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College Students Weigh-In On The Validity of “Blackfish”

Four years after releasing the video below, I am still asked to speak at college campuses around the country about my time as a marine mammal trainer. Specifically, there is a lot of interest about my time working with killer whales and my opinions on the popular movie, Blackfish.

Recently, I skyped-in to discuss Blackfish and SeaWorld’s care of orcas for a college class at the University of Central Florida. From my understanding, the students were asked to analyze the movie and conclude the reliability of the film. The first question I asked the class was, “how many of you believe that the information in Blackfish is true and that SeaWorld is a terrible, evil corporation?” Expecting hands to shoot into the sky, I was shocked. In a class of probably 50+ students, not one person raised their hand. Of course, some students may have wanted to raise their hand but were too afraid considering I used to work at SeaWorld.

I answered their questions and shared my experience of working with the whales highlighted in the film.

Then, a few weeks later, the teacher sent me feedback from the students. Not only did almost every student’s research conclude that Blackfish was mostly untrue but I was surprised that so much of what I shared was new information to them – primarily the fact that the whales found water work with the trainers reinforcing.

With permission from the teacher, I have published comments from the students below. It provides very interesting insight at how some of our younger generations are doing their own research, drawing their own conclusions, and thinking logically about animal advocacy, rather than emotionally.

Thank you, University of Central Florida, for allowing me to speak with your class.


College Students Share Their Conclusions About “Blackfish”

“It was truly refreshing to hear from someone like Kyle Kittleson. Kittleson, who has first-hand experience with an environment that very few people understand, was able to maintain credibility and conviction in what he personally knew about his involvement with SeaWorld, while simultaneously acknowledging and criticizing the same corporation for their shortcomings. Most of the trainers featured in Blackfish fit the documentary’s mold by exerting a firm opposing attitude towards SeaWorld, although it was inconsistent with their recollection of all the love and joy they experienced through their relationships with the animals; this set the stage for a two-sided argument that compelled complete support or complete condemnation of SeaWorld. Kittleson was actively involved with the orcas, trained them and cared for them, and emphasized SeaWorld’s position in animal care as extremely high in quality, which is why he liked working at SeaWorld; but that also didn’t veil his contempt for the corporation itself and their incompetency as a business. He shows that the controversy is not a black-or-white issue, its complexities extend beyond the vague (and often counter-factual) arguments made by Blackfish; the care of the animals is not truly the issue, it is the lack of transparency on behalf of the corporation itself that would allow the public to understand, not only the animals, but also what SeaWorld really stands for and how instrumental they are in current, and continued, marine life research and rescues.”

“Kyle Kittleson was by far one of the most fascinating people I have ever heard talk before. His wit and humor is accompanied by knowledge of Seaworld and animals which I think make him an excellent speaker on the topic of Blackfish. I was pleased to learn we agree on a lot of the same things when it comes to the documentary. The main thing being we are both against animals in captivity but we are also both against releasing animals into the wild that have been in captivity because Orcas, for instance, would be rejected by their pods. It was also extremely interesting to me that he happened to begin working at Seaworld right after the Dawn incident. He gave great insight into what the work environment after the accident was like. The fact he said trainers and animals were sadder that they couldn’t work together anymore really gave me a good idea of what the after effects of Dawn’s incident were.”

“One this that I learned from Kyle Kittleson’s visit to our class via Skype was more of shocker then new knowledge. The way that he responded when you mentioned that SeaWorld would not respond to any inquiries was very interesting. It was literally the same attitude that you took towards their lack out outreach towards you. He did not seem surprised, nor shocked. When you first enlightened the class about their lack of public relations when it came to your inquiries you had this certain vibe about you, like you already knew before the first time you contacted them that wouldn’t respond. Kyle had the same vibe, and I can tell that, from experience, he knew that they would play that game. If I gained any new knowledge at all on that day, it was not to be naive and think that a large company like SeaWorld would ever respond to an inquiry from the little guy, whether it be me, you, or Kyle. I understand that SeaWorld does a lot of animals and this community, and I know for a near fact that Blackfish was a politicized propaganda film, but I must ask myself, why the mysterious approach to public inquiries, why not just respond to us, or in private at least, see what we want from them? It is just food for thought, but it really makes me wonder what sort of agenda they are really pursuing. If they really have nothing to hide at all, then they should give you the common courtesy and respond to you, and the fact that Kyle showed such a lack of shock leads me to believe that they treat all of us individual, so-called little guys, in the same fashion that they have treated you.”

“When researching Blackfish much is spoken about the actual animals, but a very important question was brought up in class about the effect the death of Dawn Brancheau had on her co-workers. There is a lot of emphasis on what the death meant for the animals, but I had never stopped to think about the real people who were involved. Not much thought is given to how her friends and family felt about what happened and the emotional toll it must have taken on them and I was appreciative of the question asked in class that served to highlight the very heartbreaking and human portion of the whole event.”

“Another point in the discussion that was enlightening, and even validating, is when Kittleson referenced anthropomorphism, which is the assignment of human qualities to animals. In my Blackfish-inspired analysis, one of my “con” arguments, that was a major factor in forming my own fact-based conclusion, was that the documentary used anthropomorphism to inspire an emotional response in place of a physical response that can only be achieved by parks like SeaWorld. By invoking anthropomorphism, Blackfish was able to manipulate their audience and insinuate that the whales are “friends,” so that when they showed footage of, for example, how the whales were conditioned, people would not be able to distinguish between their own nature and that of the whales. Kittleson makes this point as well, and admits that even as a trainer it is easy to establish a certain connection with the whales that can sometimes cloud judgements about the true nature of the relationship, and that’s when incidents can happen. He does not deny that interactions with the whales can be misleading, and unfortunately there is not a lot of room for error in trainer-whale interactions, but blame cannot be attributed to the whales for mistaken human perception. There are still many things that are not entirely understood about orcas and they cannot be assumed to possess human qualities as a basis of understanding.”

“When it comes to our Skype with Kyle K., I had actually seen him on YouTube prior to even attending this class this semester when he first came out and posted a series of responses to Blackfish. These videos were also helpful in my term paper. He covered a lot of what he I had already heard him touch on in his videos, like the trainer who ran into a wall/fence and was bleeding while they spoke about Orca attacks, or the trainer riding the whale while being narrated by a participant of the film who is not said rider. I think the most valuable thing I learned from his talk, was when we polled the class and found out no one (I assume a few people didn’t raise hands out of respect) in our class actually believed the documentary in its entirety. It goes to show that what everyone has been saying in the wake of Blackfish is basically true; SeaWorld does not care enough to mount a defense against a documentary that had so many false stories, alternative facts, and bold lies that are easily found and can be proven as false. If SeaWorld would have or even now invested in some type of factual defense, maybe the park wouldn’t be losing so much money. I recently renewed my passes and went to see ZZ Top. When I went again last Monday, and the place was a ghost town, even the new roller coaster had a 5 min wait time at almost all times.”

“I actually did not know much about Kyle Kittleson before his visit to class via Skype. I found myself googling him and watching his YouTube video on the topic of Blackfish documentary when I got home that day. What stood out to me was when Mr. Kittleson said that people need to start thinking about what is best for the animals, in specific, the killer whales, and not what would make them feel “good”. This “feel good” refers to how so many people that watched Blackfish all of a sudden considered themselves as animal advocates and are solely advocating on getting these whales back to the ocean. When in reality putting these whales back into the ocean would be so detrimental to them. I did not understand what he meant by this, but he then explained that putting these whales back into the ocean would present them with a completely different environment to one that they have lived in all their lives. Putting these whales back into the ocean would mean that they would be presented with new animals in the ocean, new germs, new food, different water types, that it would be so hard for them to adjust. I did not know this, nor did I actually think of that situation like that, but I actually ended up agreeing with Mr. Kittleson on this. SeaWorld should keep those killer whales and not send them back to the ocean.”

“During Kyle Kittleson’s visit, I didn’t realize how accommodating SeaWorld was to the animals themselves. I always thought that at the end of the day, the animals were there for profit for SeaWorld so the maintenance of the animals’ health was simply to keep the profit going. However, after listening to Kyle speak, he really stressed how anything the animals needed or anything the trainers needed to improve the animals’ lives they would receive. It was enlightening to know that SeaWorld truly does care about the well-being of the animals.”

“I didn’t know how badly SeaWorld was at their own advertisement, that they would not tell their own employees about when the company themselves donate millions of dollars to research so they could tell the visitors to the parks about the philanthropy. Prior to the Skype call I knew that SeaWorld didn’t want to refute “Blackfish” even though they should have, I didn’t know they were against creating a new movie to showcase how SeaWorld truly operates and what good they do.”

“Upon Kyle Kittlsons Skype visit to class I gained a full understanding that depriving whales of the human contact that they once enjoyed is going to be overall more damaging to the whales than having trainers in the tanks with them.”

“The most fascinating thing about Kyle Kittleson’s visit is the information that he provided the class about SeaWorld’s fight against Black Fish. It is fascinating that even after he went to the management in an effort to combat the negative press, they just ignored him. The management is not even spending minimal effort to inform the public of the good thing that they do in regards to conservation. Such as what Kyle mentioned in regards to the saving of an entire species of dolphin. I wonder how many anti SeaWorld organizations attack it simply because it identifies with Christian values.”

“One thing that I did not know prior to Kyle Kittleson’s visit was that PETA kills more animals than they save but thanks to their marketing team they are able to stay in the public’s good graces unlike SeaWorld.”

“Kyle Kittleson actually taught me a lot, I was in full belief of Blackfish before our class and hearing Kyle speak he definitely changed my perspective. One of the biggest things he taught me was when he said “Seaworld is great as a company for animals and its practices but it is a horrible PR company.” He really opened my eyes on how terribly Seaworld dealt with this problem and how their PR really turned “Blackfish” into what it was.”

“One thing that I learned from Kyle Kittleson’s visit to class via Skype that I had not known prior to his visit is when he had said that all the trainers were distraught when Blackfish came out. It affected the trainers by not letting them swim with the whales anymore due to the controversy going around with Blackfish and Dawn’s passing. Before his visit, I had thought that they were allowed to swim with them, and entertain the crowds, but that was not the case. They were all suspended, and it was an interesting thing to note. From an outside perspective, I would have thought, that yes, aside from the controversy, these animals still needed attention, affection and care from their trainers, and SeaWorld took that away from both the animal and the trainer. When he said that the Killer whales would come up to the trainers, splashing water at them, wondering “hey, what the heck, play with me!” It was a sad yet intriguing thing to say to our classroom. The way he expressed that distress over the whales wanting attention was out of this world. Due to the fact, that all these whales were affected because of one whale’s doing.”

“Before Kyle Kittleson visited, I had thought that one of Seaworld’s biggest problems was its separating baby orcas from their mothers. Kittleson explained they didn’t do that.”

“I was always curious of the trainers’ opinions of the tragic incident with the killer whale, but never took the time to figure it out. I wasn’t necessarily surprised, but I found it interesting that Kyle Kittleson supported putting trainers back in the water because the whales love it.”

“I did research on Blackfish and believed I knew what was really going on, but Kyle Kittleson opened up new questions. He mentioned that not all of the clips were actually Dawn. That is despicable on the part of the producers and CNN to mislead people that way. He mentioned several small but important details that changed how I viewed the film. When he mentioned that none of the trainers they talked to worked with Tillicum and many of them did not even work in Florida, I began to question every source the film used.”

“One thing I learned from Kyle Kittleson’s visit to class via Skype is that he went to Sea World and offered to help make a documentary/movie that fired back at Blackfish and its claims against Sea World. I was very surprised to find out that Sea World denied, that they did nothing to show what good they do for animals and sea life. That was the most upsetting part of Kyle’s story that he articulated to us. ……Oh, and the dog too!!”

“From Kyle Kittleson’s visit, I learned just how inept Seaworld’s marketing and PR team was in the aftermath of Blackfish. He talked about how they constantly avoided press, dodged questions, and linked to obscure community college newspapers defending them to “share on social media” instead of actually having a company-wide response. By the time they did, it was too late.”

“Kyle Kittleson’s Skype interview informed me on how much SeaWorld does for marine conservation and rescue operations but isn’t publicly open about. Kyle stated how SeaWorld spent a large sum of money on orca whales in the wild and failed to mention or publicize their efforts and donations.”

“Something interesting that I learned from Kyle Kittleson’s lecture was the fact that the whales were craving human interaction when they banned the trainers from going into the water. This captured my attention mainly because it wasn’t covered by the media, they covered the ban as a victory but mainstream media didn’t consider that these whales have been used to human interaction and considered it, as Kittleson describes, as rewarding.”

“One thing I learned from Kyle Kittleson’s visit to class via Skype that I did not know prior to his visit was that he offered to create the response for SeaWorld to Blackfish. He told them that he would create the whole thing and they said no. I found this mind-boggling because I think it was a bad move on SeaWorld’s part to say nothing in form of a documentary as a response. By not acknowledging Blackfish and correcting their assumptions, they have led some people to wholeheartedly believe what the document has said. Also, Kyle Kittleson said that he is “in the middle” in regards to how he feels about SeaWorld. He loves what they do as far as animal research and rescue, however he does not like how they have not responded to Blackfish and have allowed people to believe lies and assumptions. Also, his dog was really cute.”

“Prior to the call with Kyle Kittleson, I did not know much about him and was actually very surprised at the point of view that he had to the documentary. I did not know how much was untrue during the documentary and only goes to show how much you can trust the things you see. It calls to highlight the worst parts of SeaWorld and has actually hurt SeaWorld immensely, yet the majority of people that feel so strongly supportive of this movie do not know the inaccuracies of it, so it was refreshing to have someone who only spoke of the truth and fact. I did not know that some of the whales that were mentioned in the movie didn’t even exist, which shook me. I could not believe that they could put these fake facts in the documentary and not have anyone be the wiser. I am still against SeaWorld, but Blackfish lost extreme credibility to me after Mr. Kittleson spoke to us.”

“After watching the documentary Blackfish, I was surprised to find that Kyle Kittleson, former Sea World killer whale trainer, was telling the class how untruthful the film is. Not only that, I was surprised to find that Sea World made little to no attempt to fight back against the claims being made. Kyle expressed his frustration with Sea World on the matter, claiming his love for the animals as well as other trainer’s. Besides the push to change the image of the theme park as one that has natural looking habitats and promotes protection of animals, it was surprising that little attempt was made to make a documentary to fight back.”

“Aside from my research on Blackfish and aside from my research on Kittleson before the Skype interview, I learned two things from Kittleson that will forever hurt Sea World. The first was that this is the last generation to ever see Orcas at Sea World, Sea World will no longer breed Orcas anymore and they will not capture them from the wild anymore. And this is truly aside, because Kittleson is right, Sea World lost customers and true animal support from average citizen by doing this. Kittleson made it clear, when you experience something that pleases you and that you like, you get a feeling of urgency and necessary will to save the things that you like, and the only way you can accomplish this is interaction and closeups with these animals. After this generation, no one will care as much about saving these animals in the wild, except for those researching these animals, because it is no longer personal, it is no longer magical to watch a killer whale soar in the air and splash the audience or to even look behind a class wall and interact with the whale personally. And this will hurt Sea World, they will lose customers because of this and following up on this they will lose the money necessary to save and protect these animals in the wild. Secondly, Kittleson said that the one thing he is angered over Sea World is their Public Relations, for two reasons. The first is this, Sea World has been reluctant to even take the action themselves refute what Blackfish as said. And the most they have done has been a recent website called “Sea World Cares” and giving brief counter attacks and explanations how they manage the park. And Kittleson is right, that is just not enough to rebound from this massive blow by CNN. Secondly, Kittleson has made attempts to be Sea World’s Public Relations by offering to film and produce a counter documentary trying to discredit Blackfish and still Sea World didn’t even want to go through with it.”

“One thing that I learned from Kyle Kittleson’s visit to class via Skype that I did not know prior to his visit was that when the killer whale’s are around the trainers long enough they become so used to them that they missed them once the trainers were removed form the water. I originally thought that once the trainers were removed the whales eventually went about their business and existed without being affected by the absence of the trainers but they actually displayed signs that they were missing the trainers.”

“Prior to Kyle Kittleson’s Skype visit, I actually did my fair share of research on him and some of his stances. Some facts he presented that I did not know was that he actually personally reached out to SeaWorld to do almost like a counter Blackfish documentary and they said no. I think Kyle is an awesome representation of SeaWorld and they really could have used his help but unfortunately declined.”

“I really enjoyed speaking with Kyle Kittleston via Skype in class. I loved his bubbly and passionate personality about animals. The most interesting thing he told us was the fact that SeaWorld shares articles about things that are unimportant, but they don’t talk about the huge donations they make. They don’t even tell their employees when they do really beneficial things for the community. He loves SeaWorld but he thinks they are a dumb company because they don’t stand up for themselves. I ended up following him on social media and see many of the wonderful things he is doing!”

“Prior to listening to Kyle Kittleson’s visit via Skype, I was under the impression that Seaworld never adequately responded to Blackfish because they did not have the opportunity or means to. But I learned how Mr. Kittleson himself spoke to Seaworld and offered to be their voice through a film, yet they still did not take advantage of his offer. This showed to me that there were different avenues Seaworld could have taken to respond to the movie and its criticisms, yet they decided on releasing a statement on their website and ending it there. It was interesting to hear Mr. Kittleson’s perspective because he gives credit where credit is due, while understanding the bad as well. He explained that he can physically see after working at Seaworld how much the company cares for its animals and research, but their public relations sector is lacking. He mentioned how Seaworld has the necessary funds to take care of their animals in the best possible way, unlike some facilities. It caused me to wonder why Busch Gardens does not have such attention surrounding it, when they also have animals within their theme park. It seems as though animal activists have jumped on the bandwagon against Seaworld with a blind eye to all they have contributed to the wellbeing of animals as well as other theme parks that are doing the same.”

“Mr. Kittleson’s skype visit to our class taught me many things, specially on the Blackfish/Seaworld scandal al. One main thing that I learned from Mr. Kittleson was that SeaWorld is an empire who was fully capable of turning their besmirched reputation around, but chose not to. Mr Kittleson’ gave great insight on the marketing strategy that SeaWorld possessed and it seemed non existent. His example of the email on the article written by a community college, was proof that SeaWorld still lacks understanding of what positive advertisement actually is. Mr. Kittleson stated that he expects that the orcas that have been rescued and are the being put in a safe environment are that last of its kind and that taking in these animals will no longer be accepted due to the opinions created Blackfish. He also explained the large sums that SeaWorld spent on helping wildlife and on finding capable and knowledgeable individuals to care for these animals, but that none of that will matter as long as they don’t stand up against the reputation that they have been given.”

“Kyle Kittleson’s Skype to class was a great experience to learn first hand what the trainers were actually doing at Sea World and wether or not he believed it was correct. I was curious why Sea world would not let him “help” by creating a counter documentary to Blackfish since he already had a relationship with the company and they seemed to have the same overall goal. Kyle explained further that his position was not pro Sea World but what ever is best for the animal which in my opinion, gives him more credibility and discredits Sea World’s efforts because they stay quiet in a time they need to defend themselves giving them the appearance of being guilty and their image becomes less appealing.”

“The thing I learned from Mr. Kyle Kittleson’s visit that stuck out with me the most was his bravery to speak his mind. Although Mr. Kittleson worked for Sea World for a while and leans to believe Sea World is more accurate over the sensationalistic and inaccurate film Blackfish, I really respected that he said he was not on the side of SeaWorld or Blackfish. I learned he is simply on the side of animals and doing what is best for the animals. He also said it is absolutely cruel to take an animal that is so conditioned to thrive with human contact and give it no human to interact with. He said, simply put, it is actually considered cruel because the whales can’t understand why they are no longer allowed to interact with humans.”

“Kyle Kittelson’s visit was a real treat and I’m glad you were able to bring him in. The thing I was most surprised about prior to his skype call was how inaccurate the Blackfish documentary really was. I mean for crying out loud they were using whales that didn’t even exist at sea world for examples of mistreated animals in their documentary. So for me, it was how low the documentary was willing to go, and their lack of journalistic integrity that was surprising more than anything else. In summation, it was the facts or lack thereof that Kyle brought up about the blackfish documentary that I learned by participating in his skype call.”

“Kyle Kittleson’s class visit via skype taught me a lot about the facts behind SeaWorld and the Blackfish scandals. Kyle was a former Sea World Orca trainer and he discussed how the media systematically turned Dawn into an offender despite the fact that she followed all protocols. Kyle also told us about how he watched “Blackfish” with his boyfriend and pointed out every inaccuracy or omission that the film depicts. He believes there is many more positives that Sea World provides for Orcas than negatives and the film is dangerous because it misinforms the public and caused an uproar without all of the facts. He also had a very good dog.”

“It was wonderful finally being able to get on skype with Kyle Kittleson. One thing that I learned from him that I did not know prior was the personal experience and first-hand account of being a trainer after the Dawn incident. Hearing his first-hand experience talking with his co-workers who were there during the event was very interesting. Also, as I am very interested in business, it was very interesting to hear him talk about Sea World’s poor marketing department and how he believes they constantly make bad decisions, among which caused blackfish to tarnish them so much.”