SeaWorld’s Very Rotten Year

This year may go down in history as the beginning of the end of keeping killer whales in captivity in the United States. Theme parks like SeaWorld only have themselves to blame.

While the marine mammal theme park limps toward the end of the year, its executives must be reeling from the blowback as investors, celebrities, journalists, and even students distance themselves from the park and its iconic killer whale shows.

The year started ominously for SeaWorld. In January, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish debuted at Sundance, becoming an international sensation and a pivotal rallying cry for those appalled by the practice of keeping large, social, intelligent creatures in what amounts to an Olympic-sized pool.

But Blackfish was the beginning of SeaWorld’s woes, not the end. As the film made its way through a summertime theatrical release, followed by high-profile screenings on CNN in October, awareness of what really goes on in the park began to grow.

In recent weeks, eight musical acts, including Willie Nelson and Barenaked Ladies, pulled out of a February, 2014 concert series at the Orlando Park, high school students in San Diego, SeaWorld’s backyard, produced a scathing anti-captivity video, many highly critical news stories appeared in print, online, and on television, and the Blackstone Group, which held much of SeaWorld stock, sold 19.5 million shares and its majority ownership, amid worrisome downgrading by some analysts of the company’s value. And despite record profits from increased admission fees and other revenue streams, one million fewer people visited SeaWorld parks in the first nine months of this year compared to last year.

SeaWorld attempted a high-profile pushback, with full-page ads in eight major US newspapers. Its self-defense talking points, easily refuted by Blackfish and my book Death at SeaWorld, were an attempt to convince a skeptical public that orcas performing tricks for tourists is a noble, scientific undertaking.

Among the falsehoods and truth-stretching points made in the ad, SeaWorld insisted it does not separate orca calves from their mothers (it does so routinely), that it no longer captures live whales from the ocean (true, but six SeaWorld killer whales were taken from their families in the sea, and SeaWorld is deeply involved in trying to import wild-caught beluga whales from Russia), that it spent some $70 million on improvements to orca habitats (much of which went to installing fast-rising pool bottoms to rescue trainers caught in the throes of a rampaging whale) and that the Shamu shows benefit killer whales in the wild (there is little evidence to back up this claim, even as orca populations in the US Pacific Northwest decline precipitously).

Anyone who has witnessed the majesty of orcas in the ocean will understand how unethical and outdated the Shamu shows really are. Killer whale families stay together for life, and in many populations, the males never leave their mothers’ side. They possess culture, compassion, and means of communication. They swim up to 100 miles-per-day, and the males’ towering dorsal fins almost never collapse, as opposed to 100-percent of adult males in captivity.

Now, due to Blackfish, CNN, and thousands of activists, word is out that these animals are too smart, too social, too much like us to allow them to be treated this way. There is a growing movement to gradually retire some of these animals to sea pens, where they can live their lives without performing for tourists. Eventually, I predict, our grandchildren will only see orcas in the ocean.

Meanwhile, I expect attendance levels to drop further as the Blackfish effect continues to grow, including an anticipated Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. (It is already on the short list.)

Next year is SeaWorld’s 50th anniversary, but it’s not likely that 2014 will be more felicitous than 2013. Most people, myself included, are not anti-SeaWorld, but anti-captivity for orcas. As long as SeaWorld confines them to a life of servitude, public sentiment will continue to build against the park.

As the website One Green Planet put it, “Sorry SeaWorld, but the American public has spoken: They don’t like you anymore, and have no plans in the future to reinstate their support.”

Company executives and investors should brace themselves for more brand-damaging rhetoric in the new year.

About David Kirby

DAVID KIRBY is the author of 'Evidence of Harm,' which was a New York Times bestseller, winner of the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) award for best book, and a finalist for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism, and 'Animal Factory,' an acclaimed investigation into the environmental impact of factory farms which NPR compared to Upton Sinclair’s classic work 'The Jungle.' His latest book, 'Death at SeaWorld,' was previewed by Library Journal, which wrote: “Lives are at stake here, and Kirby can be trusted to tell the story, having won a passel of awards for his investigate work.” Booklist called the book “gripping” and “hard to put down.”
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3 Responses to SeaWorld’s Very Rotten Year

  1. Cookie says:

    Bravo for your exposés, David Kirby! Keep going and never stop! Change only comes when people stop demanding and funding evil.

  2. Kim Plunkett says:

    Excellent article, David. Thanks for that. It has been an amazing year for the ant-orca captivity organisations and your book and numerous articles have played an enormous part in that. here’s to a great 2014

  3. Lyn says:

    Thank you for all the work you do for these majestic creatures! Keep going! We the public are right there with you!

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