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Thurston: 'Blackfish' disturbing, but doesn't warrant SeaWorld boycott

"One of the whales ate a trainer."

That's a line from the opening sequence of Blackfish, a documentary critical of SeaWorld's treatment of killer whales, taken from the 911 call about the attack on Dawn Brancheau.

The shock doesn't end there. An interview with a paramedic said she was scalped and lost an arm, which was swallowed by the whale and never recovered, a point SeaWorld disputes.

Regardless, for anyone who swims in the ocean, it's horrifying.

The deadly incident is the basis of the 2013 film now at the center of a public relations nightmare for SeaWorld and, as of last week, its sister park in Tampa, Busch Gardens. The movie focuses on a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum — the killer whale involved in Brancheau's death — and the dangers of keeping orcas in captivity.

Reviewers have said the movie could make you rethink places like SeaWorld. At least one warned watchers to keep Kleenex handy.

Parts of it are painful to watch. My heart broke over the story of a mother whale screeching when separated from her baby. Or the interview with the whale hunter who said, "We were only after the little ones," describing the capture like kidnapping a kid from its mother.

But was it surprising and fodder for boycotts and cancellations by performers at SeaWorld-owned parks? Not really. The debate over whales in captivity is an old one, and while SeaWorld might not be perfect, it has a strong track record for rescuing, rehabilitating and studying marine animals.

The sad reality is that humans have been doing cruel things to animals well before Shamu. Remember those baby harp seals clobbered to death for their fluffy white coats? Or the elephants slaughtered for their ivory? Do we like hamburgers?

You can find a case of abuse for any animal on earth. You can also find evidence that, at least in some areas, we have evolved and improved. Elephants don't live in cages at Busch Gardens. Faux fur is in fashion.

Even the movie talks about change. It quotes an expert saying that 35 years ago we didn't know a lot about killer whales. We didn't know about their intelligence, social need and emotional nature, and because of that, things done decades ago should not be done today.

A lot of the film's criticism relating to Tilikum — how he was captured in the wild in 1983 at age 2 and how he was confined to a "small, steel floating box" for 14 hours a day — happened years ago before he arrived at SeaWorld. He was at a park in Canada called Sealand of the Pacific, where former trainers said the inhumane conditions could have led to psychosis and triggered violence. In 1991, Tilikum was involved in the death of a trainer there and transferred to SeaWorld. Sealand closed for good.

SeaWorld, for its part, has called Blackfish propaganda from animal activists, and "to set the record straight" it has launched a section on its website called "Truth About Blackfish." Thanks to the success of research in marine mammal reproduction, the park says it doesn't capture animals in the wild. Its animals are born in captivity. It also doesn't separate a mother from its calf, except in cases where the mother can't care for it. It cites statistics showing SeaWorld has rescued more than 23,000 animals and invested $70 million in its killer whale habitat in the past three years, since Brancheau's death in 2010.

You can boil down the debate to personal beliefs about animals in captivity. I wonder if Pat Benatar or the Beach Boys — musical acts that canceled shows at Busch Gardens over the controversy — have ever been to a zoo. Do they love giraffes because they saw them roaming the African plains or because they fed one a cracker at an attraction?

It's obvious the former trainers interviewed in Blackfish are passionate about animals, and I bet the current trainers are, too. Some probably saw a whale show as a kid and dreamed about working with them side by side. I know my 7-year-old loves seeing dolphins in the Hillsborough Bay because she saw them at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and watched the movie Dolphin Tale.

My top takeaway from Blackfish is that trainers don't belong in the water with killer whales. It seems crazy to send a 175-pound person into a pool with anything that weighs thousands of pounds, even after extensive training. The whales might look beautiful and friendly, but they are the ocean's top predators, known for eating sea lions, walruses and even other whales. And they can stay underwater a whole lot longer than people.

In the wake of the trainer's death, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration banned trainers from swimming with killer whales during shows as part of its ruling that SeaWorld violated safety standards. SeaWorld is appealing.

I'd think the park could regain some friends if it dropped that fight. We don't play tag with the tigers at Busch Gardens, and we shouldn't do flips with killer whales at SeaWorld. We should respect their wildness, even if they don't live in the wild.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com | or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston on Twitter.

Thurston: 'Blackfish' disturbing, but doesn't warrant SeaWorld boycott 01/28/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 10:33pm]
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