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.


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.”


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 appears to be the framework for what would become Blackfish.


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.”


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.”


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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    Whether or not Blackfish was deceitful is irrelevant. It’s fact and common sense that such large and intelligent animals should not be treated and enslaved in such a way. Spend all the time you want poking holes in a film, you can’t right a wrong. Now let’s discuss the Cove and how some of the dolphins that survive are sold to sea parks.

    • rihard2000

      Sea World has no association with the drives depicted in the Cove since it does not purchase animals from Taiji or any other Japanese drive fishery. No U.S. theme parks have been allowed to import dolphins or other marine mammals from drive fisheries since 1993.

    • CreepyMonkey

      DCACM Said, “Whether or not Blackfish was deceitful is irrelevant.”

      What?? It is TOTALLY relevant and of prime importance is considering any so called ‘information’ you garner from the film! This is exactly what I’ve been saying all along; the ends to not ever justify the means, period. It’s the only thing that does matter in considering this film as a source of alleged facts!

    • emckinney21

      “Whether or not Blackfish was deceitful is irrelevant.” Really?
      The film claims itself to be a documentary, and presents an exceedingly limited scope with a blatant neglect of any sort of historical context, past and present regulations, and evolution of parks over time. Even if the events presented in “Blackfish” are accurately depicted, it’s seriously questionable that so much relevant information was left out, to the point where the story seems woefully incomplete.
      And since “Blackfish” didn’t really point it out, I’ll do so: SeaWorld has multiple sets of regulations preventing it from accessing Taiji dolphins or capturing wild orcas (even if the company wanted to, which it doesn’t.) All marine mammals in US waters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prevents capture of animals without permits. All marine parks must request access to import any and all marine mammals into the U.S. Along with the request for import, they must demonstrate need, and be approved by the USDA and National Marine Fisheries Service (who wouldn’t ever approve a permit for something like a Taiji dolphin hunt animal, especially not for a park like SeaWorld with a successful bottlenose dolphin breeding program) SeaWorld is also under the regulation of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, whose code of ethics declares any park that imports from Japan (or attempts to) lose their certification.

    • Klutch

      On the contrary, whether or not Blackfish was deceitful is the topic of this article and the article which preceded it. This is the only topic which is relevant. How you feel about animals being in captivity is a completely different subject which should be discussed elsewhere.

  • eyeless916

    Remember the same thing happened with elephants. It took a really long time for us to realize the paddocks we were using at zoo’s weren’t large enough and were psychologically hurting them. It was a long fight and a lot of zoos had to give up their elephants – in the end we did the right thing. But the same arguments were happening. Orcas are just too damn big and more sociable than we thought to keep captive. They need a real pod. Just because they are a type of dolphin doesn’t mean they can adapt to the same surrounding and environment. Dolphins can bond with a human and accept them as a pod and other animals – orcas they are different. There was an orca at the six flags in Vallejo that they stuck with two dolphins in the tank next to her that’s not fair. Regardless of how you feel about blackfish – Orcas don’t belong in captivity and shouldn’t be a source of profit (the selling of sperm and sexual gametes). I’ve grown up with seaworld, Marine world africa USA if any of you remember, the Monterrey Bay aquarium etc… My stuffed Shamu had a prominent place in my bedroom and to this day in my office, but even i can tell we just can’t keep forcing this giant animal into these giant fish tanks. If they do ever stop the question is what we do with the existing orcas who cant be returned to the while – i really hope seaworld would step up and create a orca sanctuary to retire these beautiful animals but still allow the public to view (like the sea otters at the Monterrey bay aquarium. They could be the leader in orca research still and preservation. Just no tricks and profiting off captive breeding.

    I really don’t fault Seaworld or the blackfish folks. the Killer whale is the seaworld identity and they pretty much have given the world everything we know about the orca. I don’t think many of do well with change, but it happens sometimes with a lot of kicking and screaming.

    • This is a great comment. Just saying.

    • Balerion

      I used to enjoy going to Sea World, and sitting in Shamu stadium between the shows and just watching the whales. Without trainers, without other visitors. The best times to visit were after calves had been born. The playfulness of the calves, and the joy you could see with the other females playing with them was amazing to watch. As soon as they started setting up for the next show, I’d leave.

      After Dawn’s death, they stopped allowing you to just watch the whales, so I stopped going.

      And now, I won’t ever go back. Well, not exactly. Sea World has an opportunity here to do the right thing. They are smart, they can figure it out. And still be a source of marine life education and rehabilitation. And profits.


    It should be noted that Mark Simmons is charge of Ocean Embassy…a company that is involved with the capture and keeping of wild cetaceans. His line of business (and pocketbook) would be hurt if Sea World got a bad rap. And the part about the mother’s giving up their children after they are weaned is a laugh. It is a proven fact from studies in the wild that Killer Whales stay with their mothers their entire life, that they have babies about every 5 years (so the crap about being ready to breed again so soon after a baby is weaned is just the captive industry pushing them to breed again), and they don’t start having babies in the wild until their teens (the captive industry pushes this dramatically as well and starts breeding them at early ages). Please read these articles with an open mind. Check the facts. And realize that everyone has their own agenda. Read “Death at Sea World”. It tells an in depth story of the entire industry and it’s history.

    Oh and the part about food always being available…I am sure it is…but it’s “emergency food” as he states and probably doesn’t normally come out. The fact is still correct that Dawn was running out of food (in her session bucket)…and that’s what Tilly knows.

    • emckinney21

      So if everyone has their own agenda, what makes David Kirby (author of DASW), and the various other creators of “Blackfish” so much more credible then those in (or formerly in) the industry?

  • Sir_Cliff

    I’m with those who find MiceChat’s rallying to Sea World’s cause more than a little troubling and the responses from Dusty a little condescending. It reminds me of the old Fox News argument that their presentation of the news is “fair and balanced” because their right-wing agenda balances out the left-wing agenda they argue is present in other media outlets.

    It troubles me a little bit on a human level that none of the authors here seemed to have stopped to consider the ethics of running a business based on caging highly intelligent animals and making them perform for their entertainment of the paying public. I thought the jury was in on circuses using animals. In terms of Sea World’s conservation and education efforts, it’s worth keeping in mind that Sea World wasn’t a conservation-based organisation that went into theme parks but exactly the reverse. The business logic of that decision (which undoubtedly does have a positive impact) is playing out before us in Sea World’s rebuttal of the bad publicity generated by Blackfish and indeed in these articles (along the lines of: “how can you criticise our treatment of orcas when we rescue so many sea turtles?”). Furthermore, it is one thing to justify the captivity of, for example, Tasmanian Devils in order to conduct research and breeding programs for a threatened species. It all gets quite dubious, however, when you start to argue that training them to stand on each other’s backs and ride around a tiny bicycle for paying crowds is a necessary and educational part of these efforts.

    Another point I would make is that orca trainers do have a lot wrapped up in this debate on a personal level. I don’t doubt the trainers interviewed here feel they were deceived and misrepresented in the film and they may be right. They do also speak from a position of authority. However, this doesn’t mean they are objective. Indeed, I would imagine that someone whose entire life and identity has been wrapped up in training orcas would feel quite defensive and unsettled if you suddenly found the ethics of what they did and, to some extent, who they were was suddenly held up to such scathing and high-profile public scrutiny. This doesn’t mean what they are saying is invalid, but let’s not pretend they have no skin in this fight.

    • Sir_Cliff: Some very good points. You’ll notice in the introduction to my report that I mention I feel they should transition from stadium shows to more naturalistic enclosures, both with more depth and more surface space, and with stimuli inducing natural behavior like at the newest zoo exhibits. That’s my opinion, others may want the orcas freed, and I respect that. But as long as they are in captivity, the shows and the interaction with trainers are keeping them physically and mentally active and keeping them from becoming lethargic. And right now, until someone can come up with a plan that works for repatriating them or building a larger enclosure, we have to take advantage of the situation currently at hand for the animals’ welfare.

      Again, that’s my thinking. Your feedback is certainly welcome.

      • Sir_Cliff

        Thanks for the fair response and your thoughts.

        To be honest, I would make no claims to be an expert in this area so I am interested to hear from people who are. Your suggestions regarding improving the conditions of captive orcas seem reasonable to me as everything I have seen suggests that freeing captive orcas is not a feasible option (if you want them to live, anyway). So, the immediate concern is caring for the welfare of those already in captivity as best as possible. Beyond that, my feeling is that the intelligence of these creatures and the impossibility of recreating their social and physical environment in captivity suggests that captivity should be phased out by ceasing breeding programs. I also think for a whole host of reasons that glitzy performing animal shoes have had their time and cannot be justified anymore on the basis of “education.”

        I suspect they are game-planning this internally at Sea World. For the time being, however, they are going to fight tooth and nail to put of this adjustment to their business model for as long as possible.

    • Sir_Cliff, this isn’t a “Fair and balanced” story, it’s an interview. By its very nature, it’s told from the point of view of the subject. Who in this case was deeply involved in the story and is the primary expert on the subject, having both trained Dawn and Tilikum! It was important that his story get out and we are sure that now he’ll get a chance to do just that (not just on MiceChat but elsewhere).

      Appreciate your comments and thank you for reading!

      • fnord

        Trained Tillikum? Are we we going to reopen this can of worms, woops, kettle of fish. Darn. Let’s get back to what Miceage does best. Disney news and gossip.
        Can you direct me to a Universal progress website that updates the Progress of their new projects without having to delve into these serious life and death issues that Seaworld will obviously have to deal with?
        Disney news nowadays is boooring. Unless you’re a rich Club 33 member. I sincerely hope the new Snow White mine ride is at least a “c”ride.

      • StevenW

        “Trained Tillikum? Are we we going to reopen this can of worms”

        In other words, you think the most experienced trainer’s facts should go ignored and buried to advance the idea that SeaWorld should close its operations.

      • Sir Cliff, I don’t consider myself an export, just somebody who has studied the material for years. If you are interested in an expert, I suggest Brad Hanson at the NMFS Northwest Fisheries Science Center, He’s one of the few scientists out there that really isn’t driven by an activist agenda. Hanson has worked on relocation projects, including Keiko and Springer.

    • Eric Davis

      This is a theme park site that covers the theme park. We can be harsh to any company or organization when it comes to them trying to deceive the public. BlackFish after interviewing and talking to people for HOURS. And getting information confirmed from other sources, and getting other forms of documentation, the story becomes clear that the director of the film intended to deceive, and hide information.

      That in 2010 the director knew the movie she was making. In 2012 the director knew the movie she was making. At those times, she lied and deceived those people.

      This deserves to be talked about. In both interviews, I simply brought the person, sat them down and allowed them to talk free of Gabriela’s editing room.

      • red barchetta

        ” the story becomes clear that the director of the film intended to deceive, and hide information.”

        The irony is palpable.

    • StevenW

      “It reminds me of the old Fox News argument that their presentation of the news is “fair and balanced” because their right-wing agenda balances out the left-wing agenda they argue is present in other media outlets”

      And for this reason, the right deserves to not have the left wing agenda challenged?

      So only the left wing can have its news outlets?

      Okay, Blackish is now a fine agenda piece because it does exactly what it supposed to do with lies and distortions because the motives are in the right place?

      Sorry, try again.

      • Sir_Cliff

        I think you missed the point of the analogy.

    • DobbysCloset

      I really liked your comment, plus the thought of training Tasmanian Devils to ride little bicycles makes me smile, being that I’ve kept both rats and now a Chihuahua and training smart critters is so fun!

  • intheinterestof

    There are several things I’d take issue with regarding what Mark Simmons says here. But the biggest is this:

    “Ask SeaWorld”

    We’ve tried that. They ignore our questions. They refuse to participate in two-way dialogue. They just pay for advertising that repeats the same talking points over and over again, and never address the rebuttals.

  • Admiral Boom

    I found this interview quite compelling. As I noted in my comments to the first article, that interview left me feeling that Ms. Pirtle didn’t disagree with any of the facts of the movie, and came to a pretty anti-SeaWorld conclusion anyway.

    But in this interview Mr. Simmons claims specific factual disagreements with the film. Now I am left uncertain what from Blackfish I can believe and I am instead falling back on more general doubts about whether it makes sense to train and breed animals for entertainment (SeaWorld, Ringling Bros etc…).

    One issue on which I still don’t feel satisfied is Ms. Brancheau’s death with Tilikum. It seems like the argument that she was an expert of the highest order yet still died only seems to reinforce the point that working with these animals is very dangerous and there is no adequate training or procedures to do this safely. Maybe I’m missing the point there.

    But now that the factual claims of Blackfish are in doubt, I see this as a much more nebulous issue open to individuals’ own moral compasses. For better or worse, that probably means it will be a long time before any consensus forms.

    • CreepyMonkey

      The problem at this time with the film and with all accounts of Dawn Brancheau’s death is that not all the facts have been published at this time and may never be. It is a complicated issue at best.

      All I can say is, over the course of investigating this film and its claims I have seen so many conflicting points of view and arguments coming out on the side of Blackfish it seems to me that not even those who have seen the film clearly understand all the so called “facts” they have been shown. This is due to the films shady and clearly manipulative style.

      I am all for an open and honest discussion about any subject, the problem with discussing things with Blackfish advocates is that very few of them are willing to compromise or even listen to any viewpoint that doesn’t mirror their own. So far I have yet to hear one of them actually address the issue that is at hand with this article; Gabriela Cowperthwaite lied and manipulated people as well as including things in the film that were, at best, grossly inaccurate.

    • Working with any exotic animal in captivity is going to be dangerous. There’s a report that came out in 2005 about roller coaster fatalities based on a survey between 1994 and 2004, where 40 people died riding roller coasters. The researchers determined that to be around 4 people per year. This is in the US only.

      According the Exotic Animals Incidents Database, which is a project of Born Free USA, an animal advocacy group (because I do go to both sides of the animal rights issue to get my information), during the same period, 1994 to 2004, there were 39 deaths in the US from captive exotic animals. This includes zoos, aquariums, carnivals, shows, circuses, private collections, you name it.

      Now, if we look at the ten years leading up to Dawn’s death, from 1991 to 2010, that total rises to 72 deaths from captive exotic animals. But if we remove all the private collections, the carnivals, the shows, the circuses, and all the other stuff, leaving only AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, where the total collection of exotic animals far surpasses anything else on the list, that number, which includes Daniel Dukes and Dawn, drops to 11 – five deaths by elephant, two by tiger, one each by lion and jaguar, and the two by Tilikum, over the ten year period..

      The first captive orca was put on display in 1961. In the 53 years that orcas have been in captivity, there have been only 4 deaths attributable to them, three by Tilikum. So Pelletier and Gilchrist estimated an average 4 deaths per year on rollercoasters. That’s compared to 4 deaths over 53 years by orcas.

      The TEA/AECOM 2012 Theme index reports 131,555,000 people attended theme parks in 2012. The AZA reports for the same period that their 222 certified members, all but 10 of which are in the US, saw a combined attendance of 175,000,000. Now, there might be slight overlap due to Discovery Kingdom and the SeaWorld parks. The difference between visiting a traditional theme park and a zoo is that at the zoo, you are always at risk of an exotic animal escaping from its enclosure. During that one year, 2012, which is the most recent year attendance was reported, with 175 million people visiting AZA accredited zoos, there was only one death – a two year old boy that fell into an African wild dog pit. There were 103 injuries attributable to animals at AZA zoos during the same period. And I’m putting that in for a reason. At the time of the AZA report, there were 751,931 animals in their member zoos and aquariums’ collections. That means on average, one serious injury for each group of 7295 animals.

      And I’m not going to discuss animal welfare. This is strictly about the question of how dangerous working with exotic animals in a zoological park is. If you go into the job, follow the procedures, maintain your training, and know your animals, you have a very high probability of survival.

      But accidents and death do happen. And they happen everywhere.

      • DobbysCloset

        The animals don’t have to be all that exotic to be dangerous. The domestic pussycat can do a lot of damage — ask any vet! I am sure if all the stitches vets got for pussycat damage were counted up they would far exceed the circumference of an orca.

  • evergreen

    Regarding my comments about “Sea World’s Biggest Secret” (which can be found here: ),
    Dusty wrote: “We have absolutely no evidence that anything said by Evergreen is true. In fact, everything we have been able to learn by those willing to go on the record indicates quite the contrary.”

    So now you are calling me a liar.

    You are saying that dolphins and orcas are not any smarter than Sea World tells you. You are saying they can’t quickly learn new behaviors. Who told you that? Where did you get that info from? Sea World?

    You are saying that dolphins and orcas don’t have intense emotions. That they don’t grieve or get angry. You are saying that they don’t feel any pain living in their cement ponds and being forced to perform. You are saying their predicament doesn’t cut their life spans short when the facts clearly tell us otherwise. Who told you that?

    You are saying that being held captive in these small tanks and being forced to perform doesn’t affect their personalities. Who told you that?

    And do you HONESTLY think that Sea World can do a show without any fish reward? PROVE IT! Let us see the dolphin or orca show that is done on command without using fish reward. Let us see your show that features dolphins or orcas that aren’t hungry. You can’t because it is impossible. And if you can’t, you owe me an apology.

    The trainer you interviewed in your “Blackfish Exposed” said that she wanted to stop using the animals for entertainment purposes and end the breeding program. I agree. Blackfish agrees. You conveniently ignore that.

    The author of your “Dissecting Blackfish” piece said that he thinks that the old-fashioned-style shows should end and the animals should be placed in more natural environments. I agree. But you ignore his conclusion. (For the record, I don’t think they should be released into the wild.)

    So now I feel stupid for having taken the bait. You are either a lousy debater who ignores the substance of an argument and simply chips around the edges. Or you are trolling for page views. Personally, I think it’s the latter.

    So I am done with this. I stupidly thought there might be an intelligent discussion here, that people might be willing to discuss and, perhaps, learn. But I was wrong. To you, I’m just a liar.

    I’ve told the truth. I’ve been telling people the truth about this for decades. I’ve done media interviews and given speeches. I testified at a Federal hearing regarding living conditions for captive cetaceans. Do you think I lied in that Federal hearing?

    Thank goodness people are finally starting to wake up and see what is really happening in these nightmarish marine theme parks. But now it’s up to the younger activists to make the changes that need to be made. I’m done. Thank you.

    • CreepyMonkey

      Evergreen, this article is about one thing and one thing only; the fact that Gabriela Cowperthwaite lied and manipulated to certain people who appeared and contributed to the film. Why can you not understand that? The only debate here is – Did Cowperthwaite lie and deceive and are there inaccuracies and lies in the film and is it OK to lie and deceive people to achieve a goal?

      • OliviaVonDrake

        Speaking of goals, I’d like to know what the actual goal is of the person conducting these interviews and publishing them on Miceage. This person calls himself a Sea World “superfan”. Clearly there is a huge bias and there is an agenda behind these articles.
        My comments here have been screened and I have apparently been banned from the forums, despite the fact that I broke no rules. I suppose this comment will be screened as well. As a nine year member of this site I am so disappointed.

      • Eric Davis


        I am transparent. I have made my affiliations, relationships, past and present available.

        Am I a fan of SeaWorld. Yes. My body of work states that much in obvious detail.

        That is why I chose in both articles to refrain from editorializing. I wanted to refrain from interjecting my own opinions, and interpretations.

        I am leaving that up to the reader, and to Mark Simmons and Bridgette Pirtle to speak strongly for themselves, which I personally believe they have done.

        Did I agree 100% with everything Bridgette said in her interview? no. Did I leave out the things I didn’t like? no.

        I have wanted to know the behind the scenes on the film, and I feel that through our investigations, analysis, and interviews we have discovered that in fact there a lot of lies and deceit going on in the film.

    • Eric Davis


      Please feel free to message me, I would love to listen to what you have to say, and I would love to compare your expertise to those in these two articles.

      I am open to all information.


    • Evergreen: My condolences on Rollo Gebhard’s passing. And thank you for that work you’ve done over the years, especially saving wild populations from decimation. I’ve read both your books, and I kind of feel I need to apologize for having been so harsh about the Cousteau statement.

    • Evergreen, it was not my intention to insult you. And I certainly didn’t call you a liar. However, this article isn’t about you. It’s about people involved with Blackfish claiming that the movie isn’t truthful.

      Unfortunately, there are a lot of animal rights activists who are trying to confuse the issue in the comments. While I certainly don’t mind that sort of conversation in the right place, these comments are about Mark’s interview with us about Blackfish.

  • derekburgan

    Like many, I had a lot of problems with this article when I first read it this morning but I have to say that my heart has grown three sizes over tonight after reading the comment section. It takes courage to stand up and provide thoughtful, intelligent responses that counter a narrative MiceChat is trying to create knowing full well that you will be dismissed as either A) a radical animal rights activist B) a “copy and paste” activist or C) a person who hates SeaWorld and wants to see it run out of business, by those in power.

    In an earlier comment Dusty Sage brought up that “the exploration of the truth should be important.” I think we all agree with that. What we disagree with is whether or not MiceChat is following through with that exploration or is instead going with an even more one-sided look at a subject which has many shades of grey.

    • CreepyMonkey

      derekburgan said, “In an earlier comment Dusty Sage brought up that “the exploration of the truth should be important.” I think we all agree with that.”

      Ok, then why can’t we get to the main issue of Mark Simmons interview; Gabriela Cowperthwaite lied to him and manipulated him, and included lies and deceit into the film. Let’s try addressing that.

      • derekburgan

        Did you just take my quote out of context, which is the very things these SeaWorld trainer’s are accusing Blackfish of doing? Bravo.

      • CreepyMonkey

        January 13, 2014 at 7:38 pm

        Did you just take my quote out of context, which is the very things these SeaWorld trainer’s are accusing Blackfish of doing? Bravo.

        STILL not addressing the issue at hand and attempting to throw up a smoke screen to obscure that fact.

    • CreepyMonkey

      OliviaVonDrake said, “Speaking of goals, I’d like to know what the actual goal is of the person conducting these interviews and publishing them on Miceage. This person calls himself a Sea World “superfan”. Clearly there is a huge bias and there is an agenda behind these articles.”

      So it’s OK for Gabriela Cowperthwaite to be biased and lie and deceive to achieve her agenda but its not OK to point out her lies and deception because it isn’t fair? You have a skewed sense of what is fair and not fair.

    • Eric Davis


      You should try actual journalism sometime.

      What you are so easily dismissing, took months to prepare, and you haven’t addressed the actual deceit that took place.

      • derekburgan

        I’m not easily dismissing at all. I read the entire piece and had all the problems that have been brought up in these comments. I also read that 33 page document you sent me this morning expect some unbelievable reveal and instead my reaction was “this is it?!”

        Mark seems like a nice enough guy. His company is in the business of capturing dolphins for resorts and theme parks to put on display. I’m sure he thinks he has the animals’ best interest at heart but he also has a clear conflict of interests regarding the documentary. He makes some rational points in the interview but never broaches the real nasty stuff like the inhumanity of artificial insemination or intelligent mammals confined to a small place for decades.

        I like SeaWorld and think they have an amazing theme park in Orlando. Amazing. But have these articles changed my mind about the situation with orcas at SeaWorld? No.

  • EmilyY

    I think those of you who do not agree with the practices of SeaWorld or support the good that SeaWorld has done for the wild populations of animals should really investigate all sides of this debate. SeaWorld affiliated or not- it’s research you can independantly form a better opinion on- rather than take a ‘movie’ that is built off of mostly falsified information, or information that has been skewed around to meet the agenda of this movie. It’s okay to think animals don’t deserve to be in human care, but the ones that are in human care do not deserve to be in the wild; they have spent their whole lives there, and sending them to a seapen or the wild would expose them to harmful toxins in the water (SeaWorld’s water is purified and the whale’s immune systems can not acclimate to ocean water), a change in surroundings which can prove to be stressful for the animals, and so on… So please take time to learn both sides of the story with an open mind.

    • Eric Davis

      Thank you emilyy for your thoughtful response! It is very much welcome.

    • emckinney21

      You make a very important point here-it’s okay to think animals shouldn’t be in captivity, but there should be more to that opinion then “Blackfish.” “Blackfish” takes the 5 or 6 worst events in captive cetacean history, sensationalizes them, then walks out without offering any kind of solution. The main errors in “Blackfish” are sins of contextualization and omission. No historical context is given, no references to laws or regulations, no recounting of protocols, old or new. With those factual items in place, “Blackfish” would be a much more credible piece. At this point, the movie looks more like a compilation of Youtube videos with some former employees (of dubious credibility) talking about their experiences. Is it all lies? Certainly not.
      Does it present the full story required for an educated decision? Absolutely not.

  • CreepyMonkey

    I fail to understand why it is this discussion isn’t addressing the real issue here; did Gabriela Cowperthwaite lie and deceive people to achieve her goal? Is the film full of lies and deceit? Did she use deceitful and manipulative tactics to achieve an objective?

    • EmilyY

      It appears that Gabriela from the beginning of the production of Blackfish has lied to Bridgette Pirtle AND Mark Simmons. The evidence that is presented by both trainers (which have spoken out about Blackfish) is true.

      • Eric Davis

        I agree. There was an intention to drive a narrative… which is captivity makes whales crazy… and in the end it doesn’t.

        It sensationalizes a tragic situation, and in the end leaves the viewer with nothing.

        From 2010 to 2012 through production, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, knew what she was doing, and always intended to deceive the audience to drive Tim Zimmerman’s narrative that all Zoos and Aquariums should be closed.

  • Disneyfan58

    I am very discouraged with Micechat. When the Disney company puts out a substandard product, such as the original DCA, MiceAge / MiceChat ‘took the gloves off’ and reported this park as it was.
    However, this high standard does not seem to apply to SeaWorld. I have enjoyed coming to SeaWorld since I was a child. My last visit, maybe about 8 years ago, the place was beautiful, fresh paint, colorful foliage etc. Now I am not saying the park is falling into disrepair. But SeaWorld has to be held accountable for the well being of the animals it has captive.
    MIceAge has now posted two interviews voicing different opinions than those given in the movies ‘Blackfish’ or ‘The Cove’. Is MiceAge giving SeaWorld a free pass, ‘do whatever you want, just don’t stop the abuse’!
    MiceAge needs to get tough on SeaWorld, I truly believe there is a way to present these animals to the public and keep them out of small concrete enclosures. SeaWorld needs to change their business plan the same as many of the best Zoo’s have changed. Gone are the small cages for the larger animals, instead they are given large areas to roam, area’s that mimic their natural habitat. People please have compassion for these imprisoned animals.

    I look forward to returning to SeaWorld, After this change takes place, until then..

  • dazyhill

    Thank you Eric for this and the other article pointing out the fallacies of “Blackfish”. Articles like these are necessary despite the controversy. Regardless of what side one is on, it is clear that the makers of “Blackfish” played on people’s emotions and outright lied to them.
    I would be very interested in hearing about Mr.Simmon’s time with OFS (Keiko Reintroduction). From what I have read, while removing Keiko from his home at Rio Adventura (now Six Flags Mexico) was a good idea, trying to reintroduce to his pod was not the success everyone had hoped for.

    • HipsterHobbit

      Keiko’s own pod was never located, which is why his reintroduction to wild orcas didn’t go over as well as everyone had hoped. He did interact with and respond to the other wild orcas, but because they weren’t his pod, he never quite fit in with them. I’m sure if he had been reintroduced to his actual pod, and, more specifically, to his mother, he might had more success.

  • StevenW

    Wondering if panda breeding should stop, and for the same principles that we are applying here.

    Or is this a special case?

    • The people who made Blackfish would say so. They are for the closing of all zoos and aquariums.

  • Klutch

    This article is about the film “Blackfish”. It is not about whether or not orcas should be in captivity. It is not about how orcas migrate, how they think or what emotions they have. It is not about whether Sea World or zoos should remain open. Yet, people keep commenting about these issues and not about the film. Is this some kind of misdirection effort? If you don’t believe the people interviewed in these articles about “Blackfish”, fine. Say so. But go talk about these unrelated issues elsewhere and please keep comments here related specifically to the film.

    Clearly, the makers of “Blackfish” had a preconceived agenda and set out to make a film depicting that agenda. They were not interested in the truth. They wanted only selected facts which supported their agenda. And, unfortunately, they deceived people to provide information which, in the film, was incomplete and out of context. Furthermore, the filmmakers exploited the tragic death of a young woman for their own benefit.

    Unfortunately, most journalists these days aren’t interested in the truth. They don’t research stories. They don’t check facts. They don’t follow up. They merely repeat whatever comes over the wire. And they certainly aren’t going to look into opposing points of view. Therefore, I’m glad Micechat is presenting opposing points of view which allow us to draw our own conclusions based on all the facts and not just an extremely one-sided presentation in a film with an agenda.

    • CreepyMonkey

      Klutch…thank you! The issue at hand is really simple; either Gabriela Cowperthwaite lied to these trainers and used deception to gain what she wanted, or she didn’t. Either she included falsehoods and deliberate misinformation into the film to achieve her agenda/objective or she didn’t.

    • “This article is about the film “Blackfish”. It is not about whether or not orcas should be in captivity. It is not about how orcas migrate, how they think or what emotions they have. It is not about whether Sea World or zoos should remain open. Yet, people keep commenting about these issues and not about the film. Is this some kind of misdirection effort? If you don’t believe the people interviewed in these articles about “Blackfish”, fine. Say so. But go talk about these unrelated issues elsewhere and please keep comments here related specifically to the film.”

      Then we all lhave nothing to talk about. The film is about whether or not orcas should be in captivity. It is about how orcas migrate. It is about how they think and what emotions they have. And it is about whether SeaWorld or zoos should remain open. Heck, the film even features footage of protestors at the gates with signs saying “shut down SeaWorld.” And if you doubt me, keep in mind that I’ve seen the film over fifty times.

      • Klutch

        There is much to talk about!

        - Did the filmmakers lie and distort the truth simply to push their activist agenda and get awards?

        - Why is Sea World mostly silent on the film? Well, I don’t blame them. Clearly, whenever people want to tell the whole story, their words are edited and taken out of context. It’s seems obvious to me anything Sea World says about the issue would be distorted and unfairly used against them.

        I respect the beliefs of animal rights activists. But those beliefs are crowding out the real issues here. The issues are about a film which claims to present the truth about marine mammals in captivity, but actually presents a very limited, one-sided view.

      • Why can’t a film be one-sided and show the truth? And what is the truth? Unless we discuss the issues addressed in the film, like orcas in captivity, we won’t be able to determine what that truth is and then, by proxy, determine if the filmmakers are telling the truth.

        So Klutch, what do you consider the truth?

  • Jessica M

    Fantastic article! Great job to the team at Mice Chat for investigating and showing us what no media outlets seem to want us to see. I can only imagine the amount of backlash Mark Simmons and Bridgette Pirtle are experiencing right now from extremists, but their honesty and bravery is beyond admirable.

    Please keep digging…I have a feeling there is much more truth that will be exposed!