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If one image could symbolize the last 12 months of animal activism around the world, I argue it would be a picture of an orca in captivity. That’s thanks to the success of the documentary Blackfish, which exposes the abusive treatment of animals at SeaWorld — treatment that ultimately led to an orca named Tilikum killing one of his trainers. (Orcas have never been known to harm humans in the wild; this behavior only occurs due to the stress of captivity.) The film has galvanized the movement to free orcas from marine mammal parks and inspired countless compassionate people to speak out against the captivity industry.
SeaWorld remained silent about Blackfish for months after its January 2013 screening at the Sundance Film Festival — no doubt hoping it would just go away — but as the documentary went into general release in the spring and CNN began broadcasting it on its network in the fall, the public outcry against SeaWorld led to musical acts cancelling appearances at the Orlando location, and the company launched an inept marketing campaign to try to discredit Blackfish and the former SeaWorld trainers who appear in it. The film not only helped tank attendance at SeaWorld parks, it also prompted California Assemblymember Richard Bloom to propose legislation that would ban orca shows in that state; AB 2140 is officially known as the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, but most people simply call it “The Blackfish Bill.” (Voting on the bill has been tabled until next year.)
Of course, activists have long campaigned against the captivity industry, but there’s no question Blackfish has invigorated the liberation movement. One of the results of this nascent energy has been animal lovers turning out for the Empty the Tanks campaign, which brings the struggle directly to the animal exploiters by rallying advocates worldwide to demonstrate in front of theme parks, aquariums, and other businesses that imprison whales and dolphins.
Empty the Tanks is the brainchild of Rachel Greenhalgh, who was a Cove Guardian in Taiji in January 2013. “On one of my last days there I was thinking about how I could find a way to be productive and proactive in this fight against the captivity industry after I returned home,” she says. “That’s when and where this whole idea began. The captive animals floating listlessly in their tiny sea pens in Taiji are a sight that cuts you to your core. I wanted to come home and continue fighting for them.”
The first-annual Empty the Tanks Worldwide took place seven months later. “There were 24 locations participating in 12 countries around the world,” says Rachel. “This year on May 24, the second-annual Empty the Tanks Worldwide will have over 40 locations in 20 countries participating. The numbers have doubled since last year, which is so amazing.”
Not surprisingly, this kind of success is the result not only of grassroots activists, but using Facebook and Twitter to get the word out. “Social media is an amazing tool,” says Rachel. “Facebook has created a way for activists from around the world to connect to each other and plan events such as Empty the Tanks. I honestly don’t know how this worldwide event could have happened without social media.”
Modern technology has given activists a tremendous advantage, but as Rachel points out, effectively speaking out for animals often comes down to good old-fashioned hard work. “If you want to make a difference in this world, you need patience and dedication. Anyone can go out there and be a part of making the world a better, kinder, more compassionate place. Come up with a plan and just go for it.”
In the meantime, you can participate in an Empty the Tanks demo near you on May 24. Just check out their Facebook page, of course.