SeaWorld San Diego, photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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Blackfish demonstrates the power of nature documentaries to change public attitudes towards wild animal entertainment and animal suffering.

We used a theory-based impact evaluation approach called General Elimination Methodology to investigate Blackfish’s wider impacts. This approach helps uncover cause-and-effect relationships in complex systems, when there are other factors that could contribute to outcome changes.

We were particularly interested in SeaWorld’s decision to end its orca breeding programme, and the fall in its stock market value. Compared to other amusement parks such as Disneyland and Universal Studios, both SeaWorld’s attendance and revenue dropped. We compiled a list of 15 potentially important factors that could have caused this, including Blackfish. To understand what happened, we interviewed 26 stakeholders, people with expertise in marine conservation, training marine mammals, animal welfare, and media communication.

We found that Blackfish led to negative publicity for SeaWorld and changed how people viewed orca captivity. As a result, attendance at the park decreased and the market value of the company dropped. We were able to identify three main variables which could explain why Blackfish had such an impact; namely the support from major distribution channels which allowed Blackfish to reach major audiences, emotional impact of the content, and timing of its release. Further, SeaWorld lost credibility by dismissing the documentary as lies, and their response was regarded as slow and inadequate

However, Blackfish also benefitted from a perfect storm, which had been building up to create an appropriate cultural climate for its release in 2013. A confluence of factors, fuelled by animal welfare and rights activism, enabled the documentary to resonate with a wide public.

Zoos and aquaria rely on animal entertainment to generate revenue, but also promote their commitment to animal conservation and welfare. The backlash against SeaWorld following Blackfish’s release demonstrates why zoos and aquaria should monitor trends in public attitudes towards captivity and animal-based entertainment in order to adapt their business model to changing societal sentiment.