Dissecting Blackfish



Dissecting Blackfish, a 35-page report available for download at the link above, looks at the editing choices made with the film Blackfish and the book Death at SeaWorld.  It examines creative edits, substituted archival footage, inclusions, and omissions used by the filmmakers and author to make their arguments and reach their conclusions. It then expands upon these choices and shows how they relate to current trends in the free orca and animal rights movements.

This is an independent report I’ve put together in my spare time in an effort to explore why the public is reacting the way it is to these media. The report was neither commissioned by nor involved the participation of my employer InPark Magazine (which is unaffiliated with this blog), SeaWorld, David Kirby, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, or others involved with the issue.  All the information presented in the report, with the exception of my personal experiences, are documented in publicly available media.

The forces behind the film and book are a hodge podge of differing extremes – scientists and former trainers interested in freeing the orcas and ending cetacean captivity, a group that wants to grant legal human rights status to sentient non-human animals, another group that’s interested in ending animal captivity altogether, a cable network in search of  higher ratings and ad revenue, and the filmmakers and author, who, in addition to wanting to get their message across, also have the goal of selling movie tickets, DVD’s and books.   Congratulations do need to go to David Kirby, who has announced that Death at SeaWorld is currently in development as a Hollywood movie with a major director attached.  I hope that, just like Jim Garrison played Earl Warren in JFK, David gets the chance to play Ken Welsch.

Two black and white creatures kept in captivity

Two black and white creatures kept in captivity

I stand by my previous statements that if you are interested, you should both see the movie and read the book.  They are important works that bring up an important issue.  But follow it up by examining resources on both sides of the issue and look at how the film and the book are edited to make their points before making an educated opinion on the matter.

One of the sections in Dissecting Blackfish discusses a report that a main character in Death at SeaWorld was involved with.  This report, however, did not make it into the book, likely because it counters the assertions of this main character.  But I’m not out to disprove the research named in either the film or the book or by SeaWorld, as I’m neither an orca researcher nor a veterinarian.

I don’t attempt to refute the testimony of the trainers, as I’m not trained in the craft and was not there at the time incidents testified about took place.  One trainer involved with the film is now speaking about her experiences, but I will not examine that here as I was not present when discussions took place between this trainer and the film’s director.

I am not against the free orca or animal rights movements.  Many might be surprised with my beliefs on what should be done with the captive orcas, ideas that don’t quite mesh with SeaWorld’s announced plans.  But I don’t know.  Maybe I have it all wrong.  Maybe PETA’s right.  Maybe orcas are slaves and deserve to be freed under the 13th Amendment, which, by proxy, should give them 2nd Amendment rights.  We could be doomed as a species.  Hunted down and forced to live in small enclosures by black and white aquatic mammals with guns.

Nor do I discuss the conditions of the animals in the SeaWorld family of parks.  I have only been to one Busch Gardens park.  It was in Van Nuys, CA, in the 1970’s.   And I have not been to a SeaWorld park since 1998.  It’s not an anti-SeaWorld thing.  I just am either never in the area or if I am, I simply don’t have the time.  I haven’t been to the Disneyland Resort for over a decade.

Just shows that in this time of connected media, you don’t need to be somewhere to report on it.  I just wrote about an attraction in Japan and I’ve never been to the country.

I’m not an expert on captive cetaceans in any way, and I’ve been studying the matter extensively since 1987 when Sea World’s parent company bought Marineland.  What I am good at is finding patterns in documentation.

There are three things that do not appear in the Dissecting SeaWorld report:

First, the management in place now is not the same as when most of the incidents outlined in the film and the book took place.  After the Nov 1987 incident with John Sillick at the San Diego park, Sea World President Jan Schultz, the chain’s head veterinarian and zoological director Lanny Cornell, and head trainer David Butcher were all terminated.  This fact appears in a single sentence in the book and does not appear in the film.  Both the film and the book also did not include the management changes that took place after Dawn’s death at the San Diego and Orlando parks, with John Reilly and Terry Prather, respectively,  being relocated to run those parks from the chain’s non-animal operations in Virginia.

Second, Lance Hart of Screamscape.com started working at the San Diego park about the same time I did my internship there.  He was a videographer on the Shamu show and has this to say: “I’d like to point out one sign of manipulation of [the ] film near the end where they show one of the trainers giving lines on stage, only to scream out ‘Whoah!” and jump out of the way when one of the whales suddenly decides to bring itself entirely up and out of the water, slide across the stage in what “appeared” to be a failed lunge or attack on the trainer.

“THIS WAS ON PURPOSE! That is called a “Stage Slide” behavior, and was part of that show. I should know… I covered it on video for the Jumbotron screen thousands of times as it happened every day… every SHOW… anywhere from 3-8 times a day. Not once did I ever see a Stage Slide go wrong and turn into an attack. It was intended to be a ‘shock’ moment of the show, and kind of show the practical joke side of the whale’s behavior.  In fact, depending on the trainer, they would sometimes even use the same behavior in a different way, and climb aboard the moving whale as it slid across the stage and ride it into the water to begin a high intensity water work session.”

Finally, I intentionally left the trailer out of the report as trailers are often cut by third parties, however Cowperthwaite must have previewed and approved the Blackfish trailer prior to its release.  In addition to using 1970’s footage from Seattle station KING of an orca in a sling in front of downtown Seattle and footage of Keiko in a sling being removed from his Mexico City tank on the way to the wild while a former trainer says over the footage, “When Tilikum arived at SeaWorld, he was twice as large as the nearest animal” (the Keiko footage used in the film is elaborated on in Dissecting Blackfish), the trailer takes soundbites from the film and places them over the footage to make it look as if the speakers are talking about Tilikum’s attack on Dawn.  In the trailer, only one trainer is mentioned – Dawn Brancheau.

TRAILER 00:40 “Tilikum is the one that went after her.”  IN FILM 0:21:47 Full text: “So in the newspaper articles, the cause of death was that she drowned accidentally, but you know, she was pulled under by the whale.” – Nadine Kallen “There’s a bit of smoke and mirrors going on.  I mean, one of the fundamental facts is that none of the witnesses were clear about which whale pulled Keltie in.” – Dave Duffus “Yes, it was the large whale, Tilikum, the male, is the one that went after her.  And the other two just kind of circled around, but he was definitely the instigator.   And we knew it was that whale because he had the flopped over fin.  It was very easy to tell.” – Nadine Kallen on death of Keltie Byrne at Sealand of the Pacific

TRAILER 01:00 “We weren’t told much about it, other than it was trainer error.”  FILM 0:46:20 “I actually started at Sea World like five days after that event occurred and we weren’t told much about it, other than it was trainer error.  And especially when you’re new into the program, you really don’t question a whole lot.”  – Jeff Ventre on the 1987 accident involving John Sillick where he was crushed between two orcas.

TRAILER 01:20 “We stored these animals in what we called a module, which was 20 feet across and 30 feet deep, and the lights were all turned out.”  Footage of Tilikum swimming in his tank at SeaWorld appears with this narration.  IN FILM 0:16:30 Full text : “Tilikum was the one we trusted.  We were never really concerned about Tilikum.  The issue was that we stored these animals at night in what we called a module, which was 20 feet across and probably 30 feet deep, as a safety precaution, because we were worried about people cutting the net and letting them go.  And the lights were all turned out – so really no stimulation.  They’re just in this dark, metal 20 foot by 30 foot pool for 2/3 of their life.” – Eric Walters speaking of conditions at Sealand of the Pacific.

TRAILER 01:59 “I was just instructed to get rid of the tape.” FILM 0:33:06 Full text: “And I had captured Tilikum coming out of the water, kind of turning sideways.  And it appeared to me, to try to grab Liz.    And at that moment, the tape became unusable.  I was just kind of basically instructed to get rid of the tape.  Wanting to kind of preserve the tape, I actually used the editing equipment, and just snipped out that little half second or a second when he did that and stitched it back together so it just kind of looked like a glitch in the tape and I was ‘Look at this.’ And they were ‘No.  This is no longer usable.’  And so we had to destroy the tape.” – Jeff Ventre on filming an almost perfect orca show.

Blackfish camera crew filming 2012 Dawn Brancheau Foundation "Dream Big" 5K Family Fun Walk at SeaWorld Orlando

Blackfish camera crew filming 2012 Dawn Brancheau Foundation “Dream Big” 5K/Family Fun Walk at SeaWorld Orlando

If there’s one thing the film and the book have done for me, it’s that they’ve encouraged me to look closer at Dawn and to her Foundation.  When you look at Dawn, the person, she’s not about freeing the orcas.  She’s about caring for your neighbor, caring for animals.  There’s a reason the Foundation gives its money to things like programs for children and animals in need.  I’ve decided to do something to honor Dawn’s memory.  It’s not to protest SeaWorld and it’s not try and free the orcas.  I already have a rescue dog, but I called my local animal shelter and offered to volunteer.  I really believe that simple acts of caring about those in our communities, whether on two feet or four, are what Dawn would want us all to do.



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