SeaWorld’s Clumsy Attack on Blackfish
by David Kirby
SeaWorld has unleashed a bitter attack on the new documentary, Blackfish, accusing the filmmakers of being “shamelessly dishonest,” and filling the movie with serious inaccuracies. As someone who has followed the saga of Tilikum and deceased trainer Dawn Brancheau for years, I was happy to rebut SeaWorld’s various grievances. The innacuracies, it turns out, are found in spokesman Fred Jacob’s “Dear Film Critic,” letter sent out today:
I’m writing to you on behalf of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. You may be aware of a documentary called “Blackfish” that purports to expose SeaWorld’s treatment of killer whales (or orcas) and the “truth” behind the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. In the event you are planning to review this film, we thought you should be apprised of the following. Although “Blackfish” is by most accounts a powerful, emotionally-moving piece of advocacy, it is also shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate. As the late scholar and U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously noted: “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” The film’s most egregious and untrue allegations include:
The insinuation that SeaWorld stocks its parks with killer whales captured from the wild. In fact, SeaWorld hasn’t collected a killer whale from the wild in more than 35 years; more than 80% of the killer whales at SeaWorld were born there or in other zoological facilities.
First of all, an “insinuation” is not an accusation, and Blackfish does not make this claim. It is worth pointing out, however, that the wild orca Morgan, who was rescued in waters off the Netherlands a few years back, now lives at Loro Parque, Spain, where, in its SEC filing, SeaWorld claimed her as one of their own whales, just as they own the other orcas in the park.
The assertion that killer whales in the wild live more than twice as long as those living at SeaWorld. While research suggests that some wild killer whales can live as long as 60 or 70 years, their average lifespan is nowhere near that. Nor is it true that killer whales in captivity live only 25 to 35 years. Because we’ve been studying killer whales at places like SeaWorld for only 40 years or so, we don’t know what their lifespans might be—though we do know that SeaWorld currently has one killer whale in her late 40s and a number of others in their late 30s.
The research completed to date does not “suggest” average life expectancies and maximum lifespans, it methodically and scientifically documents them, at least among Resident killer whales of the Pacific Northwest. As I reported in Death at SeaWorld: “The average life expectancy for female orcas in the wild has been estimated at 45 to 50 years, with a maximum lifespan of about 90,” and, “the average life expectancy for a wild orca male is approximately 30 years, with an estimated maximum lifespan of about 60.” There is zero evidence to date to even suggest that captive killer whales live anywhere near as long as those in the ocean. Many orcas at SeaWorld have died in their teens, twenties, and often younger. This rate of death is extremely high, and much higher than what is found in the wild, as I wrote in the book:
Because many killer whales died in the first year of life, Small and DeMaster analyzed annual survival data for non-calves – in both captivity and the wild – over the period 1988-1992. Statistics on captive animals came from the Marine Mammal Inventory Report and wild survival data came from the landmark paper that Peter Olesiuk, Mike Bigg and their colleagues published on resident orcas of the Pacific Northwest. “Survival of the wild population… based on approximately 250 non-calves, was significantly higher than our estimates for non-calf captive whales,” Small and DeMaster wrote. They had found an annual survival rate of 0.938 among killer whales in captivity, meaning that 93.8% of the population survived from year to year. Among the wild whales, the ASR was 0.976 – 97.6% of those whales survived each year. That might not seem like much of a difference, but if looked at inversely, the distinction was glaring. If 93.8% of the captive whales survived from year to year, then 6.2% of them died. By contrast, just 2.4% of the free ranging whales died from year to year. The evidence, when laid out this way, could not have been clearer. The annual mortality rate among non-calf captive killer whales was more than two and a half times higher (6.2% vs 2.4%) than the rate among non-calf whales swimming in the ocean.
The implication that unlike killer whales in the wild, killer whales in zoos or parks—and specifically Tilikum, the whale involved in Dawn Brancheau’s death—are routinely bullied by other whales. The word “bullying” is meaningless when applied to the behavior of an animal like a killer whale. Whales live in a social setting with a dominance hierarchy, both at SeaWorld and in the wild. They express dominance in a variety of ways, including using their teeth to “rake” other whales, in the open ocean as well as in parks.
First of all, in the open sea, if an orca does not want to be raked, rammed or bitten, the animal has an infinite variety of escape routes, in all three dimensions. Not so at SeaWorld, where they can be and sometimes are repeatedly attacked and harassed by more dominant whales, usually females. I have never heard of a seriously injurious fight between killer whales in the ocean. But in captivity, I reported on incidents which, to my mind, amount to “bullying” and aggression that goes well beyond simple skin-raking, such as:
- The most shocking orca death took place on August 21, 1989. It involved Corky II and Kandu V, an Icelandic female about 14 years of age. (In 1987 witnessed reported that Kandu violently collided into Corky, leaving a three-foot-gash along Corky’s stomach.) Kandu had been resting with her one-year-old calf Orkid, along with Corky. Corky had shown intense interest in the calf, something that agitated Kandu intensely. Though younger and smaller than the 25-year-old Corky, Kandu had exerted dominance over her from the beginning. On this day, she began to engage in a ”normal, socially induced act of aggression to assert her dominance over Corky,” according to a veterinarian at SeaWorld. It wasn’tnormal. Kandu slammed her head into Corky so violently it severed a major artery in her upper jaw. Blood flooded the back pool and a 10-foot geyser of crimson spouted from Kandu’s blowhole. Over the next 45 minutes Kandu bled to death as SeaWorld staff and the audience looked on in helpless distress.
- In January 1987, SeaWorld Florida acquired another male from Canada’s Marineland Ontario – a large and moody male named Kanduke, the only transient whale in the collection. The mammal-eating Pacific whale and Kotar, a fish-eating Icelandic whale, did not get along at all. One day they got into a fierce altercation. The two males repeatedly beached themselves on the slide-out and made loud crying noises. At the peak of the battle, Kotar bit Kanduke’s penis, severely wounding it, which left a four-inch scar. That attack got Kotar banished to San Antonio, in 1988.
- The three killer whales were “housed from 1730 hrs until 0800 hrs the following day in what is called the ‘module,’” Walters wrote. Lights were kept off all night and no form of stimulation was provided. The tight space “leads to conflict between the whales, which have no options for avoiding confrontations. Often the whales’ skin shows teeth marks from aggressive action between the three, which are not just superficial tooth rakes.”
The accusation that SeaWorld callously breaks up killer whale families. SeaWorld does everything possible to support the social structures of all marine mammals, including killer whales. It moves killer whales only when doing so is in the interest of their long-term health and welfare. And despite the misleading footage in the film, the only time it separates unweaned killer whale calves from their mothers is when the mothers have rejected them.
Several SeaWorld calves have been rejected by their mother (an unnatural occurrence as far as we know), including Victoria, at Loro Parque, who just died at 10 months of age. Victoria’s mother, Kohana, who also rejected a son, had been bred with her (Kohana’s) own uncle. In a number of other cases, mothers have tried to drown their calves, something that would be almost unthinkable in the wild. As for separating families, it is endemic at SeaWorld, as whales are flown around the country, and overseas, like UPS packages. I cover this issue extensively in the book. Wild orcas stay together for life and do not reach adulthood until their late teens. Thus, I would ask SeaWorld, what does any of the following have to do with “long-term health and welfare” of these orcas sent to Spain:
The four young whales in the loan – two males and two females – had led lives that could best be described as “interrupted.” There was Kohana, 3 ½ years old. When she was just shy of two, Kohana was taken from her mother Kasatka and sent to Orlando. Eighteen months after that, she was on her way to the Canary Islands. The other female, Skyla, was born in Orlando to Kalina and Tilikum but, at just two years of age, was dispatched to Spain. Then there was Tekoa was born to the neurotic Taima, who showed aggressive tendencies toward him. In April 2004, SeaWorld sent Tekoa to live in San Antonio, before he was flown to Tenerife in 2006. Keto, 10, was born in Orlando but proved to be a rowdy and somewhat unpredictable calf. Before he was four, Keto was sent to San Diego, where he spent just 10 months before being transferred to San Antonio. Five years later, he was on the plane to Spain.
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.
I don’t remember Blackfish making the punishment accusation against SeaWorld. I believe it was directed against the now-defunct SeaLand of the Pacific, where Tilikum lived before he was sent to Orlando. Meanwhile the claim that what orcas do at SeaWorld are “within the killer whale’s natural range of behaviors,” is simply laughable. Killer whales do not perform “bows” (forward moving leaps from the water) nor do they slide up on a beach in order to “kiss” each other. The Shamu Show has nothing to do with natural behaviors, and this was especially true when trainers used to surf the animals like giant toys, before Tilikum killed Dawn.
The accusation that SeaWorld trainers were not adequately informed about Tilikum. From the time Tilikum first arrived at SeaWorld, all trainers were warned—both as part of their training and in writing—that they were not allowed in the water with him. In fact, as was widely reported and covered at length in the OSHA proceedings, Tilikum has always had his own set of training protocols and only the most experienced trainers have been allowed to work with him.
Of course they were told not to get in the water with Tilikum, otherwise we would probably have a slew of dead trainers. But the staff were not told why Tilikum was so dangerous, or about his role in the 1991 killing of SeaLand trainer Keltie Byrne.
The accusation that SeaWorld tried to “spin” the story of Dawn Brancheau’s death, changing its story several times and blaming her for the tragedy. As the movie itself shows, it was local law enforcement—not SeaWorld—that issued the initial report that Dawn had accidentally fallen into the water. SeaWorld’s account of what happened—that Tilikum had grabbed Dawn’s ponytail and pulled her in—never varied. And the company has never blamed Dawn for what happened. (The person in the film who did was not a SeaWorld spokesperson.)
This is actually news. SeaWorld is accusing the Orange County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO), for the first time, as far as I can discern, of completely fabricating and distributing a false story about what happened at Shamu Stadium when Dawn was killed. That story had to have come from somewhere, I truly doubt the Sheriff’s spokesman just made it up out of whole cloth. But all of the top brass at SeaWorld stood there silently and let the officer spew lies. (OCSO public affairs office was not open on Saturday for comment). This was a couple of hours after the attack. Surely, SeaWorld officials had spoken with staff working onsite by then. It wasn’t until eyewitnesses alerted the media that SeaWorld came out with the “ponytail” theory. But the assertion that Dawn’s ponytail floated into Tilikum’s mouth is neither supported by the video evidence that we have, nor by more than one eyewitness accounts. It would appear that Tilikum grabbed Dawn by the arm or shoulder. In fact, according to some witnesses, the trainer, Jay Topoleski, who reported the ponytail grab, was not even looking at Dawn when Tilikum took her down. He almost admitted as much in court, when SeaWorld sued OSHA to overturn the Brancheau death “willful” violation. “I saw her get up to her knees and put her hands on her ponytail and I saw that she couldn’t break free,” he testified, adding that Dawn was struggling with both hands to extract her ponytail from Tilikum’s mouth. But under cross-exam, Topoleski acknowledged he did not actually see Dawn’s ponytail in the animal’s mouth.
Meanwhile, as I wrote in the book: “Topoleski’s statement to the sheriff’s office was contradicted by another eyewitness at G-Pool that day: security guard Freddy Herrera. The retired NYPD officer testified that, ‘From my angle, I saw her left arm go underwater as the whale started descending,’ Herrera said. He said Dawn’s arm was outstretched ‘like she was making a left-hand turn signal.’ Gunnin got Herrera to concede he was not 100% certain, though it certainly looked that way from his observation.” SeaWorld’s ponytail contention is, at best, speculative and disputed. Even the judge was unconvinced.
The assertion that Tilikum attacked and killed Dawn Brancheau because he was driven crazy by his years in captivity. Tilikum did not attack Dawn. All evidence indicates that Tilikum became interested in the novelty of Dawn’s ponytail in his environment and, as a result, he grabbed it and pulled her into the water.
If I had lived the life of Tilikum, with almost 30 years in a tank instead of back home with his mother in Iceland, I would probably be a bit nuts too. Again, the ponytail novelty theory does not explain what Tilikum did to Dawn after he grabbed her. If this is not an attack, I don’t know what is:
Tilikum pushed Dawn around G-pool, rammed her twice head-on, and then dragged her to the bottom and held her there for several seconds. Somehow, she managed to break free. She made a desperate swim for the surface. The Connells saw her head pop out of the water. She stared into their eyes with a look of panic and a plea for help. Tilikum grabbed her once again and pulled her under. Tilikum would not release his trophy. He swam around the pool rapidly with Dawn in his mouth. At one point, when he dove again to the bottom, her motionless body drifted up to the surface. Tilikum swam to the opposite end of the pool, turned around and moved toward Dawn once again. He gained speed as he approached, and then rammed her body head-on for the third time.
Then there was the autopsy report, as described in the book:
Dawn had sustained multiple blunt force injuries of the head and neck, including: the avulsion (ripping away) of the scalp and associated bleeding of the skull area, lacerations of the right ear, abrasions of the left cheek, fracture of the mandible (lower jaw) with associated laceration and hemorrhaging of the oral cavity, fracture of a cervical vertebra, bleeding from the spinal cord outer membrane and softening of the spinal cord. Blunt force injuries of the torso included abrasions of the left upper back, fractures of three ribs, fracture of the sternum, lacerations of the liver and blood in the abdominal cavity. There were also abrasions, lacerations and contusions (bruises) of the arms and legs, a complete tearing away of the left arm and dislocation of the left elbow and left knee.
These are only the most egregious of the film’s many misrepresentations. “Blackfish” is similarly misleading and inaccurate in its account of the other fatal incidents in which Tilikum was supposedly involved, what happened at Loro Parque, the training and qualifications of SeaWorld trainers, and the care and living conditions enjoyed by SeaWorld’s orcas. And the list goes on…and on. SeaWorld is proud of its legacy of supporting marine science and environmental awareness in general and the cause of killer whales in particular. Our point in sending you this note is to make you aware that what “Blackfish” presents as unvarnished reality is anything but. We don’t expect this to settle the debate, but rather we hope it will begin one. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Fred Jacobs.
If Fred Jacobs wants to begin a (long overdue) debate about the dark side of keeping killer whales in captivity, I say, bring it on. His statement above is guaranteed to bring around-the-block lines to a theater near you this summer.
David Kirby is the author of ‘Evidence of Harm,’ which was a New York Times bestseller, winner of the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) award for best book, and a finalist for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism, and ‘Animal Factory,’ an acclaimed investigation into the environmental impact of factory farms which NPR compared to Upton Sinclair’s classic work ‘The Jungle.’ His latest book, ‘Death at SeaWorld,’ was previewed by Library Journal, which wrote: “Lives are at stake here, and Kirby can be trusted to tell the story, having won a passel of awards for his investigate work.” Booklist called the book “gripping” and “hard to put down.”