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Free the Whales or Put Them on Display?

Aired October 24, 2013 - 18:28   ET



ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, they're beautiful, entertaining, and just like their name says, killer whales. Do they belong in activities, or should they be left in the wild?

On the left, Van Jones. On the right, Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Tim Zimmerman, associate producer of the film "Blackfish," and Greg Stafford, a wildlife trainer and conservationist. Free the whales or put them on display? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.


NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Newt Gingrich on the right.

VAN JONES, CO-HOST: And I'm Van Jones on the left.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Tim Zimmerman, who wrote this magazine article that inspired a film called "Blackfish," and Grey Stafford, who is a wildlife trainer and a conservationist.

Look, tonight, CNN is premiering a compelling film. It's called "Blackfish." I've seen it. It's about a story that's a tough one. You may remember it's about a woman, a trainer. She was actually killed by one of the orcas at SeaWorld.

Now, look, as a dad, I've taken my kid to these big aquariums. I always had a great time. I thought it was wonderful. You're seeing these big animals up close. So I was really shocked when I learned how risky these jobs are for the trainers and how terrible the conditions are for these magnificent creatures after they get captured. Look at this clip from the film "Blackfish."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We started having difficulty getting them all into this one small steel box, to be honest. That's what it was. It was a floating steel box.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's where food deprivation would come in. We would hold back food, and they would know if they went in the module, they would get their food. So if they're hungry enough, they're going to go in there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And during the winter that would be from 5 at night till 7 in the morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you let them out, you'd see these new tooth rakes and sometimes you'd see blood.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Closing that door on him and knowing that he's locked in there for the whole night is like -- to staff, it's whoa.


JONES: Now look, this is really heartbreaking stuff, Newt. And as far -- I mean, there's stuff in this film that is so compelling and unbelievable. And one of the things is that you've got one orca that has killed three human beings. That's three more human beings than all the orcas in the world have ever killed, because orcas don't kill human beings in nature. But they do in captivity.

This film is an indictment of the entire system, of grabbing these animals and holding them in captivity. And it's really shocking.

GINGRICH: Well, let me say first I do think that "Blackfish" is a very compelling and, I think, very powerful film. And as somebody who loves animals and loves zoos and aquariums and regularly watches a whole lot of animal films, I found it very, very intriguing, but I also think you have to put it in context.

The fact is that this was a terrible incident, a terrible indictment of some of the SeaWorld's processes, and we're going to get into that, because in the CROSSFIRE tonight we have Tim Zimmerman, who is an associate producer of the film "Blackfish," and we have wildlife trainer Greg Stafford.

Let me start, if I might, Tim, with you. Because I want to -- you really did great work on this, and you did the initial research to put the film together. There are two ways to look at it. One is that there are really deep questions raised about the SeaWorld management system, their approach, what they're doing.

The other is a general indictment of having large mammals in these kind of aquariums. Are you making both cases, or which case would you emphasize?

TIM ZIMMERMAN, ASSOCIATE PRODUCER, "BLACKFISH": The case that I emphasize and what I learned doing the research for the article and then participating in the production of the movie, is the bigger question. It's about the ethics and the question of whether it's ethical and wise to keep these animals in captivity.

There is a trainer safety issue, and that's also part of the story. But I think most people come away from the movie trying to answer that question. If you take large, highly intelligent, self- aware animals -- there are very few species that are self-aware like humans are -- and you put them in an environment like SeaWorld, which is not a very natural environment. Most zoos have very natural environments, and they teach audiences about the natural history of the animals.

SeaWorld is really about one thing, and that's entertainment. And entertainment is fine, but you have to ask the question at what cost to the animals? And so I think that is the question that is presented in the movie.

JONES: I'd really like to hear from you on this. I know you're somebody who's a little bit closer to this whole world. You have a real connection with this world of training animals, et cetera. I don't understand the justification now, having seen the film.

Supposedly -- let me just set the question up and you tell me how I should be thinking about it.


JONES: I thought this was about nature and getting people close to nature. Do animals like these orcas turn on their side and wave at each other the way that they're forced to in this? Do they do tricks for food in nature? This is not about nature. It's about torturing animals to make them do tricks for humans.

STAFFORD: Well, Van, there are so many things in your statement that you could take an hour on.

JONES: OK. Well, take your time.

STAFFORD: First of all, we positive-reinforcement-based animal trainers, we are the advocates for these animals. And we're the ones who have the relationships based on positive reinforcement. And so we know our animals better than anyone else, with all due respect to Tim and his colleagues. So we know how they're doing each day.

Now, I -- some of the things you mentioned about these animals, remember, when you and I were kids, people were using killer whales for target practice. And no one cared about where their tuna fish came from, never mind the fact that tens of thousands of dolphins were being caught in tuna nets in the '60s and '50s and beyond. And it's places like SeaWorld...

JONES: Yes, well, we're all against that stuff. We're all against that stuff.

STAFFORD: We are. And why are we against it? Because we had places like SeaWorld that taught us to care about marine mammals and taught us that they are mammals like us. They are air breathers. They're born with hair.

JONES: Yes. They look -- that's exactly my point. They're mammals like us. Now, if I took you and stuffed you in the greenroom in these dark conditions and drug you out for a show for CROSSFIRE and then shoved you back in the green room, you wouldn't be a happy mammal. Why is this good for the mammals?

STAFFORD: Well, first of all, I think looking back, you have to look at what's going on today. And a lot of things depicted in the film are from 30 or 40 years ago. Are we perfect? Have we learned -- has there been a learning curve in zoos and aquariums in general? You bet. No worthwhile human endeavor is -- is free of -- of error or a learning curve. But what I can say to you is that no one cares more about their animals than today's modern trainers.

JONES: I take your word on that. I think there's a difference between a zoo, which keeps animals and tries to make sure that they're in a good environment and a circus that forces animals to do stuff that they would never do ordinarily. Isn't this a circus?

STAFFORD: First of all -- first of all, I started as a killer whale trainer at a SeaWorld in Ohio. So I have...

JONES: You know about it?

STAFFORD: So I know exactly how it is. And what I can tell you is the marine mammal field in general represents a progressive movement towards positive reinforcement-based training. Not the traditional stuff that a dog trainers use historically, or elephant trainers, or other communities. Marine mammal trainers have led the way and perfected and refined using voluntary cooperation. The animals can choose to swim away if they want to.

Now, you're going to say, well, we're withholding -- we're not withholding food. What we do is we provide a variety of reinforcers for the animals for cooperative behaviors. We're teaching animals to participate in their own individual care and, hopefully, their species' survival.

JONES: I want to talk with you as we go forward, because it turns that out we don't have to teach these animals much about cooperating. They cooperate pretty well out in nature, but we're taking them away from their own nature-based cooperative roots.

I want Newt to have a chance to get in here. You know more about this stuff than I do.

GINGRICH: Let me -- let me say, let me say, first of all, because I think the audience probably is curious about this. I want people to know that I'm disappointed that SeaWorld isn't represented itself. I'm delighted to have somebody as professional and as competent as Greg, but SeaWorld's a huge institution. This is a very important movie that raises some very troubling questions.

They did release a statement. They said, "The film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld, among them that SeaWorld is one of the world's most respected zoological institutions, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research.

Now, I thought we ought to say that in fairness, but let me also say personally, I would like to extend an invitation to SeaWorld, to have a representative come and be on the show one night. Because I think, as a multi-billion-dollar institution, they owe the country some level of transparency and some level of accountability. And I am disappoint that they're not here tonight.

And I'm curious: when you were doing the research for the articles and then for the movie, to what degree did you get any cooperation out of SeaWorld?

ZIMMERMAN: To SeaWorld's credit, when I requested my research for the article, just after Dawn Brancheau was killed, I requested interviews with management and trainers there. And they provided those. And they were very tightly provided, but they did speak with , and they gave me their perspective on the story. And so I included that in the article.

Two years later when we were working on the movie, I think that by then SeaWorld was a bit in a bunker by then and decided they didn't want to engage in this kind of investigative sort of journalism. So they refused to participate in the movie. We tried endlessly to try to get them to provide their side of the story.

And it's a little bit ironic to complain that the movie is distorted if, you know, you yourself refused to come forward and to present your point of view. So I don't really think that's a very fair criticism of the movie.

JONES: Well, speaking of the movie, I'd like to just show a little piece of it, and then talk -- you mentioned the whole thing about cooperation. And I did not know that these mammals had such evolved brains that they -- actually, their brains are bigger than ours, in some ways even more evolved. They have this complex family structures, which this whole process disrupts.

Let's look at this little clip. I want you to respond to it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They live in these big families, and they have life spans very similar to human lifespans, that females can live to about 100, maybe more, males to about 50 or 60. But the adult offspring never leave their mother's side.


JONES: So before we go to break, it would be great just to get quickly from you why is snatching these animals away from their parents and their moms a particularly great thing?

STAFFORD: Well, first of all, all their -- the killer whales in human care right now, the vast majority of them have been born in human care, so they weren't taken from the wild. And SeaWorld, like a lot of zoological institutions, participate in captive breed programs to promote the species and to hopefully build sustainable populations so there isn't any need to collect from the wild.

GINGRICH: Let me, if I might, I want to give you a very different way to think about zoos and aquarium. Frankly, it's the way most Americas think about them. And we have the numbers to prove it. Move when we come back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GINGRICH: Welcome back. Tonight CNN premieres the unique and compelling film "Blackfish" about killer whales and incidents where people were killed.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, "Blackfish" associate producer Tim Zimmermann and conservationist Greg Stafford.

Zoos and aquariums are special places where most people take their children to learn about nature. They're also very happy places. Families visit them again and again.

Last year in the U.S., they drew 175 million people. That's more than the combined attendance of 130 million for last year's NFL, NBA, National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball games. So, Tim, wouldn't you agree that we shouldn't close the nation's zoos and aquariums, even though there may occasionally be specific problems?

ZIMMERMAN: I think there -- zoos can serve a great purpose, and there are many animals that work well in zoos. I think the question is, do all animals or should all animals be in zoos?

And I think one important distinction I want to make is we're talking about zoos, and we're talking about how they teach people about natural history. I mean, SeaWorld killer whale shows have fireworks. They have rock music. They have flashing lights. There's not much natural history talk about killer whales in those shows.

So when you're asking the question, you know, is it ethical or is it right to have killer whales at SeaWorld, we're really asking a question of whether it's ethical to have them for an entertainment show and for making profit.

STAFFORD: Tim, sorry to interrupt, but let me just say, I did hundreds of killer whale shows in my early career. And you're right: They're fun. And I don't see there's any problem with having a fun but informative program.

And sure, we try to incorporate those messages, and it might not be the kind of dry thing you might see at other programs, but it certainly has a way of grabbing people's attention and instilling in them that empathy, that passion for preserving species. And just because it's fun doesn't mean it's not ethical and it's not the right thing to do.

ZIMMERMAN: But the truth is there's almost no natural history in SeaWorld shows. You can go to the "Belief" show, the show which Dawn Brancheau helped create, and you don't learn any facts about killer whales in the wild.

And the facts that SeaWorld does portray -- and we show this in the movie -- they often portray them incorrectly. Because to tell people what killer whale lives are like in the wild will raise questions in people's minds about why the killer whales are in these pools. STAFFORD: Well, like I said, I've done a lot of killer whale shows, and it talks about their powerful ability as predators. It talks about their social nature. It talks about their similarities with mammals. So I think it's a little disingenuous to say there's no conservation message going on there, as you find in all modern zoos.

GINGRICH: Tim, let me just ask you, if tomorrow morning SeaWorld heard your message and they redesigned the show, and they redesigned the exhibit to be a dramatic increase in knowledge about natural history, about conservation, about the role of killer whales, would that satisfy you? Or would you still be objecting to the very act of having killer whales in that kind of an environment?

ZIMMERMAN: That would be a vast improvement, I think, over the conditions and the existence the killer whales live now. And SeaWorld, I hope you're listening. That would be great.

But I think if you -- if you look at killer whales and the experience they have in captivity, you have to conclude that it's not a suitable environment for them.

And the single greatest thing that tells you that is killer whales' mortality in captivity is 2 1/2 to 3 times what it is in the wild. Captivity is stressful for killer whales. They're on antacids. They're on antidepressants. They're on antibiotics a lot. There are a lot of things in captivity that a large, intelligent, free-ranging animal finds very stressful. And so the fact that it kills them at the rate that it does, and kills them younger than it does in the wild, says that it's not really a suitable environment.

STAFFORD: We have to be careful about that, because again, that goes under the category of the jury is still out. There's a lot of data that needs to be collected yet. Because when you have a well- defined population with a large data set like you do in the southern resident population and the Pacific Northwest, a lot of data points over a span of 35 years or more.

But then you have a very small population, a small subset of data that you're trying to compare those to, there's so much variability in living systems, any living creature. So -- so there are challenges to making those statistical interpretations.

JONES: I think you have -- you make a point that we're still learning about this. But some of the stuff that we're learning already is pretty shocking.

I want to make sure we're being fair to SeaWorld. They did try to address some of the concerns that you have. I want to show that and read it to you. They do criticize this film. They criticize the film. They say, "The film fails to mention SeaWorld's commitment to the safety of its team members and its guests, and to the care and welfare of is animals, as demonstrated by the company's continual refinement and improvement of its killer whale facilities, equipment and procedures, both before and after the death of Dawn Brancheau. So they are -- like you, they're saying, "Listen, we are learning." But here's my problem. How fast are they learning? And how much more risk are trainers supposed to take? OSHA -- just let me tell you -- OSHA actually just got hit in June for the same kind of stuff that we're complaining about now? Where's the learning go?

STAFFORD: But Van, I think we need a little perspective here. Losing Dawn was an awful tragedy. It's -- Any trainer is one too many. But when you compare it to normal occupations, everyday occupations, the risks are far greater to become an airplane pilot, to even become a journalist. We've lost a thousand journalists in the last 20 years worldwide. It's far more dangerous to be a journalists in the field, reporting on wars and famine and natural disasters, than it is to be a modern, positive-reinforcement-based animal trainer.

And so what I would say to you is can we look back and say we should have done that, could have fixed that, done that, 30 or 40 years ago? You bet.

JONES: OK. So...

STAFFORD: But I think the distinction is, with accredited, modern zoos and aquariums, you have that commitment. It's a voluntary commitment on the part of our institutions to say, "Look, we -- we're not complacent. We're going to constantly move forward and improve."

JONES: It's voluntary for you guys -- sure, it's voluntary for you guys, but it's not voluntary for the animals.

STAFFORD: It absolutely is.

JONES: I understand what you're...

STAFFORD: It absolutely is.

JONES: Let me ask you a question then. You're saying that these animals are voluntarily staying there. If you open the gate, do they stay? They are gnawing their teeth. They're taking their teeth and gnawing...

STAFFORD: There are some facilities that are on coastal areas around the world. They actually open the gates. They take them out, and the animals come back.

JONES: Well, that's very good to hear. What I think people are concerned about...

STAFFORD: So a lot of...

JONES: ... are the other ones. Why do you think, honestly, now -- and you know about this, and we're here to hear from you. But I think when people watch this film, they say why are the dorsal films collapsing? Why are they gnawing their teeth? Why are you putting different kinds of fish together so they're fighting each other? What is the good of that? Why don't you come up with better ways to house these animals if you're going to snatch them up like that? Or grow them in captivity? STAFFORD: Again without getting too deep in the woods, Aristotle said we learn by doing, and that's exactly true of any endeavor, including zoos and aquariums. And I think you wouldn't go to a physician for a major illness if that physician, he or she, used a textbook from 1965. And the same applies in this situation. We're using what we've learned over the past several decades. And I'm happy to say that, with positive reinforcement, we're teaching those willing participants. Animals are learning to give their blood voluntarily so we can monitor their health and well-being. We're teaching them to line up...

JONES: So you're saying animals are not trapped in little cages all night they can't get out of, which is what the film says?

Do you agree with this? This is a wonderful happy land that these animals live in? This is the fantasy that you guys keep telling, but the film says...

STAFFORD: Van, come on, that footage is from decades ago in Canada at a facility that no longer exists.

JONES: Let's just talk about the state of care and what SeaWorld has learned. And again, I mean, just to go to the statistics about mortality, the rate at which killer whales die in SeaWorld has not changed over the 40 years that they've been there. They've learned lots about husbandry. They're learning lots of veterinary procedures and techniques. But the killer whales still die at the same rate that they did in the '70s. They die from things such as encephalitis and West Nile Virus from mosquitoes that land on their backs, because they're on the surface. One killer whale was found with a buoy in its stomach. Six killer whale females have died in the process of breeding, either during a pregnancy or as a result of giving birth. So these are aberrant sorts of mortality statistics, and the fact that SeaWorld hasn't been able, with all this technology, to improve and keep killer whales alive longer, tells us that there's something inherently wrong with...

STAFFORD: Excuse me, Mr. Speaker, but there are thousands of animals that wash up on our shore with all sorts of entanglement on their body, in their guts. SeaWorld, along with a lot of marine mammal facilities, spend millions of dollars and a lot of human hours rescuing and rehabilitating sea lions.

California is going through what's called a UME right now. Hundreds of sea lions are washing up emaciated, and SeaWorld and other facilities are stepping in to care and reintroduce those animals to the wild.

GINGRICH: And let me just say about the females who are dying during the process of reproduction. I suspect if you looked at the mortality rate for younger killer whales in the wild, it is significantly higher than it would be at a place in SeaWorld, for a variety of different reasons. It's the nature of life in the wild that it's very dangerous.

JONES: Well, hold on a second. We're going to come right back. We are not finished talking. We are, though, going to see if we can have a "Ceasefire," and see if there's anything we can all agree on.

And we also want you to go to our home page and to weigh in our "Fireback" question: "Would you take your kids to SeaWorld?" Tweet yes or now using #CROSSFIRE. We're going to have the results after this break.


JONES: We're back with Tim Zimmerman and with Greg Stafford. Now, we're going to call a "Ceasefire." Is there anything that you two can actually agree on?

ZIMMERMAN: I would just say if killer whales are to be kept in captivity -- I don't think that they should be. That creating better environments for them, creating more natural environments, and building a lot more natural history into the programs would be a step in the right direction.

STAFFORD: But I think as we learn more things, we can certainly include more information about the animals. But trainers working with positive reinforcement are working every day to make their lives better and more stimulating.

GINGRICH: Let me reinforce, I guess, what you're saying. My sense is, if you look at the best modern zoos, they've really evolved in the last 30 or 40 years. If you go look at the zoo of 40 years ago and you look at the best zoos of today, they're much more aware of the animals' psychologically, socially as well as physically. And they actually work on enhanced programs to keep them interested and to keep them busy and to give them a sense of fulfillment.

My sense is we are not as far down the road with aquariums, both in design of the actual place and in thinking it through, partly because I think we know less overall about marine mammals than we know about certain terrestrial mammals, just because of the length of time we've been studying them.

But I don't know if you would agree with that. But it seems to me, if you look at the very best of the zoos, they are really in a really different world in designing in terra facilities. That the SeaWorld of 20 years from now will probably have significantly different conditions.

STAFFORD: And also the relationship between keeper and animal is like this. It's not like this. They are participants.

GINGRICH: Right. Thanks to Tim Zimmerman and Greg Stafford. Go to Facebook or Twitter to weigh in on our "Fireback" question: "Would you take your kids to SeaWorld?" Right now, 39 percent of you say yes; 61 percent say no.

JONES: The debate is going to continue online at as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

From the left, I'm Van Jones.

GINGRICH: From the right, I'm Newt Gingrich.

Join us tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.


ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): "OUTFRONT" next, the Obama care blame game.

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BURNETT: Plus, why is she dead?

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BURNETT: How a 24-year-old teacher's body ended up in the woods.

And spying on friends.

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Let's go "OUTFRONT."