Monday, March 10, 2014

'Blackfish' and Environmental Activism in Children's Literature

Many have seen or at least heard about the film Blackfish, an emotional and shocking portrayal of the practice of keeping orcas in captivity. Although the film's director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, claims to have begun the film with the intention of documenting what lead to the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, many are interpreting the film as anti-SeaWorld, animal rights extremist propaganda. The overwhelming response to this film has begun a fascinating phenomenon which the media has dubbed "the Blackfish Effect," in which animal rights activism is making an undocumented impact via the orcas-in-captivity controversy (even politically--California Assemblyman Richard Bloom is proposing legislation that will ban the use of orcas in shows, among other things). The onslaught of media coverage of the Blackfish Effect has spawned my interest in the relationship between children's literature and environmental activism, particularly after stumbling upon a children's book titled "Namu: Making Friends with a Killer Whale" by Ronald M. Fisher published by National Geographic Society Books for Young Explorers.

Since this book was published in 1973 SeaWorld has become a massive company, creating and dominating the market on orcas. In a NYT article printed before the CNN debut of Blackfish, the film's director Gabriela Cowperthwaite is quoted noting that most of what we know about orcas comes from SeaWorld: “'For 40 years, they were the message,' she said, referring to SeaWorld. 'I think it’s O.K. to let an 80-minute movie have its moment." Indeed SeaWorld has had such a strong influence on the way children view the animal- is it even possible to see an orca and not think "Shamu!"? SeaWorld's branding of a species has been going on since way before we started seeing clownfish and exclaiming "It's Nemo!"

However, Namu predates SeaWorld's success and tells the story of the one of the first orcas to be captured and brought into captivity (although as the title indicates, the focus is more on the delightful discovery that orcas are interactive, incredibly intelligent, and trainable). Further, Namu reveals the general sentiment humans had towards the natural world around them.

For example, the book tells of how salmon fishermen caught Namu in their nets by accident:

The next page skips to the sale of Namu to the owner of an aquarium in Washington: the apparent assumption is that if you find something in nature--even a 10-ton sea mammal--you own it. Although the book does mention that even before SeaWorld was displaying orcas there were those protesting orcas in captivity, the book reveals that  most people wouldn't even question that the salmon fishermen who caught Namu automatically deserved ownership of him and had the right to sell him.

SeaWorld might be the biggest message on orcas, but there are others writing about and publishing children's books on orcas. There's even a press called Orca Book Publishers, who proudly declare on their "About" page that they are "long committed to publishing books with an environmental theme." Now that Blackfish has been so successful in presenting another side to the story, perhaps part of the Blackfish Effect will be even more awareness and availability of books like Siwiti: A Whale's Story

While some may protest political messages in texts for children (I remember talking to a parent who was upset that Happy Feet preached about global warming to her 3-year-old), I wonder if it's even possible, or desirable, to publish children's books about the natural world without taking a stance on what our relationship to the natural world should be like...aren't books about the natural world always political?

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