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The Blackfish Effect: How Animal Rights Advocates Are Winning

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You would have to have been living in an underground survival shelter this past year not to have heard of Blackfish.

The damning SeaWorld documentary made grown men leave movie theaters in tears. When it aired on CNN, the cable channel swept the ratings, and the film soon became one of Netflix's most requested offerings. Celebrities around the world lit Twitter on fire with their disgust for the marine mammal prison. Ticket sales at SeaWorld parks plummeted, scheduled musical performers bailed left and right and SeaWorld's majority stakeholder dumped 19.5 million shares of its stock. SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc.'s own chair of the board unloaded nearly $1.3 million worth of company stock. It looks as though the writing is on SeaWorld's tank walls.

So what made Blackfish so effective? It's hard to deny the power of the film's stark contrasts. SeaWorld's attorneys laugh their way through courthouse corridors as they defend the greed-driven decisions that cost trainer Dawn Brancheau her life. Meanwhile, her family mourns and holds charity fundraisers in her name. Cash registers ring as the stuffed likenesses of baby orcas fly off the gift-shop shelves. Meanwhile, mother orca Katina wails inconsolably and cries out desperately for her baby, whom SeaWorld took from her and transferred to another facility.

But the film is successful for another reason. Never preachy, it simply lays bare the facts and lets viewers interpret them. It's the same strategy that animal rights organizations have used for years: Give people the information, and let them decide. And it's working.

Since PETA's inception more than 30 years ago, the tide of public opinion has certainly been turning in animals' favor.

According to Gallup, more than 40 percent of Americans -- and more than half of women and young adults -- now oppose experimentation on animals. The National Institutes of Health has cut its funding for the overwhelming majority of invasive experiments on chimpanzees and is retiring more than 310 of the last 360 federally owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries. And following international PETA protests and a public outcry, virtually every airline in the world now refuses to ship monkeys to laboratories and a life of pain and misery, which has led to a precipitous drop in the number of monkeys trafficked from abroad for experimentation.

New York's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has vowed to end the city's abusive horse-drawn carriage industry.

Consumer demand has forced makers of cosmetics and household products to test the safety of their ingredients using modern and accurate non-animal tests instead of tormenting and killing rabbits and mice. And the European Union, India and Israel have all banned cosmetics testing on animals.

When PETA Asia released its shocking undercover video footage from angora farms in China showing how workers violently rip the fur out of angora rabbits' writhing bodies, consumers shared the video widely, vowed never to wear angora again and contacted stores and designers in droves demanding that they stop buying the product. Numerous companies around the world, including Eddie Bauer, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, H&M and others, have banned angora wool from their product lines, and the list keeps growing.

Many of the most influential people of our time have embraced plant-based eating, including Bill Clinton, Rosa Parks, Prince, Ellen DeGeneres, Biz Stone, Al Gore, Bill Gates, Russell Simmons, Paul McCartney, Coretta and Dexter Scott King, Sen. Cory Booker, Bob Barker, Joan Jett, James Cameron and Stella McCartney.

But it isn't enough to look back at how far we've come and celebrate the victories. We have to continue to push harder, reach further and raise the bar even higher. Right will win out -- it's just a matter of how long it will take us to get there.

"Evolving" has been a popular buzzword for the last few years among politicians, commentators and advocates for social change. And it should be. If we aren't constantly reevaluating old ideas and tired policies, we can never hope to make progress. But we can't limit ourselves to reexamining how we think about human rights.

Nearly everyone agrees that animals should not be intentionally tormented or made to suffer. But many people are also quick to ignore the suffering that they themselves cause if they don't witness it with their own eyes. Some are swift to condemn the person who harshly yanks on a dog's leash at the dog park -- just before sitting down to a plate full of meat. The eyes of others well up when they see a news story about an abusive animal hoarder, but they can't get to their wallets fast enough when they want a pair of leather shoes that cost animals their skin.

We have to help people move beyond the disconnect that allows them to think of animals as little more than "raw materials" for hamburgers, handbags, living test tubes, performers or security systems. They are not objects -- they are individuals. They feel pain, pleasure, fear, frustration, loneliness and love. They anticipate the future. And they suffer in the same way and to the same degree that we do.

Moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham stated that when determining animals' rights, "The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" He points to the capacity for suffering as the vital characteristic that gives a being the right to equal consideration. Only prejudice allows us to deny others the rights that we expect to have for ourselves. Whether it's based on race, gender, sexual orientation or species, prejudice is morally unacceptable.

I am reminded of a famous Victor Hugo quote: "An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come." Compassionate people will always hammer away at the wall of injustice until all that remains is rubble. So instead of standing there, wondering whether your efforts will pay off, grab a hammer!

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