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'Blackfish' director 'inspired' by artists canceling SeaWorld shows

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - The director of "Blackfish," a documentary that raises questions about the treatment of whales used in performances at SeaWorld, said on Tuesday she was heartened by a number of musicians canceling shows at the Florida theme park over the film.

"I'm very inspired by it," director Gabriela Cowperthwaite told Reuters.

"Blackfish," which aired nationally on CNN in October, makes a case against keeping orcas in captivity for entertainment. SeaWorld has called the film "inaccurate and misleading."

Rocker Joan Jett on Monday became the fourth musician or musical group to show support for a campaign led by animal-rights activists by asking SeaWorld to stop using her 1981 hit "I Love Rock 'n Roll" as opening music for the theme park's "Shamu Rocks," an evening version of the killer whale show.

Jett's demand followed decisions by country singer Willie Nelson and rock bands Barenaked Ladies and Heart to withdraw from the theme park's Bands, Brew & BBQ event on weekends starting February 1.

Jett threatened to join a protest by People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) outside the park unless she received written confirmation that her music would no longer be used, according to her letter to SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison posted on PETA's website.

"I'm among the millions who saw 'Blackfish' and am sickened that my music was blasted without my permission at sound-sensitive marine mammals," Jett wrote. "These intelligent and feeling creatures communicate by sonar and are driven crazy in the tiny tanks in which they are confined."

SeaWorld spokesman Nick Gollattscheck said Jett's song was fully licensed and previously played - but no longer in use - as walk-on music for the Shamu show.

As to the cancellations by other musical acts, Gollattscheck issued a written statement saying: "While we're disappointed a small group of misinformed individuals was able to deny fans what would have been great concerts at SeaWorld by Heart, Barenaked Ladies and Willie Nelson, we respect the bands' decisions."

"Blackfish" details the life of Tilikum, a 12,000-pound bull orca who grabbed 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau by her ponytail in 2010 and drowned her in front of park guests.

After her death, a federal judge sided with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which claimed SeaWorld exposed its trainers to a hazardous environment, and ordered the theme park to physically separate trainers and orcas in performances.

SeaWorld appealed in November arguing that OSHA rules "cannot be used to force a company to change the very product that it offers the public, and the business it is in." A ruling is pending.

Meanwhile, Cowperthwaite said "Blackfish" is having a resurgence since being short-listed for an Academy Award.

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Cynthia Osterman)

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