Four years of Awareness since Dawn’s Death

Today marks the 4th anniversary of Dawn Brancheau’s death and the four year journey of heightened awareness of orcas in captivity. Sadly, that awareness came too late for Dawn.  One has to wonder how she would feel if she were still here today, especially knowing that she was blamed for her own death.  There is no denying that her story opened the eyes of millions of people to the issues surrounding captivity.

I still remember that day clearly, the local news in Orlando constantly showing Tilikum alone inside his tiny tank as if being punished.  I didn’t know what to think.  Up to this point, I had never considered captivity being wrong.  I had visited the park on many occasions and had undoubtedly seen Dawn perform in several shows through the years. She was a local hero and a senior trainer at the park. I was dumbfounded.  Who’s fault was it? What would happen to Tilikum?

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Photo from WFTV gallery

Many others also began questioning what went wrong.  First was Tim Zimmermann who wrote the comprehensive Killer in the Pool, an inside look into the subject of orcas in captivity.  He writes about Dawn:

IF ANYONE WAS GOING to take care around Tilikum, it was Dawn Brancheau. She was one of SeaWorld’s best and completely dedicated to the animals and her job. (She even met her husband, Scott, in the SeaWorld cafeteria.) She had worked at SeaWorld Orlando since 1994, spending two years working with otters and sea lions before graduating to work with the killer whales. She was fun and selfless, volunteering at a local animal shelter and often keeping everything from stray ducks and chickens to rabbits and small birds at her home.

Next, David Kirby writes Death at SeaWorld, giving detailed information of not only Dawn’s death, but also those victims before her. Kirby also outlines many other prior incidents previously hidden from the public.  Coupled with the studies of wild orca populations by Dr. Naomi Rose, the book exposes the dark side of orcas in captivity.

Following the release of the book, HSUS released The Real SeaWorld, a powerful 4 minute video featuring David Kirby, Dr. Naomi Rose, Jeff Ventre, Sam Berg and Carol Ray.

Probably the most powerful change has been the release of Blackfish.  Blackfish director Gabriella Cowperthwaite tells David Kirby that she made the film to answer the questions: Why was a senior trainer killed by such a highly intelligent animal, an animal with whom she presumably had a relationship?  Why would such a highly emotional, intelligent animal bite the hand that feeds it?

Blackfish opened at Sundance Film Festival last January and premiered on CNN October 24, 2013 as #1 in cable news averaging 472k in the key-demo adults 25-54 rating. Millions of people have seen the film and the views of the public are rapidly changing against captivity.

Dawn was the fourth victim taken by killer whales in captivity, but it was her death that brought the captivity issue into the forefront of public awareness.  There is no doubt that she had a love for the animals she cared for. I only hope that her story changes the way we view these animals and that our love for them is translated into doing the right thing.

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Blackfish Effect At Work: Southwest Airlines

Tim Zimmermann

It has been amazing to see all the Blackfish-inspired efforts to campaign for changes in the way we see and think about SeaWorld and the captive display of orcas. There have been a multitude of grassroots petitions urging musical acts to avoid playing at SeaWorld. There have also been grassroots efforts to inspire SeaWorld’s corporate partners to revisit their relationship with a business that displays orcas. For example, this Change.org petition to Southwest Airlines.

The response from singers and bands has been impressive. But getting corporate partners to move on from longstanding relationships is a bigger challenge, and multiple approaches are possible. That’s why I wanted to flag Kimberly Ventre’s quiet and respectful effort to engage Southwest about its relationship with SeaWorld. Instead of rallying thousands of potential fliers to petition Southwest, it is based on a strategy of trying to engage Southwest’s leadership in a thoughtful conversation…

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Who Is White Sphere? The Barely Disguised Conglomerate Behind Russia’s Wild Orca Captures

Who Is White Sphere? The Barely Disguised Conglomerate Behind Russia’s Wild Orca Captures

Tim Zimmermann

So there are no killer whales in Sochi for the Olympics, just athletes and spectators.

But the run-up to the opening of the Winter Games featured an unexpected, and persistent, media story-line: wild-caught Russian killer whales would be joining the athletes at the Black Sea resort. Based mostly on rumors, mysterious and contradictory tweets, and unconfirmed reports, the basic narrative was that a Russian company called White Sphere had, over the past two years, captured 8 orcas from the Sea Of Okhotsk and two of them were headed to Sochi to wow the Olympic crowds and generate Olympic-size profits for the Sochi Dolphinarium.

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The story mobilized animal rights activists, and reporters bombarded White Sphere and the Sochi Dolphinarium with questions about their killer whale doings. After trying to ignore media queries, the story got enough traction that White Sphere, a builder of aquariums (including aquariums…

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Kid Rock at Bands, Brew and BBQ

SeaWorld announced it’s first two acts for Bands, Brew and BBQ in the middle of last week after 9 other acts bailed out of the line-up. Although there wasn’t much time, petitions were launched for both Alan Jackson and Kid Rock to cancel the show.  Unfortunately they both followed through.

Kid Rock’s petition had close to 3,000 signatures by the time he took the stage on Superbowl Sunday, plus numerous phone calls, messages and tweets were sent to him and his management team.

So why did he go through with it?  During the show, Kid stated that he likes SeaWorld because “they pay taxes”.

Apparently he hasn’t read the post from Scott Maxwell in the Orlando Sentinel last April.  Maxwell quotes SeaWorld Orlando CEO Jim Atchinson:

“We won’t be a taxpayer for several years to come,” SeaWorld Orlando CEO Jim Atchison boasted in a recent Sentinel article by reporter Jason Garcia. “That’s a great advantage for us.” 

And goes on to say: thanks to a boatload of tax breaks and deductions, SeaWorld won’t be paying for any of those things through income taxes.

Businesses don’t expand to get tax breaks. They expand to boost profits.

That’s what SeaWorld did. It mounted an aggressive expansion and rebranding — not to stimulate the economy or for any greater societal good — but to boost its bottom line.

And it did so in splendid fashion.

We can all applaud that success. But we can also ask the successful to pay for the public services they consume — instead of shifting the burden to others.

The show is over, but Kid Rock still needs to get the memo.  Education never stops.