WEST CHATHAM — Hollister Rhone wanted to bring home the lessons of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month in April to her fellow students at Lenart Regional Gifted Center.
So Hollister, a 13-year-old seventh-grader, successfully petitioned to have the documentary "Blackfish" — which focused on an orca whale named Tilikum at SeaWorld and the controversy over captive killer whales — shown to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders last month at Lenart Regional Gifted Center, 8101 S. La Salle St.
The discussion about keeping animals in captivity continued Tuesday when former SeaWorld Parks trainer John Hargrove participated in a question-and-answer session with students via Skype.
"As a member of the National Junior Honor Society, I was thinking of what we could do last month, which was Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month, and suggested we do something involving the animals in captivity at SeaWorld," Hollister said.
"So we decided to show 'Blackfish' to our middle-school students. Kids are the future, and we're the ones that can actually change the world," she said.
And while Hollister, a Bridgeport resident, said she has visited the Shedd Aquarium and has gone to a few dolphin shows elsewhere, she has not been to SeaWorld.
"I am never going to SeaWorld. Animals are not meant to be in captivity. They belong in the wild," she said. "Whales are being kept in small swimming pools with no room to swim around. They must lay still day after day and then perform in shows. It's like being in a bathtub for your entire life."
Fred Jacobs, a spokesman for SeaWorld Parks, did not respond to requests for comment.
But SeaWorld officials did comment about "Blackfish" on its website.
"We object to 'Blackfish' because its two central premises are wrong: that life at SeaWorld is harmful for killer whales and for trainers working with these animals, and (also) that SeaWorld has attempted to cover up the facts surrounding the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, as well the history of Tilikum, the killer whale involved in that accident. Nothing could be further from the truth."
Megan Edgin, a counselor at Lenart, worked with the SeaWorld Pledge organization to arrange for Hargrove to speak to about 30 students.
Hargrove, who previously worked 14 years at SeaWorld's parks in Texas and California, said he resigned as a trainer in August 2012 to protest how whales were being treated at SeaWorld.
Brancheau, "a good friend of mine, was killed in 2010 by a killer whale," Hargrove told the students. "But does that make them bad animals? Absolutely not. These animals are aggressive by nature. They are very dangerous animals to work with.
"If you knew what really goes on with whales at SeaWorld you wouldn't want to go to their parks," said Hargrove.
He said that 14 killer whales have died at SeaWorld during his career, and all SeaWorld whales live their lives in a small, concrete tank.
"All [whales] have to look at is four walls. Sitting in 8 feet of water [the size of a backyard swimming pool] all day makes them bored," Hargrove said. "No wonder they become so aggressive and attack their trainers."
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