The documentary Blackfish made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival when it premiered last 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 who pulled trainer Dawn Brancheau into the water and killed her at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010. In telling the story, Blackfish relies heavily on interviews with former SeaWorld trainers like 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," Berg says in the movie. "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."
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.
"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," he says. "And I don't think they anticipated that."
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 10-year-old Kirra Kotler, from Malibu, Calif. She watched Blackfish with her father.
"It's like seeing you get pulled away from your family, and I felt a little sad. I cried at one part of the movie, and I just wish that that did not happen," she says.
After seeing the film, Kotler persuaded 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.
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 said it raised questions for him while he was at the park with his kids.
"I was just wondering and thinking about all the animals, and especially about what has been happening to the whales. I was just thinking, 'Are they happy?' We really don't know."
This was Silva's second trip to SeaWorld; he said he doesn'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.
"I say, as someone who has worked with 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," Kittleson says.
Coombs says that 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.
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