Family of SeaWorld trainer killed by whale distances itself from critical documentary

Chicago TribuneJanuary 22, 2014 

Dawn Brancheau


— Relatives of Chicago-area native and former SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, a University of South Carolina graduate, have weighed in on “Blackfish,” issuing a statement that distances the family from the controversial documentary about the treatment of killer whales in captivity.

The documentary frames a critique of aquatic parks that feature performing killer whales around Brancheau’s death in 2010, when a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum pulled the 40-year-old trainer into its tank and drowned Brancheau. Brancheau had wanted to become a killer whale trainer since she saw the “Shamu Show” at a SeaWorld park as a child.

“Blackfish” has won critical acclaim and sparked protests that prompted several high-profile musicians, including Willie Nelson and The Beach Boys, to pull out of performances at SeaWorld parks in recent weeks. The Brancheau family did not participate in the production of the film and had remained silent about the controversy surrounding it until posting a statement Monday on the website for the Dawn Brancheau Foundation.

“First and foremost, we are not affiliated with this movie in any way. We did not assist with its creation and were unaware of its content until the film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival,” the statement begins, adding the foundation and family members “have never and will never accept any compensation from its production.”

“The film has brought a great deal of attention to the welfare of animals, and for that we are grateful. However, ‘Blackfish' is not Dawn’s story. Dawn Brancheau believed in the ethical treatment of animals. . . . Dawn would not have remained a trainer at SeaWorld for 15 years if she felt that the whales were not well cared for.

“A human life was lost that day and it feels as though some believe her death was just a footnote.”

The statement comes several weeks into a campaign by SeaWorld to combat negative publicity from “Blackfish,” which was shortlisted for a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards but was not among the nominees announced last week.

Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite said she had tried to get interviews with members of the family for months while making the documentary and had initially planned to make a film that was about humans’ relationship with animals that would have focused on Brancheau’s passion for killer whales.

“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. “I’m sorry that (the family) has had to relive (Brancheau’s) death over and over again through this film.”

Amid the controversy, SeaWorld parks have seen a small decline in attendance, though the company announced last month that it expects to mark its most profitable year ever, with nearly $1.5 billion in revenue. After several performers dropped out of planned concert dates at SeaWorld in December, the company published full-page newspaper ads disputing allegations in the film, and several former trainers, including one whose interviews appeared in “Blackfish,” have complained about purported inaccuracies in the film.

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