha Berg said to Bridgette, “They are going to choose you to be our spokesperson, because you are pretty and you look like Dawn.” This immediately did not set well with Bridgette, who still mourns the loss of her hero, Dawn Brancheau.
According to Bridgette, before the first screening of the film, Dawn’s family requested that they be allowed to view the movie in the privacy of their own home. When Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite refused their request, Dawn’s family then asked if they were going to like the movie, to which her response was, “No.”
Bridgette still had high hopes for the film before her first screening. She shared:
“It seemed to me, with the information that was given at the time, that maybe there was someone capable of telling Dawn’s story and defending her in a compassionate and respectful manner.”
However, after her first screening of the film at Sundance, Bridgette had a different reaction:
“Blackfish was a complete ‘180’ from what was originally presented to me. Now, it’s almost like my worst fears are unfolding in front of me. When I first spoke with Tim and Gabriela, I truly felt like they were as passionate about the animals’ welfare as I was. I felt they believed in the relationships and respected my experiences and insight.
I’d love to be able to shed a bit if light on the dark side of the exploitation and fallacies behind the film Blackfish and its ‘faces.’ My intentions are simply to speak honestly and promote a responsible way to care for these animals.
Samantha likes to mention SeaWorld’s desire to conceal and hide the truth in regards to aggression videos. Honestly, she didn’t see the videos because she wasn’t experienced enough. In Texas, our management team felt it was important that all of our trainers at Shamu be aware of what the animals were capable of.
It also has always bothered me that in the beginning of the movie, Gabriela included the audio interview with the EMT that mentioned that Tilly ‘swallowed it.’ This is an immediate example of how something was included to sensationalize and exploit what happened when we knew for a fact this was not true.
One of the most disappointing things included in the film was Jeff and Sam’s critiquing of Dawn’s last session. There are quite a few double standards that are entwined within and around the film that became apparent to me as I began to ask the right questions and ultimately trust in my own beliefs and my own experiences. This one sat wrong with me from the first viewing. Seeing a veteran of 16 years be criticized by individuals unaware of Tilikum’s history, people unaware of Dawn’s relationship with Tilikum, and people who hadn’t a clue of the context of the current state of killer whale training – much less the context of that session – was disgusting and disrespectful.
Jeff Ventre was fired for multiple safety violations in the water with killer whales. Sam wasn’t given the opportunity to gain enough experience to begin to critique Dawn’s actions. John Jett felt Tilly was ‘frustrated’ based on poor observations from a poor behaviorist. These trainers were poor with their relationships – if they believed in them at all – and they were poor behaviorally.
Dawn would not have made the decision to continue on with a session if Tilly was behaviorally poor, as these three imply. In the words of Jeff, it is in my ‘humble opinion’ that their disrespectful insight is from inexperienced trainers suffering from ‘trainer-itis’ who did not have the privilege or opportunity to make a connection with the animals they briefly worked with long ago.”
It was in the aftermath of the movie’s release, and going mainstream, that Bridgette pieced together a radical agenda behind Blackfish, and of the four trainers at “Voices of the Orcas”:
“Samantha says that breeding Tilikum is comparable to breeding pit bulls. According to her, SeaWorld shouldn’t use Tilly’s genes because of his history of aggression. But they like to say that Tilly’s ‘psychosis’ is a result of his captive environment. Is it nature or is it nurture? With the activists it seems to be whichever is most convenient to serving their purpose. Tilikum is a result of his environment in order to end captivity, and then he is a poor source of genes to end breeding.
The majority of the most current and most experienced insight was neglected from the film. With the exception of John Hargrove, there was a noticeable absence of relevant and credible killer whale experience from an individual who was aware of the situation before, during and after the incidents at Loro Parque and SeaWorld.”
We asked Bridgette, “What do you think Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s goal was with this film?”
“To win the Academy Award®. Once it was apparent that there was no real interest in revealing the whole truth, I knew it was another person’s attempt to capitalize on the tragedy of the story of Dawn and Alexis.
I know firsthand that any attempt of an experienced trainer looking to speak on behalf of the animals was quickly dismissed. Attempts to publish articles that presented a more fair, honest and unbiased perspective were eventually nixed at the very last minute. It was naive of me to seek to expose the truth that contradicted many of those within the film via CNN, the company which had a vested interest in the success of the film.”
When asked what she thought SeaWorld could do about the criticisms which were brought up in the film, Bridgette answered:
“In the eyes of the film, there is only one acceptable response: Free them all. This is illogical and irresponsible, and any experienced trainer will agree. Even history tells us that reintroduction has not proven successful in the past. SeaWorld looked into improving the facility with a whale ‘treadmill.’ Seeing the company invest in the animals was something I applauded immediately. This was enrichment. This was exciting and encouraging. And my accolades were heavily criticized by activists who wanted only to mock the action. It’s unfair.”
Of course, I wanted to know if after all of Bridgette’s experience she would recommend anyone see Blackfish. Her response:
“No, not unless they have someone like me to explain what is missing.”
What would Bridgette do if she was in charge of SeaWorld?
“I would end animals for entertainment purposes, and stop the breeding program.”
And finally we asked, would you take your children to SeaWorld?
“Whales were such a large part of my life, and these relationships were so important to me, that I cannot imagine not giving that to my children. So, yes, I would take them to SeaWorld.”
When Gabriela Cowperthwaite found out that Bridgette would be speaking out about the film, Gabriela called Bridgette and reportedly told her to, “Please wait until after award season to criticize Blackfish.”
Since we spoke with Bridgette, we’ve also heard from other trainers, including Mark Simmons, who feels that Gabriele also deceived him. We hope to bring you more stories from the folks who work at SeaWorld, past and present, whether they worked on Blackfish or not. There’s no way for us to know everything that is absolutely right or wrong with the film Blackfish, but the more folks we hear from the more clear the picture will be. Blackfish may be getting a lot of media attention, but there is clearly some troubled water swirling around the film, as evidenced by the comments of people who worked on Blackfish and who now feel they have been betrayed by their Director.
Video of Bridgette performing with SeaWorld San Antonio’s Orcas:
Bridgette is now trying to distance herself from Blackfish and “Voices of the Orcas” as she begins to explore ways for her to help improve animal care which is free from a radical agenda. You can follow Bridgette on Twitter at @BridgettePirtle