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Family of SeaWorld Trainer Killed by Orca Speaks Out for First Time

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Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer killed in an accident with a killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando, in Florida in 2010. Photograph By Julie Fletcher, Orlando Sentinel via Getty Images

After months of silence, the family of Dawn Brancheau—the trainer killed by the orca Tilikum during a show at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010—has released a statement about the documentary Blackfish.

Since the film’s debut in 2013, family members say they have continually been asked how they felt about the movie. Although the family appreciates the focus Blackfish has brought to bear on the treatment of animals, they go on to distance themselves from the film. (See “Opinion: SeaWorld vs. the Whale That Killed Its Trainer.”)

“First and foremost, we are not affiliated with this movie in any way,” the statement begins. “We did not assist with its creation and were unaware of its content until the film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival.”

“The film has brought a great deal of attention to the welfare of animals, and for that we are grateful,” the family says in the release. “However, Blackfish is not Dawn’s story. Dawn Brancheau believed in the ethical treatment of animals.”

The statement goes on to note that Brancheau “thrived on introducing the whales to the audience and educating them about the animals in her care.” Brancheau would not have remained at SeaWorld for 15 years if she felt the killer whales were not well cared for, the statement adds.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune on January 21, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite stated that she was initially trying to make a movie about the relationship between humans and animals that focused on the bond between Brancheau and the killer whales at SeaWorld.

“That was not the film I made because as I did my research, I found out so much about SeaWorld, and it became a controversial movie,” Cowperthwaite said in the interview. “But ultimately, I think the trainers and the animals are safer as a result of this film. I can only hope [Brancheau] would be happy about that.”

A Human Life

Since the film’s release last year, controversy has swirled around its portrayal of how SeaWorld treats its captive killer whales.

The company has mounted a campaign to combat the less-than-flattering image presented in Blackfish, but states that revenues remain unharmed by the bad publicity. (See also “First Person: How Far Will the Blackfish Effect Go?”)

In fact, according to reports, SeaWorld stands to post record earnings for 2013, with an estimated $1.46 billion in revenue.

Bridgette Pirtle, one of the former SeaWorld trainers involved with Blackfish, has since condemned the movie for its portrayal of Brancheau, although Pirtle believes that killer whales should no longer be kept for entertainment purposes.

For now, it seems that Brancheau’s family has had its say. The family members note that this is the only statement they will be making, and ask that their privacy be respected.

“Since Dawn’s death nearly four years ago, the media has focused mainly on the whales. A human life was lost that day and it feels as though some believe her death was only a footnote,” the statement says. “Dawn’s death is central to our story.”

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Sheila Wildman
    Moss Point, MS
    September 22, 7:17 pm

    I would like to know how I could purchase a CD of Blackfish

  2. John Wilkes Booth
    USA
    September 15, 2:53 am

    I applaud Andrew Booth’s comment about people being lead that a “film” is a true depiction of an event. Sitting in front of a large screen for a couple of hours does not make you [people in general] an expert.

    I know several people that care for animals, some that work at Sea World, and their devotion to the well-being of these animals is their main directive.
    Yes the company makes money, but how much of that money goes to fund research to help wildlife outside their parks?
    How much have we learned from these animals since having them in captivity?
    How much has all that research helped keep certain species from going extinct?
    Why aren’t other companies trying to educate people, especially our youth, that our actions have consequences, good and bad?
    Are we better, as a society, for learning that what we do affects not only ourselves but the wildlife around us.

    If you feel strongly about seeing the animals in captivity, don’t go, that is your right as a consumer. But before going on crusades about what Zoo’s and other parks that have animals can and cannot do, try educating yourself with the facts. Not all parks are equal. 30 minutes on the internet clicking links and reading un-sited biased blogs does not mean you have the whole story.

    With the mentality I see here in the comment section, everyone that has pets, dogs, cats, gerbils, goldfish and birds should relinquish their animals and return them to the wild. Oh, that’s right, that would be cruel and illogical, wouldn’t it.

    Think. Truth!

  3. Tanesha
    37 pristeen court
    July 28, 4:43 am

    I think that this is so sad and not right

  4. Veronica Daze
    United States
    June 21, 8:17 am

    I saw the “documentary” that was made on the treatment of the Orcas at the sea parks. They didn’t speak only about Sea World. This is not a film as someone put it to differentiate it from non fiction. Anything you watch that is recorded on film logically is a film but this particular one is a documentary. They all have scripts or at least outlines of what they want to impart. If you think National Geographic documentaries don’t have a script you are fooling yourself. Blackfish is a good documentary but it is only one side of the story. If you have ever been to any of these parks you can plainly see their pens are too small. To fix this problem it must be a federal law that applies to all states. Other countries must make laws to outlaw these types of abuses. These places won’t like it because it’s all about money. The whales are impressive but Sea World and other such places have imprisoned them against their will. They are NOT Blackfish, they are aquatic mammals. They should have rights and that would be to not be used for our entertainment. I see no problem with aquariums for viewing if they are large enough to accommodate these giants. Just like there are rules for anyone who works and these mammals are working they need to have strict protections for them. Sea World isn’t just about whales, so suggesting closing them down is ludicrous. There has to be a compromise and that would be rulings on how these animals must be cared for. They are our responsibility since we share the same planet. The person who said they would never watch Blackfish isn’t being rational. This is a very good documentary from a certain perspective. I’m afraid I have a problem believing a large business that makes millions off of captive animals. The fact they separate their young from the mothers bothered me a lot. If you consider the number of shows and years that have passed against deaths I don’t think it’s that high, but I don’t think they should have happened. It wasn’t necessary for the trainers to get in the water with them. They can be dangerous animals when mistreated and it’s very clear that they are mistreated, not necessarily by the trainers that perform with them but the policies of the businesses the house them.

  5. sue mccoy
    uk
    May 6, 6:43 pm

    Would someone please do something about this situation rather than just talking about it. I took my two children to sea world around 10years ago and if i had known what they were actually doing for entertainment i would never have gone. The visit turned out to be one of the most upsetting days ever. Not only the whales but seeing a tormented bear in a very small area rocking from side to side. My daughter wrote to them with her concerns and no reply was received. This has got to stop. You people in sea world making billions of dollars how do you justyfy this. I just hope theses orcas will be rescued soon.

  6. Leo
    April 26, 9:34 pm

    I am a birth mom.. one of my children was adopted. It was increadibly hard to give someone else my child – even though it was my choice, and i know for a fact he is doing increadibly well. She and i are friends and i can see him when i want. It still increadibly hard. So seeing Blackfish was heartbreaking. Ive walked a mile in these shoes. i know for a fact what they do to those mother whales is absolutely terrible. Its truly mindblowing , in the worst possible way, what these soulless corporate shills do for money.

  7. Lori
    Illinois
    April 15, 7:35 pm

    It’s impossible to “release” the captice orcas back to the open ocean because they won’t survive without their family groups, and no one can positively identify which family group each of them were kidnapped from. Those born in captivity have no family group to even find. The only answer is to let them live out their lives in much larger open water pens so they can at least interact with with ocean they belong in and not with concrete swimming pools. For a species that considers itself the “top of the food chain” we are a stupid species without the interest or capacity to understand the other “big brained” creatures who share this planet … the orca, the elephant, the other dolphins, the great apes, so many others … none of whom go to war against their kind, none of whom torture, none of whom kidnap or entrap other creatures for their own enjoyment.

  8. Rowan
    April 10, 1:56 pm

    “of our wrongdoings.”

    I realize that somehow I neglected to finish the first sentence.

  9. Rowan
    April 10, 1:54 pm

    @Stefanie

    I agree with your statement that these orcas are now our responsibility and that we can’t wash our hands of our. However, I am strongly against the use of orcas for entertainment and performance purposes. They are far too large to be kept in the conditions they are kept in. SeaWorld gets away with keeping orcas in their care because they claim what they are doing is for “educational” purposes. Ric O’Barry has spent most of his life with dolphins and aided in the capture of many dolphins until he realized that what he was doing was wrong. After spending three years in captivity, three dolphins in his care were re-released into the wild after being rehabilitated. They were reunited with their pods and accepted by their old families very quickly. It is plausible and logical for killer whales to be released back into the wild. However, you make a strong point, and I can understand the logic and reasoning behind your argument. I found it a bit difficult to disagree with you. But I am a strong supporter of my side of the debate, and I know people are entitled to their own opinions. So I respect yours.

  10. Stefanie
    ohio
    April 5, 2:00 pm

    @Ellie
    It floors me how many people say release the whales back to the sea! Its all fluffy clouds and rainbows if we do that…right? Like somehow we can right any wrongs if we just do that. Just release the whales and everything will be alright then, justice is served. What an ignorant statement. The orcas, which i adore passionately have become our monsters. We have hand fed them their entire lives, we have drilled their bad teeth out, that must be sprayed out after every meal to prevent infection. We have our own ball and chain now people. These orcas are our responsibility. We can not just toss them in the ocean and wash our hands clean of our mistakes. I’m sorry but we are these orcas family. We tried this with kieko. He did ok….but he didn’t gain a family he didn’t live a wonderful long life in the wild he didn’t live to be everything every body dreamed a released orca would be. So. This sounds great people. Toss them out……wash our hands clean…….Its the most ignorant uncaring statement one can make at this point. Thats all I have to say. These are the most beautiful amazing monsters we could have created that i love, they deserve nothing but respect, love, and the best care we can provide for the rest of their lives.

  11. Mel C
    Canada
    March 9, 11:22 am

    I have always been suspicious about these types of parks as well as zoos. The movie Blackfish, nailed it for me. I am sorry for Dawn Brancheau’s family’s loss but looking at the bigger picture, it was bound to happen. I don’t feel that the movie portrayed her unfairly; I am sure she cared about the animals in her care and that she believed she was doing a good thing. But sometimes when one is passionate about something, one can lose sight of the big picture. The idea of taking a killer whale (the key word is ‘killer’ here) and putting it in a concrete bathtub and making it to silly tricks is truly ridiculous. As a young girl, I used to marvel at these huge fish doing jumps and bows and how the trainers were able to communicate with them. And how I wanted a wet kiss from a killer whale! I remember going to Marineland when it just had the whale show and nothing else and the trainers asked the audience who wanted to be kissed bya whale. Of course, I stood up. The trainer said I was too small. Too small? The little girl in the commercial getting kissed by Shamu was smaller than me! Bitterness aside, I went to Marineland when I was older. This time, there were belugas, sea lions, deer and bears (who were fed Corn Pops-how crazy is that?) I went to the underground viewing area and was immediately saddened by what I saw. The killer whale that we had just seen do amazing tricks and splash us with water was just swimming back and forth upside down. All alone. In this tiny pool ( relative to the whale’s size). Was this whale a son of a mother who is out in the ocean wondering where her long lost son is? Is this whale lonely? Does the companionship of the trainers adequately compensate for the loss of the close-knit pod of which he used to be a member? Are the tricks he is trained to do provide any enjoyment for him? Does he get enough food? Why am I here? I began to see the big picture. Theexploitation of thes animals and of other animals must stop.While the owners of these parks are swimming in money, these whales and dolphins are swimming in loneliness, boredom and in an endless circle of stupid tricks that are contradicting their natural instincts. The simple fact that the dorsal fins are curled over is a clear indication of the mistreatment of these amazing animals. I can’t blame them for being frustrated and stressed out. What I liked about the movie Blackfish, was that they described the killer whale’s brain as having an extra part of the brain that humans don’t have. This part of the brain processes emotions in a more complex manner than humans. So if whales can feel intense emotions more thanhumans can, imagine how a mother and baby killer whale feel when they are ripped apart by Seaworld? Can we even understand that?

  12. Marty H Rud
    Colorado
    March 2, 3:12 pm

    It is time to address what can be done about these whale parks regarding finding a way to get them closed, permanently. The animals are not meant for a cramped, circus-factory life. The whales must be returned to the sea, and we must have the courage to learn from the guilt that many people will feel about what may happen to the animals after that. I think the whole “gosh, look aren’t they cute?” act is unseemly, grossly unnatural and extremely creepy. They have got to be released and we must find a way to get that done, no ifs, ands or buts. Shut this down!

  13. Jeanette Tippington
    CA, USA
    February 16, 1:11 am

    I just finished watching Blackfish. I will never go to an amusement park with an orca show ever again. There is truth and “hype” to the movie. Orcas do not belong in these parks for our amusement. They belong in the wild and should only be in contact with human when we help them to recover before releasing them. I believe that the trainers stayed with the orcas doing their best for them believing that they can speak for them against the amusement park corporation. If Dawn’s parents saw all the reports regarding orca’s bad behavior that were not shown to the trainers, then they might be upset at these employers for putting their daughter at risk. They know their daughter best and while they think their daughter would not stay with the park for so many years only they can answer how much she would have prized and appreciated freedom for the orcas.

  14. Greensleeves
    February 9, 4:46 pm

    Brancheau’s family probably received a big, fat check when their daughter was killed and so it comes as absolutely no surprise that they wouldn’t bite the hand that feeds them.

  15. swahl
    ohio
    February 3, 8:34 pm

    I have not seen Blackfish, nor will I. But I have read the book Death at Sea World, which is a history of sea parks around the world and the terrible means by which they “take” orcas for their marine parks. Many Sea World trainers are/were marine biologists hoping to study and serve their profession. As others stated in their comments above, these biologists began to speak out only after realizing their job was merely to train orcas for shows. Many left their jobs, jobs they were at first passionate about and loved, because they could no longer in good conscience do the job for an employer who was strictly in the entertainment business. Yes, the whales needed to be kept healthy in order to keep them alive; they are a huge investment for Sea World. It is a tragic story for all these animals, who are taken from their families, violently, at very young ages, and thrown into tanks with others who are not at all from their same family. They often are unable to communicate with each other, and some have developed poor and destructive relationships among the whale populations in their parks. Not so different than throwing people together in a prison cell and expecting them to get along and deal well with their circumstances.
    I’ve been to Sea World parks and have seen Tilikum in Orlando. He is a giant, in a small tank, isolated because he can not be trusted. What a terribly sad life he will have. I would expect his demeanor to deteriorate over time, since he is deprived of the natural stimulation of his pod’s peers. He is a magnificent creature; I will never forget spending time just observing him; while feeling heartbroken for his circumstances. I will never return to Sea World despite my fierce love of orcas. When given the opportunity, I speak to anyone willing to listen about the “backstage” life of captive orcas. Read Death at Sea World; while I initially thought it was about the trainer and her very unfortunate death, it really spoke of the many, many deaths of orcas over the history of marine parks around the world.

  16. Bill Powers
    San Diego, Ca
    January 30, 4:15 pm

    Look people, OBVIOUSLY most of the trainers at Sea World have drank the kool-aid… else how could they live with themselves? In other words, this observer believes most killer whale trainers at Sea World really do believe they’re caring for their animals in an appropriate manner. (And that the animals are housed adequately.) Trainers believe they’re engaged in excellent animal husbandry.

    AND THEY’RE FLAT OUT WRONG. Most un-biased observers looking from the outside in come to understand very quickly that housing these large, incredibly-intelligent creatures in what is tantamount to a bathtub is inherently, outrageously wrong. Certainly after viewing Blackfish people “get it”. It’s not hard.

    Sorry that Dawn’s family feels like the film went off-message about their baby girl, but as the director stated, the true, important message was found during the due diligence phase. Killer whales (and cetaceans in general) do not belong in bathtubs!

    Dolphin trainer Ric O-Barry was at the top of his profession when he trained Flipper the Dolphin for the TV show of the same name. Now, years later, Ric has come to realize what a terrible thing it is to keep such intelligent, free-roaming life in a small pen for our amusement. Ric is now perhaps the most well known activist against the captivity (and slaughter) of dolphins.

    My bet is that Dawn Brancheau, had she lived, would have evolved in time to speak out against the captivity of the animals she clearly loved.

    My other bet is that, even now, many killer whale and dolphin trainers have the beginning of a nagging tickle at the base of their brain. A tickle that’s telling them what they’re doing is wrong.

    That tickle is only gonna get bigger.

  17. ceci
    United States
    January 27, 7:26 pm

    I believe that the reality and truth behind the scenes is worse than what we saw In the film. Just the fact that the trainers manually sexually stimulate Tilly repeatedly to the point of ejaculation is most distasteful. The Court should rule that has to be an act in the Show.. Let’s see where their revenue goes then..

  18. ellie
    January 25, 12:15 am

    @andrew booth. The film is a documentary.

    I for one am extremely against sea world and hope to see its animals released to their homes where they belong.

  19. Andrew Booth
    UK
    January 23, 1:23 pm

    There is a fine, yet definite line between a film and a documentary. A film is fiction – a story – written by scriptwriters seeking purely to tell as good yarn. A film is never a true representation of the facts, nor does it seek to be or is claimed to be. For example, there were never squeaky-clean marshals like John Wayne in the Wild West – westerns are fiction and just good tales.

    Unfortunately, too many people lose sight of the dividing line between a film and a documentary. They watch a film, then think they’ve seen an accurate portrayal of an event, events or a subject. It seems that’s what’s happened again here. The film ‘Blackfish’ is just a film – a good yarn that’s been dreamed up by a writer. If people want to understand the true facts of this tragic story (or learn about killer whales) they should read the published literature or watch a documentary on the subject. Let’s re-emphasise the line between true facts and a film.

  20. CJM
    None
    January 23, 7:07 am

    I fully respect the statement that the Brancheau family has made. Dawn is a major part of this story/controversy because of what happened. However, I think some people may miss the point that it’s not only about the safety and care of the whales, it’s also about the safety and well being of the trainers. Not only is the film trying to create awareness for the whales, it’s also trying to prevent anymore trainers being hurt or fatally wounded. It’s an extremely touchy subject no doubt.

  21. Calesuar
    california
    January 22, 5:38 pm

    I don’t expect the word of a family to speak honestly or truthfully necessarily for their deceased daughter’s true reasons why she remained for 15 years…in her famous and necessary employment. AND/OR assume she would have spoken against her employer while remaining employed. Note that a good chunck of her colleagues did just that but AFTER they left SeaWorld. IN order to speak against your employer and loose the security of that paycheck you need more than courage. So, some spoke against it, some decided to stay and not rock the boat. Some others we can assume that they have been paid by SeaWorld in large court settlements and that usually means SILENCE about negative disclosures against the company, that is expected.