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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  • gardener14

    I just watched the video interview with former SeaWorld whale trainer Kyle Kittleson, and it is amazing. People have asked for more trainers to share their stories, and his is a must see.

    • wdwfan22

      January 14, 2014 at 12:28 pm

      I just watched the video interview with former SeaWorld whale trainer Kyle Kittleson, and it is amazing. People have asked for more trainers to share their stories, and his is a must see.

      He spends the first several minutes of the interview talking about not being able to speak for the animal in regards to how he feels, then goes on to say that the whales being kept in the pools is what’s best for them. I don’t agree with his interview at all. He even goes as far to say that the whales at Sea World have a much better life then those that don’t. Really this guy lost all credibility with me.

      • gardener14

        I think his message about whales being at SeaWorld is what’s best for them is in comparison to moving them elsewhere. To your second point, I don’t think he says that the whales at SeaWorld have a better life than those in the wild. He says that whales at SeaWorld have a better life than they would if moved to open ocean pens.

    • TicketMediaGuy

      Kyle Kittleson has also written a book on how to become a whale trainer. He’s selling that book on his web site which is prominently listed in the YouTube video description. Of COURSE he’s going to defend the stance on his profession. If he didn’t, then the book he’s selling would be worthless.

      And I agree with “wdwfan22″. His statements are a bit wishy washy with no real concrete information.

      • rihard2000

        If you’re attempting to discredit Kyle Kittleson because he is selling a book, then apply that same train of thought to Gabriela Cowperthwaite who is motivated to further her film making career and win awards.

        That Kyle has a book and is encouraging young adults to follow their dream of working with marine animals only supports his beliefs that Sea World takes great care of it’s animals and that they are in good hands.

        I found his YouTube video to be a spot on, 100% accurate description of the film, Sea World and the films effect on armchair activists jumping on the bandwagon.

      • AaroniusPolonius

        I think his THESIS is what’s perhaps being discredited, which is that the lives of orcas in captivity are better than those in the wild or in a natural ocean pen. He notes that the orcas would be exposed to diseases that they wouldn’t be exposed to in the sterile environment of SeaWorld, but captive orcas are exposed to diseases they wouldn’t be in a deep-water natural environment, notably, mosquito borne illnesses, sunburn, etc.

        I don’t doubt the veracity of his claim that the killer whales are well cared for at SeaWorld, but I don’t think that’s the overarching argument, which is that killer whales are ill-suited for captivity and that, at least at present, we as humans can’t provide them with the care and the environment that they need in order to thrive as intelligent animals.

        He’s dead-on about the armchair activists, however. The danger, of course, is in continuing to discredit them as they convert passion into said activism off the armchair. We used to all marvel at horses diving into wide barrels of water, after all.

        All antagonism and derision does is move them out of the chair and into arenas where they begin to actually activate their activism.

      • AaroniusPolonius

        …he also makes the fairly tepid argument regarding sight of animals=fascination/love/empathy for animals. That HAS to be retired. Plenty of people haven’t been to Rome and yet the Romans fascinate. Conversely, the sight of adorable cows grazing along America’s highways has yet to end or curb burger consumption. Look, I get that it’s really cool to see a damned orca or ‘dolphin behind glass’ as I think he puts it. I get that kids think its wicked cool and Lord knows, we do everything “for the children.” But to equate actual sight with the ability to feel wonder, empathy, whatever is weak tea. (One could easily slide this to religion, where nobody has ever tangibly seen a higher being, but plenty of people think God is wicked cool, nonetheless.)

  • agave

    I’m still confounded how many are willing to jump to the conclusion that since 2 participants in the film Blackfish have done interviews here decrying how their testimony was used in the film, that somehow SeaWorld is morally in the clear and that the orca shows should continue on… after all, Gabriella lied! All the more frustrating since in the first interview, the interviewee agreed that the breeding and captivity programs at SeaWorld must stop.

    Maybe this is my biggest complaint with these articles. We’re told they were published to provide viewers with more information so they can make up their minds about the film armed with more education. But has that what these interviews actually done? To me it feels more like a smear campaign.

    Has anyone at Micechat contacted Gabriella or a representative of the film to defend themselves against these supposed “lies?” In the interest of fairness, shouldn’t that be done? If Micechat really wants the WHOLE story told and the truth to come out, why are we being presented with just one point of view, that Blackfish is full of misleading ideas? Where’s the filmakers’ chance to defend themselves from these claims?

    • Marko50

      “I’m still confounded how many are willing to jump to the conclusion that since 2 participants in the film Blackfish have done interviews here decrying how their testimony was used in the film, that somehow SeaWorld is morally in the clear and that the orca shows should continue on… after all, Gabriella lied!”

      Really? That’s one of the most twisted accounts of (some of) these comments I’ve seen. I haven’t seen one person say that SeaWorld is in the clear – carry on, crew! – because Gabriella lied. Not one.

  • CreepyMonkey

    Agave, for the record, we’ve reached out to Gabriela to allow her to come back with her side of the story. We’ll see if she responds.

    • rihard2000

      Something tells me it won’t be until after awards season.

      • AaroniusPolonius

        Also, she has her soapbox, and its being held aloft by the TimeWarner conglomerate.

      • rihard2000

        It’s perplexing that this is the same Time Warner empire that helped grow Sea World Australia and continues to grant it licensing within marine theme parks. The same CNN studio pedaling Blackfish is the same CNN studio that sells combo tickets to visit the captive whales and dolphins at Georgia Aquarium next door. It’s baffling. ????

  • genjerspice

    I am reading many of the comments left here that are basically all about pointing out negatives about both SeaWorld and Blackfish. If SeaWorld is such the marine world advocate and is all about the best interest in the Orcas, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be able to decipher through all of the research, facts, interviews and conclude that the simple fact is, nothing more, nothing less, that the Orca whale species, as well as dolphins, are not designed to be confined to such a tiny space to live, that they are exceptionally intelligent creatures that know the difference and it affects them emotionally to be extracted from their families, that they rely on the family bonds created with their immediate family and extended family in the pods they were born into, or in the case of being separated, the ones they are adopted into. They were created and designed to live in mass bodies of water where they have an abundance and infinite amount of area to live and swim freely and have a food source of their choice at their disposal, anytime, anywhere. To have the right to remove themselves from a hostile situation among their species, that being in the space of the vast ocean. To extract them from all of these elements of life is to sentence them to what we would equally call jail. They did not commit a crime, they did nothing to deserve for humans to take them from the life that they deserve. They have their own language among themselves to aid in communication and survival and to deny them of that right and freedom is of pure greed, ignorance and reckless disregard to such a fascinating, intellectually and psychologically complex species. All the rest, the pointing fingers at the technicalities of the movie, the ulterior motives on the part of SeaWorld, are irrelevant, if both sides agree that they have the Orcas’ best interest at heart. So what is there to argue about? SeaWorld needs to revamp their business plan by removing the Orcas and dolphins from their program and concentrate on the research and rescue programs and build on those parts of the business by using some creativity in their design plan.

    • Sir_Cliff

      Thanks for the really great post. Completely agree.

  • DobbysCloset

    I watched maybe two-thirds of the movie. I have rescued three dogs and many rats and couldn’t handle any more of the story about how humans were mean to the whale, causing his bad behavior, therefore we should phase out any keeping of animals in captivity if the reason for doing so is to raise money for research.

    Philosophically I believe that animal abuse is abusive whether it is to a mouse or an orca and that, if the living conditions aren’t adequate, the animal has to be moved. But once we domesticate an animal,we have to take responsibility for it — it has lost its natural smarts and doesn’t belong on its own in the wild. The same goes for when we alter its environment beyond repair.

    Providing quality environments for sentient species, cetaceans or primates, is within our technology. Prioritize it, maybe?

    It is easy for me to pamper and spoil a twelve-lb mammal but an orca? From the dog’s point of view (he worships my used socks and lingerie, so I know), living with me is a welcomed experience. What would we need to give that quality of life to an orca? Because if they are as smart as dogs, some of them will gladly come over to do tricks for fish. “Orca Sound” is a bed & breakfast community where, at regular times, a pod of orcas in the process of domesticating themselves, come for special treats and to interact with humans on their own terms.” I made that up, but maybe a pod of cetaceans would like to adopt a town of primates that leaves food out for them? Worked with dogs…

  • Marko50

    I got one thing to say:

    So long and thanks for all the fish.

    Sorry. It may be time to lighten the mood.

  • AaroniusPolonius

    Joseph Kleiman, your paper was excellent. It does a great job of demonstrating how the filmmakers used a variety of distorting techniques to drive their primary narrative impulse. Thanks for doing that; it certainly adds tremendously to the conversation.

    Having said that, a few points, in general, to the posting board. The first is that its not accurate to describe Blackfish as “full of lies.” A more apt description of the film might be that it presents points of view that are ‘the truth’ to those who are conveying them, but don’t represent the spectrum of points of view that perhaps present a balanced perspective on the issue. That is, indeed, quite sad about Blackfish. If one was truly confident in one’s position, than one shouldn’t be reticent to present that spectrum of opinion, of perspectives on the truth, and to allow the audience to reach their own conclusions. Thus, as a movie, as a driving narrative, it’s quite effective, but as a news piece, as a balanced documentary? Not so much. That much is certain, especially if one reads Joseph Kleiman’s excellent dissertation.

    The next is that its perhaps beyond the point that Blackfish, or The Cove, or Death at SeaWorld are all biased, skewed representations and distortions of the facts. While I certainly agree that exposing the narrative bias of the film is important, it doesn’t really change the importance of the central discourse regarding orcas in captivity. I think a lot of the vitriol regarding these ‘exposes’ involves folks being awoken to the issues of orcan captivity via a biased film like Blackfish.

    This has happened numerous times throughout history. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was in no way an accurate, unbiased look at the conditions of slavery in the South, and yet its biased representation of an abolishionist’s truth changed the context of the impending Civil War and damned the souls of slaveowners, regardless of how the treated their slaves. It took a noble cause and idea (that people shouldn’t own other people,) and infused it with biased passion (that those that own other people are abusive, evil people,) that, true or not, helped to effect societal attitudinal change. Upton Sinclair did the same regarding sweatshop working conditions at the dawn of the Industrial Age. I suspect, that for folks viewing Blackfish who find emotional movement and connection with the film, that bias is irrelevant to the underlying cause of orcan captivity. Which isn’t to say that one shouldn’t point out the bias; it’s to say that once one has been ‘thrown over,’ that bias is irrelevant, and that a change in modality is demanded.

    Think of Michael Moore’s highly biased, entirely one-sided “Bowling for Columbine.” To be fair, unlike Blackfish, Moore wears his bias proudly. One goes and sees a Michael Moore film knowing full well that one is getting a distorted perspective on the issue (in that film’s case, the mass ownership of ever-more lethal guns.) And yet, despite the bias, despite the obvious slant of the filmmaker, that film “threw me over” as it were. I did some research, confirmed his facts or placed them in proper context, consulted the “other side,” and found that even with the passion of the bias, I was no longer a supporter of gun rights in America. (Please don’t rip me apart for an opinion that I’m not hoisting upon you, or shoot me, dear board. This is merely to illustrate an idea: that a biased film or piece of work can and does change public opinion.)

    Finally, I have to thank MiceAge for refusing to reduce the issue here to a simple black and white one, and to explore as much of the complexities associated with Blackfish, orcan captivity and so on. (Some of the posters should follow your lead.) By presenting more opportunities to flesh out one’s knowledge on the issues surrounding the marine mammal display industry, MiceAge is enabling all of us to gain more perspective on the central issue of marine mammal captivity. Which is to say that MiceAge is treating Blackfish exactly as it should be treated: as an ENTRY point for discovery, not the final word.

    Having done some discovery of my own, I have to say that my opinion hasn’t changed; killer whales shouldn’t remain in captivity beyond this generation. But I’ve certainly opened my eyes to the obvious bias inherent in the film Blackfish. It’s just that once you’re “thrown over” in the context of the larger issue, does that bias really matter? That, I suspect, is the real danger for SeaWorld.

    Thanks again, Joseph Kleiman, for your paper.

    • Thank you for your compliment. With the exception of the film’s trailer, where dialogue from other incidents in the film are edited and reused to create a more menacing impression of Dawn’s death and SeaWorld’s alleged “cover-up,” I’ve tried to avoid discussing the merits of the arguments in the book or film and from SeaWorld. I’m more interested in what’s done to maintain the plot and pace of the film and book in a way that allows them to continue to engage their audience. On the surface, it may seem that not mentioning neurologist Lori Marino’s role in the animal rights movement could be considered bad, deceitful, or even a “lie.” But from a filmmaking standpoint, it was irrelevant to the plot and the right decision. Failure to disclose this in the film’s production notes is a different matter.

      • AaroniusPolonius

        If I recall correctly, she also leads us into the unintentionally funny animation of an orca going into a cat-scan machine. Which, seriously.

      • She has mentioned in interviews that this animation was the one part of the film involving her that she wasn’t happy with. At least they had the footage of the brain! If you have the opportunity to read them, her research papers on orca and dolphin brain structure are fascinating. Not only are they larger than ours, but they’ve developed a completely different neural architecture. I may not agree with her personal beliefs on animals in captivity, but as a neurologist, her research is rather amazing. Regardless of where her research has led her personally, it really is groundbreaking and should be appreciated.

      • AaroniusPolonius

        Will do.

  • agave

    This is an excellent comment., Aaronius. Very thoughtful summary. And I felt like many above, myself included, were trying to say the same thing, but in different words.

  • agave

    Since Blackfish is a film, above all else, I think it should be reviewed and treated as such . With that in mind, I copy-paste a review of it by Matt Zoller Seitz, of, where the original review appears:

    “Blackfish” is the newest example of subgenre of documentaries that could be the 21st century animal rights version of abolitionist pamphlets. “Sharkwater,” about the organized butchery of sharks, “The Cove,” about the mistreatment of dolphins, and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s new film about orcas aren’t subtle, but they aren’t trying to be. They aim to document abuse and inspire reform.

    Where 2009′s “The Cove” exposed the theme park chain’s role in dolphin kidnapping, abuse and slaughter, “Blackfish” does the same with orcas. It uses Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau’s 2010 death in a killer whale tank as a springboard for a tale of decades-long corporate conspiracy. Sea World is its main target, but the film also wants to attack received wisdom about humankind’s dominion over nature, and make us feel guilty for treating fellow sentient beings as clowns.

    Once you accept that orcas are intelligent and emotionally complex creatures, it becomes impossible to shrug off the film’s darker factoids as the cost of keeping families entertained. We learn how whale families, or pods, are hunted in their natural habitat, and how calves are separated from their parents, and how some pod members are killed on the spot. A grey-haired seaman recalls a sea park-financed calf hunt that ended with cow and bull carcasses being stuffed with rocks so that they’d sink the ocean floor. He weeps at the memory, and says it’s the worst act he’s ever been part of.

    The more we learn about the lives or orcas in captivity, the more inevitable the violence seems. The confinement of mammals that are meant to roam free over hundreds of kilometers; the “training” that requires them to do tricks on command or be punished with solitary confinement and the withholding of food; the whale-on-whale violence caused partly by orcas being forced to share tight space in tanks with orcas that they might not choose to associate with in the wild: these and other facts make the marine park sound like a combination circus, super-max prison and slave labor camp. (Oddly, the parallels to slavery, while impossible to miss, are the only aspect of this expose that are allowed to emerge organically from the material.)

    Tilikum, the bull that killed Brancheau, has a history of violence, but given what he’s been through we can hardly blame him. An appalling moment in “The Cove” revealed how a dolphin who played Flipper on TV got so depressed in captivity that she killed herself. You may be reminded that humans hang themselves in jail under less dire circumstances than these mammals endure. There’s only so much abuse that a being can take without wanting to kill someone, or itself.

    Cowperthwaite, her editor Eli B. Despres (who also cowrote the movie) and her composer Jeff Beal invoke many genres: thriller, mystery, melodrama, snuff film. There are cartoon recreations of a court case pitting Sea World against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which forced the park to keep whales and trainers separate. There are graphic images of trainers being mauled and whales being “raked” by fellow whales in captivity, blood clouding the water.

    There were times when I wished “Blackfish” would trust its audience more. The archival bits— including robotically cheerful testimonials from a “typical” Sea World-loving family and a 1985 TV ad trumpeting the arrival of “Baby Shamu”—are so corrosively funny that they might have been spliced in from a Paul Verhoeven picture. The shots of whales lashing out in desperation and the closeups of tearful trainers begging forgiveness for their role in past abuse are innately powerful. Arguably none of these elements needed to be “helped” with “Monday Night Football”-style gimmicks and “you will cry now” music; but the filmmakers could counter with Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary”—and perhaps they should.

    Sea World has issued a point-by-point refutation of some the charges. I doubt they’ll reclaim sympathy by quibbling over details when the rough outlines of the orca trade are so grotesque. A third of the way through “Blackfish,” I imagined myself as a child watching my family being murdered, then growing up in a prison where I had to do degrading tricks for cheering crowds who’d been assured that I adored the place. After a couple of months of that, I’d want to chew someone’s leg off, too.

    • AaroniusPolonius

      For the record, Paul Verhoeven’s Blackfish would be AMAZING. Picture the little orca in the net with Doogie Howser from Starship Troopers yelling “It’s afraid. It’s afraid” as the soundtrack goes to cheers and you have a cult hit right there.

      Full disclosure: I think Verhoeven is a genius and have basically watched every movie he’s made 4000 times. I could recite Troopers from memory and don’t remotely have to read the subtitles on Black Book at this point.

      (Verhoeven and Heathers: a perfect weekend of movies.)

  • 5dogs

    I think too many people are trying to go with Blackfish being either “100% truth” or “full of lies.” It’s an advocacy piece and going into it as such, it should be a springboard for discussion with the understanding that it’s a “gray area” piece. I don’t believe releasing the whales is the correct answer but I do feel that this should be the last captive generation and that their breeding program should cease. Stating that you do amazing work with 70% of the animals in your care should not override the deplorable situation that the other animals live and are forced to “work” in.

    I’m a San Diego native. I grew up with an annual pass to Sea World (and the San Diego Zoo). My original college focus was on zoological studies and animal husbandry. Up until 12/31/13, my family had annual passes to Sea World. I was in the park within the last month… and the reality is, Sea World banks on their orcas as their main money focus (look at their marketing, their mailers, etc). Sea World does actively participate in rescue of other sea animals, especially in CA and FL, and some of their exhibits and enclosures are beautifully done… but then there are other parts of the park that are showing their age and their financial choices seem to be questionable if they were really completely in it for their love/appreciation of the animals in their care. The focus on opening new rides or water parks seems misplaced when their orca pools are grossly undersized and outdated. Their statements about how they have not captured a wild whale in X amount of years is not because they took a moral high ground, it’s because the laws have changed and the US government has not issued a permit for a wild orca capture since 1989.

    I also feel that claiming Mark Simmons is THE “expert” on orcas is a bit of a stretch – his education is in business administration. He has limited experience/knowledge of orcas in the wild and the bulk of experience he does have is under Sea World’s care. Sea World trainers are not hired for their education in animal studies – they’re hired for their swimming ability, comfort on the stage, etc. Also Mark’s assertion of females being separated from their calves when they’re ready to breed again is absurd given that artificial insemination is used with the frequency that is. He is linked to the theme park industry, so of course he’s going to defend Sea World.

    There are lots of information (and videos) out there now, even with those that lean on the advocacy side of the fence. Maybe if more people do the research (instead of taking Blackfish at face value) a compromise can be made. Death at Sea World is another advocacy piece but it at least is more detailed on both sides of the fence and has much more information on wild orcas than the movie.

  • Gwendolyn Dreyer

    I haven’t watched Blackfish. I haven’t read Kleiman’s paper. But as a MiceChat columnist, I feel a need to step in.

    I have never been pressured by any of the Editor’s or Admins to adopt a specific tone, narrative, or viewpoint in any of my articles. I write my articles, I turn them in, I get appropriate, normal editorial feedback, maybe do some edits, then submit it for publishing.

    It upsets me greatly to see others tell lies about how MiceChat is run. I understand they may not know they’re lying. But they are. I openly criticized Disney on a toy I was given for free. I’ve called out the same convention organizers that give me free press badges for issues and problems I think they have with their convention.

    When I first started writing for MiceChat, Dusty told me that I needed to decide what kind of columnist I was going to be. One who swallows the Kool-Aid of anyone who gives me freebies, like some other sites, or was I going to tell the truth, my truth, at the risk of losing access or privileges that I may gain. He then, very clearly, told me, and I will never forget it, MiceChat has always done the latter. When I was sitting on cold concrete in line (multiple hours) to visit the Iron Man exhibit in Innoventions for the AP preview, sitting with Fishbulb, watching “Media Guests” from other blog/news sites stroll in and out of the building as free as a bird before we were allowed in, I understood what Dusty was talking about. And I, as well as the MiceChat columnists I personally know, will wait those hours others do not have to in order to keep our integrity.

    That’s just my experience. And I felt it needed to be said.

    • Back in the early 1990′s, I was part of an internet chat board of Disneyland fans. Many of the members of this group would go on to start theme park fan websites, like Dusty, Al, and Kevin here on MiceChat, and Jim Hill and Robb Alvey (Theme Park Review). After a thirteen year career in IMAX theaters, I went on to write professionally about museum and attraction design for a number of publications.

      My report was an independent project. I posted it on my website. My publisher at InPark asked if we could post it on their website. And I made it available to anyone that wanted to post it. I even sent advanced copies to a few animal rights advocates I know. I’m grateful to Dusty for including it here as the number of downloads have been amazing.

      I also have a column here on MiceChat. Although I discuss Blackfish in the latest MiceChat podcast, because we were talking about the biggest developments of last year, I’ve never written about SeaWorld on this site. My articles have ranged from frame rates in attraction films to Walt Disney becoming a theme park character. My next piece will be a behind the scenes look at Medieval Times (sorry Peta).

      When I visited Disneyland in 1999, Kevin Yee joined me at the park and we waited in lines just like anybody else. When the folks that write for this site say they’re fans, they mean it. They don’t get free admission, they have season passes. And they wait just like everybody else because that’s the experience they want to share. I’m probably one of the few exceptions. I do accept free admission as a journalist, but it’s followed by interviews and escorted tours as research for an article. And typically, once I’m done visiting the project I’m working on, I leave the park.

      The MiceChat columnists are no less passionate about their writing. And they’re one of the most brutally honest group of writers I know. If they’re publishing interviews with trainers, it’s not because SeaWorld asked them to. It’s because they care about this issue and sought out people who could tell another side of the story.

  • Dasgoot

    I just want to know why Eric Davis is saying this, when it simply isn’t true.

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

    It has not been overturned. (They are awaiting a final ruling on the appeal, however.)

    • Court case is still open, but the amicus curiae request by the animal rights proponents to testify as witnesses was denied by the three judge appeals panel.

  • dazyhill

    The Oscar nominations were just announced. “Blackfish” was not nominated for Best Documentary.

    • Klutch

      I noticed that. Not a single mention of “Blackfish” in the nominations. Now I can actually watch the awards show. (Although, I wouldn’t be surprised if PETA sends people to crash the show for an awkward demonstration. They’ll do anything to get media attention.)

  • techskip

    The last time I commented it was passed over. Hopefully this one gains a response. Micechat interviewed both trainers. That means Micechat was responsible for the questions posed. They have no accountability in regards to the answers, but they are responsible for the questions. That means that Micechat, as the interviewer, can steer a conversation towards a specific agenda.

    My immediate concern is the appearance of “patty cake” or “kid gloves”. Nothing was asked about the inner workings of Sea World; management attitude, whether trainers in the past had refused to get in the water and if so what the consequences may have been; official and unofficial policies. Nothing was asked about SeaWorld’s open response letter. Instead the agenda seems to have been “discredit Blackfish”. Blackfish had an agenda. We get that. But to say the interview did not is to discount the role played by the interviewer and the questions that were chosen.

    Can anyone at Micechat honestly tell me they’d be this “soft”, this complient, if they were asking Uncle Marty about the Disney characters in Small World? Did Micechat lose its edge simply because the company named wasn’t Disney? I’m all for an open mind but let’s get beyond the film and start asking questions that produce answers instead of complience. There is the Blackfish side, and the SeaWorld side, and somewhere in the middle is likely some truth.

    • The First Star

      Good point.

    • redmars

      I agree with you. That Tilikum was driven to kill by the mere fact of being captive, and hence whales should not be held captive, is the documentary’s argument. The trainers are fine to critique that theory. But it seems like unbalanced journalism for the editors to conclude that these two interviews show that Blackfish is grossly inaccurate or there is a “growing backlash” against Blackfish, with little critical questions from MiceChat. If Tilikum was an elephant at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, you’d get a different tone of question from MiceChat then we’ve seen in these interviews.

      (I tried to made a similar comment earlier and it is still “awaiting moderation”.)

  • donnie

    I’m not a person who is going to watch a film like Blackfish and assume it’s 100% true, and I do appreciate these articles and interviews Micechat has been running. I read the Dissecting Blackfish article and felt like it should have been called “Dissecting Death at Seaworld. Who cares if the filmmakers were able to get an interview with Dawn’s sister by signing up for her 5k? The article makes a big deal about this and it’s all based on the authors opinion, he has an agenda just like the film. Show me something that says Orca’s actually do only live 30 years in the wild and most have a flopped over fin. Is the film lying that they live a much shorter life in captivity? Do I think that seeing Dawn’s memorial 5k then a clip of past Sea World trainers on a boat looking at Orcas in the wild means that Dawn would have wanted them free, of course not. Show me an article that points out parts of the film and the lies it tells, not “well this is what they want you to think.”