Relatives of Chicago-area native and former SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau 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 grew up in Cedar Lake, Ind., about an hour southeast of Chicago, and 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 that 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.
Speaking to the Tribune last week, Brancheau's sister, Diane Gross, said the family had been considering making a statement for some time and that the timing of the release had nothing to do with awards season.
In an interview with the Tribune on Tuesday, 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.
"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."
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.
Gross, who lives in Schererville, Ind., is the only member of the family to appear in the film, getting a few seconds of screen time in an impromptu interview at a charity event, in which she praises her sister's sunny, inspirational personality.
It is not clear what ties the family has maintained with SeaWorld since Brancheau's death. The Brancheau Foundation website mentions Brancheau's dream of working with killer whales at SeaWorld and features numerous pictures with Brancheau smiling and swimming with the whales, including a picture that appears above the statement in which Brancheau is hugging an orca's head.
Brancheau's family joined SeaWorld in lawsuits that prevented the release of autopsy photos and video of the 2010 incident in which Brancheau was killed during a performance at the company's Orlando park.
A few months after Brancheau's death, her husband, Scott Brancheau, hired a Chicago law firm, O'Connor & Nakos, but it does not appear that any lawsuit was ever filed against SeaWorld. The law firm did not return phone calls.
A workers' compensation claim was filed in Florida in Brancheau's name, but a spokesman for the Florida Division of Workers' Compensation said it was not immediately clear how, or if, the case was resolved.
SeaWorld was fined by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and ordered to end the practice of allowing trainers to enter tanks with killer whales during performances after Brancheau's death. The company has fought requirements that trainers remain out of the water, and sometimes behind barriers, when performing with the whales, but trainers still are allowed in the tanks to perform medical care.
The Brancheau Foundation, created after Brancheau's death, has seen a steady increase in fundraising as it pursues causes that were close to Dawn Brancheau's heart. The charity, which hosts a 5K run in Schererville as well as one at the SeaWorld park in Orlando, has donated money to build play yards for dogs at an animal shelter and awarded scholarships to needy children, among other efforts.
Board members include Brancheau's husband and mother.
"This foundation is about her wonderful life," Gross said last week. "There has been too much attention on her death."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times