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Monday, January 13, 2014

Confused by the 'Blackfish' backlash? Do your own research

Posted By on Mon, Jan 13, 2014 at 7:47 PM

Today MiceChat, one of our favorite theme park blogs, posted its second of two interviews with SeaWorld trainers who say they originally cooperated with the makers of the controversial documentary Blackfish but now regret their decision to do so. In the first, former SeaWorld trainer Bridgette Pirtle says she was displeased that the movie ended up advocating for freedom for captive killer whales, when she says director Gabriela Cowperthwaite promised her that the movie would not be radical or activist. In the second, former trainer Mark Simmons says the movie is "masterfully woven with lies and disinformation." Both accuse Cowperthwaite of making poor directorial choices in hopes of winning awards for the doc.

Simmons and Pirtle make reasonable complaints – they don't feel the filmmakers accurately represented their intentions when making this movie – but their specific complaints about the material in the film seem to come down to a bit of he said/she said. Interestingly, Pirtle's biggest concern seems to be the fact that some people in the movie urge SeaWorld and other marine parks to consider allowing killer whales to be released to sea pens for the remainder of their natural lives , something that was tried in 2002 with a killer whale named Keiko, who was the star of the movie Free Willy. (Keiko did not survive long after his release. He died of pneumonia in 2003.) But the movie itself does not specifically advocate for releasing all killer whales into the wild. It does absolutely push for parks, including SeaWorld, to end their captive-breeding programs and phase out the use of animals for entertainment (something Pirtle says she also supports), but there are varying suggestions by people interviewed in the movie as to what SeaWorld could or should do to make life better for the orcas it currently owns. Those suggestions range from improving conditions for the whales in captivity (more enrichment and larger pools, more investment in their environments) to ending the breeding program to, yes, releasing them to sea pens.

Which leads to a point made by Simmons. He says that Cowperthwaite "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."

And that is exactly the point – the movie is a documentary that explores points of view. It doesn't advocate directly or provide its own opinion because the filmmaker did her job correctly. She pieced together information she received through multiple interviews, she told a story and she let the characters in that story express their points of view. As for the point of view of SeaWorld ... well the park refused to provide one, so SeaWorld's case is mostly expressed via court documents and transcripts from OSHA hearings held in the wake of the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. And, of course, in the various public responses it has made to the film – some released before the film even came out. Talk about defensive.

If Cowperthwaite did deceive Simmons and Pirtle in the interest of making a more sensational movie, that would indeed be inappropriate, unfortunate and it would undermine the credibility of her and the movie. But with nothing to substantiate the claims made by Simmons (who clearly is squarely in SeaWorld's court) and Pirtle (whose argument with the movie seems to be based more on the film's focus, its insensitivity to the memory of Brancheau, and with its interviews with those who advocate for releasing whales to the wild, than on the validity of the argument that killer whales may not be well-suited for captivity), it's hard to decide how seriously to take t hem. (However, if either has documentation of some of the claims made in their interviews – that some of the stories told by former trainers in the movie are blatant lies, that Cowperthwaite did make promises that she later reneged – now that would be worth reading.)

In the meantime, there's still no band lineup posted at SeaWorld's website for its upcoming Bands, Brews and BBQs concert series (scheduled to begin on Feb. 1), SeaWorld has recently been accused of rigging an online opinion poll in its favor (read the park's response to that allegation) and taken out full-page ads in newspapers across the country to defend itself. A writer at Forbes magazine was recently

Nobody should base their entire point of view on a subject on a single source of information – especially not a single documentary – so if you're confused about what to think about all of this SeaWorld controversy, and the back and forth between SeaWorld, the filmmakers, former trainers and more, here are a few good sources of information where you can decide for yourself what to make of SeaWorld.

SeaWorld's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). As a publicly traded company, SeaWorld is required to file these with the government. They are insanely detailed, but they're full of information about SeaWorld's activities, its holdings and its valuable assets (including its killer whales and other animals).

NOAA Fisheries profile of killer whales

An interview with Lori Marino, a neuroscientist interviewed in Blackfish

SeaWorld profiles of orcas it keeps in captivity. Internal documents from SeaWorld, posted to by the Orca Project.

Necropsy reports of orcas that have died at SeaWorld parks. More internal documents from SeaWorld, posted to by the Orca Project.

Investigative documents from the Orange County Sheriff's Department surrounding the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, collected and posted to by the Orca Project.

OSHA news release announcing citations against SeaWorld.

Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy makes case for SeaWorld

Lengthy analysis by Joe Kleiman of editorial decisions made in the making of Blackfish, posted by MiceChat

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