More Blackfish Backlash – Tilikum’s Trainer Dives In

Written by Eric Davis. Posted in Features, SeaWorld Orlando

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Published on January 13, 2014 at 5:15 am with 187 Comments

Last week, we brought you the story of Bridgette Pirtle, a former SeaWorld trainer who regrets her involvement with the film Blackfish. We follow up on Bridgette’s story with Mark Simmons, a noted orca expert and former SeaWorld trainer, who also regrets his association with Blackfish and condemns the factual errors found in the film.

We asked Mark what his first reaction was upon watching the CNN documentary Blackfish for the first time.

“Physical nausea. If you’ve ever been in a place in your life where you know something intimately, and to watch a movie about that thing, one that appears very well done, very credible, yet which is a complete perversion of your reality…you’ll know what I felt like. I was sickened on every level. It was masterfully woven with lies and disinformation and just enough truth to convince almost anyone that didn’t know better. Worse, not an ounce of the counterpoints I provided for the film were used. In fact, what Gabriela used made my position appear congruent to that of the film’s claim. I was embarrassed and, to some degree, initially I was angry.”

Mark Simmons was featured in the 2013 film Blackfish, about the tragic death of Senior SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was a 16 year veteran Orca Trainer.

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Mark Simmons and Tiama at SeaWorld Orlando

Mark has had extensive experience with Tilikum, the whale at the heart of the film. To understand who Mark is, you need to know that he has worked with marine mammals for more than 27 years. He specialized in marine mammal behavioral sciences throughout his ten years of employment at SeaWorld Orlando. While there, he also worked with Tilikum. He was one of the first trainers to work with Tilikum in Victoria, Canada before he was moved to SeaWorld. Mark worked with Tilikum daily until his departure in 1996.

Mark also worked in Iceland managing the Keiko Reintroduction Project for Ocean Futures Society (“OFS”). You might recall the name Keiko as the whale who inspired the film Free Willy. Being well experienced in the design, implementation and operation of all types of marine mammal public display programs, Mark has participated in creating marine mammal shows, educational curriculum, research, and interactive programs. Currently Mr. Simmons is Secretary and Treasurer of the Board and Executive Vice President for Ocean Embassy, Inc. and Wildlife International Network, Inc. (parent company of Ocean Embassy).

We asked Mark when he first heard about the film Blackfish.

“Late 2010, only a day before I did the interview. At that time there was no working title. She [Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite] explained who she was, talked about another documentary she had done recently, and what types of stories interested her. She seemed genuinely interested in the whole story.

I had initially declined to do the interview, but after Gabriela talked with my company’s Communications Director for 2.5 hours, I was convinced to provide the interview. As soon as I met Gabriela the day of the interview, I told her that I did not want to be a part of the “Jeff [Ventre] and John [Jett]” show. These were two of ex-SeaWorld trainers involved in the movie.

At the time, I didn’t know they were the center of the movie. Had I known this, I would not have agreed to the interview. In my time at SeaWorld, Jeff and John, and for that matter, Sam, Dean, and Carol (all former SeaWorld trainers associated with Blackfish) had all been very close. But especially Jeff and John, whom I lived with for almost two years toward the end of their careers there. I knew what Jeff and John were about. They had previously conned me into a “reunion” shortly after Dawn’s death. They knew I was close to the SeaWorld family and they knew I had inside information on the tragedy. They used that history of friendship to garner information, which they then ultimately used to promote a deceptive message in Blackfish and elsewhere.

Gabriela never denied their involvement, but she assured me that it would not be point-counter point with Jeff and John. She convinced me that the film would present a balanced story, that she was very convicted to shed light on all aspects of the controversial issues. Of course, that’s not at all what the film became.”

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Mark Simmons and Katina at the underwater viewing window at SeaWorld Orlando

 

At that time who did she tell you was involved in the production of the film?

“She wouldn’t tell me anyone who was involved in the film. All she told me was that at that point in time SeaWorld had not yet agreed to talk to her. They hadn’t said no yet, but they hadn’t committed yet. She asked me for a list of people she could talk to and I gave her a few names, but I really got the impression I was the first one she interviewed.”

Who is Tim Zimmerman?

“He’s a journalist out of Washington DC that does freelance, I think. He’s done pieces for National Geographic. In 2010, I interviewed with him, long before I met Gabriela, and he was writing a piece… an article at that time on Dawn’s death, and that interview and that exchange was very productive for a while.

When Tim’s article came out, I felt he had purposely left out some very key topics that I had shared with him. In fact, I had reiterated to him how important they were. He argued with me on my point of view. You know I had been in this field 27 years and here he was arguing with me on the experience that I had been through. It became pretty apparent to me and his agenda was very clear. He was anti-SeaWorld, anti-zoo, and no bones about it.”

Tim Zimmerman is credited as Associate Producer and Co-Writer of Blackfish. His July 2010 article that appeared in OutsideOnline.com appears to be the framework for what would become Blackfish.

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Mark Simmons and Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando

Had you been made aware by Gabriela that Tim Zimmerman was involved with the project?

“No, I would not have done the interview, no way, no way at all. She knew I would not have anything to do with Tim.”

During your 3 hour interview, what did you share with Gabriela?

“Everything. She interjected questions, but largely let me talk without restriction. I talked about the uniqueness of Tilikum apart from other SeaWorld whales. I talked about Dawn’s death and what I knew, and what I extrapolated from the available evidence. We talked about killer whales in general, covering topics from zoological whales to those in the wild, waterwork with the whales and the importance of same, and we talked about the impact of SeaWorld on the public and conservation as a whole. I can’t recall every detail, but it was the most thorough interview I had done in many years. I don’t think there’s much we didn’t cover. However, having now seen the film, it seems clear to me that I was one of the first interviews. Based on some of the content in the film, it appeared to me that Jeff and John had seen my interview before doing theirs. Of course, Gabriela wouldn’t even tell me who else she was talking to at the time of my interview. She also wouldn’t tell me who was funding the film. I asked the question directly. She politely and convincingly told me she wasn’t at liberty to disclose the information at that time.”

 

When did you first see Blackfish?

“I saw it when it was aired on CNN. I never had access to it before that.”

 

Did you ask Gabriela about seeing the premiere at Sundance?

“When I learned through other colleagues that the film was set to debut at a film festival, I sent an email to Gabriela and requested the opportunity to see the film. She merely directed me to upcoming film festivals where the movie would be shown.”

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Mark Simmons and Katina at a night show at SeaWorld Orlando

Mark Simmons, who had spent 3 hours of time on film being interviewed Gabriela, talking about his many years with Tilikum and at SeaWorld in general, had every reason to believe that he would be used as the main authority in this film. Imagine his surprise upon actually seeing the film and learning that he would get very little on screen time. However, trainers such as Samantha Berg, who had 1 year of experience with the orcas at SeaWorld and no hands-on experience with Tilikum, dominated the voice of the film.

We asked Mark why he thought less experienced trainers with little to no-experience with Tilikum were used as the primary voice of the film.

“Because the things I said flew in the face of the movie’s clear agenda. What I contributed did not support Gabriela or Tim Zimmerman’s intent with the film. I worked with Tilikum, cumulatively, much more than all of the other trainers put together.”

 

What would you like people to know about Blackfish if they are going to see it?

“Well, first I would say this is not a documentary, it’s an expose, but that’s not enough for me. I would tell them there’s a very Machiavellian undercurrent here. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what their purpose is. I have to assume that, on some level, Gabriela is looking for something that would launch her career, because that’s the only good that could come of it. In that regard, I would tell them to just watch it. Sure, go watch it, but as soon as you’re done watching it, go to SeaWorld and ask them. Ask them what their opinion is and do some research.”

Is there anything in Blackfish that you feel Gabriela included, after interviewing you, that was contrary to the facts as you presented them? In other words, that she knew was false?

“Well, for starters, Gabriela was very clever in that every bit of narrative in the movie came from the cast of characters she pieced together. So the movie in and of itself doesn’t provide a script or provide an opinion or a statement directly. So the liability of the deceit, the disinformation, or even more than a handful of the blatant lies in the movie comes right from the mouths of individuals on screen. The issue about the arm being swallowed, that was a clearly manufactured deceit, because that didn’t happen.”

 

What other inaccuracies and/or fabrications from trainers can you recall that are of significance?

“Jeff [Ventre] talks about the filming of a show where Tilikum had lunged at a trainer, and he was allegedly told to destroy the evidence. I was there that day. I’m the one that put Jeff out there to film the show. Not only did no one ever tell him to destroy the tape, but that incident never happened to begin with. The show in question was filmed and shown on the Jumbo-Tron, as well as recorded in security camera footage. If anything like that would have occurred, we would have evaluated it and used it for our behavioral review committee. In fact, Jeff was so anti-management, which ultimately ended up costing him his job, that had there been a video of any event such as that, he would have done the exact opposite if anyone asked him to destroy it.

And that’s not the only lie. They show a baby killer whale along with the image of a very young killer whale, while talking about how SeaWorld rips babies away from their mothers. Well, that never happened. We didn’t remove calves from their moms until their moms had weaned them. That wasn’t our decision, that was mom’s decision. In some cases, mom is ready to breed again. In that case, a lot of time, the moms will actually physically displace or harm the older calf. So, in some cases you have to separate them for the safety of the calf.

Also, the analysis of Dawn’s fateful session…there’s a lot of things you could tear apart about that. But the most relevant is that Dawn’s level of experience dwarfed that of all those other trainers that were narrating this film, ten fold.

They said she was out of food. There is always food available! There were emergency buckets kept around the pool. That had no bearing.

Secondly, Dawn was of an experience level that, if Tilikum had been showing signs of declining in the session, she would have never continued on into a relationship session with him, lying in the water and rubbing him down. But again, here’s another means to mislead the public, to put ideas into their heads that just aren’t real.

But, a bigger lie that permeated throughout the movie was that killer whales are dangerous and they can’t be kept in captivity, that it crazes them.

Dawn would have never been laying down with Tilikum if he was crazed, and any commonsense person would recognize that. But beyond that, the movie goes on to say that SeaWorld purposely deceived its trainers and deceived the public, and that couldn’t be further from the truth!

I think that’s one of the things that really stood out and shocked me, because it was a polar opposite there. If anything, SeaWorld was obsessive compulsive about how we analyzed every interaction with whales; where there were precursors to aggression or any form of aggression. If you ever felt uncomfortable and didn’t want to get in the water, NO one chided you. All you needed to say was ‘I’m feeling a little off, I don’t want to do this session,’ and you were out. That’s it. Everything was reviewed forensically. So this idea that SeaWorld deceived anyone…I’ve never in my entire career there, nor my friends in their careers there, have ever experienced anything like that.”

What do you think the takeaway for the audience is after watching Blackfish?

“There is no actionable takeaway. It leaves the audience heartbroken and outraged with no exit strategy offered.”

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Mark Simmons and his wife, who also was a Killer Whale trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, with Taima

Do you think SeaWorld still serves a worthwhile public purpose in an age of mainstream animal activism?

“SeaWorld was the original ocean activist. They move more people to take action than all the proclaimed animal rights extremists combined, every year, year in and year out. When you look at SeaWorld in the broader scope of zoological presentation, and you’ve probably heard this before because it’s a little bit cliché at this point, but more people attend zoos and aquariums in this country than all professional sports combined. If you look at that globally, it’s staggering, it’s absolutely staggering. But what’s interesting about the impact that parks like SeaWorld have is what we’re talking about right here. If they didn’t have the emotional and engaging impact and create a framework for the care for these animals, Blackfish would have never had an audience. CNN would never had been interested. There’s no question, SeaWorld is a vital social institution.”

We’d like to sincerely thank Mark for taking the time to sit down with us. There are major factual errors in the film Blackfish, as well as what appears to be intentional deception. MiceChat contributor Joseph Kleiman (who is also News Editor for InPark Magazine) has written a 33 page research paper on the movie Blackfish. We strongly recommend that anyone who has concerns about the film, and wants the evidence broken down for them, reads this important document – Dissecting Blackfish (DOWNLOAD HERE). Joseph’s paper should be required reading for anyone who plans to see the film or who feels confused or conflicted after having watched it.

Dissecting Blackfish (DOWNLOAD HERE)

 

We’d like to know what you, our readers, think about the building Blackfish backlash.

(Please be respectful in the comments section below and follow MiceChat’s rules. You may express any thoughts or opinions you’d like. However: No harsh language, no personal attacks, and no linking to other sites. Please be respectful of our staff and fellow readers. We reserve the right to remove comments and ban those who aren’t willing to abide by our simple rules).

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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  • Jeff Kober

    Once again, a fantastic article like the one last week with Gabriella. This is probably some of the best stuff to come out of mice chat. Thank you for your continued efforts to get to the truth of what is really happening.

    • Eric Davis

      Thank you Jeff for your kind words. These articles have been an incredible experience to put together. I do hope that everyone reads the 33 page paper to dissect what the film specifically lies about.

    • BradyNBradleysMom

      Jeff, you really said it. MiceChat is becoming one THE BEST places for excellent articles that are unbiased and really tell the truth. I hear everyone quoting MiceChat all the time now. I am proud to say I am a MiceChat reader.

      I do have to say, though, that Mark comes off a little foolish to me. Not just in this article, but in others I’ve read where he’s quoted. To me he should have known better than to trust Gabriella…and he should have known she would twist everything that he said to her. That’s how these people work…they want to get attention and make money, and a movie attacking SeaWorld does that. Surely Mark was not naive enough to believe that Gabriella would be fair and balanced. What on Earth would make him think that? Because she told him so…but why would he believe her?

      I don’t have a lot of sympathy for a grown man who is a Board Member of something or another and now claims he was tricked or duped or whatever. I think he should have know better. But, I’m glad he’s speaking out and trying to set the record straight.

      Too bad the media is not interested in telling the story of how Gabriella deceived everyone. They just want to attack SeaWorld.

      • Eric Davis

        I agree 100% with what you are saying. Thank you for the compliment too, there was a lot of late hours and long talks that went into this! Mark Simmons is an amazing person to talk to, and I feel honored that he trust myself and MiceChat with his story.

        This is a big story, and I am honored we got to tell it.

  • JungleBumCT

    I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Simmons’ last statement about the emotional and engaging impact of the parks being key to their larger cause. About 25 years ago I was chosen from the audience of a Shamu show in SW San Diego to meet, feed, and hug (yes HUG) an orca. That magical moment sparked an enthusiasm in me for marine life, and to this day I frequently donate to ocean-related causes.

    I appreciate MiceChat’s coverage of this. I too was disturbed by the movie and suspected something was fishy (pun intended). Keep up the great work.

    RE: Pirtle and Simmons… I respect these two like crazy, but may I humbly suggest that next time they consider contributing to a media project, they check into it a bit deeper before jumping in. Just sayin’.

    • Eric Davis

      Mark Simmon’s is incredible with over 27 years of Marine Mammal training experience! Talking to him was incredible. I felt the clouds opened, and I finally understood what was so wrong with the film BlackFish

  • sunflowershine

    Any promotion for this micechat forum post, also written by a former trainer?

    It’s also worth noting that Taima, the whale in the pictures, died while pregnant at the young age of 20.

    http://micechat.com/forums/seaworld/190281-sea-worlds-biggest-secret-revealed.html

    “I am a former trainer. I have hesitated for a long time to write this in these forums since I thought it was inappropriate for MiceChat – but after reading MiceChat’s ridiculous “Blackfish Exposed” propaganda piece, I’ve decided to spill my guts. What I write below is my opinion based on my experiences and my observations.

    I am now going to reveal the biggest secret that Sea World and the other owners of captive cetaceans don’t want you to know. Here it is:

    Dolphins and orcas (the largest members of the dolphin family) are far smarter, far more intensely-emotional, and far more sensitive than they want you to know.

    Sure they tell you that these animals are smart. But they don’t want you to know how smart they really are. Why? Because if you knew, you would logically ask: “If they are so smart and so emotional and so sensitive, what are they doing in these small tanks?”

    HOW THEY KEEP THE SECRET:
    They keep the secret by lying and/or misleading. Sea World’s employees have scripted answers for every question you may ask. So if you ask how long it took the animals to learn the show or a particular behavior, they’ll answer: “A year” or “six months” or whatever.

    In truth, the animals can learn simple behaviors in a matter of days or hours or even minutes. I’ve taught a dolphin to do a simple turn on command (like he is “dancing” the twist) in about 10 minutes. A flipper wave can be also taught in a few minutes. A high jump on command in a short amount of time, perhaps less than an hour, maybe a day.”

    “The animals understand the situation they are in. They understand they are captive and must submit to human control. They understand the capitalistic system they live under – that certain behaviors elicit certain food rewards. One behavior might get them a smelt or herring. Another behavior might get a blue runner or mackerel. If they don’t receive the proper reward, they get angry. Sometimes very angry. (Have you ever seen an angry dolphin snort, his eyes bulging and furious? I have. Have you ever seen an angry orca bang his head against the wall of his tank or pin his trainer on the bottom of the tank? I have.) And they know they have no choice in any of this. They are slaves in the very real sense of the word.

    Most captive animals go along with the program because they “give up,” just as prisoners in concentration camps “give up.” (Comparing captive dolphins to concentration camp prisoners is not my analogy. It is Jacques Cousteau’s.) These animals tend to lose their personality. They become somewhat dull and mechanical.

    But some (a few) captive dolphins and orcas don’t go along with the program. They assert themselves. They resist. They insist on doing it their way. These animals tend to have distinct and very strong personalities.

    Most trainers I’ve known prefer the animals that “give up” and go along with the program. These animals don’t give you trouble and are reliable performers. Personally, I preferred the ones who stood up for themselves. If you understood them and treated them well, they would work hard for you. They were often the best performers and the most interesting animals, personality-wise. (But they were also the animals most likely to give you trouble and, perhaps, even get violent.)”

    • CreepyMonkey

      I’d like to see who Evergreen is, where employed as a trainer, what years they were employed as well as what animals they worked with before I take anything they have to say seriously.

      Bottom line is Cowperthwaite lied and decieved and the movie lies and deceives. Can’t escape from those facts. The ends NEVER justify the means!

      • sunflowershine

        SeaWorld routinely lies and deceives, and yet no one seems to mind that.
        We’re lead to believe that what SeaWorld does is justified because it “raises awareness,” or is “educational;” that somehow the poor care of orcas is justified by a manatee or sea turtle rescue here and there. Meanwhile orcas continue to live short lives, and express their frustration violently.
        Do the ends justify those means?

      • CreepyMonkey

        Its easy to sit behind a keyboard and claim SeaWorld lies and deceives, meanwhile Mr. Simmons had solid proof of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s deception. Let’s address the issue – Blackfish lies to achieve its agenda. Period.

      • Giraffe

        I said the same thing last night in response to her post. Please do tell us about yourself.

      • The First Star
    • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

      EDITED: I made an unfortunate comment about a long term member of this site I shouldn’t have. What I should have said was:

      This article isn’t about Evergreen. It’s about Mark’s experience with the film Blackfish. Let’s stay on topic.

      • sunflowershine

        I would consider all those trainers in Blackfish as having gone “on the record.” So no, that is not a true statement.

      • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

        Since at least two folks in Blackfish are saying that their quotes and information have been taken out of context in the film and used selectively to further an agenda . . . I think it would be reasonable to assume that much of the testimony in Blackfish was selected to further the film’s goals rather than present an accurate accounting of the facts.

        Blackfish was produced by folks who believe in closing all zoos, aquariums and sea parks. Keep that in mind.

        I do hope folks will be able to keep an open mind long enough to read facts on both sides of the issue before making up their minds.

      • sunflowershine

        Since you are so interested in investigating for the truth, how about contacting evergreen and finding out?

      • TodAZ1

        Sunflowershine, if the comments you’ve made on this board were edited/filtered and was presented as showing a different intent than what you actually contributed, would you accept that as you being “on the record?”

      • sunflowershine

        ToddAZ1 – I’m not saying that this gentleman isn’t within his rights to say “hey, I wasn’t presented the way I intended.” However, he doesn’t trump all of the others. Certainly if my statements and opinions were misused, I would say something – but the fact is, he is still outweighed by the number of them who have not made such a claim.

      • TodAZ1

        sunflowershine, he never said that what he says trumps all others. He’s stating what he said during the interviews were edited/filtered to fit the role the producers wanted to say. And he’s saying something about it, like you said you would do. Any of us would do the same. As the trainer has more cumultive experience with orcas than all of the “experts” used on this film, he absolutely has a point about how his interviews were used in the film.

      • Eric Davis

        We have asked on numerous occasions for Evergreen’s actual experience, and it has never been provided.

        Regardless, this interview is not about Tilikum, or captivity. This article is about BlackFish and if a Director lied, and ignored facts and information to tell a narrative, that is trying to harm a theme park.

        That is why MiceChat is interested in this story.

      • Eric Davis

        Dusty is correct. Everything we have learned is to the contrary. People who are putting their name out there, their experience, their credentials for the world to judge.

    • http://www.inparkmagazine.com Joseph Kleiman

      Taima actually died at 21 years of age. It was a rather gruesome death (hide the kiddies). When going into labor with her fouth calf, she suffered a stillbirth. The placenta came out, but the dead calf was lodged at an odd angle in the birth canal. SeaWorld veterinarians did what they could to remove the calf to save her life, but she died before they could complete the procedure. If the calf had remained in stasis inside her, she would have died. The only other option would be euthanasia.

      Do things like this happen in the wild? One of the problems we have in comparing pregnancies in captivity to those in the wild is that, and I’m quoting here from the research paper “Female Reproductive Strategies of Cetaceans” by Hal Whitehead and Janet Mann, “In almost all studies of living cetaceans in the wild, female reproduction has been measured by the presence of a living calf – miscarriage and neonatal mortality are not recorded.”

      There was one instance though, when I was volunteering with the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network in Galveston, where I participated in the necropsy of a female bottlenose dolphin that had washed up on the Texas coast. When we began examining the interior organs, it was protocol to examine the ovaries and the various corpora. On this particular female, we discovered a stillborn calf partially lodged in the annular folds of the vaginal wall with most of its body in the uterus. The researchers I was working with diagnosed the dystocia as leading to the mother’s death.

      So yes, cetaceans do die in the wild from childbirth, just like they do in captivity, and just like it happens with every other mammal including humans.

      • Eric Davis

        Thank you Joe for brining sanity to the discussion.

      • The First Star

        “SeaWorld has experienced roughly one orca death per year since its breeding program began – 25 orcas in 26 years, evenly spaced over that time, all but three of whom were younger than 25 years of age when they died and six of whom were 12 or younger. Given the fact that the animals have access to 24/7 veterinary care and “restaurant-quality” food, this is a poor mortality record, particularly when considering the ages of the animals at death.

        “When a marine animal dies at an oceanarium, spokespeople will often make statements that death is a natural phenomenon and is to be expected and accepted. Yet at the same time they claim that captivity provides advantages (e.g., veterinary care, reliable food source, no predators or parasites) not available to the species in the wild. Therefore, according to oceanarium rhetoric, conditions in captivity are the same as in the wild when an animal dies but better at all other times. This inconsistent reasoning has unfortunately been accepted for years by the general public, the media, and even the scientific and regulatory communities.”

        “There have been approximately 200 orcas held in captivity, wild-caught and captive-born. Given the number of males and females, natural life expectancies, and the number of years since the first orca entered captivity, a third or more of these animals could reasonably be expected to still be alive today. Yet only 20% of them are.

        “In the Pacific Northwest populations, about 46% of the whales are juveniles, whereas in captivity, about 56% are juveniles. In nature, an age distribution skewed toward younger age classes is often seen in populations that have been in decline, where adult mortality has been abnormally high due to natural disasters, disease, hunting or other threats. Such populations see relative increases in younger age classes during subsequent population growth.

        “The captive orca population, however, has remained relatively stable since the 1970s (about 30-50 whales), suggesting that both the birth rate and adult death rate have remained abnormally high since the successful breeding program began in 1985. The former is likely the result of oceanaria breeding their female orcas at younger ages and at shorter intervals than in the wild. Ironically this may be contributing to the latter. Females (of any mammal species) who become pregnant too young or too often can experience physical harm that shortens their lives. In species with long juvenile dependency periods, forcing females to become pregnant too young can also lead to higher levels of infant mortality, as such mothers may not have the essential parenting skills or maturity to successfully rear a calf.”

        Rose, N. A. 2011. Killer Controversy: Why Orcas Should No Longer Be Kept in Captivity. Humane Society International and The Humane Society of the United States, Washington, D.C. 16 pp.

    • http://www.inparkmagazine.com Joseph Kleiman

      If you’re going to quote one of my heroes, Jacques Cousteau, I would prefer it if you get the quote right. It appears in his book “Dolphin Prisoner”: “There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement.”

    • Eric Davis

      MiceChat is a theme park website. We are not in the Captivity vs Anti Captivity discussion. We have every interest to investigate a film that is saying a theme park (that I cover on a regular basis) should close or is causing harm.

      After speaking to people involved we have learned that facts were ignored, items were taken out of context to drive a narrative.

      That is what this article is about.

    • grizzlybear55

      As one who has studied captive marine mammals for years, I was grateful to find a post here that does not lockstep agree with all being lauded by Disney fans as the glory of keeping these beautiful, intelligent animals in captivity and training them to do silly tricks. The coverage of this decidedly non-Disney topic has caused some controversy and derision here, but what is presented in the post from sunflowershine echoes what I have learned from personal conversations with Ric O’Barry, the longtime trainer of Flipper and other marine mammals, who one day realized that what he was doing was wrong. Before one makes a decision on what side to take on this issue, he or she should read Ric’s book, Behind the Dolphin Smile. No matter what those in the “industry” insist, captivity for a healthy orca, beluga or dolphin — whales all — is misery.

    • Jessica M

      Well that “trainer” just blew their cover as a complete fraud by committing the biggest no-no of any marine mammal expert: Personification. Anyone with immense education or experience will tell you that this is the first thing you learn when making a career of working with animals. You cannot give them feelings, emotions, or ideas you don’t know they have. This gets in the way of true, unbiased research and harms your cause in studying these animals. No real trainer at any marine facility would ever say that the animal “gives up”. Did the dolphins magically speak to her and tell her they were giving up? You will notice at any aquarium that the animal experts do not ever say that an animals is happy, sad, angry, etc. because they cannot tell us how they feel.

      I hate to tell you, but if anything that huge summary made you look a bit silly and proved how naive you are to believe everything you hear. The point of this article is to prove that this “documentary” is nothing more than an agenda-based opinion piece. MAJOR props to these brave former trainers (Bridgette and Mark) and the awesome team at Mice Chat for uncovering the side of the story the Blackfish team didn’t want us to see.

      • The First Star

        Your petty name-calling (“fraud,” “silly,” “magically,” “naive”) does a disservice to your argument.

        Perhaps you could describe the dangers of anthropomorphism in a more mature manner.

  • Ryancr78

    The blind allegiance to theme parks around here is amazing. The bottom line is these animals should not be kept in captivity. In their natural habitats, Orcas travel thousands of miles WITH THEIR FAMILIES over the course of their entire lifetimes. How would you like to be kidnapped as a child, kept in a cage, and forced to entertain whales for food for the rest of your life? If you’re looking for the truth, it will be found in Blackfish, and in articles like this: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mothering-nature/201312/the-blackfish-effect-marks-major-moral-uprising. Down with Seaworld forever! I know I will never visit the park again, and there is an obvious moral uprising going on here. These animals deserve to be free to live out their lives in their natural worlds, just as humans do. We don’t have the right to take that away from them for the sheer purpose of profit and entertainment. It’s wrong, plain and simple.

    • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

      We are a theme park site. That much is true. But it seems to me that the exploration of the truth should be important. Blindly believing in a film and condemning us for presenting actual testimony from folks involved in that film indicates that we aren’t the ones with a blind allegiance. We’ve posted pro-Blackfish posts and podcasts on this site for months as well as some anti-Blackfish stories and podcasts. But we now have information from folks involved with the actual film and are presenting those accounts as well. While individual members of our staff are all over this issue (pro and con) the site itself does not have position on the issue.

      Personally, I’d like folks to read everything before making up their minds. And statements like yours which are attacking us for even trying to present alternate views does not help our readers make an informed decision.

      • The First Star

        Dusty, you say you want us to read alternative viewpoints. But so far, everything you have presented is affiliated with Sea World itself. So, where are your peer-reviewed articles? Where are your interviews with third-party experts in marine biology?

        If you were truly interested in journalistic integrity and neutrality, you would present these viewpoints, too.

        First of all, the filmmaker released a statement in October stating that the focus of the film shifted from a story about Dawn to an expose on Sea World, based on information learned during filming. There are some things you can’t unlearn, she said.

        But even if she lied and she’s a terrible person, how does that change the fact that orca live significantly shorter lives in captivity than in the wild? How does that change the fact that captive orca have to be on long term antibiotics regimens? How does that change the fact that they gnash their teeth on their enclosures (a behavior not directly or indirectly observed in the wild, and most likely attributable to boredom), and subsequently require root canals? How does that change the fact that their natural range is mind-blowingly extensive, yet we keep them in small pools, relative to their body size (not ours)?

        I have read these facts over the years in peer-reviewed articles, and in books and opinion pieces written by leading marine biologists. (Like I said in the comments to the last article, I study animal cognition in grad school.) It was refreshing to (later) see this Information disseminated to the public at large in the documentary. It was really great to see intelligent discourse on whether or not orca (and dolphins) should be held in captivity.

        Unfortunately, I don’t feel that’s what is happening here. You’re trying to discredit the entire documentary based on what happened behind the scenes.

        Again, the filmmaker did acknowledge that the film’s subject and tone changed during the course of production. I know you know that because I provided the link to the statement in the comments to the last article. Where is your acknowledgement of her statement? Why not present it, even if you don’t agree with it? Where is your journalistic neutrality?

        And why not focus on the actual subject of the film? Why not present actual research on longevity and stress in captivity? Why not present multiple third party viewpoints? Without it, it just seems like you have an agenda, too.

        And please stop discrediting the opposition as activists. That’s not who I am. Like I said in the comments to the last article, that’s pretty far from who I am.

        You just can’t unlearn some things.

      • StevenW

        @First Star “everything you have presented is affiliated with Sea World itself.”

        Everyone interviewed was formerly employed by SeaWorld. Has everyone lied or just the ones you disagreed with?

        “If you were truly interested in journalistic integrity and neutrality, you would present these viewpoints, too.”

        I think the article was only about the truthfulness of the film and the persons being interviewed. Sure, there could be many facts contained within that are in dispute, but the timeline of Tilikum is the main concern.

        “And why not focus on the actual subject of the film? Why not present actual research on longevity and stress in captivity”

        Did the film do that? No, it is about testimony from the former SeaWorld trainers that could be full of lies or distortion.

      • The First Star

        @StevenW: I am not being selective over former Sea World employees. Like I said, I did my research independently of the film. I am saying that we need third party experts who present various (read: both) viewpoints. Otherwise, it’s all he-said/she-said accusations that distract from the overall conclusion of the film and the conclusions of actual research: that captivity is harmful to orca. The overall point of the film is valid, regardless of these small details. They are still intelligent, bored, and unhealthy.

        Were there emergency buckets of food, or not? Did Tilikum know that? Was it even about food? Does it even matter or is that just one person’s theory about why Tilikum snapped? To me, these are nit pics. We don’t know why he snapped, and we may never know, but he did and he killed her. He is not a simple creature simply responding to the stimulus of a ponytail, like a bull responding to a red flag. Otherwise, it would have happened before, each and every time. I’ve seen lots of pictures of her in the water with orca with varying lengths of her ponytail and in different wet suits. It wasn’t her first ponytail. No, Tilikum is a highly intelligent animal with a mind of its own — and he knows it (orca possess self-awareness).

        We will also never know what Dawn was thinking. Was she extra motivated to put on a good show because the earlier dolphin show failed? Did she override her training and experience and push Tilikum too hard? Or did he just snap? I don’t know, but again, he snapped and he made her his third kill.

        It’s difficult not to conclude that he was mentally ill. It’s difficult not to ignore the issues of boredom and the stress incurred from unrelated conspecific pool mates, loud music, repetitive tricks, vibrations from nearby roller coasters, shouting crowds, etc.

        But even if you do, and say that as a wild animal, it was only a matter of time before he attacked, it still doesn’t make the case that captivity is ok. Animal attacks occur when people try to keep exotic animals as pets, and it happens in zoos and sanctuaries from time to time. I believe there was a story in the news recently about a lion in a sanctuary killing a zookeeper. But in these cases, the animal is usually killed. In this case, Tilikum was not isolated until his third death. It’s difficult for me to support Sea World when they knew Tilikum was involved in one death when they bought him, and continued running shows with trainers even after the second death.

      • Eric Davis

        @First Star

        We are a THEME PARK SITE. I myself write about SeaWorld and Universal Studios.

        Being the fact that this is a THEME PARK website. I have every interest in investigating stories about theme parks.

        BlackFish is as of now the biggest story about SeaWorld.. so I unlike other journalists, investigated BlackFish.

        What I have dissevered is that there was intention to deceive, and hide facts from the audience.

        This is not a pro/anti captivity article. This is about someone intentionally trying to harm a theme park… hence MiceChat has a vested interest to investigate it.

      • The First Star

        @EricDavis

        Trying to “harm” Sea World? More like trying to pressure them to do the right thing. Please don’t fall into the trap of demonizing the opposition.

        Would we say that Dusty is trying to harm Disneyland because the recent MiceAge updates have been critical of company management? There are MiceChatters who get upset at current Disneyland management and state that they will no longer renew their APs. Is that not similar?

        Of course we wouldn’t say Dusty or any other MiceChatter is harming Disneyland. It’s ok to be critical of the theme parks you cover. We’re critical of Disneyland because we love it and hope management improves its practices.

        I get that you’re a theme park site, but that doesn’t mean you have to regurgitate Sea World’s company line.

        The filmmakers have stated that they did not start out making a Sea World expose. Gabriela Cowperthwaite said she took her kids to Sea W It turned into one after they learned what was happening. That’s public record. Why not mention that in your article, even if you don’t agree with it?

    • Kidgenie

      And what of your blind following Ryancr78? So you watched Blackfish, and maybe the Cove, and so now your an expert Whale Advocate? Which Whales in Sea Worlds collection have been Kidnapped, and when did those kidnappings occur? Don’t point me to an article, give me names and dates. So free the Whales now, take them out of an enviroment that for almost all of them is the only thing they have ever know. It has the perfect water temp and water conditions. They are feed and PS, they are feed even if they don’t perform….. do you know that? I bet you didn’t. Do you really think mammals that size could sustain life off of a the few fish they get during a show? But logic like that doesn’t matter. Do you know what the mortality rate is of wild born very born at Sea World? No, you know nothing except what blackfish has told you and now your an armchair activist who will sleep better knowing you’ve made a difference. So please provide me the information that you have that says freeing the whales will result in a more postive out come then that of previous attempts that were made with say Keiko. We freed Willy and he died. Maybe we should have move Willy/Kieko to a top notch facility like Sea World so he could have lived longer. But now, we put him in the ocean so that we could feel better about ourselves. Never mind that he meet but left alone other orcas. Never mind that he continually seeked up human contact until the day he died. Never mind that he died of begin exposed to elements in the ocean he would have never been expose to in facility like Sea World. Nevermind all those…. just shut down Sea World and free they whales so that you and sleep well at night knowing that what Blackfish taught you was the one and only truth. Afterall, clearly you and Blackfish know more about whats best for the Whales then anyone else.

    • grizzlybear55

      Thank you, Ryan, for so clearly describing the trauma that occurs to these animals when they are sentenced to a life in captivity. I frankly don’t care how “Blackfish” was presented or whose quotes were mis-handled. The bottom like is that, as I have noted elsewhere, for a healthy whale, be it orca, dolphin, beluga, etc., life in a concrete tank is a life of misery, just as it would be for any of us posting here. And again I recommend that all here read Ric O’Barry’s book “Behind the Dophin Smile.” He was for years Flipper’s trainer and essentially wrote this book as penance.

  • EC82

    Tell the truth: Has SeaWorld in any way been involved with these articles — either setting them up, suggesting them, or helping with their creation? The reason I ask is the suspicious timing — just before Oscar nominations, after a couple of well-viewed airings, and following SeaWorld’s excoriation in the media. Highly suspicious.

    If these people were so passionate, why did they not got to the New York Times, the LA Times or another mainstream news outlet?

    Why are there no other voices in these articles? They are one-sided at best and don’t try to present any opposing view. Those who saw the movie will recall that the filmmakers did include SeaWorld’s testimony.

    I find this “Blackfish”-baiting highly questionable …

    • CreepyMonkey

      Oh please.. Your comments are pathetic misdirection at best. If you want an opposing view then watch the film which has no voice of opposition to its clearly anti SeaWorld message.

      • sunflowershine

        When Gabriela Cowperthwaite asked SeaWorld to comment, they refused. They have continued to refuse to address the issues until only recently, with a very deceptive “Time to Set The Record Straight” ad they ran in several newspapers, which was summarily refuted by a number of organizations.

        Rather than answer questions and engage in open dialogue, they continue to delete and ban Facebook users who ask simple questions about orca teeth and dorsal fin collapse.

      • Eric Davis

        Actually if you will re-read the article you will see that as Mark says initially they didn’t refuse, they were seeing what kind of movie she was making.

        And as she stuffed her film full of fired employees, and a writer who believes all zoos are evil, SeaWorld saw that it was not in their best interest to participate.

        If you look how Mark’s footage was edited, and taken out of context you can only imagine how she would have edited SeaWorld’s footage.

    • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

      John, we have absolutely no association with SeaWorld on these articles. In fact, the first article wasn’t even all that SeaWorld friendly. It was anti-Blackfish, but it wasn’t pro SeaWorld.

      Strongly suggest you download the 33 page paper by Joseph Kleiman that we have linked to at the bottom of this article. He’s the news editor of InPark Magazine (a very well respected theme park publication). His paper should be required reading before deciding to blindly back Blackfish or condemn us for posting the interviews with former trainers renouncing their involvement with the film.

      • sunflowershine

        I highly suggest you read any and everything written by Dr. Ingrid Visser of the Orca Research Trust.

  • sunflowershine

    “If you look at, say, the brain of an orca [and] the brain of a human, it would be difficult to say that the human brain was capable of more emotional depth than the orca brain, because — again — what you see in the orca brain is an elaboration on the limbic area that the human brain doesn’t have.

    So if that part of the orca brain is doing what it should be doing, as it does in all mammals — that is, processing emotions — it suggests [that] these animals are doing something very sophisticated or complex while they’re processing emotions. And I think also when you look at behavior of dolphins and whales, especially in the wild, you see a level of social cohesion that is really unmatched in other mammals including the humans.”

    http://theraptorlab.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/inside-the-mind-of-a-killer-whale-a-qa-with-the-neuroscientist-from-blackfish/

    • http://www.inparkmagazine.com Joseph Kleiman

      sunflowershine: I have read quite a bit of Dr. Visser’s work, as well as Dr. Rose’s and Dr. Marino’s. I respect all three quite a bit as researchers. In fact, I have files of research papers I’ve been collecting since 1987 on marine mammals in both the wild and captivity from a number of scientists and veterinarians.

  • gatorchomp

    I find it interesting how Mark doesn’t really disprove any points that Blackfish brought up. He doesn’t argue that Tilikum did in fact kill a trainer before Seaworld purchased him and they did not brief any of the trainers of his prior history. He also discusses how the trainers with less experience had more screen time, which in turn proves the point that Seaworld uses trainers with very little to no prior experience and throws them to the wolves. If Seaworld weren’t in the wrong than he wouldn’t even be able to bring up that point since one would assume all trainers would have the same level of experience. And he did not seem to discuss the blatant lies about orcas that the Seaworld employees are taught to say, which is undeniable.

    Another interesting point was when Mark said, “They knew I was close to the SeaWorld family and they knew I had inside information on the tragedy. They used that history of friendship to garner information, which they then ultimately used to promote a deceptive message in Blackfish and elsewhere.” This just screams to me as though Mark does in fact know what happened and was just covering it up. This fact alone should disprove everything Mark says and show just what camp he’s playing for.

    • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

      “Jeff [Ventre] talks about the filming of a show where Tilikum had lunged at a trainer, and he was allegedly told to destroy the evidence. I was there that day. I’m the one that put Jeff out there to film the show. Not only did no one ever tell him to destroy the tape, but that incident never happened to begin with. The show in question was filmed and shown on the Jumbo-Tron, as well as recorded in security camera footage. If anything like that would have occurred, we would have evaluated it and used it for our behavioral review committee. In fact, Jeff was so anti-management, which ultimately ended up costing him his job, that had there been a video of any event such as that, he would have done the exact opposite if anyone asked him to destroy it.

      And that’s not the only lie. They show a baby killer whale along with the image of a very young killer whale, while talking about how SeaWorld rips babies away from their mothers. Well, that never happened. We didn’t remove calves from their moms until their moms had weaned them. That wasn’t our decision, that was mom’s decision. In some cases, mom is ready to breed again. In that case, a lot of time, the moms will actually physically displace or harm the older calf. So, in some cases you have to separate them for the safety of the calf.

      Also, the analysis of Dawn’s fateful session…there’s a lot of things you could tear apart about that. But the most relevant is that Dawn’s level of experience dwarfed that of all those other trainers that were narrating this film, ten fold.

      They said she was out of food. There is always food available! There were emergency buckets kept around the pool. That had no bearing.

      Secondly, Dawn was of an experience level that, if Tilikum had been showing signs of declining in the session, she would have never continued on into a relationship session with him, lying in the water and rubbing him down. But again, here’s another means to mislead the public, to put ideas into their heads that just aren’t real.

      But, a bigger lie that permeated throughout the movie was that killer whales are dangerous and they can’t be kept in captivity, that it crazes them.

      Dawn would have never been laying down with Tilikum if he was crazed, and any commonsense person would recognize that. But beyond that, the movie goes on to say that SeaWorld purposely deceived its trainers and deceived the public, and that couldn’t be further from the truth!

      I think that’s one of the things that really stood out and shocked me, because it was a polar opposite there. If anything, SeaWorld was obsessive compulsive about how we analyzed every interaction with whales; where there were precursors to aggression or any form of aggression. If you ever felt uncomfortable and didn’t want to get in the water, NO one chided you. All you needed to say was ‘I’m feeling a little off, I don’t want to do this session,’ and you were out. That’s it. Everything was reviewed forensically. So this idea that SeaWorld deceived anyone…I’ve never in my entire career there, nor my friends in their careers there, have ever experienced anything like that.”

      • sunflowershine

        Dawn was a 40 year old woman, who had 14 years as a trainer. I would say that put her in the same league as this man, who is stated as having 16 years. She was considered one of the most experienced trainers at the park. Nice to see that she is still being blamed for her death.

      • gatorchomp

        Thanks, Dusty, but copying and pasting paragraphs of what I already read isn’t exactly helping the argument. Once again, he does not say anything solid to dispute what Blackfish has put forth, which is that these creatures are intelligent beyond even our understanding and that something needs to change, especially with the way Seaworld is handling the situation. And when Seaworld themselves refuse to answer any questions then you can’t deny that something is wrong behind the scenes.

    • TodAZ1

      “He also discusses how the trainers with less experience had more screen time, which in turn proves the point that Seaworld uses trainers with very little to no prior experience and throws them to the wolves.”

      It also proves this movie used less experienced trainers as “experts.” It cuts both ways.

      • gatorchomp

        The fact that these trainers aren’t experts, and they never claim to be, is more startling in my opinion. The film never put these trainers on some sort of orca pedestal, claiming they were all-knowing beings. The trainers all admit to their fallacies and openly say that they never knew anything about orcas except the basics. So how can Seaworld take these regular people, without even a degree in Marine Biology, and throw them in the pool? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there was some preliminary training to run over the basics, but when someone is working with such intelligent and potentially dangerous creatures, one should be required to have extensive training before ever stepping into that enclosure. The fact that Seaworld so easily overlooks this speaks tons on what the corporation’s true priorities are.

    • StevenW

      “This just screams to me as though Mark does in fact know what happened and was just covering it up. This fact alone should disprove everything Mark says and show just what camp he’s playing for.”

      It seems as if Mark didn’t provide the soundbites that the filmmakers needed to make their mockumentary. They gotten their facts from other liars, didn’t they.

      Instead of following up with more interviews, the filmmakers just went with the testimony from the least experience trainers. Was there an attempt to verify their account from Mark? Doesn’t seem so.

      • gatorchomp

        What I took away from his quote is that he knew something was wrong at Seaworld (“had inside information”) and so Jeff and John were able to find out more details and realize the corruption behind Dawn’s death and Seaworld’s handling of the matter. He obviously didn’t want to release whatever he knew but Jeff and John were able to figure things out. The fact that he clearly states he had inside information just shows how involved he was with Seaworld, so obviously he wouldn’t go against them. It also reveals that there was information being kept from everyone else, because clearly he wouldn’t value this insider information if everyone else knew about it. So what exactly was he hiding? The wonderful way they treat the whales? Or maybe the great lengths Seaworld goes through to train their staff and keep them safe?

  • agave

    As others above questioned above, what exactly is Micechat’s relationship with SeaWorld? In the interest of integrity, journalistic or otherwise, shouldn’t that relationship be disclosed at the beginning of these articles?

    Secondly, Simmons here finally has a chance to speak his mind and say how badly the truth was perverted in the film Blackfish, and THIS is what he comes with? A reader can read his thoughts in 2 minutes or less. Where’s the takedown of the film? His comments to me come off as picking nits, not a rebuttal of the film’s content or message.

    And fine, someone still wants to believe the film is misleading, let’s go with that. But what about the court case where Seaworld was sued by the government and LOST? Blackfish follows the governments case against SeaWorld pretty closely, and the transcripts of that trial are available to any who want to read it. My point is, Blackfish didn’t pull the incidents or events depicted in the film out of thin air.

    Lastly, how is it Disney gets torn to shreds by Micechat over calling a ride closure a rehab, but Micechat will give SeaWorld soooooooooooooo much leeway over an issue involving mistreatment of animals and the loss of human lives? Where’s the watchdog style of reporting? Where is, at the very least, a modicum of suspicion for SeaWorld? Again, what IS MIcechat’s relationship with SeaWorld?

    • Eric Davis

      First off: We have no affiliation with any theme park company at all. MiceChat has a 10 year history of independent reporting.

      Second: The court case used in BlackFish has been overturned, and is awaiting a final ruling on the appeal.

      Third: You can choose to believe what you want to believe, but we here at MiceChat have been concerned with uncovering the truth and motives.

      • agave

        Are we talking about the same court case? I can’t find anything about the case being overturned.

      • Dasgoot

        Eric, where did you get the idea that the court case was overturned? The appeal is being considered (oral arguments ended back in November), but it hasn’t been overturned.

    • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

      We have no “relationship” with SeaWorld any more than any other park we cover. None of the trainers we have spoken to so far even work for SeaWorld. Though, we have tried to get access to some current trainers to see how procedures today compare to what is spoken about in the film.

      The fact is that the EXTREME radical zoo/aquarium haters aren’t going to listen to us anyway. They’ll just take their jabs at us and believe everything in Blackfish without reading the testimony of actual trainers who were involved with the film and who are telling you that the film is filled with inaccuracies.

      We are not trying to tell you what to think. But we do believe you should read both sides of the story and realize that Blackfish has an agenda which it doesn’t disclose.

      STRONGLY suggest you download the Joseph Kleiman paper linked to at the end of our article.

      • The First Star

        Wow, Dusty. By demonizing the opposition, it really seems you’re the one not willing to listen to an alternate opinion.

      • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

        Am I wrong? There is a very small but very vocal group of people who are condemning us for even posting this interview with an orca expert who was involved in Blackfish. Why? Because they don’t want to hear any testimony which doesn’t further their cause to close all zoos and aquariums. They are doing here what they do everywhere. They are attacking the source of reasonable information. And they are welcome to do that. But the fact remains that if you aren’t willing to research both sides, as we have, then you really aren’t seeking the truth. Read the interview folks and then download the paper from Joseph Kleiman.

      • The First Star

        Here is my comment without the links:

        Yes, you are wrong. I am not an “EXTREME radical zoo/aquarium hater.” I am just a regular person who has done the research, independently of the documentary. I have concluded that captivity is detrimental to the quality of life of whales and dolphins.

        I draw the line there.

        I used to think all anti-captivity people were nutty PETA activists. But then I read the actual research — the articles written by experts, not nutty activists.

        I disagree with the attempt to discredit the entire film and all facts presented based on changes that the filmmakers openly admit occurred during the course of production. That doesn’t make the whole documentary a lie. That doesn’t make captivity better than the wild. That doesn’t make it ok to make highly intelligent, highly sentient creatures perform circus tricks. That doesn’t make it ok to continue the breeding program.

        (Personally, I feel it’s better to simply discontinue the breeding program rather than release captive individuals into the wild or into sea pens.)

        The article itself does not present alternative viewpoints and comes off as biased. Does Sea World split up family groups for financial gain? I can’t say for certain. I do know for certain that Marine World sold babies off and that it seems to have been common practice among aquaria years ago. The directly observable fact is that social groups at Sea World’s various facilities do not represent social groups in the wild. In the wild, daughters generally stay with their mothers their whole lives and sons leave the family group to join other males. (Further, the social groups are fluid, and smaller family groups are all part of a larger pod that groups and individuals break off from and rejoin over time, but this would be difficult to accomplish in captivity.) Wild orca babies do not need to be separated from their mothers for their own protection. It doesn’t sound like a successful breeding program to me.

        You may ask why I draw the line at whales and dolphins. Orca pass the mirror test, and so do dolphins.

        Why is the mirror test so important? It is the gold standard in establishing that a species possesses self-awareness. It implies a sense of self, the knowledge that you and I are separate, distinct entities.

        The only species that pass the mirror test are humans (obviously), bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, some individual gorillas, dolphins, orca, elephants, and magpies.

      • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

        The First Star wrote:

        “Personally, I feel it’s better to simply discontinue the breeding program rather than release captive individuals into the wild or into sea pens.”

        Then you and I agree. That’s my position as well. But that’s not what this article is about. It’s not about SeaWorld, it’s not about whether or not whales should be kept in captivity. It’s about a documentary which is very likely going to be nominated for an Academy Award which is filled with information which is not accurate.

        I have and will continue to push for large mammals not to be kept in captivity. I feel the same about Elephants in small zoo enclosures. But, again, that is NOT what this article is about.

      • The First Star

        Well, that’s good to know, Dusty. But by not acknowledging in the article that third party research exists, or presenting a dissenting third-party article in this series, it looks like MiceChat is saying that (A), the documentary is biased, thus (B), none of its points are valid, so (C) it’s ok to support Sea World and its practices, including its breeding program.

        That may not be what you mean to convey at MiceChat, but it seems to be what some people are concluding, based on the comments I’ve read in this article and the last.

        I’m afraid that your readers, particularly ones affected by cognitive dissonance after having themselves been to Sea World, will make the conclusion that the entire documentary and its conclusion are bull.

        While people may have problems with (what I believe to be) minor issues, the documentary still has great intrinsic value as a starting point for discussion.

        A discussion that should be centered on the orca (and dolphins) themselves, and their condition in captivity, and not on what he-said/she-said.

  • agave

    All of this is kind of crazy to me. I don’t get it. It’s so simple. Try this simple progression:

    When an animal in captivity kills a human caretaker, we start to ask questions. Was it an accident? In the case of Dawn, no it wasn’t. Everyone agrees that. Even SeaWorld. Was the attack part of a pattern? In the case of Tillikum, yes it is. Dawn was the 3rd person he killed, not just attacked, but killed. So we ask, why does the pattern exist. What may be the causes behind the attacks especially since it is universally accepted that orcas are not aggressive towards humans at all.

    It isn’t hard to figure out that SeaWorld may have a hard time being objective answering those questions honestly. The orca shows are their cash cow. And like any multi-national corporation, as we have seen, SeaWorld is not above misleading the public. Just as Disney is not.

    However you feel about Blackfish, aren’t these questions reasonable?

    • Giraffe

      it was never proven that he killed the second person. that man, entered the area after park closing. it was said that he died of hyperthermia.

      • http://www.inparkmagazine.com Joseph Kleiman

        According to the Medical Examiner’s report, Daniel Dukes died of drowning. Fluid entered his lungs and he couldn’t breath. That’s not hyperthermia. Unlike Dawn, whose cause of death was deemed both drowning and traumatic injuries, it appears the ME believed the injuries sustained by Dukes were not life threatening. However, Tilikum did do some major damage to him, which I won’t mention here on this family website. Whether or not he was in the park and stayed after closing or if he jumped the fence is unknown. A 2 for 1 coupon for SeaWorld’s midway was found in his swimsuit pocket (yes, he was wearing swim trunks), but he could have picked this up walking through the park after it closed.

        Keltie Lee’s death, according to the coroner’s inquest in Victoria, was caused by drowning due to forced submersion by an orca. There is no mention in the report of hyperthermia there either. Additionally, Tilikum did not swallow Dawn’s arm, as portrayed in the film. There was a complete avulsion of her left arm – it was detached, but all the injuries to that arm are described in the autopsy report.

  • agave

    And I haven’t seen much of any reason, even after reading the 2 articles above, why anyone would regard Blackfish as full of lies. Seems like Simmons and PIrlte both disagree with how their personal testimony was used. And really, not much else. The details they disagree with are minor in the big picture. They do little, IMO, to discredit the actual film.

    • TodAZ1

      If they do little to discredit the actual film, why not present to the public what was actually said by the two trainers?? Why slant/spin/push an agenda? Not dramatic enough, maybe?

      I’m not saying I give SW a pass. Far from it. I do believe it’s time to end the performing animals shows. But lying and obfuscating to get it done isn’t the way to do it. If the message is as strong as I believe it now is, you shouldn’t have to do those things to get it out to the public. It should be able to speak for itself.

    • JungleBumCT

      I don’t regard the movie as ‘full of lies’ per se, but I do recognize it as a propaganda piece with demonstrable inaccuracies and key omissions, and motivated by award potential. I took it with several grains of salt, as I do any other “documentary” of that type. As former orca trainer Kyle Kittleson wrote in a recent blog post:

      “…that is the power of Hollywood – making you feel a certain way, regardless of the truth.”

  • red barchetta

    And Mice Chat continues its spiral into biased irrelevancy. Pathetic

    • TodAZ1

      “biased.” Really? Did you call them “biased” when they published pro-Blackfish stories? You may not recognize it, but this is what REAL journalists do. They provide both sides of the argument and let the public decide. Not do a movie, gather all evidence they need, and only use the evidence relavent to their agenda.

    • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

      I was personally VERY pro-Blackfish AND have been on record for months on this site and on many podcasts. But, I’m open minded enough to listen to the information presented to me. Having read the interviews of these two trainers and now having heard from 8 more trainers, I’ve changed my views. I’m still very much against orca being kept in captivity, but I think the film Blackfish is an agenda piece that needs to be exposed for what it is.

      Attacking MiceChat because we are posting an interview with a noted orca expert and contributor to the film Blackfish isn’t “irrelevant” it’s what’s known as news.

      I do realize that there are some who would rather that we not cover this story, but we were among the first to expose the dark underbelly of this film. Hopefully that opens the doors to others to do the same.

      We aren’t going to be bullied into not presenting important information now or in the future.

      • Streamliner

        Thank you for posting these articles, they are very informative and provide some really good background information. With Oscar nominations this Thursday, I’m hoping these articles gain more exposure. Will there be any more articles in the near future about Blackfish?

  • LoveStallion

    Sorry, but Joe Kleiman’s analogy of his dog is very, very weak. The intellectual and emotional capacity of dogs, while better than most mammals, is dwarfed by that of cetaceans. I’m not saying that an orca released into the wild will just up and assimilate, but Joe provides no academic backing to a pretty key argument other than his own conjecture.

    • http://www.inparkmagazine.com Joseph Kleiman

      LoveStallion: My dog’s a little hurt to hear that, but I value your opinion. The introduction to my report is simply laying out the reason for writing the document and answering a couple of questions I’ve received over the past few months. I’m open to considering other points of view and I mention so both in the report and on my blog. The one difference between my dog and instances where animals have been re-released into the wild from captivity and studied, is that those animals were trained to hunt for food before release. That includes Keiko, and training him to hunt live fish was an extensive process. But thank you for your feedback. It’s very appreciated.

      • LoveStallion

        Please don’t misunderstand me. I was merely going after that. I enjoyed the rest of your piece. There’s clearly plenty of work to be done to get to the bottom of this whole thing, and I appreciate your research into it.

        It seems to me that orcas born in captivity basically have no hope for survival in the wild. I like the idea that more people go to zoos and aquariums than theme parks, so let’s just ditch the silly “shows” with orcas and just let them live in an aquarium. Do we really think no one would show up in that case? Please. I’ve been to the Georgie Aquarium and everyone lines up just to see the whale sharks glide by.

    • The First Star

      Agreed, LoveStallion.

      Sure, there are some similarities. Both dogs and orcas/dolphins can learn to perform tricks. Dogs, dolphins, elephants, and chimpanzees understand the human pointing gesture. Interestingly, chimpanzees have trouble with referential pointing, and do not understand the reference when the object is over three feet away. Dolphins don’t have this problem.

      Dogs are the only animals on that list that do not pass the mirror test. Dogs, however, have been domesticated over tens of thousands of years (18,800 to 32,100 years, according to recent estimates). Over time, humans have selectively bred dogs to possess the qualities we desire. Indeed, pointing was once highly coveted for its usefulness in hunting. Logically, the leading theory as to why dogs understand pointing is that it is the result of thousands of years’ worth of domestication.

      ((My biology classmates had a really hard time understanding how behavior could be passed on through genetics, so let me take a moment to discuss genetics for just a second. If the behavior has a genetic basis, such as a spider weaving a spiral web, then it can be passed on if it is naturally advantageous to the environment or is artificially selected for by breeders. This allows the individual to live long enough to pass its genes on, while other individuals that do not possess that characteristic do not. Understanding of human pointing and ability to point while hunting may have arisen from a genetic mutation and was then selected for by breeders. For more information on dogs and pointing, read an article on Discovery News called Dogs Really Do Know Us Best.))

      Dolphins, on the other hand, are relatively new arrivals to our world. Dolphins were first captured in the 1860s, although it wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s that it became more commonplace. Dolphins understand direct points and cross-body points, without the benefit of thousands of years of domestication.

      But critically, dogs do not pass the mirror test, indicating that they don’t realize they are the reflected in the mirror, and don’t possess self-awareness or theory of mind.

      Look up a CNN clip from a few years back (read: before Blackfish). It’s called CNN: Dolphins see themselves in mirror. In the clip, young dolphins are shown a mirror for the first time. At first they startle, and may exhibit social posturing. But then a funny thing happens. They start contingency testing. For instance, an individual moves to the left, then to the right, then up and down, all the while staring at the mirror image, testing the mirror image. Then they start creating novel postures — as if to say, surely if it was another dolphin, it wouldn’t do this pose! Sure, you can’t tell what/if they’re thinking, but this behavior is consistent among young dolphins exposed to a mirror for the first time. Then they start checking themselves out. They position themselves so they can look at different parts of their bodies. And they tend to look for awhile. Sometimes they lose interest, but they come back. I really don’t think it was in that clip, so I probably read it in Dolphin in the Mirror, but one dolphin exposed “himself” and stared at “himself” for a good while (omg). His posture was not defensive or offensive. Dolphins don’t usually expose “themselves” to same-sex strangers / possible rivals.

      As smart as I’ve always wanted to believe my dogs and cats are, they never exhibited contingency behaviors in the mirror, or positioned themselves to better see their body parts.

      And if marked (while sedated) in a highly-controlled experimental setting, dogs and cats do not try to position themselves to better see the mark, try to remove the mark, or look at the mark for longer periods of time (indicating that they know the mark is not normally present). Elephants, chimpanzees, and dolphins, however, do. There is another story in Dolphin in the Mirror in which a marked dolphin swam by a mirror, immediately doubled back, stared at the mark in the mirror, and then attempted to rub the marked area using part of the enclosure.

      Yes, I harp on the mirror test, but it is the gold standard in testing for self-awareness. Until recently, we thought we were the only species capable of self-awareness.

      • http://www.inparkmagazine.com Joseph Kleiman

        Dr. Marino often refers to her experiments with dolphin self-cognition in mirrors as being one of the reasons she opted to discontinue working with captive cetaceans. This trait is not restricted to higher cognitive mammals, such as cetaceans and primates. It has also been identified in birds – Prior, Helmut et al. “Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition” PLoS Biology August 2008

      • The First Star

        That’s correct. I actually posted the full list on this very page on Jan. 13 at 2:54pm, in a response to Dusty:

        “The only species that pass the mirror test are humans (obviously), bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, some individual gorillas, dolphins, orca, elephants, and magpies.”

        I didn’t mean to imply that higher apes, cetaceans, and elephants were the only species to pass the mirror test. I left out magpies in that discussion simply because I was comparing animals who understand pointing gestures *and* pass the mirror test. I apologize if there was any confusion.

        Anyway, that’s a great article and it blew my mind when it came out.

        As for Dr. Marino, I have read that, as well. That it became too difficult to mentally couple their intelligence and self-awareness with their conditions in captivity. And she also became emotionally attached to the dolphins in her study, who were transferred to other aquaria and died young. It reminds me of a conversation I recently had with some students in the Yerkes Regional Primate Center at Emory. They tend to become attached to their animals, as well. It’s tough.

        Here’s a quote from an article written by David Grimm, published in SCIENCE, and entitled, “Are Dolphins Too Smart for Captivity?”

        “They [the dolphins] had shown that they could recognize their own reflections—a test of self-awareness that only chimpanzees and humans had passed at the time. The finding was a breakthrough in dolphin research and a milestone in the field of animal cognition. But it also sowed an uncomfortable seed in Marino’s mind. If dolphins were as self-aware as people, she recalls thinking, how can we keep them locked up in concrete pens? Marino tried to repress the thought. The science, she told herself, had to come first. But when she and Reiss attempted to continue the mirror studies a couple of years later, they learned that Tab and Presley [the dolphins involved in the mirror study] had been transferred to other aquariums where both had died of infections at about 20 years of age, half a dolphin’s normal life span in the wild. The deaths affected Marino profoundly. In the following years, she abandoned her aquarium work, severed her relationship with Reiss, and launched a crusade to free all dolphins from captivity.”

        (I’ve stated this elsewhere, but Reiss supports ending the breeding program but letting the current population live out their lives in captivity.)

  • techskip

    My immediate comment, as callous as it sounds, is this;

    If there are precursors to aggressive behavior and Dawn had the experience to notice said signs then how did she end up dead? That is a direct question for Mark because he knew her personally. I would also ask if not getting in the tank would have any detrimental effects on ones future job prospects. How did SeaWorld and SeaWorld’s management react to trainers who didn’t feel comfortable being in the water at specific times?

    I agree that Blackfish had an agenda. I agree that there are plenty of facts on BOTH sides that are skewed. The positive thing to come of this is discussion.

  • agave

    Aside from the idea that Blackfish had an agenda, which as discussed, ALL documentaries do (even these Micechat articles have an agenda), I’m having a hard time keeping track of what the “lies” in the film actually are. I may have just lost track amongst all the tit for tat, but I read the interview above again, as well as Pirtle’s interview, and I’m having a hard time with discerning what the actual misinformation the film is accused of having. In the interest of clarity moving forward, would someone care to post the lies Blackfish is purportedly accused of perpetuating so we can discuss them?

    • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

      I suggest you start here: Dissecting Blackfish

    • JungleBumCT

      I found the Simmons interview more damning than the Pirtle interview. The very article you’re commenting on lays out some of the lies. The Kittleson youtube video also lays some out. I’ll reiterate, I think both Simmons and Pirtle were dumb to so readily participate in the movie. They should have seen the agenda coming a mile away.

  • agave

    Well, I read it Dusty. And my thoughts are, really? Kleinman’s entire report focuses on a handful of “EDITORIAL CHOICES” made by the director, since he is an editor by trade, and admits to having a love for SeaWorld and comes from a family who owned stock since SeaWorld’s beginning. Nothing in his report throws into question the facts presented in Blackfish Even his conclusion has very little to do with the central theme and purpose of the film itself,

    Example: He says during the discussion of whales being captured from the wild, Tillikum in particular, footage was shown of Keiko the whale being transported for the making of the movie Free Willy. This was, not Tillikum. It should be pointed out, that no where in the film is it ever said that the footage we were seeing WAS of Tillikum, And I as a viewer was not under the impression that we were seeing actual footage from 30+ years ago when Tillikum was captured. But even if a viewer was under that impression, so what? You consider that a lie, Dusty? None of that has anything to do the central purpose or theme of Blackfish. And it certainly isn’t a LIE.

    • http://www.inparkmagazine.com Joseph Kleiman

      Agave: Thank you for your feedback on the report. My grandparents sold stock in Sea World in the 1970′s, when the chain was purchased by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. We haven’t had a financial interest in the company since and I haven’t been to a SeaWorld park for over two decades. The report is an analysis of the editing used in the film. In the report and in my numerous blog posts on the subject, I never question the research, trainer testimony, or historical information presented in the film. I’m more interested in how it’s designed to effectively convey its argument and create such a huge response with the public.

      I’m glad you weren’t taken by the footage of Keiko substituted for Tillikum. A number of people, including myself, were. I didn’t catch the creative use of footage until my 42nd viewing of the film. Again, thanks for your great feedback.