Willie Nelson Cancels SeaWorld Concert

Just days after the hit musical group Barenaked Ladies announced they were pulling out of a tour date at SeaWorld Orlando, country-music legend and animal welfare activist Willie Nelson also cancelled his own performance at the park’s Bands, Brew & BBQ Fest, which Nelson and his group were to kick off on February 1.

A spokeswoman in Nelson’s publicity office confirmed the cancelation and said it was due to “scheduling conflicts,” though she did not provide any more information. Another spokeswoman in Los Angeles said Nelson was on vacation and not available for comment. On Thursday, Nelson’s website pulled the concert from their schedules. Meanwhile, SeaWorld did not return an email request for comment.

Sources tell me that a quiet, behind-the-scenes effort was undertaken to reach out to Nelson with information on killer whales in captivity, especially in light of the Barenaked Ladies’ cancellation last week and the release of the international hit documentary “Blackfish.” Still, the exact reason for the cancellation was unclear. Nelson’s band members were recently involved in a bus crash, which might have affected their schedule.

Barenaked Ladies, the popular Canadian group, canceled their February 15 gig at SeaWorld after drummer Tyler Stewart watched “Blackfish” and was rattled by what he saw.

“We’ve talked things over and decided not to play at SeaWorld at this time,” the band said on their Facebook page. “This is a complicated issue, and we don’t claim to understand all of it, but we don’t feel comfortable proceeding with the gig at this time. The SeaWorld folks have been gracious and extended us invitations to the park to learn more about what they do, and how they do it,” they continued. “It’s not about money, or petitions, or press … but it is about our fans. We listen to them, and they’re important to us.”

The twin cancellation of two marquis acts is just one more blow to SeaWorld, which, it is fair to say, has had a bad year. Attendance in the first nine months was down by one million visitors compared with the same period last year. Many observers in the entertainment and business fields say the ongoing backlash from “Blackfish” is fueling the controversy.

“I am thrilled that yet another world-famous, socially conscious artist has chosen to cancel his SeaWorld performance,” said Samantha Berg, a former SeaWorld trainer and a leading figure in both Blackfish and Death at SeaWorld. “Mr. Nelson’s decision sends a powerful message that the exploitation of whales and dolphins for human entertainment is unacceptable and that it’s time for SeaWorld and other marine parks and aquariums to do the right thing and end the shows. Thank you Willie Nelson and Barenaked Ladies for standing up for what is right!”

For now, SeaWorld’s Bands Brews & Barbecue Fest has a rather anemic lineup. Booking major acts at the park, whether this February or any other time of the year, will become increasingly difficult as public pressure is brought to bear on potential performers. And that will hurt SeaWorld’s already tarnished reputation, not to mention its bottom line.

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SeaWorld and OSHA Do Battle in Federal Appeals Court

On Tuesday, November 12, I attended oral arguments in the case between SeaWorld and OSHA in Washington, DC. The following report was originally published at Take.Part.com.

The three-year legal battle between SeaWorld and the U.S. Department of Labor took a dramatic, high-stakes turn Tuesday when attorneys representing the company tried to convince a federal appeals court to overturn a safety violation issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and a ban limiting how the park’s trainers interact with killer whales during performances.

At issue is OSHA’s ruling, in the wake of the February 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at the company’s Orlando park, that SeaWorld had violated safety standards, and its order that trainers “abate” the hazard by maintaining a minimum distance and/or a physical barrier between themselves and orcas. Tilikum, the park’s 12,000-pound breeding male, grabbed Brancheau from a shallow ledge, rammed her repeatedly in the water, and refused to relinquish her body for nearly an hour—all as a handful of horrified visitors looked on.

SeaWorld claimed that OSHA had overstepped its authority in issuing the ruling. The company also contended that Federal Administrative Law Judge Ken Welsch, who upheld the abatements after a lengthy trial in 2011, erred in his ruling and overreached in applying the occupational safety law.

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Young People Flock to “Blackfish” on CNN

In the beginning, there was Sundance. Then came other festivals, the waves of positive reviews, SeaWorld’s pushback, and a $2  million–plus gross during the theatrical release of the anti-captivity documentary Blackfish.

Then came CNN.

CNN Films raised eyebrows in January 2013 when it picked up director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film at Sundance, in a well-crafted deal with Magnolia Pictures, which handled U.S. theatrical distribution over the summer, leaving the October 24 television premiere in CNN’s hands.

Many saw the move as part of an unfolding battle between two corporate titans: Time Warner Inc., which owns CNN, was clearly unafraid to take on the Blackstone Group, the private-equity powerhouse that bought SeaWorld in 2010.

CNN has now aired Blackfish about a dozen times and will air it again in early 2014.

Before the film aired, expectations were high about audience numbers and overall public reaction. But nobody forecast the wave of viewers who actually tuned in, especially young people, and the storm of fury against orca captivity that was unleashed among them.

Viewership and social media figures breached all predictions, which were based on the apparently false belief that people outside cetacean activist circles wouldn’t watch Blackfish in such massive numbers.

In the week leading up to the event, the network ran a weighty series of stories on the killer whale controversy and immediately followed the premiere with a special edition of AC360. The show featured Cowperthwaite and Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute, both on the anti-captivity side, and Jack Hanna and Bill Hurley of the Georgia Aquarium on the other.

During the entire evening, the network ran a red-hot “Live Blog” featuring tweets from the filmmakers, cast members, scientists, celebrities, CNN correspondents, and other journalists, along with comments and posts from viewers around the world. Continue reading

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Students Produce Anti-Captivity Videon in SeaWorld’s Backyard

 

Two weeks after the anti-captivity documentary Blackfish premiered on CNN, elevating to the national discourse an issue that had typically been the purview of cetacean activists, students at Point Loma High School in San Diego have produced a striking video response to the film, methodically laying out their indictment of keeping cetaceans in swimming pools for the delight of tourists. They have vowed not to return to the amusement park until whales and dolphins are retired from show business.

Titled “Dear SeaWorld,” the video features articulate students taking turns speaking in front of an elegantly simple backdrop. It begins with the kids recounting their visits to SeaWorld San Diego, just three miles from their high school, and thanking the park for years of entertainment as they were growing up.

“Dear SeaWorld, thank you for all your amazing memories,” a young woman begins. “The Shamu show…,” says another student. “Dolphin point…,” another says. One student thanks SeaWorld for “all the cute, cuddly teddy bears.”

Then the narrative takes a big turn.

A student explains, “After watching the documentary Blackfish on CNN…” Then another student picks up the line: “…all of those memories have been totally cheapened.”

Then come the hard-hitting questions.

“Is it true the orcas in your exhibits were kidnapped from their families?” asks one student. (The film’s star orca, Tilikum, who killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010 at the Orlando park, was snatched from his mother’s side in the waters off Iceland in 1983. In the subsequent 30 years, the 12,000-pound marine mammal has sired 54 percent of SeaWorld’s current orcas.)

“Is it true their life span is shortened in captivity?” asks another student. (Annual mortality rates for captive orcas are two and a half times higher than for wild whales.)

“Is it true that there have been multiple attacks on trainers in your parks?” yet another asks. (The answer is a resounding yes, and it will be the subject of oral arguments in federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., on November 12.)

“Until these questions are answered,” the students continue, “there will be no more admission tickets…no more rides…no more teddy bears.”

From the mouths of babes, this video packs a wallop.

Nadeem Mayer, a student at the school, tells TakePart: “I believe that the captive holding of orcas at SeaWorld is more than abuse—these animals are active, smart and social. They require more living space and interaction; conditions such as those can only be found in the wild.”

The student’s adviser, Cinematic Arts instructor Anthony Palmiotto, also has no qualms about criticizing such a popular local institution. “Orcas weren’t meant to be kept in pools, and elephants weren’t meant to be kept in cages,” he tells me. “Deep down, everyone knows using animals for entertainment purposes is wrong. The time has come for SeaWorld to get civilized.”

The video ends with the same simple eloquence with which it began.

“We don’t expect SeaWorld to close its doors,” one student declares. “We just invite you to change its business model,” says another, “and stop using animals for entertainment.”

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Gloucester Paper Covers Keynote at World Whale Conference

I gave the keynote address at the World Whale Conference on November 7, 2013 in Gloucester, MA, with the following coverage in the local newspaper:

 

  • Yay David Kirby!!! Front page of the Gloucester Daily Times in MA! You rock!

Author decries keeping killer whales in captivity

Killer whales held in captivity face a host of environmental and health threats that render their existence far more dangerous and stressful than if they lived in the wild, author David Kirby told attendees to the World Whale Conference Thursday at Cruiseport Gloucester.

Kirby, author of “Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity,” painted a bleak tableau of life for captive killer whales, including a higher propensity for infection, disease and a mortality rate that is more than twice that of comparably aged whales in the wild.

“They die younger and in absolutely ghastly ways,” Kirby told the gathering at the second World Whale Conference co-hosted by the World Cetacean Alliance and Cetacean Society International in one of America’s leading whale-watch cities.

Those methods of death include a level of fighting among the creatures just not observed in the wild, Kirby said. He also pointed out that the whales represent a greater danger to humans while in captivity because of the abnormal ways their lives are altered.

Kirby said he is unaware of any fatal orca attacks on humans in the wild.

“They don’t eat us,” he said. “We are not on the menu.”

By comparison, killer whales have attacked and killed four trainers or staff members while in captivity. The most recent was in February 2010, when SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau was dragged into the water by a male orca and died after the male and two other female killer whales attacked her.

Kirby, a freelance investigative reporter whose work has appeared in the New York Times and on the Huffington Post, among other publications, said he initially was drawn to the fate of whales in captivity after the Brancheau incident.

“It had nothing to do with killer whales,” he said. “It had to do with SeaWorld. It was not only a corporate malfeasance story and a worker-safety story. This is a story about captivity.” Continue reading

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SeaWorld Says It’s Abandoning “Waterwork.” But Why?

From TakePart.com

It’s been a big week for killer whales and the people who oppose captivity. Last Thursday, CNN first aired the documentary Blackfish, while running a flurry of stories about SeaWorld and the use of orcas in entertainment. But buried under the onslaught of coverage was a bit of news most people overlooked: SeaWorld announced it was abandoning plans to put trainers back in the water during shows at all of its Shamu Stadiums.

“Our trainers have not entered the water for performances since February 2010 and we have no plans for them to return to that kind of interaction with our whales,” Fred Jacobs told CNN in a written interview. It was the first time I can recall SeaWorld saying it had no intention to resume “waterwork” during shows.

SeaWorld pulled its trainers from waterwork immediately after the 12,000-pound bull Tilikum killed Dawn Brancheau at the Orlando park in February, 2010. But the company made no secret of its desire to one day resume waterwork during shows, when trainers ride, surf upon, and leap from the surging bodies of the ocean’s top predator. Yes, they hunt and eat sharks—even Great Whites.

That August, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hit SeaWorld with a “willful” violation in Brancheau’s death, and said trainers should not only stay out of the water, they should not even venture into close physical contact with the killer whales.

But SeaWorld, which sued to overturn the OSHA ruling, continued allowing close contact between orcas and trainers during “drywork,” when staff interacts closely with the whales at the stage or in the slide-out area during a show. And, the company let it be known, it wanted trainers to resume waterwork as soon as possible. Continue reading

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SeaWorld Responds to CNN on Blackfish – And Fails

Blackfish, the outstanding documentary about killer whales in captivity, airs this Thursday night on CNN, which posed some pointed questions to SeaWorld about the highly profitable practice. Some of the answers, provided by spokesman Fred Jacobs, range from half-truths to unscientific nonsense.

Most of these issues are discussed in my book, Death at SeaWorld, Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity.  Readers will recognize SeaWorld’s latest attempt at positive spin as part its eternal drive to make orcas in swimming pools appear to be a good thing, especially for the whales.

Here are some of the main points raised in the CNN Q/A with Jacobs, paired with what I discovered researching Death at SeaWorld:

CONSERVATION

Jacobs says SeaWorld has, “assisted whales many times, including killer whales,” who were lost or stranded. But in at least three cases, SeaWorld seemed more interested in sending these orcas into a life of captivity to entertain tourists, rather than releasing them back into the ocean.

First there was Springer, a young female discovered in Puget Sound, alone and undernourished. As I reported, the main organizations working to help Springer were the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the Vancouver Aquarium, the Center for Whale Research and OrcaLab on Johnstone Strait, in British Columbia, the summer home to Springer’s pod.

Springer was eventually caught and transferred to a netted-off pen, where she could be fed and cared for. Many scientists and activists wanted to see her returned to her family, but her fate was uncertain.

According to my sources, SeaWorld wanted to see Springer taken captive permanently. “The SeaWorld vet tried his best to find something wrong with Springer that would dictate that she be moved to a SeaWorld tank,” says Howard Garrett of the Orca Network. Garrett and his wife Susan Berta spent time with Springer in Washington.

Springer had settled near the Vashon Island ferry dock. “She chose one of the best fishing spots in Puget Sound, and was seen catching salmon with ease,” Garrett recalls. “She was always very active and alert. We watched as Springer was captured. In the hour before, we watched her do half a dozen breaches or half breaches. We didn’t see anything about her condition to worry about.”

But SeaWorld veterinarian Jim McBain told the Seattle Times that, “We’re still worried about the next step. Her condition is a concern. This is not a robust killer whale. To me, this is a big question now: is she going to know she’s a killer whale?”

According to Garrett, “Industry vets were casting doubt on her ability to rejoin her pod, angling for permanent captivity. It was only the resounding voices of orca experts and conservationists who absolutely opposed captivity that turned efforts toward finding a way to transport her back to Johnstone Strait, where she did rejoin her family within 24 hours. She soon became an adopted member of her aunt’s matriline and returned this year with her own newborn.”

Despite SeaWorld’s concerns, Springer clearly “knew” she was a killer whale.

Then there was Luna, an adolescent male separated from his pod in Nootka Sound, on Vancouver Island. Without his family, the lonely whale began bonding with boaters, an unwanted and potentially dangerous development.

Luna could not stay in the inlet. Plans were made to capture him, possibly to reunite him with his family. But a local First Nation tribe intervened, and Luna’s capture was thwarted. The entire drama was recounted in the documentary The Whale and companion book The Lost Whale.

But my sources told me about documents showing that SeaWorld was interested in exploring the possibility of sending Luna into a life of captivity. Sadly, Luna was killed by a tugboat propeller before he could be returned to his family, or sent to a marine park.

Finally, Jacobs mentions a young female rescued off the coast of the Netherlands, named Morgan. Despite attempts by scientists and activists to win the whale’s freedom, Morgan was sent to the Loro Parque theme park, in the Canary Islands, where she remains to this day.

All killer whales at Loro Parque belong to SeaWorld, and now the company lists Morgan as part of their “collection” in papers filed with the SEC. There will be another legal hearing on Morgan’s fate next month, but it’s clear that SeaWorld has no intention of letting go. SeaWorld and Loro Parque claim that Morgan is “hearing impaired,” but have not released data on how severe the impairment is. Continue reading

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What’s Killing the Killer Whales? A Bitter Fight on San Juan Island

 First Published at TakePart.com

What’s killing the killer whales of the Pacific Northwest? It’s an urgent question with complicated answers. It’s also the subject of a long-simmering, rancorous debate on Washington’s San Juan Island, where the battle took on renewed ferocity after a recent news report on a controversial plan to ban whale-watching boats along the island’s west side.

The idea of an orca “no-go zone” has been around for a while, championed by Orca Relief Citizens Alliance (ORCA), which recently formulated a new petition asking the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to bar whale-watching boats from coming within a half-mile of the shore along several miles of the island, an area that routinely attracts killer whales from April to October.

ORCA says the ban is critical because whale-watching boats chase and disturb orcas, causing them to expend energy unnecessarily. The problem is exacerbated because stocks of the whales’ preferred food, high-calorie Chinook salmon, have plummeted. The result, experts say, is malnutrition, stress, illness, and early death among Southern Residents, already an endangered subspecies.

But whale-boat operators, and some conservationists, scientists and activists, say the ban is unnecessary, does not address the collapse of salmon fisheries, and was originated by wealthy homeowners on the island’s west side, who’ve been known to grumble about noise from whale engines and tour guides speaking on P.A. systems.

One thing everyone agrees on: These whales are in trouble. This summer, only 82 Southern Residents returned to local waters, according to the Center for Whale Research. That’s a 17 percent drop since 1995, when the community had 98 whales. What’s worse, breeding-age females experienced a staggering 40-percent decline since 2004.

Government scientists who study these orcas identify three reasons: lack of Chinook; pollution, especially PCBs; and vessel noise. There is general consensus on salmon and toxins. But when it comes to whale watching, the fight is bitter and personal. At issue is the degree to which whale-watching charters contribute to the decline.

ORCA says the boats are a major threat, and a no-go zone is a quick way to address it. “In our judgment, motorized whale-watching boats are the heart of the problem, because of the frequency and extent of their operations,” says Bruce Stedman, ORCA’s executive director.

During years when Chinook runs are especially meager, “the constant pursuit of these vessels, lead to increased stress levels,” Stedman says. This causes their metabolic rates to go up, meaning an increased need for food. “When that happens,” says Stedman, “they start to starve. They draw down their blubber, which releases accumulated toxins that can affect reproductive capacity and their organs, and probably kill them.”

In 2002, ORCA commissioned three (unpublished) papers depicting the harm that boats can have on whales. One said that energy requirements increased by nearly 20 percent for adult whales, compared to years when few or no whale-watch boats were around. The second concluded that motorized boats may decrease orca sonar efficiency by 95-99 percent, and the third found a “strong statistical correlation” between whale decline and boat activity. Kenneth Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research, vehemently disputes the veracity of these papers, saying that the authors “were paid to gin up research implicating behavioral responses to vessel presence, and they were embarrassingly biased.”

Charter boats carry more passengers-per-vessel, creating less traffic and pollution-per-whale-watcher, and allow large numbers of people to observe orcas in the wild, reducing their desire to see them in captivity.

Operators, meanwhile, resent being characterized as a greedy, powerful business interest, and complain that private boaters are more likely to harass orcas, but would still be permitted in the no-go zone.

ORCA is “targeting commercial whale-watch boats,” says Brian Goodremont of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

“Professional whale-watch boats account for only 12 percent of the violations of voluntary guidelines,” and just a tiny fraction are considered “serious,” meaning intentionally breaching the 200-yard limit, as set by state law. The others were private boats with an “unusually high rate of serious incidents, including lots of high-speed travel inside of 100 yards,” Goodremont says.

The association says the ban would hurt business and damage the local economy. But some non-business interests are also opposed, because the debate detracts from solving the salmon problem, a far bigger threat than whale boats, they contend.

“The proposed sanctuary is absurdly small, and meaningless,” says Balcomb. “The real problem is the Chinook salmon debacle.”

NMFS has a long-term recovery plan to fix the salmon problem, and dismantling dams is a major component. The Elwha River, on the Olympic Peninsula, once saw 400,000 adult salmon, including Chinook, returning to breed annually before two dams were built early last century. Recent adult runs were numbered at 4,000. Now, the dams are gone and the Chinook are beginning to return.

Howard Garret, of the Orca Network, says his group has “tried to say out of the whole boat issue, as it’s so contentious.” Another member of Garret’s group, Susan Berta, agreed. “Campaigns like this takes everyone’s attention away from the more serious issues, and causes polarity and anger that divide the whale loving community,” she says, “It’s really sad.”

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Swim with Dolphins, Then Eat Them? If Taiji’s Marine Park Happens, Tourists Could Do Both

This article first appeared at TakePart.com

On a memorable episode of The Simpsons, Homer, Marge and the kids head to “Marine World,” where a P.A. system announcement is heard: “Folks, we’re heating up the lobster tank, so hurry on over if you want to pet them before you eat ‘em!”

It’s a classic, grotesque, line and one I was reminded of this week when officials in Taiji, Japan—home to the cove, the site of the annual massacre of thousands of dolphins—announced plans to build a theme park not far from the infamous inlet. Visitors are promised the chance to “swim in the water and kayak alongside small whales and dolphins.”

The plan calls for a dolphin and whale safari park to be created by stretching 69 acres of netting across the entrance to Moriura Bay in northwestern Taiji, according to Agence France Press.

With a macabre, life-imitates-art touch, AFP reported, Taiji official Masaki Wada said the park would allow visitors to enjoy watching marine mammals while tasting various marine products, including whale and dolphin meat.”  This in the face of years of international outrage against the hunting, killing and eating of cetaceans. The park would be proof that Taiji is not “caving” to outside pressure, Wada added, telling AFP the project was aimed at “helping to sustain the practice,” of the village’s annual whale and dolphin. “This is part of Taiji’s long-term plan of making the whole town a park,” he said.

I asked Ric O’Barry, star of The Cove and head of the Dolphin Project at Earth Island Institute, what he thought of the announcement.

“The mayor, city commission, dolphin hunting union, and dolphin dealers and trainers lost their moral compass long ago,” said O’Barry. He was quick to note, however, that the city leadership represents a minority in the village, and that most Taiji citizens are not dolphin-killers.

Activists with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which also has an on-the-ground presence in Taiji, were equally appalled.

“It’s all about business, making a yen off the backs of these animals,” says Erwin Vermeulen, a Cove Guardian and Dutch Sea Shepherd activist. “Why sell dolphins around the world if you can enslave them yourself and reap all the benefits?”

Once captured and put on public display, whether around the world or around the bend, the cetaceans are not the same as in the wild, Vermeulen said. “Their family structure has been destroyed. Often they have witnessed the slaughter of family members.” Visiting them in a marine “safari park” will be “like taking a tour of a mental institution; they are severely traumatized.”

Construction of a temporary pen could begin in November as dolphins selected alive from the drive hunts begin to populate the netted-off bay.

Ironically, the idea of a netted-off seapen, where captive killer whales and dolphins could be retired from show business, though still on display is an ethical compromise that anti-captivity activists have long been calling for as part of a gradual phasing out of whale and dolphin shows in small tanks around the world.

There are, however, two enormous differences.

Retirement pens will hold captive animals as an improvement over their prior conditions, not wild animals newly placed in captivity.

And outside of Taiji, Flipper Burgers probably won’t be on the menu.

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New Feature Story in Marie Claire Australia on Killer Whales in Captivity

The November issue of Marie Claire Australia has published a major spread I wrote about the growing controversy over killer whales in captivity, in advance of the premiere of Blackfish down under.

To read a PDF of the full article, please CLICK HERE

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