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SeaWorld Bites, or Does It?: On the Dilemma of Dolphins, Kids and Captivity 


Photo credit: PETA

Parents, it's getting warm outside.  Spring Break is around the corner.  Shamu's joyful image has been swimming up and down Broadway on a Via bus for at least a month.

Hey, did you hear that a dolphin bit a kid at SeaWorld last week?

It's true. And I'm not talking about those goons out in Orlando. I'm talking about right here in San Antonio.

On February 22nd, one of the dolphins in SeaWorld's Dolphin Cove, where guests are encouraged to touch the animals, bit a nine year-old girl on the hand and wrist. The girl's mother could not get the dolphin to release her daughter's arm, and a SeaWorld trainer intervened. The girl sustained bruises, and PETA filed a formal complaint with the USDA to investigate the incident and hold SeaWorld accountable for animal and public endangerment. This biting incident, PETA argues, is another example of how animals removed from their natural environments and contained in small spaces experience acute stress and become aggressive and unpredictable.

This news brought to my mind an exchange common after Netflix released the decidedly anti-SeaWorld documentary Blackfish. It’s the moment you tell someone that you saw Blackfish (gold star for you), and then you have to figure out what you're going to do about it.

Me:  So, we saw Blackfish the other night.

Friend: Oh yeah?  What'd you think?

Me: Sad. It was really sad--is really sad--what they do to those poor animals.

Friend: That part when the mom orca is crying out to her baby because they're moving it to another theme park . . .I nearly lost it.

Me: I know.  Me, too.

Friend: Terrible.

[thoughtful pause]

Me: Have you ever been to SeaWorld?

Friend: We went last summer.  It was so hot, and they have that water park. The kids had a great time, but, you know, after watching that movie . . .

Me: I know, I know.

Friend: You?

Me: A few years ago.  I was pregnant, and it was July. They have this shark tank viewing area, and it's so dark and cool in there. I could have sat down and watched those sharks swim for hours. But now...

Friend: I know, I know.

[thoughtful pause]

Me: So, you gonna go?

When I told my husband that a dolphin at SeaWorld bit a kid and suggested that maybe we shouldn't go, he replied, "Yeah, well a dog at our house bit a kid." And I knew that anything I could possibly write on the subject of going or not going to SeaWorld would bring a slurry of "oh yeah, well--" comments.

Oh yeah, well do you go to the zoo?  Oh yeah, well do you eat meat? Oh well.

Because we are parents, because so many of us stay home on Friday nights and watch movies like Blackfish on Netflix, SeaWorld has become a politicized issue on the home-front.  And because SeaWorld is so accessible (it's in our town), the simple act of filling up the pink plastic kiddie pool with a sour expression on your face might make your neighbors wonder if you're one of them SeaWorld haters. And because we are parents, the situation is even more treacherous because the simple act of going or not going to SeaWorld is like waving a sign that declares to other parents that your action is THE only right action and that you condemn all those who dare make the other choice.

I just think that I should have a reason for the choices I make, both for myself and because it is my job to set an example for my kids. If people choose to go to SeaWorld because they want their kids to have a good time and interact with marine animals, maybe inspire one of them to be a marine biologist or conservationist, I get it. If people choose to not go to SeaWorld because they want to protest the company's treatment of animals, I get that too.

But I also think that the fact that I do enjoy a zoo membership does not mean that I should worry that I'd be a hypocrite to boycott SeaWorld. I admit that when I finished the first chapter of Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, I muttered, “Well, what the f--- am I supposed to do?” and ate onion rings. But I don't believe that just because I can't do everything to not be an environmental disaster means that I should go ahead a chuck a Styrofoam big gulp out the window of my car.

There's nothing overwhelming or incomprehensible about Blackfish's accusations of animal cruelty against SeaWorld, and for our family, there's nothing life-altering about not going to SeaWorld. All we have to do is not go.

[Can Captivity Kill?: New documentary targets SeaWorld]

In response to films like Blackfish and The Cove, the latter of which I cannot bring myself to watch, SeaWorld is sure to introduce all sorts of gorgeous specials in the hopes of bringing in guests. Shiny discount coupons will rain down at HEB. Spring Break will be the first indicator of just how seriously San Antonians are taking the issue. Though people decry the abuses depicted, I wonder what will happen when it starts to get hot outside, really hot, and deep into summer.

We're honeymooning right now, San Antonio. The mountain laurels are blooming and so might the resolve to boycott SeaWorld. But this summer, that season pass might seem like a damn fine deal when it's 100+ degrees, the Texas rivers are slow-moving fiestas of amoebas just waiting to zip up your nose, and school is still six weeks away.

So... you gonna go?

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