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Cover 08/07/2013

Can Captivity Kill?: New documentary targets SeaWorld

Photo: Courtesy Photos, License: N/A

Courtesy Photos

A penny for your thoughts—where would Tilikum rather be? At SeaWorld or in the wild?

Photo: , License: N/A

“It makes no attempt to tell the story of SeaWorld or killer whale display in a complete, objective and honest way,” Jacobs says. “The film focuses on a handful of incidents over our 50-year history at the exclusion of everything else. People have been interacting with marine mammals at SeaWorld parks hundreds of times a day, every day, for nearly five decades. If Blackfish were interested in a complete, fair and unbiased view of the zoological display of killer whales, it would have mentioned that fact. It doesn’t because it is something closer to animal rights propaganda than journalism,” Jacobs claims, though whether audiences buy SeaWorld’s point-of-view remains to be seen.


SeaWorld’s public scorn of Blackfish has been a public relations bonanza for the little independent film, which is suddenly on the tip of everyone’s tongue as “that movie about SeaWorld” and has the “anti-cap” and “pro-cap” camps jabbing at one another on Facebook, and in comment threads on stories and blogs around the Internet. But the film itself, critical as it may be, is far less inflammatory than the pre-emptive posturing that’s gone before it.

It begins auspiciously enough, with former SeaWorld trainers talking about how they’d come to work at the parks, their love for the killer whales they trained, the joy of being able to develop deep bonds with massive, intelligent beasts. But after multiple montages of happy people interacting with compliant whales, the film gives viewers a glimpse of something more troubling. Trainers talk candidly about how they got into the business, and, in perhaps one of the most surprising revelations made by the film, they discuss just how little experience some of the trainers had before being hired to work at SeaWorld. “I always thought you needed a master’s degree in, like, marine biology to be a trainer,” says Carol Ray, who worked at SeaWorld from 1987 until 1990. “Come to find out, it really is more about your personality and how good you can swim.” Other trainers talk about being bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed newbies who got dream jobs at SeaWorld, with little care, concern or understanding of just how fragile the relationship between human beings and killer whales could be. After showing some clips of Dawn Brancheau at work, a fellow trainer recalls: “She had so much experience, and it made me realize that what happened to her could happen to anyone.”

The film then quickly moves into darker territory, with former trainers including Ray, Samantha Berg and Jeffrey Ventre providing first-hand accounts of baby whales being separated from their mothers at SeaWorld parks, large adult whales being kept in isolation in concrete pools with nothing to interact with, whales expressing frustration and boredom by acting out, and perhaps most chilling, events leading up to Brancheau’s death—a death these trainers clearly believe could have been avoided if SeaWorld were more invested in animal welfare and trainer safety than in ticket sales.

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