Point Loma Cinematic Arts Program teacher Anthony Palmiotto and his students invited “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite to answer student questions Feb. 3 during a panel discussion in the school’s cinematic theater, which included student activist Max Guinn, founder of Kids Eco Club, and marine biologist Dr. Toni Frohoff.
Although SeaWorld San Diego officials have strongly decried the accuracy of the documentary and defended their animal-care practices in a pushback to the “Blackfish” program, they were invited — but did not participate — in the panel discussion.
“Blackfish” explores the 2010 accidental death of SeaWorld’s Dawn Brancheau, trainer of the orca Tilikum, and is critical of keeping killer whales in captivity and using them to perform in shows. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013, then went mainstream in October when it was featured on CNN and became the subject of several CNN news features.
Though they declined to participate in the PLHS panel discussion, SeaWorld officials issued the following statement: “As we responded a few weeks ago to the filmmaker’s debate challenge, we have no interest in helping promote a film this dishonest and manipulative,” said SeaWorld San Diego spokesman Dave Koontz.
“Our position has not changed,” continued the statement. “We did not receive any specific invitation from the school regarding today’s screenings. We would like to thank Kearny High School for inviting us to provide a SeaWorld presentation to their students last week. We applaud the school’s desire to provide its students information on both sides of the issue to help them make a more informed decision. It’s unfortunate that we did not receive invitations from the other schools to provide a SeaWorld presentation to their students.”
During the Feb. 3 panel discussion, Cowperthwaite described herself as a “mom who’d taken her children to visit Sea World,” saying she didn’t set out with any preconceived notions or to do an expose on the marine park.
“I was making a documentary about trainers and their relationships with apex [top] predators, almost a philosophical film,” Cowperthwaite said. “It wasn’t going to be controversial.”
But as she delved deeper into the story, “I began peeling back the onion and started to realize, shockingly, the truth,” Cowperthwaite said.
Marine biologist Dr. Toni Frohoff said scientists “have an obligation when we find dolphins and whales we’re studying are dying and languishing in captivity to speak out. It’s not a matter of being animal-rights activists. It’s a matter of scientists being responsible to populations of animals and the habitats they live in.”
Asked if “Blackfish” has caused SeaWorld to make any changes in its business model, Cowperthwaite replied, “We sometimes hear rumblings that they might be changing the environment of the sea lion pool or making nicer waterfalls. [But] so far, they’re standing their ground, saying they’re proud of their history and to look at all the good things they do [animal rescues, conservation, public education].”
Cowperwaite likened challenging SeaWorld’s business model to “poking the dragon.”
“Nobody’s talked about any of these things [orca treatment] for 40 years,” Cowperthwaite said.
She added that she and others challenging Sea World’s methods are being branded by some as “crazy activist scientists.”
“The Kids Eco Club teaches environmentalism and this is a really big issue, and we thought it was important for kids to hear both sides of the argument so they can decide who’s right or wrong,” said Guinn, when asked why he organized the “Blackfish” panel discussion.
Frohoff said orcas in the wild are “some of the most peaceful of all social species,” adding she felt captivity may cause some of them to become stressed and “pathological.”
Frohoff said it’s impractical to try and take orcas that have lived their entire lives in captivity and unleash them into the wild where they wouldn’t know how to take care of themselves without human care. But there might be a middle ground, she suggested, through the creation of “sanctuaries,” fenced-off, more natural habitats where people could observe them, but where orcas and other marine mammals wouldn’t be forced to perform like circus animals for human entertainment.
A student asked Cowperthwaite who they should believe in the orca debate — SeaWorld or their critics.
“Don’t trust either of us,” she said. “Go and do your own research. I want to encourage you all to do your own critical thinking.”