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Why I supported SeaWorld Orlando even before the Blackfish backlash

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I was pleased to see that the Academy Awards snubbed Blackfish, despite its popularity. I'm guessing the snub is directly linked to the "Blackfish backlash" that's revealing just how misleading the film really is. You can read more about that and see an eye-opening video by jumping to this article.

This backlash shows that being popular doesn't equate with being factual. People tend to be reactionary, and at the moment it's "cool" to rant against SeaWorld, at least until the next big outrage comes along. As an added bonus, Blackfish gives people a way to feel like they're "making a difference" without actually doing more than cutting and pasting pre-written, repetitive messages on Facebook and signing petitions about bands they don't care about in the first place. It's easy to boycott SeaWorld when you never planned to go there in the first place, and slacktivism doesn't take much time or require you to get your hands dirty.

I write about the Orlando theme parks, and I'm also an annual pass holder for all of them, including SeaWorld Orlando. I often visit as a regular guest rather than a member of the media. I'm very familiar with the park, and I've been through many backstage areas as well as the places the public sees. Based on my firsthand knowledge, I was saddened the first time I saw the movie because the inaccuracies were glaring to anyone with any real knowledge on the topic. I'm glad the truth is coming out now, but it's a shame that so many people blindly believe the movie. Here are the reasons I support SeaWorld Orlando now and have supported them throughout the whole Blackfish debacle.

1) I've seen the way the park cares for its animals firsthand. Once upon a time I was actually a PETA member before the group shifted from direct action that helped animals and made publicity-seeking antics a priority. I believe that in a perfect world, we wouldn't have any animals in captivity. Unfortunately, things are far from perfect, and that genie is already out of the bottle. It's a lot more realistic to ensure that zoos and aquariums take proper care of the animals they have than to insist that they all be freed.

I've seen enough orca shows interrupted or canceled because the killer whales didn't feel like performing to know that they're not forced to do anything. Yes, they get fish for doing tricks. If you have a dog, I'll bet you use treats for training him, too. I'll bet you don't starve him, and yet he willingly performs for those treats. The SeaWorld Orlando animals are most definitely not starved or abused.

Anyone who wants to confirm this for themselves can easily do so. I recommend taking a backstage tour, and specifically doing the Marine Mammal Keeper experience if you want to see everything from the kitchens where the food in prepared to the parts of the habitats that the public can't see. If the park is hiding anything, I'm not sure where it's stashed away because the tours make just about everything accessible.

Of course, it sounds romantic to say that the park could just release all its orcas because captivity is cruel, no matter how well they're cared for. Sorry, but after seeing what happened to Keiko of Free Willy fame, I would never support that. Most of the orcas at the parks now were born there, and the others have been in human care for too long to make the transition. Sure, they could live in sea pens, but that would still be a small, confined area, and they'd be exposed to diseases that they're not prepared to fight after life in a comparatively sterile environment. The millions of dollars that were spent on Keiko, only to have him meet a tragic end, would have been better spent in other practical ways to help the largest possible number of animals.

2) I don't value orcas over other captive animals. I love the orcas dearly and have enjoyed watching Makaio grow under the tutelage of super mom Katina. I enjoy interacting with Trua in underwater viewing and watching the whole pod show off their talents in One Ocean. I know they're intelligent, social animals, and I know that even though they're very well taken care of, no man-made tank is ever going to measure up to the ocean.

However, I know the same is true for other aquatic animals in captivity, as well as for land creatures from the smallest meerkat to the giant elephants and rhinos. Why is there so much outcry about orcas, yet other animals don't even get a mention? SeaWorld does the best possible job at providing space and enrichment for its animals, just as places like Busch Gardens Tampa and Disney's Animal Kingdom provide great habitats for their charges, even though none can measure up to the wild. If you're a rabid anti-captivity person, why single out one animal and ignore all the others?

Really, if you own an indoor cat, a horse, or even a dog, aren't you confining it to a much smaller space than its wild counterparts? Why is that any different than keeping the orcas in limited space? Horses travel miles in a day, just as orcas do, yet that doesn't seem to bother the Blackfish contingent.

3) I support hands-on rescue work. When I dropped my PETA membership, I shifted my contributions to groups that do hands-on work with animals without wasting time and money on theatrics. Now my money goes directly to spay and neuter strays and get them adopted out. I've also done some hands-on rescue work myself.

SeaWorld Orlando's rescue team is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they've rescued over 20,000 animals. They don't just help the "popular" animals like dolphins, manatees, and pilot whales. They also rescue smaller critters like sea turtles, fish, and birds. As a matter of fact, they get an average of more than one bird a day, as you'll learn in the video accompanying this article.

Many activists say, "But why don't they stop putting animals on display and just focus on the rescues?" Well, rescue costs money, and where do you think that money comes from? Talk to any rescue group and find out how hard it is to get enough donations to keep afloat. SeaWorld has a ready source of income in the form of admission to its parks.

Yes, it's a money-making corporation, and yes, the bottom line is making a profit. But the company doesn't have to give a dime to help animals, yet it pours millions into rescue and conservation. That money wouldn't be there if it wasn't for the parks.

Do I agree with how orcas were taken from the wild in the 1980s? Absolutely not, nor do I support ever taking them from the wild again unless it's a rescue situation. However, I don't have a problem using the orcas we have now, and their offspring, to generate income as long as they're treated well and their captivity is helping the greater good by supporting rescue.

I don't see what they're doing as "circus tricks." To me, it's a breathtaking exhibition of their talents and intelligence, and I'll continue to go to SeaWorld Orlando and encourage others to do so. When you do, you support animal rescue and get a chance to see some amazing animals up close and make a connection that would never be possible if they weren't on display.

Need advice or guidance from a Central Florida theme parks expert? Check out my ebooks for Kindle and Nook.

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