Family of SeaWorld Trainer Killed by Orca Speaks Out for First Time

Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer killed in an accident with a killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando, in Florida in 2010. Photograph By Julie Fletcher, Orlando Sentinel via Getty Images

After months of silence, the family of Dawn Brancheau—the trainer killed by the orca Tilikum during a show at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010—has released a statement about the documentary Blackfish.

Since the film’s debut in 2013, family members say they have continually been asked how they felt about the movie. Although the family appreciates the focus Blackfish has brought to bear on the treatment of animals, they go on to distance themselves from the film. (See “Opinion: SeaWorld vs. the Whale That Killed Its Trainer.”)

“First and foremost, we are not affiliated with this movie in any way,” the statement begins. “We did not assist with its creation and were unaware of its content until the film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival.”

“The film has brought a great deal of attention to the welfare of animals, and for that we are grateful,” the family says in the release. “However, Blackfish is not Dawn’s story. Dawn Brancheau believed in the ethical treatment of animals.”

The statement goes on to note that Brancheau “thrived on introducing the whales to the audience and educating them about the animals in her care.” Brancheau would not have remained at SeaWorld for 15 years if she felt the killer whales were not well cared for, the statement adds.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune on January 21, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite stated that she was initially trying to make a movie about the relationship between humans and animals that focused on the bond between Brancheau and the killer whales at SeaWorld.

“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 in the interview. “But ultimately, I think the trainers and the animals are safer as a result of this film. I can only hope [Brancheau] would be happy about that.”

A Human Life

Since the film’s release last year, controversy has swirled around its portrayal of how SeaWorld treats its captive killer whales.

The company has mounted a campaign to combat the less-than-flattering image presented in Blackfish, but states that revenues remain unharmed by the bad publicity. (See also “First Person: How Far Will the Blackfish Effect Go?”)

In fact, according to reports, SeaWorld stands to post record earnings for 2013, with an estimated $1.46 billion in revenue.

Bridgette Pirtle, one of the former SeaWorld trainers involved with Blackfish, has since condemned the movie for its portrayal of Brancheau, although Pirtle believes that killer whales should no longer be kept for entertainment purposes.

For now, it seems that Brancheau’s family has had its say. The family members note that this is the only statement they will be making, and ask that their privacy be respected.

“Since Dawn’s death nearly four years ago, the media has focused mainly on the whales. A human life was lost that day and it feels as though some believe her death was only a footnote,” the statement says. “Dawn’s death is central to our story.”

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Jane J. Lee is a news writer and editor at National Geographic.