According to theme park news site Screamscape.com, five of the big name performers scheduled for an upcoming annual concert series at SeaWorld Orlando have cancelled their bookings over concerns about allegations brought up in the recent documentary film Blackfish. I have both seen the film, of which I was kindly sent a screener copy by distributor Magnolia Pictures, and read the related book Death at SeaWorld by David Kirby. It is not my intent to either discredit or validate these works, though I can attest they follow a style of presentation that the animal rights movement established more than a quarter century ago.
At that time, I was an intern at Sea World (note the space, delineating the spelling and ownership then from now) when two big things took place – the construction of the new larger orca “birthing” pools and the sudden closure and overnight transit of animals from Marineland of the Pacific. I spoke with the protesters at the gates and read the articles and literature coming out. Much of what happened then, I blame on a man I call “The Bookseller,” William Jovanovich. As CEO and President of the theme park chain’s owner, book publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, these were his decisions. But since then, the park has changed ownership, first to Anheuser Busch, then Blackstone, and now it’s publicly held. With ownership changes came management changes and radical departures in the way things are done, a point often skirted around in media coverage. In essence, the SeaWorld of today is not the same chain that operated under HBJ.
If you are interested in the film or the book, I encourage you to watch and/or read them. But don’t take them as gospel. It’s important to have a well rounded understanding of this complicated issue, and I highly suggest that you contact organizations on both sides, including the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, the International Marine Animal Trainers Association, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Center for Whale Research, the Animal Welfare Institute, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
peta, one of the biggest proponents of the film, is an organization that I have a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, I agree with their stance on the American Human Association’s monitoring of animals on film and television sets. It’s a farce. And not many know that the program is overseen and financed by the Screen Actors Guild, a trade organization that, by its very admission, does not allow animals to be members. On the other hand, peta’s attempt to free SeaWorld’s orcas by claiming that holding them is in violation of the 13th Amendment was just as farcical. The judge was right to point out that the 13th only applies to humans. And while science may have shown orcas to be social animals, they have not yet developed civilization. In order to to do that would require the ability to build large communal structures from raw materials. The only way I see this happening is for orcas to telepathically control humans to do their bidding. But perhaps that’s how those larger SeaWorld tanks came to be.
There’s a fringe element as well supporting the film. These folks troll the internet for any mention of SeaWorld and fight back with allegations of lies, and deceit, and “go watch Blackfish.” At the slightest tweet of something as innocuous as a parade float, the trolls hit en masse. They’ve hit me and I’ve had reports of them hitting numerous bloggers and reporters as well.
@ThemedReality @seaworld @zoos_aquariums @cnn but #seaworld u have to admit u screwed yourself by abusing animals for ticket sales! Now reap
This kind of approach to the film not only presents itself as hostile, but makes the film appear as if its intent is not “education” but rather “assault.”
Then there’s CNN, the 24-hour cable network that “delivers the most comprehensive, nonpartisan and breaking news and analysis to global audiences across all platforms.” CNN has broadcast Blackfish a number of times over the past couple of months. Each time it’s been broadcast, there’s been a noticeably sharp increase of anti-SeaWorld comments posted to the park’s facebook and twitter accounts, prompting SeaWorld to post on their facebook page the evening of November 3:
This is a family friendly page, administered by SeaWorld Orlando, for the benefit and enjoyment of its fans. We welcome comments and if you have a question for us, we’ll do our best to answer it. We won’t tolerate offensive language or topics, though…
Much was made about SeaWorld’s reluctance to participate in CNN’s “discussion” over the film. Jack Hanna, who admitted to being a paid spokesman for the chain, did appear in a rather awkward appearance on air with the filmmakers and eventually SeaWorld’s Vice President of Communications, Fred Jacobs, responded in writing to prepared questions. All this, of course, focused suspicion on SeaWorld and its motives. But SeaWorld had very good reason not to participate. Earlier this year, at the Sundance Film Festival, CNN’s new film unit acquired Blackfish, a fact not always mentioned in CNN’s web postings. By demonizing SeaWorld and building interest in the film, CNN stands to make millions – from each and every ticket and video sale and rental and from the ad dollars surrounding broadcast rights and other CNN coverage of the film.
It’s much like the recent 60 Minutes interview with Dylan Davies regarding his experience during the terrorist attack on the Benghazi consulate in Libya. When allegations of false testimony arose, 60 Minutes gave a half-ass apology on air, apologizing for not having done a more thorough investigation, but never admitting to doing wrong. As npr’s media watchdog show On the Media pointed out, the segment was tied in with a book written by Davies and published by CBS’s publishing arm, Simon & Schuster, a fact that was never disclosed on air.
Although it’s hard to tell what kind of direct impact CNN’s treatment of Blackfish is having on attendance at SeaWorld’s parks, the aforementioned concert cancellations do show that it is indeed impacting the park’s operations. This marks the second time that media coverage has affected a theme park in the past few months.
Earlier, I reported on Universal Studios Hollywood canceling their popular Bill & Ted show over allegations of homophobia. If you recall, a blogger for a counterculture publication wrote a post denouncing a plot point in the show where Superman turns gay and then performs homosexual sex acts. Mainstream LGBT media picked up on the piece and eventually advocacy group GLAAD went over the heads of park management directly to parent company NBCUniversal and were able to have the show canceled.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s that we live in a society saturated with double standards.
What if the actor playing Superman had been gay? (I don’t know, he might have been)
What if the show’s writers were gay? (I’ve heard that one of them may have been)
What if it were performed for a gay audience?
What if it were in a cabaret, night club, theater, or comedy club catering to gay clientele?
Even with the same sexual innuendos, it most likely would have been acceptable. As someone who used to work in management in San Francisco’s theater community, one of the first things I learned is that there are differing degrees of acceptability to different audiences.
When Jerry Seinfeld or Joan Rivers jokes about Jews and their financial frugality, it’s comedy. If a non-Jew makes the same joke, it can be taken as antisemitism.
Then of course, there’s the old question of “What’s the difference between a white man saying the ‘N-word’ and a black man saying the ‘N-word’?”
The white man’s Quentin Tarantino, the black man’s not.
Bryant Gumble, on a recent episode of RealSports, spoke about the hypocrisy of speaking the N-word, regardless of color. He points out that the word is a weapon. “To define, demean, and destroy millions of people should never be forgotten.”
Gumble’s point can be taken one step further – that suddenly appropriating something does not eradicate the past.
CNN could learn from this. Nowhere in their coverage of Blackfish and SeaWorld on air or online have I seen them disclose their owner, TimeWarner’s, own relationship, both historically and current, with parks that house marine mammals.
They have not disclosed how sister company Warner Bros. once had an ownership stake in both Six Flags and Village Roadshow Theme Parks. During that time, parks under their ownership featured performing marine mammals.
They have not disclosed how Warner Bros. continues to license its properties to Six Flags and Village Roadshow. One of the Six Flags parks had a performing orca until it was moved to SeaWorld in August 2012, and while it had that orca, that Six Flags park continued to run shows and attractions based on Warner Bros. characters.
They have not disclosed how Warner Bros.’ film The Polar Express has for numerous years, including this, played in IMAX and a shortened attraction format at numerous zoos and aquariums that house marine mammals. One of those happens to be SeaWorld Orlando, the very park targeted in Blackfish, where the Polar Express Experience culminates with a visit with Santa at the North Pole, where he is accompanied by live belugas and polar bears.
They have not disclosed how their immediate parent, Turner Broadcasting, in 1991 purchased Hanna Barbera, which from 1978 to 1982 operated Marineland of the Pacific near Los Angeles, which featured two performing orcas that eventually found their way to SeaWorld.
Nor have they disclosed that Turner Broadcasting is a corporate sponsor of the Georgia Aquarium, with which the “Inside CNN Studio Tour” offers a joint ticket. The aquarium, of course, houses belugas and performing dolphins.
But I guess they don’t need to disclose that. Because a white whale’s not a Blackfish.
Make sure to catch Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on CNN. He support’s Canada’s seal meat industry.
[NOTE 12/16/13: There has been some confusion on the internet regarding my comments on TimeWarner's relationship with Six Flags. TimeWarner has never owned Marine World, now known as Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, where the orca named Shouka performed before being moved to SeaWorld San Diego in August, 2012. In 1993, TimeWarner had acquired full ownership of the Six Flags theme park chain (it first purchased a 19.5% share in 1990). In 1998, the chain was sold to Premiere parks, which already operated a number of other theme parks, including Marine World. Two years later, Premiere Parks changed its corporate name to Six Flags. As explained, Warner Bros. continued licensing agreements with Six Flags after its sale by TimeWarner. However, TimeWarner's ownership of Six Flags is included as a separate bullet due to the daily performances of Avalon and Cody, two domestically-bred bottlenose dolphins at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey at the time TimeWarner owned the park. The dolphins were acquired by the park in 1994 and 1996 respectively.]