Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

'Blackfish' sparks debate over taking kids to animal parks

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
October 28, 2013 -- Updated 1529 GMT (2329 HKT)
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
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1736 GMT (0136 HKT)
Actress Emma Watson not only stirred the Internet with her recent moving speech before the United Nations, but she also joined a cadre of celebrities who have used their star power to bring attention to gender issues.
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Clemson University suspends mandatory online course that asked questions about sex lives, drinking and drug use.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Does the word "virginity" evoke discussions of sexuality or religious belief? That's the question residents in Fayetteville, Arkansas, are asking after a junior high student was asked to change out of a T-shirt that read "Virginity Rocks."
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1438 GMT (2238 HKT)
Not knowing exactly where her ancestors come from has always bothered Kelly Wallace, but she's heartened to learn about some of the famous cousins she never knew she had.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Many superstar athletes from Michael Vick to Tiger Woods were ultimately forgiven by fans and the public. Could Ray Rice also get a second chance?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
The indictment of NFL star Adrian Peterson on child abuse charges has revealed sharp differences in cultural, regional and generational attitudes toward using physical force to discipline kids.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
cara reedy
The world often treats little people like Cara Reedy as less than human. She's learned to stand up for herself and shout back.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
The unheard voices of domestic abuse spoke up on CNN iReport when Rihanna's story of abuse came to light. In light of the Ray Rice controversy, we decided to bring back these stories that are still just as powerful as the day they were told.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
More than 3 million children witness domestic violence every year, and the damage can last a lifetime.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
As media outlets Monday circulated video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator, many wondered why the woman -- now his wife -- could remain with him.
September 4, 2014 -- Updated 1652 GMT (0052 HKT)
The ways mother-daughter book clubs can help empower girls are the focus of a new book, "Her Next Chapter."
September 4, 2014 -- Updated 1344 GMT (2144 HKT)
Colleges are working to prevent sexual assault by educating students on affirmative consent, or only "yes means yes."
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1443 GMT (2243 HKT)
A mom questions if she wants her daughters seeing a "sado-masochistic relationship, dressed up as a Hollywood love fantasy?"
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
In 2014, why is society still so incredibly uncomfortable with public breastfeeding? Kelly Wallace gets to the root of the controversy.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1442 GMT (2242 HKT)
Seven years ago, Barbara Theodosiou, then a successful entrepreneur, stopped going to meetings, leaving the house and taking care of herself. She grew increasingly distraught -- her two children were addicts.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
The situation in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, throws America's problem with talking about race into sharp relief.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 0225 GMT (1025 HKT)
Mo'ne Davis is the first girl to throw a shutout in the Little League World Series. She's an inspiration, but will she change the face of the sport?
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0036 GMT (0836 HKT)
There is a reason why when people post pictures of themselves during their middle school years on Facebook for "Throw Back Thursday," we all stop and take notice.
It could cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise your child -- and that's not even including college costs, according to new government estimates.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 0409 GMT (1209 HKT)
From parent to son, uncle to nephew, there's a raw, private conversation being revived in America in the wake of violence in Ferguson, Missouri.
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Children sometimes get left out of our conversations about mental illness. The truth is, they suffer too.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 2114 GMT (0514 HKT)
CNN's Kat Kinsman says that talking freely about personal mental health and suicidal thoughts can help others.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1726 GMT (0126 HKT)
morning person
Easy tips on how to improve everything from your dinner order to the song in your head to your career.
August 7, 2014 -- Updated 1733 GMT (0133 HKT)
The case of an Arizona mom who left her kids in a car during a job interview highlights the fluid line between bad parenting and criminal behavior.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
A children's book about gun rights has benefited from an unexpected boost in sales after it became the subject of a mocking segment on a talk show.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Some campers and counselors keep the campfire flames burning with summer flings that become lifetime commitments.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
After letting her 7-year-old son walk from their home to a park to play, a Florida mother faces up to five years in jail for child neglect.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1916 GMT (0316 HKT)
Lindsey Rogers-Seitz, who lost her son in a hot car, hopes mandatory technology in cars and car seats will stop child death from heatstroke in cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1442 GMT (2242 HKT)
Not to mention your jeans, bras and pillows? Here's a definitive guide to keeping all your quarters clean.
Imagination Playgrounds have snaking tunnels, platforms and springy mats just like any other playground. But they're different in one fundamental way -- they're built by kids.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Grammy Award-winning singer Sarah McLachlan, a 46-year-old divorced mom of two girls, talks about parenting, sex and whether women can have it all.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1154 GMT (1954 HKT)
Researchers say physical punishment actually alters the brain.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
The case of a South Carolina mother arrested for allegedly leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park while she was working sparks debate over how young is too young to leave a child alone.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1515 GMT (2315 HKT)
CNN's Kelly Wallace reveals 5 common parenting mistakes that many parents admit to making.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Is it a bad idea for parents to let kids drink underage at home, or does an early sip make drinking less taboo? Studies are divided on the subject, which is a tough nut for parents to crack.
Post your personal essays and original photos, and tell us how it really is.
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