Well folks, I suppose it was bound to happen. I wrote a dozen pieces for Forbes.com and enjoyed it very much. But the 13th–an article critical of SeaWorld (a 2.5 billion dollar company partially owned by the Blackstone Group) and praiseworthy of ‘Blackfish” (made on a small budget)–rattled some corporate cages.
After I posted, editorial management demanded changes that I could not, in good conscience, make. So the article got pulled (after 77,000 hits in one day) and I left my position. Honestly, the experience, brief as it was, was a good one. Until today, when it wasn’t. My immediate editor was terrific.
But, in the end, McWilliams and Forbes.com: mismatch.
So, for the record, here’s the offending piece:
Obedient killer whales doing heroic leaps and splashing patrons with cold tank water are a cash cow for SeaWorld, the 50-year old entertainment company. The spectacle is such a crowd-pleaser that there seems little reason to imagine that these majestic mammals—who appear to bask in the glow of their own performance—are so distressed that they’d attack humans.
All that changed in 2010, when a 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum dragged his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, into the stunt pool by her hair and drowned her in front of an Orlando audience. SeaWorld officials suggested that Brancheau’s ponytail was to blame for her death.
But the 2013 documentary “Blackfish“—my vote for the best documentary of the year—convincingly argues otherwise. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and aired a dozen times by CNN over the past year, “Blackfish” makes the case that Tilikum attacked Brancheau because of mounting frustration induced by captivity. SeaWorld calls the film–which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival– “shamefully dishonest.”
But David Kirby, the author of “Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity,” believes that “Blackfish’s” interpretation of Brancheau’s death is right on the mark.
In a recent interview, he explained that killer whales, which can cover 100 miles a day in open waters, don’t bother humans in the wild. Indeed, there’s only one documented case of an orca biting a surfer (in 1972), and even that incident was more likely an accident than an attack (the surfer was wearing a wetsuit and may have resembled a seal).
But captivity is a different story. Killer whales are kept in tight quarters, fed a diet of thawed fish, and routinely separated from their calves. These circumstances, according to Kirby, “create stress in these animals,” often to the extent that they lash out.
There have been 114 cases between 1960 and 2012 of orcas attempting to harm their handlers. Just two months before Brancheau’s death, a killer whale owned by SeaWorld and on loan to Loro Parque in the Canary Islands killed his trainer, Alexis Martinez. Tilikum himself was previously implicated in two other human deaths, one in 1991 (a trainer) and the other in 1999 (a swimmer who snuck into the tank).
“Blackfish,” for all its gravitas, has had surprising resonance with an unlikely cohort of viewers. Cowperthwaite said, “I saw firsthand how the film resonated with people, especially younger people. I never imagined we’d get such a young demo.” (Indeed, I was pushed to watch the film by my 11-year old son, who vowed to write SeaWorld a “carefully worded letter.”)
How such a film–one that’s devoid of sensationalism and presented in the soberest of tones– made it onto the cultural radar of his demographic remains a mystery. But with apolitical preteens now talking about boycotts, SeaWorld is no doubt working hard to solve it.
Perhaps to that end, SeaWorld, in what Kirby calls “a desperate move,” recently took out a full-page advertisement in seven major newspapers condemning “inaccurate reports” while reiterating its purported advocacy for killer whales and their humane treatment. Whether or not these ads will save SeaWorld’s sinking stock price, which has dropped as much as 25 percent in the wake of “Blackfish,” remains to be seen.
What’s more assured is that, in an era of increasing corporate dominance, a low-budget investigative work can still send shock waves through an established corporation with a once pristine reputation. “SeaWorld used to be the darling of the media,” said Kirby.
“Blackfish” seems to have taken its place.