Year after 'Blackfish' airs, debate over orcas continues

CNN/ Newswire | 2/7/2014, 6:37 p.m.
Nearly 21 million people watched "Blackfish" when it aired on CNN last October. The documentary, produced by Magnolia Pictures and ...
Whale shows at SeaWorld were canceled Thursday, February 25, 2010, and officials were re-evaluating safety procedures a day after after a 40-year-old trainer was killed by a 12,000-pound killer whale in front of shocked onlookers. Dawn Brancheau was pulled underwater for an extended period of time by the whale Tillikum.

By Vivian Kuo and Martin Savidge


(CNN) -- Nearly 21 million people watched "Blackfish" when it aired on CNN last October.

The documentary, produced by Magnolia Pictures and acquired by CNN Films, recounts the 2010 death of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by a killer whale named Tilikum, a 12,000-pound bull.

The film challenges the concept of keeping killer whales for entertainment and implies Tilikum had been driven to madness by captivity.

In the months since, a firestorm of debate over the controversy erupted.

Social media exploded with an outcry to boycott SeaWorld, the world's largest marine park operator.

Protesters not only lined the streets outside SeaWorld Orlando in Florida, the company's flagship park, but the streets of New York and Pasadena during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rose Parade.

Southwest Airlines, which owns a plane with a killer whale painted on it, also received a taste of the "Blackfish" backlash. A handful of protesters presented a petition to an airline spokeswoman asking it to end its business relationship with SeaWorld. Southwest responded in a statement it was not contemplating changes to its multi-year contract with the entertainment company.

Perhaps the largest fallout was in the form of a virtual cavalcade of musicians backing out of SeaWorld's "Bands, Brew & BBQ" concert series.

Willie Nelson, Trace Adkins, Trisha Yearwood and Joan Jett are among those who declined to perform at the theme park over the controversy.

SeaWorld has battled back against the claims "Blackfish" makes, calling the film grossly one-sided and the product of animal activists.

The company has declined CNN's repeated requests for interviews, but has responded to written inquiries.

"Blackfish is billed as a documentary, but 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," SeaWorld said in a statement.

"To promote its bias that killer whales should not be maintained in a zoological setting, the film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld -- among them, that SeaWorld is one of the world's most respected zoological institutions, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research."

In January, Brancheau's family distanced themselves from the documentary.

"Blackfish is not Dawn's story. Dawn Brancheau believed in the ethical treatment of animals. Dawn followed her dreams and became a marine animal trainer. She loved the whales and was proud of her work as a trainer," a statement on a charity website dedicated to the slain trainer said.

"Dawn would not have remained a trainer at SeaWorld for 15 years if she felt that the whales were not well cared for. Trainer safety was important to Dawn, and it remains important to us as well. Our family always supported Dawn and we continue to support Dawn's friends and co-workers who currently care for the animals she so loved."