PLHS students join outcry over whale captivity
by Dave Schwab
Nov 13, 2013 | 20076 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Cinematic Arts and Video Production students at Point Loma High School had a strong reaction to the documentary "Blackfish" that was broadcast on CNN in October.                                                                                                     Courtesy photo
The Cinematic Arts and Video Production students at Point Loma High School had a strong reaction to the documentary "Blackfish" that was broadcast on CNN in October. Courtesy photo
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Pupils take SeaWorld to task after marine-mammal documentary on CNN

Point Loma High students reacting to “Blackfish,” an anti-marine mammal captivity documentary, have created a public service announcement (PSA) asking Sea World to stop using animals for entertainment.

Less than a minute long, the PSA, titled “Dear SeaWorld,” was created by students in Anthony Palmiotto’s Cinematic Arts and Video Production classes.

“We always do a documentary and when it (“Blackfish”) came on basic cable television, I just gave them an open-ended assignment that they could watch it and write something about it, an essay or a movie review,” said Palmiotto. “One of the kids said, ‘Why don’t we make a video?’ Then we started to piece together different reactions from students in different classes. That’s how it came about.”

“Blackfish” explores the accidental deaths of SeaWorld trainers and is critical of keeping killer whales in captivity and having them perform in shows. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, then went mainstream Oct. 24 when it was featured on CNN and became the subject of several CNN news features.

The PSA, written, acted and produced by Point Loma cinema students using the school’s state-of-the-art studio, shows several students fading in and out as they read portions of their letter to the aquatic park.

“Dear Sea World, thank you for all the amazing memories, the Shamu Show, Dolphin Point, the Penguin encounter,” begins the PSA. “But after watching the documentary ‘Blackfish’ on CNN, all those special memories have totally been cheapened. Is it true the orcas in your exhibits are kidnapped from their families? Is it true their lifespans are shortened in captivity? Is it true there have been numerous attacks on human trainers at your parks?

“The only question is ‘Why?’” concludes the PSA. “So, until these questions are answered, there will be no more admission fees, no more rides, no more teddy bears. We just invite you to change your business model and stop using animals for entertainment. Free the dolphins. Free the penguins, free the orcas — today.”

SeaWorld officials condemned the accuracy of “Blackfish” in its representation of what goes on behind the scenes at the parks.

“‘Blackfish’ is billed as a documentary, but instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for [SeaWorld trainer] Dawn Brancheau’s family, friends and colleagues,” said David Koontz, SeaWorld San Diego spokes-man. “To promote its bias that killer whales should not be maintained in a zoological setting, the film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld — among them, that SeaWorld is one of the world’s most respected zoological institutions, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research.

“Perhaps most important, the film fails to mention SeaWorld’s commitment to the safety of its team members and guests and to the care and welfare of its animals, as demonstrated by the company’s continual refinement and improvement to its killer whale facilities, equipment and procedures both before and after the death of Dawn Bran-cheau.”

SeaWorld is currently involved in a legal battle in Florida, appealing a citation issued by the federal Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which ruled that the marine park exposed its employees to hazards in the accidental death of trainers with killer whales. SeaWorld’s appeal of that ruling seeks to overturn a court order affecting all SeaWorld marine parks, including San Diego’s, which would ban trainers from being in the water with killer whales unless they were physically separated.

Koontz said more than 60 Point Loma High School Students worked at SeaWorld this summer for their summer jobs. Ten, he said, still work there part time.

“Animals are integral elements of our park’s award-winning education program,” Koontz said. “Each year at SeaWorld San Diego, more than 15,000 school children participate in our camp and sleepover programs; nearly 100,000 students participate in our in-park educational field trips; more than 40,000 visitors take advantage of our behind-the-scenes public educational tours, and tens of thousands of guests participate in our animal interaction programs — each leaving the park with experiences that would be difficult or impossible to replicate with video or in books.” 

Koontz said SeaWorld’s animal rescue program has spanned nearly five decades and has aided more than 22,000 animals. 

“Responding to wildlife in crisis is something we are passionate about,” he said. “Our rescue teams are on call seven days a week to assist animals that are orphaned, ill, injured or in need of expert care. Our goal is to successfully rehabilitate animals for return to the wild. The small percentage of animals whose injuries are too debilitating to permit release are given lifelong care. So far in 2013, SeaWorld San Diego has rescued more than 400 marine mammals and hundreds of marine birds.”

SeaWorld’s commitment to animals “goes beyond the boundaries of our park,” Koontz continued. “Each year, we provide direct support to countless local, national and international environmental and conservation groups. Since its creation in 2003, the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund has granted more that $10 million to nearly 700 conservation organizations in more than 60 countries to assist with projects related to animal conservation, animal protection and rescue, habitat protection and conservation education.”

Point Loma High cinematography students discussed “Blackfish” and their views about keeping marine mammals captive, while offering a few possible solutions for how animals in SeaWorld San Diego’s care might be treated better.

“I was a little angry and disappointed with SeaWorld,” said Hayley Roth. “They keep [animals] locked up in little crates all night and only let them out for shows and training. It was pretty bad.”

Student Taeshon Greene had a slightly different take.

“I was touched by the trainers dying because I had a mentor from Big Brothers Big Sisters who was a SeaWorld trainer and after I watched ‘Blackfish’ I thought, ‘What would happen if he had died?’ I was thinking how my life would have been changed if he was never in my life at all. So while it’s sad SeaWorld is treating animals the way they are … having a trainer die is just as sad.”

Seeing the film was a call to action for Logan Leising, who explained the group’s motivation for creating their PSA.

“You just find people who have the same belief, think the same way you do, like these kids that believe the way SeaWorld is treating and capturing animals is wrong,” he said, noting a particularly poignant part of “Blackfish” for him was a scene “showing fishermen capturing orcas” using an overhead plane and boats “maneuvering them into a dead end.”

Student Peyton Thomas suggested SeaWorld, since it’s already located adjacent to Mission Bay, might consider expanding the area orcas are allowed to roam by using fencing and electronic tracking in the bay, which would “give them a bigger area to go around, but at the same time they (SeaWorld) would still know where it (whale) is.”

Pointing out SeaWorld does a lot of great research with marine animals and works to rehabilitate sick and injured animals, Kimberly Cole said the marine park probably couldn’t release orcas into the wild.

“They’ve lived in captivity all their lives and the wouldn’t know how to survive,” Cole said, adding she felt SeaWorld might consider “passing them on to an organization that would be willing to take care of them.”

Noah Lemercier said he was impressed most about the point made in “Blackfish” that “whales are stressed due to captivity,” noting he was amazed that the marine park would continue to allow an orca to perform even after it had accidentally killed a trainer.

“They kept using him in shows as if nothing ever happened,” he said. “They could have just kept him back and not used him in their shows.”

Teacher Palmiotto said the public reaction to his student’s PSA has been a pleasant surprise.

“Most of the feedback has been really positive,” he said. “We’ve gotten emails from all over the world — Russia, Germany. We had some complaints that the kids didn’t do enough research, that all the facts were from the 1970s. How much of it is propaganda? Maybe all of it. How much of it is true? Sure looks like all of it.”

Palmiotto and his students are uncertain where the cinematography class’s PSA will go from here. But they’re all certain of one thing: The conversation they’ve started has likely just begun.

“Some of these kids are coming up with solutions,” Palmiotto said. “There’s no reason why SeaWorld, a billion-dolllar enterprise, can’t come up with solutions.”
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