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If you’re a regular reader of this blog (well, of the blogs I infrequently post here, anyway), you know that I’ve written a couple times about the power of online activism – notably here and here. While there are other forms of advocacy I prefer, I don’t think there’s any question that online petitions have become an influential force in the movement. We need look no further than SeaWorld for evidence.

Yesterday’s news that Southwest Airlines is ending its quarter-century relationship with SeaWorld came as a surprise to no one who has noted SA_SeaWorldthe growing popularity – and power – of petitions hosted on social-change platforms like Care2 and Change.org. Southwest’s marketing partnership irked many of its customers, leading some to boycott the airline altogether. One such customer was Robin Merritt, who launched a petition on Change.org calling on Southwest executives and its board of directors to dump SeaWorld. “Southwest Airlines has a choice,” read the petition. “Will it support the animal cruelty at SeaWorld or make a compassionate choice to end this partnership of cruelty?” More than 32,000 people signed the petition with a simple click, and the air carrier finally made the compassionate choice.

“I started my petition on Change.org because Blackfish got so many people talking about how these orcas are confined to tiny tanks, and then 32,000 people joined me,” said Robin. “I’m so ecstatic. This just goes to show that companies do really value customers’ opinions, and I thank Southwest for listening to us and making this decision.”

This was just the latest in a string of anti-SeaWorld victories animal advocates have been celebrating in recent months, and let’s be honest, we owe a lot of thanks to Blackfish – that heart-wrenching 2013 documentary that is turning the tide against animal captivity. The film has not only raised public awareness about the plight of confined and exploited marine mammals, but it’s inspired scores of everyday animal lovers to launch online petitions against SeaWorld and other businesses that keep animals. And we’re experiencing a sea change.

Last year, says Pulin Modi, senior campaigner at Change.org, people launched successful petitions asking Willie Nelson, Barenaked Ladies, Heart, and other musical acts to cancel scheduled SeaWorld performances. “I think they were successful because the petitions were generally started by fans who were very sincere in their disappointment, and the artists realized it probably wasn’t worth risking their reputation for one show, and the right timing with people buzzing about Blackish on social media.”

When it comes to online petitions, strategy is more important than the number of signatures. “You can have one million people asking Congress to shut down all the factory farms, but that’s not winnable at the moment and not terribly interesting,” says Pulin. “But if you can get people to get behind a specific campaign to pressure an influential company to make a change, that’s more likely to win, appeal to media, and show the power of consumers.” One example he offers is Daelyn Fortney, whose  Change.org petition urging Starbucks to stop using a food coloring made from crushed bugs got fewer than 7,000 signatures. “But the media coverage was pretty widespread and led to a relatively quick decision from Starbucks to switch to a non-animal-based coloring.”

So what makes one petition more successful than another? “There are free tips and guides for everyone right on Change.org,” says Pulin. “The main advice I have is to tell an authentic, compelling story where your ask is realistic, the timeline is clear, and you are clear why someone signing your petition can actually make a difference. For animal campaigns, a compelling photo is especially important. Then share it on your social networks, notify reporters, and constantly – but politely – try to engage with the decision-maker to make sure they see it as a way you’re bringing concerns to them rather than approaching it antagonistically.”

Oh, and after your victory, don’t forget to do what Robin Merritt will do this weekend: celebrate!

 

BlackfishIf 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.

Vallejo, Calif., 2013.

Vallejo, Calif., 2013.

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.”

EmptyTheTanksTokyo2013

Tokyo, 2013.

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.

 Empty_the_tanks_logo

 


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