11 min read

Meet The Trailblazer Who Protested SeaWorld 30 Years Before 'Blackfish'

<p>Jane Cartmill</p>

Nearly 30 years before the debut of "Blackfish," on May 27, 1984, Jane Cartmill stepped on the grounds of SeaWorld San Diego for her first protest at the marine mammal park. Morning drizzle gave way to sunshine as people gathered for the event organized by Greenpeace. The issue was SeaWorld's proposal to capture 10 orcas off the coast of Alaska to be trained as live entertainment for the park, a plan which was rejected by the Alaska's governor, Bill Sheffield. An additional 90 orcas would also be captured, as part of the drive, and used for research.

"The group protested with mock-up tombstones, each bearing the name of an orca that died in captivity," Cartmill recalled. The demonstration was a success, and the project cancelled.

Afterwards Cartmill joined activist Sally Mackler in launching San Diego's first PETA chapter. In 1988, PETA disbanded the chapter system and Mackler's group became San Diego Animal Advocates (SDAA). The organization was spread thin, juggling local issues from vivisection to cruelty at rodeos.

Their focus changed on August 21, 1989 when two female orcas, Kandu and Corky, collided before horrified spectators at SeaWorld. Kandu broke her upper jaw causing blood to gush from her mouth and blowhole as baby Shamu watched her die.

"But today, less than 24 hours after her mother was killed, Baby Shamu was back in the main performance tank with Corky in Shamu Stadium," reported the San Diego Evening Tribune the following day.

(Photo: Jane Cartmill)

"A collision between two whales is what happens in captivity, not in the wild," Cartmill recalled. "That's when things accelerated for us."

SDAA began organizing major protests at SeaWorld two to three times a year.

In 1991 the group rallied behind Dr. Paul Spong who devised a "Free Corky" plan to return a gray whale named JJ to her pod, acclimating her to the ocean in stages, similar to the event that inspired the 1983 film, "Free Willy."

"Although our demonstrations didn't result in her release, it was probably the first time the public learned ‘Shamu' was actually Corky and that every performing orca at SeaWorld was named Shamu creating the illusion that he never died," she said.

In 1993, Mackler moved to Oregon and Cartmill became president of SDAA. She was an unlikely warrior, petite and, by outward appearances, conservative reflecting her New England heritage.

"I'm shy and it's really not my nature to be confrontational," Cartmill explained. "But I have to because these things have to be said. It is such a tremendous wrong the way we treat animals."

(Photo: Jane Cartmill) Jane Cartmill, at right, protesting in San Diego, 1997.

Cartmill continued to lead protests at SeaWorld until 2007 when their entrance road was reconfigured and relocated further from public view.

"We moved to be closer to the entrance, but were told we needed to return to the street," Cartmill said, adding that in 2010 she sued SeaWorld for violation of free speech rights under threat of arrest, even though the park is city-owned property. A decision is expected early spring 2015.

For more than 20 years, SDAA was the predominant animal rights group to demonstrate at SeaWorld. In recent years, Cartmill stepped aside as organizer and instead joined protests led by younger activists where she said support continues to grow and continues to affect SeaWorld's bottom line.

"When I attended a protest at SeaWorld on October 26 I remarked to a friend how many approving hoots and honks and thumbs up we get now, compared to years ago when we constantly heard ‘Get a life!' or ‘We love Shamu' and the ever-popular ‘Communists!'" she recalled. "Really, that was a common insult hurled at us in early days - and, of course, the middle-finger salute. You rarely see that anymore, almost never."

Cartmill said the biggest change has been since the release of the film "The Cove," which revealed the atrocities of the dolphin slaughter in Taiji and the links to the captivity industry.

"Then after 'Blackfish' the cheers for the demonstrators accelerated even more," she said. "Back in 1984 people simply didn't know or understand what went on behind the scenes. Now many people do."

Cartmill credits two factors with increased turnout for protests: CNN's decision to broadcast Blackfish repeatedly, and social media, especially Twitter and Facebook.

"In the old days I would get on the phone and send a mailing out weeks in advance," she said. "Now they can get a demonstration going the same day. I was at a protest last Sunday at SeaWorld and there was a gal in her early twenties and we mentioned how long we had been protesting. She was astonished to hear we had been doing it for 30 years."

Cartmill explained that SeaWorld has an opportunity to reinvent itself by moving away from the captivity model, and focusing on rehabilitation as it did so successfully in April 1998 with JJ, a gray whale calf found stranded, then transported to SeaWorld by a private citizen.

As JJ gained weight she outgrew her tank which left SeaWorld no choice but to release her. Cartmill remembers the excitement as news crews and hundreds of people followed JJ being transported to the water's edge and taken two miles out and gently lowered into the ocean.

"There was much fanfare, and popular approval like never before," Cartmill said, adding that if SeaWorld became a rehabilitation and educational facility, it could also offer "dazzling, aquatic-themed rides and interactive exhibits - animatronics, holographs, and other high-tech wizardry."

While Cartmill has been critical of SeaWorld she says worse yet are smaller venues such as Miami Seaquarium, Gulfarium, Dolphin Research Center and Dolphins Plus in Florida.

The only hope to improve conditions, she explained, is for people to get involved. If they aren't comfortable with protesting, Cartmill says they can wear t-shirts bearing an animal rights message, write letters to Congress or join an animal rights group.

"There are a number of things you can do, but don't be silent," she said. "It's hard for people, and it's hard for me. I hate public speaking but I've been doing it now for more than 30 years."