New documentary focuses on SeaWorld incidents

Some say 'Blackfish' could hurt park attendance

SAN DIEGO - A new documentary about SeaWorld debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and has created a lot of buzz.

In the trailer for the film "Blackfish," a 911 call spells out a tragedy at SeaWorld Orlando.

In 2010, the killer whale Tilikum dragged trainer Dawn Brancheau into the water and thrashed her about, leading to her drowning. It was the third human death linked to Tilikum.

"Blackfish" director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, in an interview posted on the Sundance website, said, "I wanted an answer … how did a top SeaWorld trainer come to be killed? I tell the story, starting 40 years back."

In 2007, Team 10 investigators traveled to Washington and met the man who hunted the first Shamu. He killed Shamu's mother and other whales before selling Shamu to SeaWorld.

In addition to orca history, "Blackfish" -- with interviews from eight former trainers -- looks at the decades of captivity since and dozens of incidents involving trainers across many decades.

Recently, video was released as part of a lawsuit over a 2006 incident in which a trainer at SeaWorld San Diego was dragged underwater several times before escaping.

"You're touching these people who were like me, who didn't think that much about their decision about taking their kids to see these shows. My thinking has changed," said Cowperthwaite.

Some reviewers say the film makes a damning case against captivity and SeaWorld. Some animal activists predict the film could cut into climbing attendance numbers at Sea World.

"I will watch the movie," said Shawna Karrasch, who trained orcas for 10 years before leaving SeaWorld in 1994.

Karrasch said the film seems one-sided, and added, "I saw animals that were happy and enjoyed their interactions with people. They had activities and rest and led full lives."

In a statement, SeaWorld said, "Based on our very preliminary review ... Blackfish appears to repeat the same unfounded allegations made many times over the last several years by animal rights activists.  Importantly, the film fails to make the most important point about SeaWorld: the company is dedicated in every respect to the safety of our staff and the welfare of animals."

The filmmaker said SeaWorld declined to comment for the film.

"Blackfish" is due out in theaters this summer.

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