Blackfish Exposed by Former SeaWorld Trainer

Written by Eric Davis. Posted in Features, Other Destinations, SeaWorld Orlando

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Published on January 09, 2014 at 3:00 am with 193 Comments

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.

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Bridget performing at SeaWorld San Antonio

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.

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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.”

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Credits for the movie BlackFish with Bridget Pirtle

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.”

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Bridget with the trainers featured in BlackFish in front of a theater in Park City, Utah  for the Sundance Film Festival

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.

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Bridget Pirtle at a Q&A with the BlackFish Crew
Left to Right: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Bridget Pirtle, John Hargrove, Samantha Berg

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.”

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The BlackFish Crew after a screening

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.”

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Bridget Pirtle, John Hargrove and Gabriela Cowperthwaite

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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

About Eric Davis

By day, Eric is in Marketing and Social Media. But on the weekends, he's a theme park addict. Eric is a frequent contributor to MiceChat's Orlando Parkhopper columns and tends to focus his efforts on what's new and what's news at Universal Studios and SeaWorld.

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  • rihard2000

    agave.. Do you honestly think that there are Sea World orca trainers that don’t know the animals they are working with are incredibly dangerous animals? Do you think the experts working side-by-side with these animals are so naively unaware that they need a public statement from SeaWorld to learn this?

  • fnord

    That’s it Tod, no evidence that the filmmaker’s purpose didn’t evolve
    during the process of production, so no proof that anybody lied. Well,
    no proof that either the director or the trainer lied, but Sea World
    through the years has some ‘splaining to do.

  • freeLolita

    To those who keep referring to those horrible and crazy “animal rights activists” well Ms. Pirtle is a self-proclaimed “animal rights advocate” herself according to her twitter. What’s so bad with being an activist? People are activists for many causes.

    A film about how whales and trainers get along could be expected from seaworld, not from a group of ex-trainers who openly, long before Blackfish, criticized seaworld and keeping orcas in captivity. Did she really expect for this to be a pro-seaworld film? What part of the film blames Dawn? The causal link described is that confining these animals in this way will lead to such behaviors. She implies that other trainers feel misled. One can go to youtube or various blogs and read the posts of the ex-seaworld Blackfish trainers before and after Blackfish aired. Sam Berg and Jeff Ventre have been speaking out for some time. But she wants a treadmill, she really cares about the orcas!

  • OliviaVonDrake

    This article is disgusting and embarrassing. Really shameful. What are you guys thinking?

  • fnord

    In her defense she no longer works there because
    her family or friends urged her to quit, and she
    was coerced.

  • leoart

    I’ve always thought Miceage had an agenda to promote Sea World and this “expose” just reinforces that. Just like our consciousness has been enlarged by films about elephant confinement and use in circuses, Blackfish will expose the other side to a public that long bought into SeaWorld as a “conservation” and “welfare” company. I remember going to SeaWorld when I was younger on my visits to California but long ago I stopped going as I became aware of the nature of dolphins, orcas and their capture for “entertainment.” Sea World is a corporation that uses (I’d say exploit) animals to make money. It honestly shouldn’t take a film like Blackfish to make people aware of the issues/conflict of interest that type of business has. I don’t think this film will close them down but at least it might improve the situation, and move the corporation into the right direction. One I think that will eventually lead to a different type of theme park.

  • BigD

    I hope all of you who have posted here condemning Sea World and calling for the end of their animal shows are vegetarians; otherwise, how could you live with yourselves. I find it absurd that in a nation where most of us routinely eat the flesh of animals that are raised solely to be slaughtered there are so many who claim to be horrified that a corporation keeps animals for entertainment purposes while doing everything possible to prolong the lives of those animals. As for the allegation that Sea World is responsible for the deaths of trainers and is guilty of lying about the circumstances of those deaths, a bit of perspective is called for. First, no one could possibly have gone into the job of training those animals without knowing he or she would be in danger. People take on dangerous jobs all the time, and accidents happen; I have worked in situations I knew to be dangerous, and countless other people do so every day. Second, while I do not condone any lies on the part of Sea World, it is certainly understandable why they would have wanted to minimize the fault of the animal. Their behavior was wrong, but it hardly makes them monsters. I have been to Sea World in the past, and I would gladly go again in the future. Until I am ready to go vegan and eschew my leather shoes, belt, and jacket, I would be a craven hypocrite to argue that Sea World should stop what it is doing.

    • OliviaVonDrake

      This argument is totally absurd.
      The difference between farming domesticated animals for food and clothing and breeding WILD animals in captivity for entertainment is huge. There is a REASON circuses and other animal shows have steeply fallen out of popularity.
      The entire reason people go to Sea World is to see the novelty of huge wild animals being made to do tricks for food. It’s perverse and deep down people know it.

      • BigD

        Of course people go to sea World “to see the novelty of huge wild animals being made to do tricks for food,” which is certainly much kinder to the animals than putting a steel bolt through their heads, butchering them, and then eating them. What is absurd is people who are willing to participate in the slaughter of animals (and if you eat them you are a participant) acting shocked and outraged that others might enjoy the spectacle of animals that are kept in fairly benign conditions being used for entertainment.

    • evergreen

      So if you are a meat-eater, then animal abuse is fine? Only vegans can speak out againt animal abuse? Absurd!

      • BigD

        You are putting words in my mouth. My point is that humans continually make trade offs between their own interests and those of animals. Sea World and those who attend its shows make a trade off that satisfies human desires for entertainment and profit while benefiting marine animals through research and conservation efforts. Everyone who eats meat makes a trade off that is much more heavily tilted in favor of humans. I do not see any reason to classify either as abuse, but if one were to classify the former as such it is absurd not to so classify the latter.

        If you can live with the tradeoff needed to justify eating meat, that is your prerogative; I know I can. However, what I am saying is that the same consideration should be given to those of us who feel parks like Sea World can be justified as a legitimate trade off. I am not making the claim that “Only vegans can speak out againt animal abuse,” but I am making the claim that no one who is willing to use (not abuse) animals for his or her own interests should attempt to deny others that same right.

      • agave

        BigD, everyone NEEDS to eat, but NO ONE NEEDS to see an Orca jump through a hoop. There is a moral difference between using animals for food and between using them as circus animals.

        I should add however, that human farming and domestication has reached horrific proportions and there are numerous animal abuses carried in the name of feeding populations. There are a great number of docs and books on this subject. Awareness is rising on that front as well. Nevertheless, at the very least, farming has an underlying human need at its primary purpose. Not the same with orcas performing circus tricks. You can get your entertainment from somewhere else BigD, you don’t need to see the orca show. You won’t be missing much. May I suggest watching monkeys juggle knives and flaming bottles?

        Also, you never addressed what is my biggest beef with SeaWorld, the cover up and misleading of the public in the wake of human deaths. If a whale snaps, as has happened countless times, there is practically nothing to stop it. The trainers are at the mercy of whales. Is this all worth it?

      • rihard2000

        Yes everyone needs to eat, but humans don’t need to eat meat. Vegans have proven there is a viable healthy alternative. The human that chooses to eat meat is making the same personal interest choice that a person going to SeaWorld to makes.

      • BigD

        Agave, while everyone needs to eat, no one needs to eat meat. As rihard2000 points out in his post, that has been proven by vegans. As for your claim that “There is a moral difference between using animals for food and between using them as circus animals” since “farming has an underlying human need at its primary purpose,” I believe you are drawing a distinction that does not exist. Eating meat, as noted above, is not a necessity, but eating is. While entertainment may not be a human need on the same level as eating, the fact that various forms of entertainment are almost universally found in cultures widely separated in space and time tells me they strongly contribute to human welfare and happiness. Not necessarily watching whales, but some form of entertainment. So both cases, eating and entertainment, represent activities that meet strong human needs and/or desires, and in both cases some humans choose to use animals to meet these needs and/or desires. Effectively, there is no difference. If anyone chooses not to use animals for entertainment, or certain types of animals, that is his or her right and I respect it. But unless such a person is willing to take the moral stand that all human exploitation of animals is wrong and should be stopped, he or she should respect my choices and those of others like me by not attempting to end the use of animals for entertainment. To do otherwise would expose such an individual as a hypocrite and destroy his or her credibility.

        You also claim that I never addressed your concerns with Sea World’s “cover up and misleading of the public in the wake of human deaths.” If you look at my original post you will see that I did. I believe Sea World was wrong and should be held accountable for past actions, but that has no real bearing on the future. Working with whales is an inherently dangerous job, but as long as future performers take on the job with full knowledge of the history behind it, that is an issue for those individuals to decide for themselves. Would you likewise attempt to regulate NASCAR drivers, to use but one example among many, out of their chosen profession simply because the job they choose is dangerous?

  • Disneylandguest

    “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.”

    Funny how “sensationalize” was brought up here. Miceage is no stranger to that. Miceage loves to sensationalize everything in all of their articles. The very title of this article is trying to sensationalize things.

    (Also, I love the fact that Dustysage is ignoring all of the replies that question him with logic.)
    Dustysage (and Miceage) apparently loves SeaWorld and is ready to jump to their defense, and yet tears Disney apart with no mercy.

    You’re telling me, that with a title like “Blackfish Exposed” Micechat does not have an agenda?

    I’ve seen Blackfish. The film does NOT blame Dawn for anything. Most documentaries can be considered “one-sided.”

    Regardless, wild animals (like Orcas) should NOT be forced to do silly tricks for people’s amusement.

  • solarnole

    “Whale of a business” by Frontline came out in 1997 and is still more relevant and factual then Blackfish. I don’t support whales in small tanks but sadly I doubt that they would survive if they were released back into the wild. I think Sea World should make the shows realistic let the whales eat meat off hooks National Geographic style.

    I thought Blackfish was bias for only attacking Seaworld. Miami Seaquarium treats it one killer whale much worse then Sea World. Its been there 40 years and its tail touches the bottom of the tank.

    Disney is also a part of the animal trading program with Living Seas and Animal Kingdom and has animals caught from the wild in its collections. I find the political pressure on the bands ironic they can play at Epcot which has dolphins caught from the wild but not at Sea World. Whats the difference?

    • evergreen

      The Miami Seaquarium’s orca tank is in violation of Federal regulations since it is too small. The government bows to the wishes of the marine theme park industry and refuses to enforce its own Federal regulations. Lolita’s situation is dire.

      • solarnole

        Exactly and Blackfish had no mention of it at all. The other thing that I was surprised that they skipped over was that Southwest was holding a party at the park with their CEO the day the attack happened. The Whale was posing for pictures with people before he attacked her. I think they pushed him harder that day because Southwest is such an important partner to Seaworld

  • agave

    Rihard2000 said:

    “agave.. Do you honestly think that there are Sea World orca trainers that don’t know the animals they are working with are incredibly dangerous animals? Do you think the experts working side-by-side with these animals are so naively unaware that they need a public statement from SeaWorld to learn this?”

    No, I don’t think the trainers working with the whales need a statement from SeaWorld telling them the orcas they are working with are dangerous, but I DO think the trainers deserve to hear about it when another trainer is attacked by a whale in the very same tank they are working in or even by the very same whale they are now being asked to train. If you had watched Blackfish you would have known that SeaWorld trainers testified in court that they never even heard of numerous attacks on trainers by the very same whales that they were being asked to train.

    And I also believe that when an attack occurs SeaWorld should not attempt to make the public believe that the incident is NOT part of a pattern, when it clearly is. They like to make it sound like it was an anomaly, a stray event with extenuating circumstances, every time. And we never hear from them that its possible the whales may be acting out of unhappiness, or because they are disturbed, even though the whales routinely harm each other and as we have seen, even attacked or killed the humans who care for them. Why is it so hard for the SeaWorld defenders to admit that the whales’ dark behavior may be as a result of their unhappiness? Do you enjoy watching them jump and splash around in the tank that much that you are willing to overlook and explain away the deaths of human beings and the obvious misery of the whales forced to perform? Is this all worth it?

    • rihard2000

      I assume you’re talking about Samantha Berg’s Blackfish claim that she wasn’t told about the 1987 incident involving John Sillick until her sixth month of employment at SeaWorld. The truth is, she wasn’t told about it because she wasn’t even working at SeaWorld when the incident happened (this important detail is never mentioned in Blackfish). At the time she learned about that incident (her sixth month of working for SeaWorld) she was not even working with orcas! Samantha Berg was employed with dolphins and beluga whales in an completely different area of the park than the orca show at that time! Why would she need to know about the dangerous orca incident if she was in no way involved with orcas?

      The film also doesn’t mention that Samantha Berg was in eventually made aware of the episode once working with orcas became a part of her job (a full year after the start of her employment). Blackfish is too busy manipulating the viewer’s thoughts and emotions by withholding all the facts.

      “Why is it so hard for the SeaWorld defenders to admit that the whales’ dark behavior may be as a result of their unhappiness” you ask. Because your so called “dark behavior” isn’t a result of them being unhappy, but rather their dangerous wild animal nature. That’s why.

      Yes I enjoy being entertained by them and learning from them. Yes, I’m cool knowing the trainers accept the risk they are getting into for the benefit of human caring.

  • agave

    To back up what Disneylandguest said above, I’m calling out Micechat hard on this one. BOO! BOO to the tone and style of this article. BOO to defending the article as “just presenting another point of view.” Do you think we are that dumb Dusty, that we can’t see through that rickety logic?

    What makes all of this so horrifying to me, is that Micechat shreds Disney for pulling stunts like calling a ride closure a refurb when it’s clearly not, or ridicules Disney when it slashes a parks budget. The events discussed in Blackfish and this article involve human DEATHS; not whether or not a ride will cost 100 million or 50 million to construct. Where is the outrage from Micechat over a themepark covering up the causes of human deaths? How will you feel when this happens again and another life is lost to the jaws of a disturbed animal?

    What SeaWorld management has done is not only immoral its criminal. Placing its trainers in harms way repeatedly and pretending there’s no real underlying danger here. They had to be ordered by the court to separate the trainers from the whales, and they are appealing that decision! Not to mention the great harm caused to the whales themselves. This is not the level of reporting I expect from Micechat. Al, say or do something please. This IS A BIG DEAL.

  • coldchillen

    Why is this feature even on this website?

  • jcruise86

    The whole world is allowed on Micechat. Theme parks are often just the starting point for discussions of capitalism, art, responsibility and freedom.

  • Sir_Cliff

    Just wanted to say that I, like many others, was disturbed to see this article on Micechat and then see so many people take the very flimsy excuse offered up on a platter to line up and immediately support Sea World over those raising concerns about animal welfare. As many have said, whatever the truth is regarding the film, there is a whole lot of nothing in the interview itself. It is heavily implied that Pirtle was lied to, but never really explained how she was lied to. Indeed, when you read her conclusion it becomes very hard to understand what the point of it all is.

    I felt quite uncomfortable to think I had spent so many years reading a site that took a critical view of how Disney was running its parks simply, as it turns out, from the perspective of the demanding consumer who wanted more for their money. Then many of the readers seemed to fall into line, happily to take the slightest opportunity to brush aside questions of cruelty to animals to avoid having to question whether something they enjoy is really ethical or not. It all reeked of self-centred, amoral consumerism.

    Thank god the conversation has become more intelligent and insightful as it has gone on.

  • evergreen

    I am a former trainer. My response to this outrageous article is here:
    http://micechat.com/forums/seaworld/190281-sea-worlds-biggest-secret-revealed.html

    I tell all.