More Blackfish Backlash – Tilikum’s Trainer Dives In

Written by Eric Davis. Posted in Features, SeaWorld Orlando

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

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

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

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

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

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Mark Simmons and Tiama at SeaWorld Orlando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Who is Tim Zimmerman?

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

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

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

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Mark Simmons and Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando

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

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

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

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

 

When did you first see Blackfish?

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

 

Did you ask Gabriela about seeing the premiere at Sundance?

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

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Mark Simmons and Katina at a night show at SeaWorld Orlando

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dissecting Blackfish (DOWNLOAD HERE)

 

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

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

About Eric Davis

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

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  • DisneyPhreak

    I should know by now to start reading comments after the first two pages, where people are just getting things off their chest and asking the same question or making the same point over and over. If you haven’t even watched Blackfish, why are you commenting on it? Years ago, at the Great America theme park in Santa Clara, there was one dolphin who lived in a small pool that I remember being about the size of an average doughboy pool. A sister of a friend had the job of being it’s “trainer”. It was an after school and weekend job for this high school girl. We went to watch her performance once and it was one of those sad things you see that you can never forget. It swam around in circles in the pool until it jumped up to ring a bell or catch hoops for a reward of fish. And it had nothing else to do except swim in circles day in and day out. No matter what you think about the bias of the makers of Blackfish, how can you separate that from the tragic life that is still being forced upon these animals? How can you leave what is happening at Sea World and elsewhere out of the conversation? Despite its shortcomings, Blackfish makes a valid and compelling argument for the plight of these animals.

  • plzstandclear

    There’s not really all that much in terms of actual substance here. There’s like ten paragraphs alluding to secret agendas and misinformation, but mostly it sounds like Mark didn’t like how he was portrayed in the film. None of what he says discredits the film’s make argument that keeping large marine mammals in small pens and having them perform behaviors they would never do in the wild day after day is damaging to the animal’s health and poses an unnecessary risk to the humans working with them.

    It’s fine to give these people a forum to air their grievances and hey, I bet it gets you some nice traffic, but if I’m being asked to form my own opinion here, I’m still pretty convinced what Sea World does is pretty barbaric. I loved it as a kid, but I’d much rather see a whale in the wild than in a glorified fishbowl. Sorry.

  • Toolshed

    Mark sets the record straight…Again!

    http://seaworld.com/en/truth/truth-about-blackfish/

  • Pingback: Why it doesn’t matter if Blackfish is accurate or not | Miscellany()

  • Matthiask50

    Fact is that facts were taken out of context… okay, however the biggest lie of all are the numbers Mark Simmons gibes…He says that more people are attracted to zoos than all sports put together…Thats just crap…Not in the USA, where sports play an incredible important trole and not in most of the other countries….I do not know where he’s got his “facts” from…Definitely they are not correct….He even says that due to zoos and parks like SeaWorld people are emtionally attracted by it..Some people even say “About 25 years ago I was chosen from the audience of a Shamu show in SW San Diego to meet, feed, and hug (yes HUG) an orca”. This would not have been possible if the orca had not been caught somewhere in the sea, separated from the family and thereby tortured! It is such a pethetic excuse that he is a good trainer as all of the staff and that the orcas are no danger, at all. Of course they mostly are no danger anymore, because they are trained, and I am sure that he emotionally connects with the mammals he trains. All mammals would be better off living with their families in the oceans. Simmons would never ever have had the chance to train them and feel emotions for them, if they had the chance to live in peace. Ohhhhh I forgot, then nobody could visit them and see their shows in captivity and have an emotional connection. This is hilarious. People might feel emotions, but I am sure the animals would like to be with their families. Those people visiting them in zoos do not see, that for them it is pleasant, but to the mammals it is definitely not. To everyone seeing orcas in nature should be a pleasant moment, this should build up emotions. Not such event, that was financed by stealing them out of their respective natural environment