SeaWorld denounced "Blackfish," a documentary that examines how the Orlando marine park's giant orca came to kill his trainer in 2010, calling the film "inaccurate and misleading."
SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau and Tilikum, a killer whale, delighted audiences when they performed together, but their human-and-animal interaction ended on Feb. 24, 2010, when the orca pulled Brancheau into his tank and killed her.
A main focus of "Blackfish" is answering the questions that have persisted for the past three years about what led the 12,000-pound, 22-foot killer whale to behave in such a way, killing Brancheau, a woman who was remembered as one of the most gifted trainers at the Orlando, Fla., theme park. It also raises questions about whether killer whales should be kept in captivity.
"There is no documented case of a killer whale ever killing anybody in the wild. It's only in captivity where these incidents have happened," said "Blackfish" director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who traces what she calls a 40-year experiment to capture the first killer whales for the first marine parks back to the beginning in her film.
But SeaWorld took exception to the film's argument, saying in a statement to ABC News that, "Instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau's family, friends and colleagues."
SeaWorld believes that marine parks play a crucial role in society, and told ABC News, "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."
Tilikum was captured by hunters off the coast of Iceland in 1983 when he was about 2 years old. He was then brought to Sealand of the Pacific, a Canadian marine park, in 1991.
In her film, Cowperthwaite argues that taking killer whales out of their natural habit can be emotionally damaging.
"He is sort of taken from his mother at this very young age and then he's dumped in this park called Sealand of the Pacific and is beat up on consistently because ... he's always a subdominant male, he's always trying to figure out his place in the social order and the other two females there just kind of bully him consistently," Cowperthwaite said.
There have been four deaths involving killer whales in captivity, and Tilikum has been associated with three of them.
In the wake of Brancheau's death, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) undertook an investigation of the incident, which resulted in SeaWorld being ordered to keep trainers behind barriers.
The requirement ended the intimate and dramatic acrobatic work that thrilled audiences, prompting SeaWorld to continue to appeal the decision.
SeaWorld said OSHA has a "fundamental misunderstanding of how to properly and safely care for and work around these animals."
Since Brancheau's death, the theme park said it has "voluntarily implemented significant changes to the training protocols for its killer whale program that have proven to be safe and effective."
Tilikum, who has been performing in captivity for the past 21 years, remains a star attraction at SeaWorld today.
Cowperthwaite wants SeaWorld to implement changes, not shut down its operations.
"There is a potentially very heroic role and very forward-thinking role for SeaWorld to take in all this," she said. "I think they have the financial resources to be able to sort of shift this whole marine park, circus-like environment into one of education."
"Blackfish" was previewed at the American Film Institute's AFI Docs film festival in Washington, D.C., last month, and will be in select theaters nationwide on Friday.