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article imageOp-Ed: Sean Hannity's 'debate' on orca bill evolves into full-on bashing

By Elizabeth Batt     Apr 9, 2014 in Politics
A new orca protection bill proposed in Sacramento yesterday generated immense media attention including a 'debate' on the Hannity show last night. Presented with few facts and a questionable guest, it became a deplorable display of bullying.
AB-2140, also called the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, debuted yesterday in front of the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee at the State Capitol in Sacramento. The bill — which seeks to ban killer whale shows in California, has generated intense interest since it was introduced last month by Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica).
The bill was well represented, but the California Assembly committee elected to send the measure to an "interim study," a process that could take up to 18 months to complete writes David Kirby of Takepart.
Unfortunately, none of this was mentioned in Hannity's so-called debate which aired on prime time Fox News last night. Few details of the bill were even discussed, let alone debated.
Hannity welcomed two guests to the show — former SeaWorld trainer Bridgette Pirtle Davis, and Lisa Lange, the Senior Vice President of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Neither of these people incidentally are involved with the creation of the bill. AB-2140 is being sponsored by the Animal Welfare Institute and is supported by many reputable cetacean conservation groups, and several former SeaWorld trainers.
"Half a truth is often a great lie." Benjamin Franklin
In 2010, senior SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was tragically killed during a show by a killer whale named Tilikum.
Hannity opened the show by suggesting that Davis left SeaWorld because her family feared for her life. The former trainer acknowledged that yes, her decision to leave was because "my family was worried."
"Did you feel in jeopardy?" Hannity asked her.
"I never felt like I was in jeopardy," she responded.
"Did you feel the animals were mistreated? he added.
"I didn't feel like the animals were mistreated," she answered.
Hannity then turned to Ms. Lange. "Does PETA really stand for People Eating Tasty Animals?" he asked. And the questions progressed into the gutter from there, as the presenter launched a full-scale attack on Ms. Lange's organization, barely allowing her time to answer them.
To her credit, PETA's vice-president remained graceful under fire, despite Hannity's badgering which probably gave rise to many high-fives at SeaWorld HQ. But the segment concluded on a nasty and disturbing note with the presenter systematically badgering Lange at every turn.
Regardless of perceptions one might have of PETA as an organization, Hannity's approach was sickening. It left behind an unpleasant taste that smacked of schoolyard bullying at its worst.
The segment only crumbled further in the absence of decent research.
"When people are taken out of their depths they lose their heads, no matter how charming a bluff they may put up." F. Scott Fitzgerald
Hannity introduced Mrs. Davis as someone who had worked "post-production" on the documentary Blackfish. The film focused on Dawn Brancheau's death, and the orca who killed her. Had Hannity bothered to dig even a little, he would have realized that his guest had not always supported and believed in SeaWorld.
Davis initially applauded the documentary, but came too late to the film to be included in it. Still, she provided some personal footage and attended the Sundance Film Festival as a VIP guest of director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. In Park City, ahead of its premiere, she enjoyed a private showing of the film along with other former SeaWorld trainers.
Shortly after her return from Sundance, I had an opportunity to interview Mrs. Davis about her Sundance experiences and her reasons for leaving SeaWorld. I kept this interview unpublished as a professional courtesy to her change of heart. The former trainer's complete transition from willing participant to outright critic, did not sit well. So, I have decided to publish the interview in its entirety.
After viewing the Hannity segment, you can read the interview below. It was conducted last year and is unchanged since its first writing.
Interview with Bridgette Pirtle Davis (nee Pirtle). March 2013.
EB: In just one year, VOTO (Voice of the Orcas) has made great strides. Several of you were featured in David Kirby's book last year, and now this year — Blackfish. How does it feel knowing that your 'voices' truly are getting out there for the orcas?
B. Pirtle: Finally being at the point of this growth process where I no longer have to struggle with the conflict or pretend to support the concept of orcas in captivity is cathartic. It's enlightening. Arriving at this moment was a long process that felt like a losing battle more often than not.
I was drawn to the field of animal training because I admired orcas so much. Once I was "in" at SeaWorld, I became aware of all aspects of the job -- the bits and pieces of good, the bad and the heartbreaking. As much as I cared for the animals and appreciated the opportunity I had to interact with them, there was always a part of me that realized that as much as I sacrificed and loved them unconditionally, this was selfish.
I wanted to change the industry for the better and be the voice of reason for the animals I cared for. By the end, I realized no matter how much I wanted to fight for change, if I continued my involvement with this company, I was only acting to enable the very thing I wanted to stop. In order to give the whales the best chance at a life more deserving, I had to walk away.
Being given this opportunity to stand beside such an amazing group of people like the cast of Blackfish is the best chance of getting all whales everywhere a better life. The honesty, the intellect and the genuine concern that everyone brings to the discussions within this controversy will continue to have a positive impact on changing the public's perception in regards to cetaceans in captivity.
People are not only listening, but receptive and understanding. Unbelievable that the voice of reason finally is being given the long overdue accolades much deserved.
EB: The film received a tremendous reception at Sundance. I understand you all attended the premiere? What highlights at the film festival will you remember the most?
B. Pirtle: There are a number of moments that will always stand out as being ones that acted to redefine who I am and what I wish to represent in this life. The first night in Park City, while watching Blackfish for the first time at the house, will stand out as a moment I realized I was surrounded by the greatest support crew one could hope for.
The night of the premiere, taking those steps in front of the audience was the first time I had the courage to actually stand up for what is the truth and speak out for what I believe is morally right for those animals I dedicated much of my life to.
My own personal biggest highlight would have to be the night of the second screening during the Q&A. Being able to share with an audience the memory of my last interaction with Keet was such an emotional release. I was able to convey the difficulty behind leaving something I cared for above all else in the interest of accomplishing what is morally right for every animal affected by this industry's exploitation.
Even though remembering moments like those can be tearful, I am reassured that coming forward and sharing the reality of what the animals really endure is the single greatest gift I can give to whales like Keet.
EB: Was it weird seeing yourself on the big screen?
B. Pirtle: Since it wasn't until further along in Blackfish's post production that I gained enough strength and confidence to reach out to the trainers of VOTO and Tim Zimmermann to share my experiences from my years at Shamu Stadium, my presence in the film was that of a cameo with footage of some of my night show waterwork.
As the credits rolled, seeing my name within those of so many individuals I admired was amazing. I was grateful that, although the rough cut had already been sent away for film festival considerations, Gabriela found a way to piece me into the documentary. To be included in such a significant work as Blackfish is one of the greatest honors I've ever experienced.
EB: I understand that none of you saw the movie until a private screening the night before the premiere at Sundance? Describe the atmosphere in the room at the film’s conclusion.
B. Pirtle: I felt such a sense of awe and gratitude. I am very thankful that there are people like Gabriela, Tim and Manny that are capable of creating such an impactful film. I am very thankful for Sam, Jeff, John J., Carol and John H. (other former SeaWorld trainers/Blackfish stars), for having the courage to speak out and the influence to inspire individuals like myself to find the strength to share the truth with the world. And then there was that moment of realizing that this is all actually happening.
EB: Obviously the movie is about SeaWorld’s prime bull orca Tilikum. It features his life in captivity from his capture to the moment when he tragically kills Dawn Brancheau in 2010. When you hear his name, how do you feel?
B. Pirtle: Regret. I spent my life chasing a dream that didn't really exist. I ignored a wealth of credible and unbiased information in the interest of convenience. Books like Orca: The Whale Called Killer (Hoyt; 1990), were set aside once management at SeaWorld provided trainer manuals and species booklets of their own liking.
Had I reached the chapter in Hoyt's novel titled "Captives" would I have continued to pursue a career in animal training? SeaWorld celebrated the births of Baby Shamus, which effectively "redirected" one's thoughts away from the fact that these calves were born from animals that suffered through horrific collections like those at Pedder Bay and Penn Cove.
Had I allowed myself to take in the bigger picture of orcas and marine life parks, maybe ten years spent coming to this realization that captivity is immoral would have been spent creating change soon enough to prevent lives like Alexis and Dawn being lost.
EB: How do you feel that Blackfish will advance the cause of other captive orcas, say Lolita for example who was captured in Penn Cove in 1970? Will it help her?
B. Pirtle: Blackfish carries throughout it an acknowledgment that there is a moral dilemma deeply entwined within the industry of captive cetaceans. Gabriela does an amazing job focusing not only on the more aggressive repercussions that can occur in animals like Tilikum or Keto, but also the emotional impact our own actions have on animals like Tokitae [Lolita's original name].
Sharing the research done on the extent of an orca's capability to feel, allows the audience to sympathize when watching footage from Penn Cove and the collections in Iceland. This is not a trait particular to Tilikum and his experiences, or just the whales at SeaWorld for that matter, but a trait all orcas in every oceanarium share.
EB: SeaWorld also commented on the film and said that it “appears to repeat the same unfounded allegations made many times over the last several years by animal rights activists.” What are your thoughts on their response?
B. Pirtle: Initially ... typical and very predictable. The entirety of my ten years in animal training was spent seeing all of management parroting back that same old song and dance each and every time anyone dared step forward and talk about concerns regarding the animals' health and well-being.
It has always been a response of, so and so "never really worked with the whales" or "lacked quality experience" or "worked too long ago to really know what is going on now." In the group of trainers standing together in support of the film's message, you have SeaWorld's worst nightmare.
We each have unique experiences from a broad spectrum of time. We all believe in the truth of the objective evidence found throughout all of our years of observations and interactions with the animals. Most importantly, we can all corroborate the reality of what is and what has been the truth of what actually goes on behind the scenes at SeaWorld.
EB: Gabriela says she made the film to answer the question: Why did a trainer with so many years of experience lose her life to a killer whale? You’ve all worked with these animals. What needs to change?
B. Pirtle: Ultimately, the same concerns voiced as a result of Dawn's accident had been voiced after incidents in the past. Lessons not learned and continually disregarded. Many of those taking care of the animals are fighting for less responsibility to be placed upon their ever-drooping dorsal fins.
Show schedules, public interactions, and dining obligations create a strain on animals already in a highly stressed environment. They are proudly introduced as "ambassadors" but they are simply work horses for a profit hungry industry desperate to remain relevant in a society that has already begun to recognize we have moved past such a trite necessity.
Until parks like SeaWorld and Miami Seaquarium exhale their dying breath, tighter regulations and stronger accountability for adhering to such guidelines is a given.
EB: Why should people watch Blackfish?
B. Pirtle: Blackfish offers an opportunity for people to see and hear the truth surrounding orcas in captivity. It also approaches a controversial subject in such a manner as to not coerce the viewers into feeling one certain way about the issue at hand.
The trainers' experiences shared cover moments held dear as well, as those most heartbreaking. You follow along with each person's journey as they reflect upon their own memories and choose the path they take towards accomplishing what they feel is in the best interest of the animals. This documentary shares an honesty and a genuine care for these animals that can never be experienced at a theme park.
EB: What do you hope people will take away from this movie?
B. Pirtle: A revelation that we are capable of reciprocating an altruistic nature towards such compassionate animals.
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From seeing Blackfish as a documentary that does "not coerce the viewers into feeling one certain way about the issue at hand," Davis then told SeaWorld supporter site, MiceChat.com, "I'd love to be able to shed a bit of light on the dark side of the exploitation and fallacies behind the film Blackfish and its 'faces.'"
Davis' performance on the Hannity show clearly reveals a vast disparity in answers and perhaps an inkling of the truth.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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