Dawn Brancheau’s family has criticized the controversial documentary Blackfish. The film is a critique of SeaWorld and their use of orcas, or killer whales, for entertainment. The documentary specifically features an orca named Tilikum, who is responsible for Brancheau’s death. As the film has gained national attention, the trainer’s family issued a statement in support of SeaWorld and their treatment of orcas.
On February 24, 2010, Tilikum appeared in a live show with his trainer Dawn Brancheau. Following the show, he unexpectedly dragged Brancheau into the tank by her arm. He then pushed her under the water multiple times and dragged her around the tank.
SeaWorld employees eventually distracted the orca, who released Brancheau from his mouth. Unfortunately, it was too late. In addition to drowning, the trainer suffered severe trauma to her arm, spinal cord, and face. Brancheau became the third person killed by the aggressive orca.
Tilikum was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983. He was eventually trained to perform at Sealand of the Pacific, which was located in British Columbia. In 1991, a trainer fell into a pool, which was occupied by Tilikum and two other killer whales. The three whales reportedly took turns dragging 20-year-old Keltie Byrne around the pool and under the water until she was dead.
As a result of the tragedy, Sealand of the Pacific was closed and Tilikum was transferred to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. Despite the previous incident, the orca continued to appear in live shows.
In 1999, Daniel P. Dukes broke into SeaWorld and either climbed or fell into Tilikum’s tank. The following morning he was found dead on the killer whale’s back.
Blackfish producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite does not blame Tilikum for the aggressive behavior. The documentary suggests the orca is simply reacting to an unnatural environment.
Killer whales used for entertainment are first separated from their tightly kit family pods, then forced to perform stunts for profit. Although they are accustomed to traveling hundreds of miles in their natural habitat, captive orcas are kept in tanks, which restrict their natural behavior.
As reported by Yahoo News, Cowperthwaite created the film to raise awareness:
“As a result of the film, I know the trainers are safer and the animals stand a chance. Blackfish exposes the truth behind a multi-billion dollar industry. We stand by our film and so do the informed audiences who have been impacted by what they’ve learned.”
Dawn Brancheau’s tragic death was highlighted throughout the film. The renewed focus on the trainer’s death prompted her family to issue an official statement:
“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. Dawn thrived on introducing the whales to the audience and educating them about the animals in her care. Dawn would not have remained a trainer at SeaWorld for 15 years if she felt that the whales were not well cared for.”
Following release of the statement, Cowperthwaite said she is sorry Brancheau’s family had to “revisit her death… over and over again.” However, her intention was to prevent similar tragedy in the future.