The Blackfish Movie Makes You Think

CNN recently aired the Blackfish film by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and it has sparked deep conversations among parents, animal lovers and zoo aficionados. Much of the film is about SeaWorld and the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, by Tillikum, the 12,000 pound orca she trained.

I think this is an important conversation but the reaction to the movie has become very hostile to Sea World specifically and perhaps zoos in general that keep larger animals. I can land a lot of different places on this subject. I think Sea World brings stories to people they likely will not get other places and generally takes great care of their animals. Their trainers are obviously dedicated to their work so it was chilling to hear former trainers talk about their concerns about keeping whales in captivity to do entertaining shows. I hope Sea World does not go away or stay away from challenging stories about sea life. I do hope their educational and interpretive mission grows stronger. It seemed much more important in their programming when Harcourt Brace Jovanivich (textbook company) owned the properties than it has since then in the ownership of Busch Entertainment and then Blackstone Entertainment, the current major stockholder.

The conversation surrounding this and related issues matters a lot. Is it appropriate to keep all kinds of animals in captivity for educational purposes? Should they be in shows that are primarily entertainment and interpretation/education secondarily? Should they be kept in wildlife parks, zoos or aquariums with no conservation messages that explain their presence?

When I was very young (1950s) I saw a chimpanzee that would box any man who wished to enter the ring and attempt to win $50. I first worried about the welfare of the chimpanzee and then watched him knock down every amateur boxer in less than 15 seconds. They were no match for his pugilistic skills wearing human boxing gloves. But it seemed a terrible, exploitive use of a chimpanzee.

Elephants, orcas, belugas, dolphins, chimpanzees, wolves, gorillas, orangutans and many other animals are so social, smart and active, that even the best captive habitats may or may not be enough to keep them physically and psychologically healthy. But people seeing them in captive programs often donate money for research, protection and interpretation that is vital to conservation of these animals. But when the animal becomes just a SHOW with fireworks, loud music and behaviors that do not resemble their natural behaviors at all, is it appropriate? Do we or should we have some ethical sense of social justice for animals?

People have definitely made progress the past 50 years in caring for captive animals. I doubt anyone in the United States (and some other countries) wants to see the boxing chimpanzee at their local zoo or circus. But many animal shows still seem more exploitive than educational. Should we exploit the animals for profit? That is one of the tough questions tackled in the movie Blackfish.

More than 35,000 elephants are being killed annually in Africa for their ivory. We could see their complete disappearance from nature without extraordinary conservation efforts and education must be part of that. African Wildlife Trust, Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and others are trying to do more educationally. Does a circus elephant show aid that effort or simply add to the exploitation of elephants?

Some consider mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo to be exploitive, but gorilla numbers have grown from 230 a decade ago to 880 this past year due to tourism that takes people close to habituated gorilla families. Is it too much? Does a gorilla exhibit in a zoo make a valuable contribution to gorilla conservation? I think so. I hope so.

I’m not opposed to animal programs, aquariums interpreting marine mammals or zoos, but I think our ethics about care of captive animals have evolved slowly. It’s essential to keep the conversations going. Let’s be kind to each other in the process. We may not all agree on every decision made about captive animals, but let’s keep talking. Let’s keep adding animals to our sense of humanity and humane care.

Blackfish has a “point of view” you may share or the movie may offend you. I might have suggested that the movie’s script be more clear about the important questions that are being asked so that it would be easier for viewers to sort out the various issues that are threaded throughout the film. The story is much bigger than one corporation’s culpability (or lack of culpability) in one trainer’s death or the welfare of one orca taken from the wild. Unfortunately, many viewers focus on those aspects of the film instead of thinking through all the implications and variations of the notion of keeping animals in captivity. In fact, the movie shares a number of important stories about captive orcas and the concerns of all involved. Thoughtful viewers can expand that discussion to take a hard look at how we interact with other animal species as well.

I urge you to watch the film and take part in thoughtful discussions about these important ideas. Ultimately I hope we see some changes at Sea World but I also recognize these issues are complex and not easily answered. Condemnation of Sea World probably helps no one but encouraging more ethical treatment of animals in captivity while these conversations continue helps everyone, especially the animals who may have landed in our care.

Tim Merriman

Brain Research – Some Thoughts for Interpreters

interpreterSperry’s famous research at Caltech on the “split-brain” was shared with the scientific community in the 1960s, and since then, numerous other studies have been done that provide more insight into the varied specialized functions of different parts of the human brain. These studies suggest that there is no simplistic explanation of “right-brained” and “left-brained” people. Although certain functions have been proven to reside in specific hemispheres, humans have an entire brain and nervous system that must work in a holistic fashion to remember what is important and make decisions quickly when necessary.

Those of us who interpret nature and culture read these studies with interest but must look beyond any specific study to think more deeply about how brain research might influence how we communicate with our audiences. Rob Bixler recently observed in a Facebook post that, “If we were to delve into communication theory or linguistics, or persuasion literature, we would soon be buried in 1000s of overlapping theories that could inform our work. Think of these research-based ideas as metaphorical rather than marching orders. Most of the stuff we do, we do out of professional judgment, and rationalize after the fact with research.”

Looking at the broad range of neurology and cognitive psychology research, a few ideas shine through for me as points to consider:

We cannot change people but we can influence their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors by encouraging them to “think.” Sam Ham emphasizes this in his new book, Intepretation –  Making a Difference on Purpose. We get people to think by introducing strong themes, asking questions, and starting conversations with our visitors and within them. Ideally they leave our experiences with more questions in their mind than upon arrival. They are thinking about the engaging idea or ideas we introduced. They change themselves if our interpretation gets them to think more deeply and see the opportunity to change their own behavior.


Getting people to pay attention is essential. We cannot get them to think if they are not engaged. Sam Ham teaches TORE as a way to remember key steps in planning interpretive experiences. T is for Thematic, which gets people to think, but the other three components are to gain the attention of the guest, to engage them. O is for organized, R is for relevant and E is Enjoyable. People stay tuned if our experiences are organized and relevant to their lives while being enjoyable or engaging. If we get them to pay attention, we may get them to think about our theme.

“The more elaborately we encode information at the moment of learning, the stronger the memory” – John Medina, Brain Rules

When we design experiences that employ all five senses, we create memories. The human brain actually encodes information in diverse parts of the brain and a smell, a visual or the right words will take us back to a cherished memory. Reversing the process, we can create memorable experiences.  When we discuss learning styles, it’s important to remember that most of us actually use all learning styles with some preferences for one or two of them. Richly designed experiences employ all of them.

Neurological and communications research will continue to influence how we work in the future. Ideally we are not locked into any piece of research so completely that we cannot learn from and use the new ideas that arise. As Rob points out, we use our professional judgment and hands-on experiences to learn what works for us and what does not. Research is great for affirming why a certain approach works and getting us to think about how to make experiences we design even more engaging.

-Tim Merriman

Successful Partnerships and Shifting Perspectives

gorillaI recently had the opportunity to hear a dynamic speaker with an important message. Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is a veterinarian and conservationist and listening to her talk about her work in her birth country of Uganda was inspiring in a number of ways. The unique organization she founded, Conservation through Public Health (, provides wildlife health monitoring in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park with a focus on the mountain gorillas that make their home there, almost half of the remaining population of this highly endangered species. What makes this organization different from other conservation groups is its approach to integrating public health and volunteer programs in communities around Bwindi for the benefit of local residents, livestock, and wildlife, enabling them to coexist in and around Africa’s protected areas.

As she began to work in Bwindi, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka realized that conservation of any wildlife species requires a multi-pronged approach. But her work didn’t stop with helping the mountain gorillas. She astutely recognized that public health and economic issues contribute to and sometimes create conflicts that can be detrimental to conservation efforts. So if you want to help the gorillas, you must help the people that live near the gorillas to help themselves. CTPH’s community health volunteer networks have dramatically improved health practices and conservation attitudes among local people, engaging them in income generating livestock projects and connecting them to the international community via a Telecentre.

As Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka shared the objectives and results of CTPH’s programs in her talk, I was particularly interested in the partnership model that emerged from this approach. What makes this program work is the willingness of all partners to look at the issues from a variety of perspectives in order to find common ground that enables them to help each other achieve positive results. Too often, “partnerships” are approached in such a way that one party attempts to get what it wants at the expense of another. In the world of nature, that would be called parasitism, not partnership.

It may not always be easy to take a step back from your own desires and discover what a partner needs or wants, and how you might be of help in obtaining it, but if you want to be successful in your partnerships, this shift in perspective is absolutely critical. Simply expecting a partner to be supportive of your efforts without getting anything in return could be the primary reason why many partnerships fail within a fairly short time frame. Everyone must have a reason to continue participating in the partnership.

I strongly urge you to visit CTPH’s website and learn more about the work that is being done in and around Bwindi. It’s an exciting model that is getting real results and it’s very much an object lesson in developing and sustaining successful partnerships in community-based programs.

-Lisa Brochu

The Show Will Go On

yellowstone2Last week when the US government shutdown began, a nightly news show glibly reported that “there would be no show this fall” in America’s first and quite possibly favorite national park. Yellowstone National Park is known for its incredible beauty year-round. In spring and summer, crowds are drawn to the meadows filled with wildflowers, the geothermal features, and wildlife sightings that might include newborn fawns, bison calves, and wolves. Fall brings another spectacular viewing season with brilliant foliage and bugling elk. Visitation continues through the winter for those who appreciate the subtleties of a landscape covered in snow.

I was perplexed to hear the newsman’s assurance that the “show” would not occur because the park would be closed. National parks in the US are set aside to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. Numerous research studies support the value of national parks in terms of health, education, and economic benefits, so I find it more than disturbing that our national park system and the people who work there are not considered “essential.”

The newsman’s nonchalant statement struck me as a serious indicator of the ever-widening disconnect between the American people and the natural and cultural heritage that national parks are designed to preserve. Are we really so egocentric that we believe the “show” exists only for humans? I’m reminded of a small child who sees his or her teacher as existing only in the school building during school hours. Imagine the surprise when the child first encounters the teacher at a grocery store or at a movie theatre on a weekend and realizes the teacher has a life beyond the classroom. Yes, trees still fall in the forest and they still make a sound, even if there is no human around to see or hear it. Life goes on with or without human beings. In fact, some would argue that it may be a much better “show” without any humans around.

Bison may not notice the absence of humans during the shutdown but people who traveled to Yellowstone will miss this beautiful scenery during the shutdown.

Bison may not notice the absence of humans during the shutdown but people who traveled to Yellowstone will miss this beautiful scenery and wildlife during the shutdown.

I’ve been a park user all my life, thanks to the foresight of my parents who insisted on taking us camping our way through national parks and forests throughout my childhood. These wild places and their non-human inhabitants inspired and enchanted me from an early age. They created my career path as an interpreter, planner, and conservationist. I know the importance of the people who work to protect these places by connecting the hearts and minds of those who might not fully understand the value of our public lands to what is real in this world.

Nature prevails, though we may do our best to ignore or alter it. No matter what Congress does or does not do, Old Faithful will still burst from the earth and bull elk will continue to split the air with their shrill mating calls. The leaves will go from green to gold and fall to the earth according to their own schedule. The government may shut down public access, but they cannot shut down the show.

– Lisa Brochu

Eight Strategies for Community Collaboration

partnersCommunities employ varied strategies and tactics to create positive change. These  strategies are a starting point for communities seeking ways to collaborate and improve their tourism products and experiences.

  1. 1.    Assess what’s working and what is not – This usually requires a consultant who can serve as an objective observer. Analysis of the visitor experience is best done by a planning professional who understands both the “front of the house experience” and “back of the house” logistics. He or she can help you see what you may overlook due to familiarity. Guest comments, and other feedback are also helpful.
  1. 2.    Plan together with community input – A Community Experience Plan with stakeholders from varied sectors brings common goals and objectives to the table. Creating a logic model can be very helpful because it provides measurable objectives that can be used by all in planning and evaluation of progress to get results.
  1. 3.    Train together with consistent themes – Training front-line workers as guides and hosts will improve the visitor experience while encouraging community relationships. People from varied businesses and nonprofits learn together and can carry that relationship into future work. Through the training they will learn the themes and storylines developed through collaborative planning and understand how their role supports that effort.
  1. 4.    Package together to create rich experiences – Great visitor experiences that engage people in the community may require collaboration among lodging, food, transportation and recreation providers. Special events can also help diverse organizations achieve objectives in common.  The planning process will suggest these opportunities but then stakeholders have to continue to meet and agree to collaborate.
  1. 5.    Promote together with consistent themes – Promotions, tours, exhibits, informational publications and websites should be delivering shared themes and storylines. A community brand or identity is stronger with a commitment to consistency that requires collaborative efforts.
  1. 6.    Visit innovative communities and learn from them – Who do you admire as examples of great community experiences and brand identity? Travel together with a group of stakeholders to get a “cook’s tour” of those communities. Learn from them about how to make progress and adapt it to your situation.
  1. 7.    Use social media to monitor and promote the community –,, Facebook and other social media provide an opportunity to continually evaluate the public’s responses to your offers. They can also be used as a place to do surveys, hold conversations and collect information about customer views. These can also be ways to promote your experiences and encourage feedback.
  1. 8.    Meet regularly in standing committees that leverage funds – Monthly meetings of strategic partners can leverage grant funds and encourage monitoring of social media and measurable outcomes and impacts. Meeting over breakfast once a month is a great way to get people involved without breaking into their workday when competition for time is fierce.

Not everyone in a community will choose to work collaboratively but those that will can work together to create great experiences for residents and tourists. Usually someone has to provide leadership and invite others to the table. Collaborative work is addictive when done well with all partners benefiting personally and organizationally.

– Tim Merriman