Dealing with the 'Blackfish' effect


Published: Sunday, March 23, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 21, 2014 at 3:56 p.m.

The protesters outside SeaWorld's front entrance were the first sign that all is not right at the Orlando theme park.

The park's signature killer whale show is on hiatus, replaced by a "Shamu Up Close" attraction meant to showcase the relationship between trainers and killer whales. Banners outside the attraction tout SeaWorld's "passionate commitment to the care of killer whales."

It is all part of SeaWorld's response to what has been dubbed the "Blackfish" effect. The documentary looks at SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau's 2010 death from being pulled into a tank by a killer whale.

"Blackfish" uses the incident as a springboard to explore the ethical issues involving keeping the animals in captivity. The documentary debuted at the Sundance film festival in January 2013, but really started generating outrage after CNN started airing it last fall.

Since then, park attendance has dropped. Willie Nelson and other performers have canceled appearances there. A California lawmaker has introduced a bill that would ban theme parks from using killer whales, also known as orcas, in shows.

I have fond memories of SeaWorld, having visited its now-closed park in Ohio as a kid. When a trip to SeaWorld Orlando was suggested last weekend, I readily agreed.

My nearly 2-year-old daughter, Kate, had never visited a theme park. Living in Florida, I knew that couldn't last — and I'd rather have her interested in seeing dolphins than Disney princesses.

The trip was a mixed success. Unlike my childhood experience in Ohio, the Orlando park seemed more about rides than aquatic life. But hopefully the experience will still help build Kate's appreciation for animals.

It wasn't until after the trip that I watched "Blackfish" on Netflix. The experience made me feel dirty for forking over dough to SeaWorld.

The film focuses on the orca that killed Brancheau, showing it was involved in two previous deaths. It suggests the circumstances around the orca's capture and previous treatment at a Canadian aquarium contributed to aggressive behavior.

But the film hardly lets SeaWorld off the hook for its confinement and training of killer whales. It also makes a compelling case that killer whales are intelligent and emotionally complex creatures, and that they shouldn't be kept in captivity at all.

I was left feeling conflicted between two points of view expressed near the film's end.

"What if there were no SeaWorlds? I can't imagine a society with the value we put in marine mammals if those parks didn't exist," one former SeaWorld trainer said.

Another former trainer provided the opposite view: "I'm not at all interested in having my daughter, who is 3, grow up thinking that it's normalized to have these intelligent, highly-evolved animals in concrete pools."

I'm no vegetarian, and I find it hard to resolve the idea that it's fine to eat animals but not keep them in theme parks or zoos. Yet I don't want to be complicit in the torture of majestic creatures with complex brains and deep social bonds.

As my daughter's stuffed Shamu doll stares at me when I return home, I'm still struggling for the right answer.

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