Blackfish premiered at the Sundance Film Festival three years ago next week, and many people’s perceptions of SeaWorld theme parks have been irrevocably changed as a result of seeing it.
Tim Zimmermann is a writer on many topics, especially those related to marine biology, the environment, and food and sustainability. He is also the Associate Producer and co-writer of the incredibly thought-provoking Blackfish film from 2013. I myself visited SeaWorld Orlando in July 2010, not knowing or perhaps just not paying enough attention to, the plight of orcas in captivity. An article Zimmermann wrote that same month for Outside magazine entitled ‘The Killer in the Pool’ spawned what would become the Blackfish film, and the rest, as they say, is history.
John Hargrove is a former killer whale trainer who was employed at SeaWorld – by the age of 20 he was an apprentice trainer in their San Antonio, TX park. He was also at one time the supervisor of killer whale training for Marineland in the south of France, performing pool interactions with orcas never before in the water with trainers. He resigned from SeaWorld in 2012 and was interviewed for the Blackfish film just 7 days later. He has since campaigned tirelessly in the courts in California and New York to end the captivity of killer whales – even writing a book on his experiences – ‘Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish.’
I spoke with both Zimmermann and Hargrove at length on the phone in my research for this piece, and I also (eventually) received some answers from the SeaWorld company, although no-one there would speak with me over the phone. As a journalist it is necessary and indeed ethical for me to maintain a certain sense of neutrality when writing about issues – you will have to forgive me then if I sound at all biased in this particular article.
“Dawn did not drown, it drives me insane when journalists write that. Tilikum tore her apart, she was dismembered. He tore off her left arm, he scalped her… her scalp with its full head of hair was on the bottom of the pool… all of her remaining limbs were dislocated… her spinal cord was severed and the bones in her face were crushed in. After he tore off her left arm he regurgitated it back up. No, she did not drown.”
That description of the death of veteran SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010 is painfully provided by her friend and former SeaWorld orca trainer John Hargrove. It was that day almost 6 years ago that signaled the beginning of a movement – a movement against SeaWorld, a movement against the incarceration of killer whales, and a movement against animal cruelty in general.
Her killer was Tilikum; a six-ton, 22-foot long male orca, captured in 1983 in the frigid North Atlantic waters off Iceland. Tilikum was just 2 years old when he was plucked from his life of freedom and placed in a concrete holding tank. Now heading for his mid-thirties, all he knows is life in a small pool. His dorsal fin is flopped over and he gnaws at his teeth – Tim Zimmermann doesn’t expect him to live any more than another couple of years at best. ‘Tili’ is arguably the main character in the Gabriela Cowperthwaite-directed film Blackfish. Dawn Brancheau was the THIRD human being he had killed, but experts put the blame on a life of captivity, and its associated psychotic effects.
Becoming a killer whale trainer for SeaWorld is not an easy thing to do, but for John Hargrove it was all he ever wanted. “You’re either born with that sense of compassion for and love of animals or you’re not. I grew up in the Deep South – we loved animals and took in every stray we could and I just wanted to be a vet because I didn’t know anything else existed.”
“I first went to a SeaWorld park when I was 6 years old – I saw a Shamu show and I became absolutely obsessed. It might sound strange or over-dramatic but from the age of 6 I was saying I wanted to be a killer whale trainer at SeaWorld.”
By 10 or 11, the young Texan had a one-track mind. He would write letters to SeaWorld, asking them what it was he needed to do in order to become a killer whale trainer and secure his dream job when he was older. As a strong swimmer he was later attracted to the water element, as well as the physicality needed for the role. He also recalls being seduced by the environment itself: the stadium, the people, the lights, the music.
“You think it’s just this perfect world for these killer whales and that if you do it you’re gonna live in this perfect, magical world and live happily ever after, and unfortunately that’s not the truth. It’s all a carefully crafted façade.”
SeaWorld testified in court after Dawn Brancheau’s death that they had no knowledge that its trainers had a particularly dangerous job. It was then – after the deaths of Brancheau, whom he had known for nine years, and Alexis Martinez, a 25-year-old Spanish trainer killed by a SeaWorld-owned orca named Keto on loan to the Loro Parque zoo in Tenerife on Christmas Eve 2009 – that Hargrove began to think his employers didn’t care about their trainers.
“When I saw Dawn and Alexis being blamed for their own deaths I realized that’s exactly what they would do to me. They would make me out to be a horrible trainer that made a mistake that caused my own death – at that point the passion and respect I had for them just died.”
Hearing trainers’ experiences first-hand was an imperative in the making of the Blackfish film but something that didn’t come about easily, as co-writer Tim Zimmermann points out. “I was surprised to find it was very hard to get any trainers to talk to me. In retrospect it makes sense – if you’re a trainer at SeaWorld for 15-20 years, you don’t really know how to do much else. When you leave SeaWorld, you’re usually still in the industry and people don’t speak out.” Eventually both Hargrove and Jeff Ventre came on board – the latter worked at SeaWorld from 1987-1995 before being let go for kissing a whale’s tongue, breaking their tongue tactile protocol.
In any documentary it is crucial to get the story from both sides, and the Blackfish team were keen to have SeaWorld on board for that very reason. “Gabriela [Cowperthwaite] repeatedly approached them, asking if they would go on camera and tell it from their perspective. We wanted both sides on film because that obviously makes for a stronger film.” However, it was not to be. “SeaWorld, I think in part because of the reaction to ‘Killer in the Pool’, had become much more careful about doing media, and unless they were sure SeaWorld was going to be portrayed in a positive light, they would decline.”
In November SeaWorld released their Investor/Analyst Day Presentation, which was introduced by their President and CEO Joel Manby, who began his tenure in April of last year. It is an unquestionably difficult time for the company, and the fact that shares have lost half their value since Blackfish is certainly no coincidence. Profits fell a further $10m last year, and the San Diego, CA park in particular is struggling quite a bit.
The investors’ presentation set out the future direction of the company and it acknowledged that ‘current challenges have put pressure on margins.’ (p. 101) The presentation was also quick to point out however that SeaWorld’s ‘killer whale care is world class’, ‘killer whales in our care are healthy and thriving’ and that they ‘have not collected a killer whale from the wild in more than 35 years.’ (p. 83) The company were also keen to protest that they ‘do not separate mothers and calves’ and that their whales ‘live as long as those in the wild.’ (p. 83)
I’d like to focus on that final point for just a moment, as it is a bone of contention for many who strongly oppose SeaWorld. John Hargrove has himself written about the flaws in SeaWorld’s life expectancy figures, pointing out that, at the time of his writing, eight whales had died in their care within the previous 10 years, with an average lifespan of just 11 years (12.5 if you discount one stillbirth). Tim Zimmermann too takes exception to SeaWorld’s figures on this matter. “They are claiming they are starting to achieve life expectancies that are comparable to those in the wild. However, the oldest killer whales they have are into their early 40s, and there are killer whales in the wild that we know to be 80 so you can see they haven’t quite really achieved that.”
Zimmermann also remarked that of the papers SeaWorld have put on their website on the topic, hardly any of them are in peer-reviewed journals, “which is sort of the basic standard for whale science”. When I put the question to the company, their Vice President of Theriogenology (the branch of veterinary medicine concerned with reproduction) Dr Todd Robeck pointed me towards a recent peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Mammalogy by the Oxford University Press. He remarked that the study “found no difference in life expectancy between killer whales born at SeaWorld and a well-studied population of wild killer whales.” The study also claims to show “that average calf survival rate from approximately six months of age (i.e. age at first sighting) to age 2 in the Southern Resident killer whale population (79.9%) is significantly less than SeaWorld’s average calf survival rate from 40 days to age 2 (96.6%).” The two things I would immediately point out for the record are the fact that this study does not of course take into account the quality of the whales’ lives. Furthermore, three of the four authors on the study – Todd Robeck himself, Michael Scarpuzzi and Justine O’Brien – are SeaWorld employees. The other author is Kevin Willis, the V.P. of biological programs at the Minnesota Zoo.
The issue of breeding is another controversial one – many want the current generation of whales born into captivity in SeaWorld to be the last, but the company told me it’s not as simple as suddenly stopping their breeding program out of the blue. When I asked Aimee Jeansonne-Becka, SeaWorld’s Senior Director of Corporate Communications, whether the company intend to phase out the breeding of killer whales in the future, her response was one activists will undoubtedly scoff at. “Banning the ability to reproduce would be difficult. We do not know of a humane way to stop breeding whales: they cannot be neutered or spayed, long-term oral contraception is experimental and separating males and females requires breaking up family units. The lack of offspring in the environment compromises the welfare of the group.”
Former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove sees the company’s breeding program as highly unnatural, as he recalls how the process went during his time there. “We would cross-breed the whales to create hybrids that don’t exist in the natural world, so we’ve created mutant whales, and they also now in-breed, which doesn’t exist in their natural habitat.” Tilikum is no longer allowed to breed as his genes are “overly expressed” and because “there’s so much heat on having another Tilikum calf because he has killed three people (two trainers and one park guest).”
Changes are afoot in SeaWorld’s San Diego park – the current show, One Ocean, will run through 2016, but a “new orca experience” in 2017 will include a “more natural setting”. I asked SeaWorld CEO and President Joel Manby what exactly this means and he told me “The new experience will engage and inform guests by highlighting more of the species’ natural behaviours. The show will include conservation messaging and tips guests can take home with them to make a difference for orcas in the wild.” He also asserted that the format change only affects their San Diego park, and not those in Orlando and San Antonio. “The change in killer whale presentations was based on input we’ve received in our San Diego park. We alter these presentations based on what our guests are telling us.”
Tim Zimmermann sees one fairly significant issue with these ‘conservation-themed’ shows, bearing in mind the fact that wild orcas can spend up to 90% of their time travelling, foraging, and socialising with other pod members – things killer whales in captivity simply don’t have the chance to do. “Personally I don’t think the killer whales should be in captivity – the problem if you’re in a SeaWorld stadium and you’re hearing them talk about the lives of killer whales in the wild is that everything they say would make you think ‘Wow, they really shouldn’t be in this place right now’.” He has an idea of what will be mentioned in these new shows however.
“They’ll talk about what a scary, dangerous place the ocean is for killer whales with pollution and naval sonar testing etc, and I think that’s the conservation theme they’re going to give, which is that we need killer whales in captivity so we can study and conserve them. We’ll see what the public says about that.”
Zimmermann imagines the newly-themed show will still involve the usual frills – music, lights and jumps – but he sees the slight changes as a minor victory for those opposed to whale captivity. “It was the first time they [SeaWorld] acknowledged that public opinion, especially in California, has changed enough that they need to adapt. Up until then they continued to insist that all the troubles they were having with attendances and revenue were either down to bad luck, bad weather, or bad publicity over legislation, and they had never acknowledged that Blackfish and public opinion were changing things.”
John Hargrove describes the changes as both “lame” and “incredibly vague” and he imagines it is a ploy to “buy themselves more time in trying to prevent their stock from plummeting any further”. He went on to contend that “It doesn’t matter what they [SeaWorld] do in 2017. Those whales will still be in captivity, they’ll still be in concrete tanks. It doesn’t matter how you present them to the public, they’re still going to have all the physical and psychological ailments from being in captivity, regardless of how you decide to showcase them.”
The language of SeaWorld’s responses to my own questioning was pretty much par for the course in terms of what I had expected. When I asked about how the company intend to increase the educational aspect of their parks for younger visitors, the response from Aimee Jeansonne-Becka was fairly predictable. “Education was established as a priority by our founders nearly five decades ago. Through up-close animal encounters, educational exhibits and innovative entertainment, millions of park guests each year leave with a heightened sensitivity to the world around them and an awareness of the plight of animals in the wild.” That last line in particular left me wondering, what about the plight of animals in captivity?
Following Dawn Brancheau’s tragic death, SeaWorld moved in an attempt to quell any worries about trainer safety by installing $70m false-bottom lift floors, where the entire floor can be lifted up to the surface at the push of a button so that in future trainers can be saved within seconds of a killer whale exhibiting dangerous or aggressive behaviour. Hargrove is not convinced by the technology however. “All three parks have the $70m floors – the messed up part is that those floors take away 4-5 feet of depth. Those facilities were unchanged for 30 years and now the killer whales have less space. The floors have never worked properly either – half the floor would raise sometimes, and it beaches the whales.”
One of the more disturbing revelations even since the release of Blackfish is that of the amount of drugs these orcas in captivity are ingesting on a daily basis. Sarah Fischbeck was a water quality diver at SeaWorld San Diego from 2007 until her voluntary departure in 2013 for what she described as “poor employee treatment and poor treatment of animals”. She recently alleged that “not once was I ever given training or told what to do if a whale got in a pool with us”. Even more disturbing were her assertions that valium was constantly given to not just the killer whales, but belugas and dolphins too.
John Hargrove confirmed that to me on the phone, in further detail. “Those whales are so doped up it’s unbelievable. We give them so much medication. I have worked with many whales in my career that never came off medication – they were on meds every single day of their lives”. The animals were given medication for various reasons it would seem – from stomach ulcers caused by chronic stress, to making sure they aren’t over-sexual. The range of medication is staggering too. “From valium to anti-psychotics to constant antibiotics because there were so many infections, many of which we did not know the origin of”.
One case Hargrove specifically recalls is that of Splash, an epileptic orca in California who was medicated with phenobarbital, a drug which has side effects in humans ranging from a decreased level of consciousness and decreased effort to breathe, right up to the possibility that it can increase the risk of suicide in those that have shown such tendencies. “One – you shouldn’t be swimming with a killer whale that is epileptic because you have no idea when he’s going to have a seizure. Two – the vets are winging it on the medication. Sometimes I would be swimming with Splash and he would be so doped up on phenobarbital his head would raise up and his eyes would roll back in his head. I had no idea what was going on in his mind and he didn’t either, that’s the problem.”
Perhaps SeaWorld’s solution will ultimately be concentrating on untried and untested markets where the morality of keeping whales in captivity could prove less of an issue. That could perhaps be found in Asia and the Middle East, and the company’s previous CEO, Jim Atchison, did mention they were in talks with Middle Eastern partners. If their new show adaptations in 2017 fail to bring back the crowds, a move abroad may be the only remaining option. China is certainly a possibility and many killer whales are being captured off the far east of Russia right now and ending up in Moscow and indeed China. The reaction to these types of parks there will be intriguing and Tim Zimmermann expects it will happen in the not-too-distant future. “The killer whales haven’t been unveiled yet in China, but when they are it’ll be interesting to see what the public reaction is. If it’s favourable I’m sure SeaWorld will be reassured that they have an option if the U.S. interest dies out.”
The Washington D.C. – based writer is fully aware of the impact the Blackfish film has had on the company’s profits, and the fact is this may force SeaWorld to other shores. “I think their theory is that in North America public opinion has changed and is no longer as welcoming to this type of show. The assumption is that public opinion in the Middle East and Asia cares less about these ethical questions regarding killer whales in captivity.”
What current CEO Joel Manby thinks of plans to move to Asia and Middle East we do not yet fully know, but Zimmermann feels he is a marked improvement to his predecessor in the role. “I think it makes a big difference that he [Manby] is in charge. The CEO he replaced and many of the former senior executives are what I call the ‘old guard’ from SeaWorld – those are the guys that were there as SeaWorld expanded and became an iconic brand. That group of people seriously resisted the idea that SeaWorld were doing anything wrong and that they might need to change. Joel Manby is much more practical, he’s a businessman. He’s there to turn SeaWorld around and if he needs to, he will make changes – I think he is more open to that than the previous leadership was.”
Perhaps the outcome of ongoing legal cases involving SeaWorld will dissuade even more people from visiting their parks, and John Hargrove is involved in these cases on the front-line in the courts. “I’ve been given the chance to actually change laws and speak in front of law-makers. I wish I could tell them a different story and that these whales are truly thriving, but the reality is I saw what happens to them. You get to the point where you can’t rationalise it anymore.”
Hargrove himself had numerous lucky escapes from potentially volatile situations in the pool as a trainer. “I had 10 major waterwork aggressions, where I’ve been held in the mouth by a killer whale and dragged under the water.” Hearing stories like this first-hand from a former orca trainer is truly disturbing, and yet his description of what it’s like to leave an organisation like SeaWorld is even more so.
“I lost most of my trainer friends after leaving SeaWorld. It’s like leaving a cult – you just don’t do it, you don’t speak out or there are huge consequences. Many journalists have compared what SeaWorld have done to me as like Scientology. I’ve watched documentaries on Scientology and Leah Remini’s interview on 20/20, and everything they did to her SeaWorld did to me.”
I asked Tim Zimmermann if there was anything positive he felt he could say about SeaWorld, and he acknowledged that, to their credit, they have completely changed the way in which people perceive killer whales. “When SeaWorld started people feared killer whales, they didn’t understand them – they thought they were ferocious killers. Fishermen would shoot at them, and in the North Atlantic in the 1940s and 50s the U.S. Air Force would take target shooting practice at them.”
“To SeaWorld’s credit we now care about killer whales, Shamu changed the image of killer whales, helped us understand that they are highly intelligent and very social and they can have relationships with human beings.”
He does however repeat something Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has said frequently – we’ve learned enough about them now to know they don’t belong in concrete pools. “So while I credit SeaWorld with completely changing the image of killer whales I think we now know what we know about them and it’s important to study them in the wild.”
It is a testament to the power of visual media when you look at the impact a film like Blackfish can have. It is one of those docu-dramas that comes around every so often that gets people talking – a current example being the worldwide focus on the Steven Avery Wisconsin murder case thanks to the acclaimed Netflix drama Making a Murderer. Blackfish co-writer and associate producer Zimmermann admits he had no idea the film would have the impact it did.
“Most of what’s in Blackfish is in the story I originally wrote in print. That got some attention, but it certainly didn’t get the reaction Blackfish had. We were just trying to make a film – you don’t really have expectations or goals but you hope people will take notice.”
His own investigation into SeaWorld began with the death of Dawn Brancheau at the Orlando park. “When Tilikum killed Dawn I started reading a little bit and when I saw he had been involved in two previous deaths I thought there had to be a story in that and that’s how I got started… I hadn’t written anything about marine life before but I was interested in the story. Maybe months later, having read the article, Gabriela [Cowperthwaite] called me up and said she’d like to make a movie about it and asked me if I’d like to be involved, and I said absolutely.”
The aftermath of the movie has been quite incredible, especially for those like Tim who were involved in its production from the very outset. “All the people who watched Blackfish and responded to it are the ones who are driving this. SeaWorld always portrays the filmmakers as having an agenda, trying to shut SeaWorld down. All we did was make the film really. It’s really the celebrities and online activists that are driving the change right now. It’s a real grass-roots movement.”
One such celebrity activist is Jackass star Steve-O. In August of 2015 he climbed a construction crane in Los Angeles in protest against SeaWorld. He lit off fireworks and held a large blow-up orca whale emblazoned with the words ‘SeaWorld Sucks’, before being arrested on charges of trespassing when he climbed back down. He was ultimately sentenced to 30 days in prison for his antics, after telling his attorney to get him jail time because it would increase the publicity and make a statement about captivity. That it certainly did, even if he only ended up serving a paltry eight hours of his sentence in the end.
Tim Zimmermann feels his efforts and the efforts of every other activist on this matter worldwide will ultimately bear fruit. “Guys like Steve-O and other celebrities that have continued to pursue this and all the people around the world that have reacted to Blackfish and who take action in one form or another – if they continue to do what they’re doing, I do feel eventually it will be enough.” He added, “The truth is that the facts just aren’t on SeaWorld’s side – they can spin them and play games with them as much as they want, but obviously the public has paid attention enough to know that what is in Blackfish is more correct than what SeaWorld have been saying for the past 50 years.”
John Hargrove shares his long-term optimism. “SeaWorld need to realise that the game is over – they’re not going to turn this around. They can continue to fight to the death, but they’re gonna die. They’re not going to win this – there’s too much momentum and too much education out there now.”
So should we visit and support SeaWorld or not? Hargrove’s argument is more like an exhausted plea, and it is clearly an issue that he is passionate about. “This isn’t about whether you want to have a fun day out at SeaWorld, this isn’t about wanting to go see these animals close up – they’re impressive, they’re amazing, of course we want to see them – but people please see with your eyes, think with your brain but also see and think with your heart. Look at what happens to these animals. Look at the price they pay because you want something from them. It’s not right, you cannot justify it. We’re supposed to and we do evolve on social justices like gay rights and civil rights and women’s rights, and it’s way past time that we evolve on social justice for animals.”
“Not one single whale in the history of the SeaWorld corporation has died of old age. What does that tell you about their program?”
In his final comments to me Tim Zimmermann perfectly echoes Hargrove’s sentiments. “I’m very conscious of the way the world is changing and the impact humans are having on the oceans and terrestrial landscapes. I’ve come to believe we have to really radically alter our lifestyle – the way we think about our relationship with both animals and the planet.”
So what do I think? Well, to be perfectly honest, I think it is possible for some animals to thrive in a zoo environment. However, killer whales quite simply do not. The car-park at SeaWorld is much bigger than the pools in which these giant creatures are held, and that is a worrying thought for anyone who loves animals to dwell on.
These are animals that are fed frozen fish laced with anti-depressants. These are animals that have food withheld from them for days to dissuade misbehaviour. These are animals that have their teeth manually drilled to prevent infections, animals that fracture their own teeth as a result of chomping on the steel gates in their confined enclosures. These are animals that should not be held in captivity and forced to perform jumps and tricks for the pleasure of another, and sadly more deeply flawed, species of animal.
Here in Ireland we are blessed to have a coastline some 3,000 kilometres (almost 2,000 miles) in length. We are also blessed to have an abundance of marine wildlife living on our very doorstep – at various times of the year a short whale-watching boat trip off the south coast can afford you the opportunity to see basking sharks, humpback whales, minke whales, Atlantic sunfish, and many other creatures up close and personal. Most importantly, you can see them in their natural habitat, an environment in which the creatures themselves can thrive.
After all, who the hell wants to live in a bathtub?