Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

'Blackfish' sparks debate over taking kids to animal parks

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 11:29 AM EDT, Mon October 28, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Blackfish" tells the story of the 2010 death of an experienced SeaWorld trainer
  • It questions the safety and humaneness of keeping killer whales in captivity
  • Parents across the country have different feelings about taking kids to SeaWorld and zoos
  • There are benefits and costs to keeping animals in captivity, parents say

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter. Watch an encore of "Blackfish" on CNN, Saturday, November 2 at 9 p.m. ET.

(CNN) -- The family trip to San Diego that we've been discussing, in part to visit SeaWorld with the kids, might be off -- indefinitely. I relayed that news to my husband (he wasn't pleased) after watching the stirring documentary "Blackfish," which will be showcased on CNN at 9 p.m. ET Thursday.

The film tells the story of the killing in 2010 of experienced SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by a 12,000-pound orca.

You might be surprised to find out that the director of "Blackfish," Gabriela Cowperthwaite, once would routinely take her kids to shows at SeaWorld in San Diego. That was the case until that day nearly four years ago when the whale Brancheau trained and performed with in Orlando pulled her underwater.

The death led Cowperthwaite to make a documentary, raising questions about the safety and humaneness of keeping killer whales in captivity over the past 39 years.

READ: Cowperthwaite explains her motivation

The film includes interviews with a number of former SeaWorld trainers, including one who said he would never take his child to SeaWorld.

"I am not at all interested in having my daughter who is 3-and-a-half grow up thinking that it's normalized to have these intelligent, highly evolved animals in concrete pools," said John Jett, a former SeaWorld trainer, who said he grew increasingly concerned about the stressful conditions the animals were living under at SeaWorld. "I don't want her to think that's how we treat the kin that we find ourselves around on this planet. I think it's atrocious."

READ: A chilling documentary on captive killer whales

In conversations with parents across the country, most of whom had not seen the film and many of whom contribute to the parenting and lifestyle site Babble.com, I found strong differences of opinion about keeping animals in captivity and about taking kids to SeaWorld as well as to zoos, circuses and aquariums.

Parents weigh benefits and costs of captivity

Janis Brett Elspas\' oldest son back in 1998 during the first of some 20 family trips to SeaWorld.
Janis Brett Elspas' oldest son back in 1998 during the first of some 20 family trips to SeaWorld.

Janis Brett Elspas of Los Angeles, who describes herself as a lifelong animal lover, took her four kids, 16-year-old triplets and a 17-year-old, to SeaWorld every chance she could from the time they were very little.

"Since I love nature, I really wanted them to be exposed to that early," the host of the blog Mommy Blog Expert and social media strategist said in an interview.

At a time when some species of whale are on the endangered list, Elspas believes places such as SeaWorld provide crucial education to children about whales.

"We need to educate children about why these whales are so important, why they're so beautiful, what their unique characteristics are, because these kids are also going to be the world's future marine biologists," she said.

READ: Working with killer whales is a calculated risk, trainers say

Joanna Mazewski, a mom of two who grew up in Orlando, Florida, wholeheartedly agrees.

History of killer whale capture

"If we don't give our children the opportunity to go visit them, how else would they learn about these animals?" said Mazewski, who is a Babble.com contributor. "It's a hands-on experience and a hands-on opportunity, too."

Killer whales, or orcas, were first put on public display in the 1960s. The best known killer whale shows in the United States are at SeaWorld Parks, which are synonymous with their "Shamu" killer whale shows, seen here. Killer whales, or orcas, were first put on public display in the 1960s. The best known killer whale shows in the United States are at SeaWorld Parks, which are synonymous with their "Shamu" killer whale shows, seen here.
Killer whales in captivity
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
Killer whales in captivity Killer whales in captivity
The truth behind orcas in captivity

On the other side are moms such as Pilar Clark, who believes parents should not take their kids to SeaWorld, circuses or other places where "animals are made to perform for the enjoyment of humans."

'Blackfish' looks at whales in captivity

At a very young age, Clark was deeply affected by animals in captivity, begging her parents to take her home early after trips to the circus and SeaWorld.

"I still have a photo of myself posing awkwardly in front of a lion standing on top of an elephant, and that bothered me so much," the mom of two, social media strategist and contributor to Babble.com said.

"I didn't really want to see the wild animals being made to do what people wanted them to do."

Explaining SeaWorld position to kids, other parents

Clark's kids, 4 and 7, have no issue with the family position of "No SeaWorld, circuses and aquariums," but other parents are a different story. An awkward conversation usually ensues when other families invite Clark and her kids along to an animal park or circus.

"People are taken aback when you say, 'You know what, I don't really agree with circuses or believe in them, so we'll pass,' " Clark said. "That always seems to shock people a little bit, at least I've found."

READ: SeaWorld video causes uproar online

Sheri Silver with her daughter Chelsea Behrens who says films like \
Sheri Silver with her daughter Chelsea Behrens who says films like "The Cove" and "Blackfish" changed her life.

Sheri Silver and her family have made a 180-degree shift in terms of their feelings about places such as SeaWorld. Silver's daughter, now 22, was obsessed with sharks and marine life in general beginning at 3 and dreamed of swimming with dolphins.

So, at 10, her parents took her to SeaWorld to swim with the dolphins, and then at 16, she swam with them again in the Bahamas. But during her college years, she saw the documentary film "The Cove," which explores the killing of dolphins and porpoises in Japan. Everything changed.

"She was devastated by what she learned," said Silver, a mom of three, blogger and food writer for Babble.com. "She made every member of our family watch it ... and those issues became very much on our radar to the point where we stopped going to aquariums."

Once "Blackfish" came out, they immediately went to see it and were deeply moved.

Jack Hanna: I still visit SeaWorld
SeaWorld trainer on recent controversy
Video shows orca trainer's close call

"There's not only no kind way, no humane way to keep (whales) in captivity. It is traumatizing to them," Silver said. "Once you know it, you can't ... unknow it and go with any kind of open mind or heart."

SeaWorld's conservation efforts

Elspas, the Los Angeles mom of four, says she feels bad when whales are captured or born into captivity, but she says they are not safe in nature, either, citing how some countries still permit their slaughter.

Places such as SeaWorld, she says, are one of the few ways to preserve and protect each species of whale from extinction ultimately.

"I think a lot of the anti-whale-in-captivity people are thinking that people are using them for entertainment value and for their own selfish purposes, but I think it's really important from the educational aspect."

READ: Is it time for America to close its zoos?

Also missing from the discussion, said Orlando-native Mazewski, are the conservation efforts by SeaWorld, which include taking in injured birds and animals and having staffers travel to beaches to recover stranded animals.

"There is a controversy," said Mazewski. "At the same time, they are doing a lot of good to save a lot of animals that would be in danger or ... wouldn't survive in their natural habitats."

READ: SeaWorld says 'Blackfish' ignores conservation, research benefits

On the fence

Somewhere in the middle are parents such as Alice Gomstyn, who participated in coverage of the SeaWorld 2010 death during her time as a Web producer for ABC News.

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

Gomstyn says she has to balance her concerns about animals in captivity with how certain places help endangered species continue to survive. She's waiting until her two children, 11 months and 3 years old, get a bit older to decide whether animal parks are a potential family destination.

"It's easy to say, 'Well, I'm not going to visit any of these places' " she said. "But when you have a child and you see his face light up at the sight of a four-legged furry thing, it's hard to deny him that joy."

Gomstyn, who is now a Babble.com contributor, also wonders what the alternatives would be if there were no SeaWorlds, zoos and aquariums, since most families can't afford to spend thousands of dollars on an African safari or on a whale-watching expedition.

"I think (kids') universes of animals, or at least live animals, would be limited to the squirrels, cats and dogs in the neighborhood, which I think would be too bad for them because kids these days in general have a lot less exposure to wild animals than they did years ago," Gomstyn said. "And I think they are missing out because of that."

Follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter and like CNN Living on Facebook.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:14 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
The death of a Georgia toddler in a hot car raises the question: should government or automakers get involved to prevent accidental deaths from heatstroke inside a car?
updated 11:04 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
It's not just the 'baby blues.' Postpartum depression affects about 15% of new mothers. Here's what one 'warrior woman' is doing to fight it.
Post your personal essays and original photos, and tell us how it really is.
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
What does it mean to run "like a girl"? A new viral video points out that the answer changes depending on whom you ask.
updated 5:22 PM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
CNN reporter Moni Basu lived in the U.S. nearly 30 years before becoming a citizen. Here's what it meant to pledge her allegiance.
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
Her daughter was cut from the team. Her son didn't get into that coveted honors class. It was hard but also helpful. Here's how one mom learned to find lessons in failure.
updated 6:33 PM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Your be-all, end-all, modern authority on awkward interactions, stressful situations, and elbows on the table.
updated 11:56 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
The presence of transgender and gender nonconforming youth at NYC Pride March is latest effort to increase visibility of the transgender community.
updated 6:27 PM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
A new ad by the hair care company Pantene asks why women are always apologizing and raises the question of whether women say "sorry" more often than men.
updated 8:48 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
The American Academy of Pediatrics announced new guidelines this week urging doctors to tell parents to read to their infants and toddlers.
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Sat June 28, 2014
David Martinez grew up thinking he was just an average American kid. When he learned he was undocumented immigrant, it made him re-examine his beliefs about Mexican identity.
updated 1:47 PM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
A new survey says that working fathers, like working mothers, find it hard to balance work and family.
updated 6:29 AM EDT, Fri June 20, 2014
Jenny Mollen has no issue tweeting her breastfeeding. The new author talks motherhood and having a (more) famous husband
updated 5:20 PM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
Experts say "mean girl" behavior begins as young as elementary school. Here's how to prevent raising a mean girl.
updated 6:40 PM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
While dads today don't get the same respect and attention as moms, and are often depicted as clueless, they've come a long way, baby.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Wed June 18, 2014
North West, the 1-year-old daughter of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, is already a social media darling due to her mom's active presence on Instagram. Now the child's new look is sparking some controversy online.
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Wed June 18, 2014
In this celebrity mecca, where the issue usually is "Who's your daddy," actor Jason Patric is engaged in a court fight that raises an even thornier question: What is a daddy?
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri June 20, 2014
If you weren't part of the "cool club" in middle school, you may have an extra spring in your step after hearing about a new study, which could be titled "Revenge of the Nerds."
updated 7:26 PM EDT, Wed June 11, 2014
Founders of "Black Women Do Breastfeed" say the message behind the image of a breastfeeding graduate has gotten lost in social media chatter.
updated 12:05 PM EDT, Wed June 11, 2014
After another mass tragedy, parents are deciding how and what to tell their kids.
updated 7:12 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Matt Logelin's wife died in 2008, hours after giving birth. Just as he became a dad, he also became a single dad -- with all its triumphs and trials. "Every day is Father's Day," he says.
updated 8:58 AM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
Nearly half of U.S. women of childbearing age don't have children. And yet this demographic remains misunderstood, poorly portrayed in the media.
updated 5:55 PM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
How can we be sure our children can truly separate reality from fantasy? What are the warning signs that children are confusing the two?
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Fri June 6, 2014
Kids love them, but parents aren't so sure about bounce houses. Here's how industry experts say parents can keep kids safe while still having fun.
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT