Blackfish, a documentary that hit theaters and CNN last year chronicling the life of an orca that killed a trainer at Sea World, has proven to be a public relations nightmare for the theme park. They’ve strongly challenged the film’s allegations that their orcas are mistreated, labeling the movie “inaccurate and misleading.” But it still caused Heart, Cheap Trick, Willie Nelson, REO Speedwagon, 38 Special, Martina McBride and many others to cancel their planned shows at the park. We spoke with Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson about their decision to back out of their gig at Sea World. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Ann Wilson: “Seeing Blackfish just really opened our eyes to a lot of really horrific truths about how Sea World treats their orcas. It really broke my heart and I just couldn’t see signing my name to that. We hate to disappoint people who go to hear our music, but this was a larger issue.
Before seeing the movie, I always imagined the orcas got to live in a big extended oceanic area when they weren’t performing, but they live in a steel swimming pool and it basically drives them insane. Not to mention that somebody died. It’s almost Disney-esque in a really tragic way. Again, we just couldn’t go make a bunch of money from them and sign our names and underline it.
It reminds me of back in the 1980s when we’d get these incredible, stupid money offers to come to South Africa and play Sun City. The people that did that – like Rod Stewart – slid in there, kept their eyes shut, played their songs and took the money. Our decision here was a little easier since all the facts were in the open.
As the documentary pointed out, orca’s brains have a whole emotional section that ours don’t even have. It’s a whole social/emotional section and it tends to give them a real unified feeling among themselves. When mothers are separated from their young, they go insane. The genders stay apart in the wild and they have a matriarchal society, but Sea World just throws the two genders together.
Nancy and I didn’t even originally realize the concert was at Sea World. We thought it was just somewhere in Orlando. I’m not making an excuse, but we just weren’t paying attention to details. I’ve never been to Sea World. I’ve seen the photos of people getting splashed and it looks fun, but when you look underneath you see the dark side. What they do is slavery, plain and simple. It’s like people saying, ‘Okay, let’s go to Africa and bring a bunch of people back here.’ There’s never any way to make that okay. Granted, this is a different species, but it still has a lot of similarities.”
Nancy Wilson: “This all started in a very interesting way. My assistant texted me and said, ‘Are you guys playing at Sea World? Everyone is hoping you’ll back out.’ I was like, ‘I don’t think we’re playing at Sea World.’ I thought it was somewhere else in Orlando and she was like, ‘No, no. This is kind of a big deal because of this documentary called Blackfish that exposes how orcas are treated in captivity.’
When I found out it was indeed Sea World I was like, ‘Well, we aren’t playing there anymore.’ I watched the documentary and could barely get through it. It was so upsetting and heartbreaking. I was also freaked out because I had made music for a nature documentary about orcas in the Northwest called Baby Wild. It was railing against whales in captivity in general.
Luckily, there were no legal ramifications because the contract was still sitting unsigned on the desk of our manager. I wasn’t going to show either way, even if it got litigious. Now I’m told that more and more people have become aware of the situation and backed out of the show. I guess they might shut the whole concert series down.
Blackfish is really an education. It’s hard to fathom what those whales go through and how they’ve been treated. When you see the separation of the whale and it’s mother, nothing is more convincing than that. People making money from them are saying, ‘We’re protecting them. They’re safe and sound, not out in the wild where they’re in danger.’ But when you look at the underbelly of rodeos and carnivals, these animals are tortured and neglected and forced to do things that are highly unnatural for their breeds for our entertainment. It’s really not fair.
People think, ‘Oh, they’re just dumb animals.’ They really aren’t. I’ve had dogs and horses all my life. I can really get into the minds of these animals. The connection we have with them is real.
When this first came up I thought, ‘Should I feel guilty about making things hard for Sea World?’ I’ve decided I don’t have to feel guilty about this. We do hate to rain on anybody’s parade, especially if it’s someones livelihood, but if it’s at the expense of these animals that deserve so much better. If us doing this raises awareness, then it it’s worth a little scuffle.”