SeaWorld is up in arms about a new documentary that dives into the story behind captive killer whale Tilikum's killing of one of his trainers. Tilikum was captured by hunters and dragged away from his mother in 1983 when he was about 2 years old, and has lived in marine parks ever since. He's had other deadly run-ins with humans — please see "keeping wild animal in not the wild" — and his third to date was dragging his trainer Dawn Brancheau into the water by her pony tail and dismantling her. Horrific and heartbreaking.

It's a complex subject matter, no doubt, and one that goes much deeper than just this one animal. Ultimately, it begs the question: Should these animals be in captivity to begin with? And when you ask that question — as the new documentary Blackfish does — the answers are saddening, disturbing, and don't say lots of good things about humanity.

SeaWorld is understandably upset over the documentary. They don't come across well in it, and they hired a high-powered PR company to make sure the world hears their side of the story.

They say:

Instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau's family, friends and colleagues.

However, their PR blitz deals mainly in double speak, and does little actual damage control. Instead of refuting facts in the documentary, it misconstrues its motives; the flaws in SeaWorld's arguments are easily torn apart by anyone with a modicum of expertise.

To wit, the filmmakers shot back at SeaWorld's assertions, issuing responses for each. Here's an example:

SeaWorld Assertion 5

The accusation that SeaWorld mistreats its killer whales with punishment-based training that’s designed to force them to learn unnatural behaviors. SeaWorld has never used punishment-based training on any of its animals, including Tilikum, only positive reinforcement. And the behaviors it reinforces are always within the killer whale’s natural range of behaviors. · 


Film Response

Again, we are unsure whether SeaWorld has undertaken a careful review ofBlackfish. The film never depicts SeaWorld as using punishment. We are confident the trainers would not acquiesce to such overt tactics. Yetalthough these accounts are not depicted in the film, multiple trainers are aware of incidents where animals may be fed substandard amounts of fish before VIP shows to encourage their cooperation or where a male killer whale might be put in with a group of whales who have been previously aggressive with him in order to encourage complicit behavior.

We find the claim that SeaWorld killer whales perform behaviors “within the killer whale’s natural range of behaviors,” to be false. Wild killer whales are never observed performing front flips or vertical jumps to touch objects, neither have they been observed to spin 360 degrees on land. A killer whale supporting a human who rides, "surfs", or leaps from the animal's rostrum does not fall within a wild killer whale’s repertoire either. These are unnatural, trained behaviors only observed in marine parks and reinforced by food.

And so on, and so forth.

SeaWorld also states that they spend a lot of time and money rehabilitating injured animals each year, and that's great. It's really great, actually. And this is an opportunity for them to flip the roles of entertainment and education. They can step up to the plate, and they can change — and SeaWorld can be a much better, happier place for all its visitors and inhabitants.

Listen, I love animals. A lot. Like, so much so that I don't eat them or any products made with them or their excretions. I've fostered hundreds of dogs, and countless litters of kittens. I dressed as Snoopy for Halloween between the ages of 4 and 8. Don’t you think I want to get kisses from dolphins and pet baby tigers and have a kinkajou wrap it’s adorable prehensile tail around my arm and swing from it forever?

But I know that this wild animals in captivity thing is wrong. Even in the name of education but especially in the name of entertainment, it’s wrong. So no matter how much I want to see an orca doing awesome thing, I’ll stick to National Geographic. If not for the emotional and physical well-being of these animals who give up everything to entertain us, but because it continually puts human lives in danger.

I mean, how absurd is it that you can still see Tilikum at SeaWorld in Orlando? According to the author of Death at Sea World, he spends his days drifting in a featureless tank — this is animal who would swim a hundred miles a day in the wild — and he looks "bored, broken, and unhealthy". He occasionally participates in shows to break the monotony. Well, that's sad.

Blackfish opens in Los Angeles and New York this week, and it expands to other markets in subsequent weeks. It will air on CNN this fall.

[Atlantic, Indiewire, ABC]