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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Well, God bless Willie Nelson.

The country legend has canceled a coming performance at SeaWorld Orlando because of a CNN documentary called Blackfish, a profoundly disturbing account of the theme park’s exploitation of captive killer whales.

If you haven’t yet seen Blackfish, download it today. The film has been shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination, with good reason.

Last week, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart also scratched a SeaWorld show amid the outcry. The rock group has roots in Seattle, which isn’t far from the site of brutal roundups of baby killer whales during the late 1960s and early ’70s.

The early minutes of Blackfish present footage of one such expedition, and it’s heart-wrenching to observe the misery of the adult whales as the young ones are netted and loaded on ships. (Those that died were slit open, loaded with weights and sunk to conceal the evidence.)

One of those captured whales is still performing as “Lolita” at the Miami Seaquarium. Another that was snatched 30 years ago from the waters off Iceland is in the Shamu extravaganza at SeaWorld Orlando.

Its name is Tilikum, the subject of Blackfish. At six tons, “Tili” is said to be the largest bull orca in captivity. It’s also one of the most volatile and emotionally damaged, involved in three human deaths.

The first occurred in 1991 at a cut-rate attraction in British Columbia. A young student worker was killed after she slipped into a tank holding Tilikum and two other orcas. The facility closed permanently after the tragedy, but Tilikum was purchased by SeaWorld and put on display in Orlando.

In 1990, a man slipped past employees and climbed into Tilikum’s tank at night. The next morning the man was found dead, mutilated and draped naked across the whale’s back. Cause of death was ruled to be drowning or hypothermia.

Then, in February 2010, Tilikum fatally mauled a veteran trainer, Dawn Brancheau, as horrified tourists videotaped the sequence. SeaWorld said the accident was Brancheau’s fault, implying that she somehow agitated the whale with her ponytail.

The accusation infuriated other trainers, some of whom speak out in the documentary. After a hearing, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ruled that SeaWorld subjected its trainers to a hazardous environment, and ordered barriers erected to separate the whales from the employees.

A federal judge agreed. The company has appealed.

Orcas are complex, highly intelligent mammals that in the wild would be traveling vast distances in close-knit family pods. Captive specimens spend their days in glorified guppy ponds performing stunts designed purely to amuse paying customers.

In a toothless response to Blackfish, Michael Scarpuzzi of San Diego SeaWorld defended the company’s “educational presentation” of orcas, and noted the thousands of uneventful interactions between trainers and whales during “exercise, play and enrichment.”