Commentary

SeaWorld Says Customers Want More 'Natural' Shamu Shows

Claiming to the end that it was not acceding to animal rights activists, SeaWorld announced yesterday that it would phase out the orca “killer” whale shows in San Diego that have come under heavy criticism in recent years, although the threat of both federal and state regulation in California admittedly played a part in the decision. It says it will introduce a “new orca experience” in 2017 with a “natural” setting.

“CEO Joel Manby, who joined the company in March, was short on specifics as to what the new orca shows will entail. He did stress, however, that the planned overhaul was not conceived as a way to appease its critics,” Lori Weisberg and Jennifer Van Grove write for the San DiegoUnion-Tribune

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“We start everything by listening to our guests and evolving our shows to what we’re hearing, and so far that’s what we’ve been hearing in California. They want experiences that are more natural and experiences that look more natural in the environment,” Manby said. “But it’s not universal across our properties.”

Attendance at SeaWorld in San Diego plummeted 12% last year, the worse performance among the Top 20 parks in the U.S. The company has orca shows in its Orlando and San Antonio parks; eight other properties do not.

“Only the San Diego park will see the departure of orca shows, which are also called Shamu shows and feature music, tricks and plenty of human-giant dolphin interaction. (Yes, orcas are toothed whales, which are actually dolphins.),” writes Elahe Izadi for the Washington Post.

“SeaWorld has come under intense scrutiny over its treatment of animals and specifically the Shamu shows since the 2013 documentary ‘Blackfish,’ a highly critical look at how the park keeps orcas in captivity and potential dangers posed to employees,” Izadi continues.

“In a public relations campaign that followed the documentary's release, SeaWorld excoriated ‘Blackfish,’ saying that instead of providing ‘fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading,’” writes Tim Stelloh for NBCNews.com. 

Also, “SeaWorld tried to fire back against the negative publicity by announcing plans recently to spend $100 million to expand its killer whale enclosure at SeaWorld San Diego,” writes Hugo Martin for the Los Angeles Times. “The California Coastal Commission, which has authority over construction along the coast, approved the project but added the condition that SeaWorld end its breeding program and import no new orcas. SeaWorld has announced plans to challenge the decision in court.”

But CEO Manby indicated yesterday that he may scrap those plans, CNN Money’s Jackie Wattles reports. “I'm not willing to put $100 million into a market when there's regulatory questions,” he said. 

Manby announced several other “business initiatives” and partnerships during yesterday’s Investor and Analyst Day presentation in Orlando that were prominent in its press release but overshadowed in media coverage by the decision to “engage and inform guests by highlighting more of the species’ natural behaviors.”

For one, “as part of the strategic shift, company officials said they planned to build a hotel resort in San Diego in partnership with the Evans Hotels Group. The resort strategy is a proven model that had paid off for the likes of Comcast Corp.’s Universal Parks & Resorts and Walt Disney Co., Mr. Manby said,” Maria Armental reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Critics wanted to sound a note of optimism about the new direction of the orca show but seemed neither convinced nor satisfied that SeaWorld was taking sufficient action.

“My understanding is that SeaWorld may not be stopping the orca show at all. They may simply be repackaging it so that orcas will perform more natural-looking tricks in new choreographed acts,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite, creator of “Blackfish,” tells the San Diego Union Tribune’s Joshua Emerson Smith. “I hope I’m wrong and that this is not simply a slick rebranding.”

“The company's welcome announcement leaves many important issues unaddressed,” the Los Angeles Times writes in an editorial. “Will SeaWorld continue to breed its killer whales, counting on them to bring in attendance in their new, more natural setting?” 

It concludes that it should not, instead “allowing its orca population to die out naturally — which would still give it decades of exhibition — and reserving its tanks for injured animals that cannot survive in the wild.”

At the same time, it might be transforming its programming into a form that will survive in a more enlightened age.

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