Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin's teenage daughter Bindi is the latest celebrity to be swept up in the ongoing controversy around SeaWorld, which was sparked by the recent documentary film Blackfish.
The 15-year-old Bindi, who has hosted wildlife TV shows in the U.S. and Australia, has come under fire for partnering with SeaWorld on a project meant to encourage children to learn about animals, called Generation Nature.
SeaWorld, which operates parks in Orlando, Florida; San Antonio, Texas; and San Diego, California, has become a target for animal advocates since the 2013 film Blackfish raised questions about the park's treatment of animals. The film accused the park of breaking up orca families in the wild during collections of animals, teaching the cetaceans to do "unnatural" tricks, and failing to react enough to warning signs shown by Tilikum, the whale that killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
Musical acts like the Beach Boys, Martina McBride, Willie Nelson, and REO Speedwagon have recently canceled SeaWorld appearances.
Bindi appeared regularly on TV shows hosted by her famous father, Steve Irwin, who died in 2006 from a stingray barb.
On Thursday, she appeared with her younger brother Robert and mother Terri on Good Morning America to promote Generation Nature.
"I'm so excited to be carrying on in Dad's footsteps and making sure that everything he worked so hard for continues for the generations to come," Bindi said on the program.
She added that she was "thrilled to be partnered up with SeaWorld ... and just encouraging kids to change the world."
Bindi has been named a "youth ambassador" for SeaWorld and will host a series of "webisodes" aimed at children on the company's website.
Reactions to the announcement on Twitter were swift and harsh:
On a Facebook fan page for Bindi, Emma-Jayne Gardiner wrote, "Bindi you have just signed away any credibility you may have had now and in the future. Shame on you."
But others on social media have defended Bindi.
"To the people saying her father would be ashamed, give the girl a break, don't forget shes only 15 and thats a pretty heavy thing to say," wrote Ben Blackwell from Australia on Bindi's Facebook fan page. "The only thing he'd be dissapointed [sic] in is the way people are treating his daughter."
And there have been some supportive tweets amid the blizzard of criticism:
A petition launched on Change.org this week asks Bindi to reconsider her affiliation with SeaWorld. As of this writing it has more than 1,600 signatures.
In a statement, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) criticized the Irwin family for a history of "exploiting animals."
"Plastering her face on SeaWorld's website won't cover up the fact that orcas, dolphins, and other animals are suffering in SeaWorld's tiny tanks after being ripped from their families," PETA said. "Bindi's talk-show appearances are just a flimsy last-ditch effort by an abusement park hoping to make a buck."
SeaWorld has not responded to a request for comment as of this writing. In the past, the company has criticized Blackfish as unfair and inaccurate.
SeaWorld spokesperson Dave Koontz told National Geographic in December that the film is "inaccurate, misleading, and paints a distorted picture of SeaWorld and our animal care program."
SeaWorld has defended its animal captivity practices in a series of full-page ads in major newspapers called "Open Letter from SeaWorld's Animal Advocates." The company also says it has spent $70 million improving its killer whale habitats over the past three years.
This latest controversy comes on the same day that California State Assembly member Richard Bloom (D, Santa Monica) is introducing the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, which would make it illegal to "hold in captivity, or use, a wild-caught or captive-bred orca for performance or entertainment purposes." The bill would also ban artificial insemination of captive killer whales in California and bar import of orcas or orca semen.