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Months After 'Blackfish' Release, Controversy Over SeaWorld Grows

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Months After 'Blackfish' Release, Controversy Over SeaWorld Grows

Animals

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. When contenders for the Academy Awards are announced tomorrow, a film called "Blackfish" could be among the nominees. It's on the short list for Best Documentary. But executives at SeaWorld say it is flawed. "Blackfish" examines the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando, in 2010. It raises questions about the theme park's treatment of its killer whales.

NPR's Greg Allen reports "Blackfish" has sparked a debate that months after the picture's release, is still growing.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: "Blackfish" made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival when it premiered in January, and got more attention when it was released in theaters over the summer. But it didn't reach its largest audience until October, when millions watched it on CNN. It's a powerful documentary that focuses on Tilikum, the male orca that pulled Brancheau into the water and killed her. In telling the story, "Blackfish" relies heavily on interviews with former SeaWorld trainers, like Samantha Berg.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY. "BLACKFISH")

SAMANTHA BERG: It's time to stop the shows. It's time to stop forcing the animals to perform in basically a circus environment. And they should release the animals that are young enough and healthy enough to be released and the animals like Tilikum, who are old and sick and have put in 25 years in the industry, should be released to an open ocean pen so they...

ALLEN: SeaWorld dismissed "Blackfish" as shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading and scientifically inaccurate, when it was released over the summer. But then the company went silent. Timothy Coombs, a communications professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, says the company seemed to be hoping the controversy would fade.

TIMOTHY COOMBS: But the attention spiked and kept going as more and more music artists began to cancel at SeaWorld. And it just escalated on them very quickly. And I don't think they anticipated that.

ALLEN: Responding to online petitions from fans, Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson and several other musical acts canceled engagements at SeaWorld. Using social media, advocates are now attempting to put pressure on SeaWorld partner Southwest Airlines and other corporations. It's a movement that includes many young people, like Kirra Kotler. She's a 10-year-old from Malibu, Calif., who watched "Blackfish" with her dad.

KIRRA KOTLER: It's like seeing you get pullen(ph) away from your family. And I felt a little sad, and I cried in one part of the movie. And I just wish that that did not happen.

ALLEN: After seeing the film, Kotler convinced students and the principal at her school to cancel an overnight trip to SeaWorld, San Diego - a trip the school has done for a decade. The school now is making plans to take students on a whale-watching trip instead.

Last month, SeaWorld finally responded. The park published an open letter in several newspapers that didn't mention "Blackfish," but defended its record of caring for killer whales. And this week, the company released an interim financial report, saying it had record attendance in the fourth quarter and that it expects to report its highest-ever annual revenue in March.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND CROWD NOISES)

ALLEN: SeaWorld is still drawing big crowds. Across the street from the park in Orlando this week, Brazilian tourist Eduardo Silva said he hadn't seen "Blackfish," but knew about it. And, he says, it raised questions for him while he was at the park with his kids.

EDUARDO SILVA: I was just wondering and thinking about it and all the animals, and especially about what is happening to the whales. And I was just thinking, are they happy? We really don't know. That's the question.

ALLEN: This was Silva's second time to SeaWorld, but he said he didn't know if he'll be coming back. While SeaWorld has largely avoided taking on "Blackfish" and the film's supporters directly, in recent weeks others have stepped in. Blogs that cover the theme park industry have been critical of the documentary. And on social media, supporters of the theme park have mounted an anti-"Blackfish" backlash that includes former SeaWorld trainers like Kyle Kittleson.

KYLE KITTLESON: I say, as someone who has worked with the animals, I can assure you that they are in the best of hands. There is no harm being done to them. There is only the best possible care being provided for them.

ALLEN: University of Central Florida Professor Timothy Coombs says for now, SeaWorld can't hope to win over its critics. But the defense of the company taking shape in social media is important in that it reinforces SeaWorld supporters and customers, and gives them a reason to come back.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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