SeaWorld took the first steps in recovering from the triple symptoms of dropping revenue, falling attendance and plummeting stock price this week by admitting that “yes, we have a image problem.” Today, according to a story by Tom Gara in the Wall Street Journal, it will announce a multi-year program to expand the habitats of its orca “killer” whales.
SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison tells Gara the facilities will cost several hundred million dollars to construct and “would set the standard globally for man-made killer whale habitats, but acknowledged they were unlikely to satisfy the company's most vocal critics.”
“It probably won't, and that's not our audience,” Atchison said. “Unfortunately there are some people who want nothing more than to see the end to the relationship between humans and animals, and that would be a sad outcome.”
Christopher Dold, SeaWorld's vice president of veterinary services, tells Gara the new habitats will be “not just larger but more dynamic, and with a lot more of the kind of mental and physical stimulation that we know is so important for overall health and well-being.”
But it’s not just a matter of space, say animal rights activists.
“You don't have dancing bears or tigers jumping through hoops anymore,” Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, tells Gara. “Zoos have moved away from that model; they try to place animals in a more natural setting. So why do we still have sea animals performing tricks?”
The stock of the Orlando-Fla.-based company “plunged 33% Wednesday after the company's earnings missed Wall Street expectations,” writes Hugo Martin in the Los Angeles Times.
The company “also conceded for the first time that attendance at its theme parks has been hurt by negative publicity concerning accusations by animal-rights activists that SeaWorld mistreats killer whales,” he continues. “In the past, SeaWorld executives attributed declining attendance numbers to a rise in ticket prices and a shift in the timing of the Easter holiday this year.”
The biggest blow has come from the documentary “Blackfish,” which “traces a 39-year history of killer whales in captivity leading up to the 2010 killing of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau by the 12,000-pound orca, Tilikum, a whale previously associated with the death of two other people,” according to CNN, which has shown the film several times and maintains extensive coverage of the pros and cons of the issue.
“‘Blackfish’ chillingly shows that this incident of violence is hardly an isolated one, along the way exploring the extraordinary nature of orcas, thought to be one of the most intelligent species in the animal kingdom,” the CNN Blurb continues.
“At first, SeaWorld's PR machine adopted the say-nothing strategy, figuring the controversy would blow over,” writes Kevin Roose on the New York magazine site. “Then it began an aggressive campaign to discredit the film, with slogans like ‘The Truth About Blackfish,’ while insisting to investors — the people who really matter, that is — that all was fine. “We can see no noticeable impact on our business,” Atchison said in March.
But the numbers didn’t comply with the storyline.
A Change.org petition calling for the release of an orca featured in the film has more than 164,000 signatures, Martin reports. “When it comes down to it, it is regular people being frustrated and disappointed with how animals are treated at SeaWorld,” said Pulin Modi, senior campaigner at Change.org.
“This summer, families arriving at the airport here were greeted by posters featuring actress Kathy Najimy discouraging them from visiting one of the region's most popular attractions: ‘Welcome to San Diego! If you love animals like I do, please avoid SeaWorld,” read the lede on Shiela V Kumar’s July 18 story in the Wall Street Journal.
Kumar documents other tactics, spearheaded by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and abetted by celebrities, politicians and other animal-rights groups, to “to pressure SeaWorld about the treatment of its 29 captive killer whales.”
“Occasionally,” opines Heidi Moore in The Guardian, “consumers vote with their wallets and win.”
Moore, who got wind of the changes to be announced later today, writes that the victory “is tempered by one factor: SeaWorld resisted ground-breaking change when it was only consumers who backed away. But when investors complained by driving down the company’s stock price, SeaWorld acted quickly. Corporate morality is still determined by those with the money to enforce it.”
Meanwhile, if you are wondering why there isn’t a movement to get rid off the pejorative “killer” label, there is, of course. Here’s a link to a petition to redub orcas as “sea pandas.”