First of all, what gives me the right to weigh in on the Sea World vs. Blackfish debate? Unlike many of the self proclaimed “experts” who are animal rights activists masquerading as scientists or former Sea World employees who have never gotten close to a killer whale, I am a former marine mammal trainer who worked with Killer Whales as well as many other marine mammals for many years. I worked at Sea World San Diego from August, 1974 through June, 1982. I feel that I have as much of a right if not more so than most of these people spewing misleading footage to CNN.
I was surprised and I am ashamed of CNN for labeling this propaganda a documentary. And that’s what it is everybody, pure propaganda. And because a Sea World trainer died in Orlando, Florida and CNN played this pack of dribble over and over on what I used to consider a professional network, the animal rights activists’ movement is finally gaining undeserved momentum after so many years of trying.
There have always been some sort of group gathered outside the main gates at Sea World trying to influence the masses as to their cause, whether it be animal rights, religion, politics, or some other platform. I remember one year, a group was handing out toothpicks with little American flags attached to them for a small donation outside of the main gate to the park. I don’t remember what their cause was about but I do remember one of our feeder pool dolphins dying and when they researched the cause of death, they found a handful of these little American flag toothpicks inside of him. Where were the animal rights activists then?
Blackfish has two central premises that are simply wrong: One, that life at Sea World is harmful for the killer whales and the trainers working with them and two, that Sea World tried to cover up the facts surrounding the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 and the history of Tilikum, the killer whale involved in the incident. To make their point, the film conveys falsehoods (downright lies), manipulates viewers emotionally, and uses questionable filmmaking techniques to create “facts” as they see them. I’ve always believed that truthful facts were facts and that facts are not created to serve a need. Printing or televising something to the general public without double checking and triple checking the facts is shameful (just ask Dan Rather for those of you old enough to remember). This type of medium is manipulative, garbage journalism which is either used to create a sensation, generate publicity, or fill an agenda. Blackfish blatantly did all three and again, shame on CNN!
Let me respond to the first premise by saying that nobody, and I mean NOBODY takes care of and protects the marine mammals better than the animal care and marine mammal training departments at Sea World. We treated the marine mammals in our care as if they were our children. I never observed even a hint of abuse by anybody in the care of these magnificent animals. Everybody was 100% on-board with ensuring their well-being.
It’s hard to take a hard line against the statement that working with killer whales can be harmful to the trainers working with them after the death of an experienced trainer and various injuries to trainers over the years. Of course there are risks involved. We knew that going in. But we took precautions to maximize our safety. We never worked with a killer whale alone without a backup trainer on hand. We kept detailed records of each training or show session down to critiquing each behavior. We communicated among ourselves our thoughts and feelings. We were all seasoned trainers with years of experience to rely on. And the real secret to effective training is working with each animal at a pace that is quick enough to keep their interest and slowly enough to avoid aggression. It was my experience that the animals, whether they be killer whales, sea lions, or dolphins, seemed to enjoy the mental challenges during the training process, enjoyed the interactions with the trainers, gained a mutual respect with each trainer, and really what it boils down to is that like everything else, it is all about the relationship.
Personally, I feel that this is where the animal activists and Blackfish really miss the mark. They can’t seem to understand the deep relationships born out of love and respect between the marine mammals and the trainers and animal care staff. They seem to be too concerned with tearing things down as opposed to building something great.
I didn’t know Dawn Brancheau personally. I do know that she was a marine mammal trainer for 14 years and held the love and respect of her fellow trainers. She may have made a mistake by putting herself into a position of vulnerability. She may have gotten too comfortable around the killer whales, particularly Tilikum who was not targeted as an animal to get into the water with based on past history. Or, in the course of doing everything that she has done many times before, it just happened that Tilikum had an opportunity to grab her and bring her into the water. I don’t know because I wasn’t there! I have my own ideas, opinions, and questions based on my experiences working with killer whales but again, I wasn’t there! And neither were any of the press, animal activists, Sea World employees, other former trainers, snack bar personnel, well you get the point. Even the park guests who witnessed the event don’t know for sure exactly what happened nor could they know.
Dawn lived for her work with the killer whales according to her family and knew that there were risks. And according to her family, she would absolutely hate the way that Sea World is being portrayed and the bad press they have received. And Sea World never hid anything from the public about Dawn Brancheau’s death. They just didn’t give opinions and hyperbole based on what may have happened. They refused to make speculations without knowing the facts. If that upsets people in today’s world of instant gratification, that’s tough.
The film makes an impression that Sea World is out of control collecting killer whales. The fact is Sea World has not collected a killer whale since 1978. I know because I was waste deep in the breeding and research pool at the Shamu Stadium when three killer whales arrived San Diego. That’s over 35 years ago folks. Almost every killer whale at the Sea World parks were born there and the few older killer whales that weren’t born at the park were transferred to a Sea World park because their prior home either closed or was not suitable to properly sustain them. In fact, Tilikum came from a park in Canada and Corky, who is over 50 years old and resides in San Diego, used to reside at Marineland of the Pacific in Palos Verdes, California before it closed its doors.
The film depicts how Sea World cruelly separates calves from their mothers. In one instance, the film highlights a whale named Takara and intimates that she was a calf when separated from her mother. Takara was separated from her mother but the real fact is she was 12 years old when this happened.
Another instance involved a younger whale named Kalina who was 4 ½ years old at the time. Sea World made the decision to move Kalina because she became disruptive to not only her mother but to the other killer whales as well and felt it necessary to maintain a healthy social structure. A decision like that is not made without a lot of thought, taking all factors into consideration, but always with the intention of doing what is in the best interest of all of the killer whales. We as humans do the same thing because just as killer whales are a social group, we are as well.
I can go on for hours but let me start concluding by saying that Sea World is not perfect. There were some things that irritated me when I worked there and like any employee, I had opinions and frustrations. Looking back, some of the animal facilities could have been a little better. But of course, I worked at Sea World in its infancy (I am now considered a Sea World Pioneer which really makes me feel old). Those old facilities are gone. Sea World’s facilities today are the most modern and best maintained in the world. The new Shamu Stadium is simply fabulous (I worked at the old Shamu Stadium which is now where the dolphin show is).
Though safety is paramount, we didn’t have some of the safety features that today’s trainers are accustomed to. But of course, over the years, everything evolves. Experience and time (and money) lead to better facilities with better safety features and procedures and even right now, Sea World is thinking of ways to make it even safer.
But Ken, what about those trainers getting injured? Well, I have opinions on what I would do if I were the director of training but again, I’m no longer there and what I think is just speculation.
In conclusion, I am proud of the work that Sea World has done in its 50 years of existence. They have rescued tens of thousands of stranded or beached marine mammals and have either nursed them back to health and released them back into the ocean or for those that needed constant medical care, they became permanent residents of the park under the watchful eye of the on site veterinary staff. Did you know that we rescued a killer whale named Sandy who had beached herself in preparation of dying (hence the name) that was unable to be released back into the wild? At a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Sandy became a resident of Shamu Stadium. She never performed in shows, the only training that was done with her was to stay with a trainer while other whales were moved in and out of other pools, and was essentially a good companion to the other killer whales. Though she couldn’t be “used” in shows, we loved her the same as any other killer whale and gave her the best care literally saving her life.
The Blackfish film cobbles together innocuous footage with invented narration to create negative emotions from the viewers and to use falsehoods to achieve their own agendas, facts be damned. I have no agenda. I used to work at Sea World many years ago, I still have relationships with many of the fine people that I worked with, but will defend Sea World based on my experience and observations.