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A Documentary in Name Only

Blackfish vs. SeaWorld.

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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What Blackfish doesn’t mention is that Marino is also the science director for the Nonhuman Rights Project, which aims to “attain legal personhood for nonhuman animals by operating within the reigning legal paradigms.” The Nonhuman Rights Project has filed a number of lawsuits to advance that aim. In 2011, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals went so far as to sue SeaWorld, demanding the release of five Orcas on the grounds that their 13th Amendment rights were being violated. The short description of Blackfish on Netflix echoed this absurd notion—“They’re hunted, herded, and forced to dance. Meet a 15,000 pound slave.” Fortunately, federal courts agree extending constitutional rights to animals is absurd. PETA lost Tilikum v. SeaWorld, and federal precedent on the matter has been set, putting a damper on nonhuman rights lawsuits. 

Beyond the big questions, the film commits many basic journalistic sins. The blog Micechat, devoted to theme park news, has documented a number of deceptions in Blackfish. The film says that SeaWorld was responsible for capturing whales in Iceland, which is not true. (In 1985, SeaWorld began breeding whales and has subsequently been purchasing them from other parks where they were held in captivity.) SeaWorld stopped participating in whale captures in part because the public was rightly horrified at efforts to capture whales in Puget Sound that resulted in the deaths of a number of Orcas in the seventies. The documentary’s treatment of this episode is picturesque, to say no more. A heavily tattooed salty dog who is said to have participated in one of the notorious whale captures explains, “I’ve been part of a revolution to change a president in Central America and seen some things that are hard to believe. But the worst thing I’ve ever done is hunt that whale.” That short comment raises a number of questions, and none of them enhance the source’s credibility. 

The footage used to represent the events described in the film comes from entirely different contexts, though the film never reveals as much. During a discussion of the capture of Tilikum, the footage shown is of Keiko, the whale from Free Willy, being shipped from Mexico to Oregon in order to be released into the wild. At one point, a former SeaWorld trainer, Samantha Berg, describes her first time getting in the tank to interact with the whales, while arguing she was unprepared for the event. “They just told me to go do it and I did it,” says Berg, as the film shows footage of another trainer, Holly Byrd, riding around the tank on top of a whale. Byrd has spoken out about the film’s manipulation, noting that she spent “two years of my career leading up to that point. .  .  . The one thing I want people to know after watching the movie is that it’s not true.” Adding to the manipulation, the footage is grainy, and from a distance Byrd could be a dead ringer for Berg. 

Another former SeaWorld trainer who worked with the Blackfish filmmakers has also spoken out after seeing the film. “Blackfish was a complete ‘180’ from what was originally presented to me,” said Bridgette Pirtle. “Now, it’s almost like my worst fears are unfolding in front of me.” According to Pirtle, Jeff Ventre, a former SeaWorld trainer who is featured extensively throughout the documentary, “was fired for multiple safety violations in the water with killer whales.” 

But for many, the film’s most egregious transgression is its treatment of the death of Dawn Brancheau. Brancheau’s family has put out a statement distancing themselves from the film, and a former coworker wrote an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel accusing the filmmakers of exploiting Brancheau’s death, calling Blackfish “a spiteful monologue.” It doesn’t help that the talking heads in Blackfish speculate that SeaWorld deliberately spread false information in the aftermath of Brancheau’s death, when the only evidence points to local law enforcement bungling inconsequential details. 

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