Delving Deeper into the SeaWorld Hype

I always will remember my exact location when I received the news of Ringling Brothers’ announcement that it would phase out the use of elephants in its circus acts. On a layover in an Italian airport that March morning, I was forwarded the first report from a relatively obscure source. Skeptical, my associate and I both scoured for secondary verification when suddenly the deluge came and my phone buzzed for the rest of the day with excited calls from colleagues and journalists. That was an historic announcement, the likes of which many animal advocates thought they never would witness in their lifetimes.

Earlier this week, multiple media sources swallowed SeaWorld’s bait and reported the company’s latest announcement about modifying its orca displays as if SeaWorld’s announcement were a similarly significant development. Such episodes are an unfortunate byproduct of the digital age, where journalists (and even some animal organizations that should know better) quickly race to post breaking news online without independently looking beyond the headline of a corporate press release. This is exactly what SeaWorld hoped would happen with its latest PR stunt, and here’s why you shouldn’t fall for it.

In the face of dwindling profits and stock valuation due to the Blackfish backlash, SeaWorld recently doubled down and applied to the California Coastal Commission for a permit to allow an over $100 million expansion of its San Diego facility. Immediately, most major animal protection groups publicly opposed the expansion permit. Submitting the application actually was a shrewd move by SeaWorld. If the permit ultimately got approved, SeaWorld would spend so much money on the expansion that it might quash any resurrection of the tabled AB 2140, a bill to ban keeping orcas captive in California. However if the application failed, SeaWorld could claim the animal protection groups in opposition didn’t really care about the orcas’ welfare, as they would be the parties responsible for preventing the animals from enjoying larger enclosures. SeaWorld essentially would win either way.

In July, as I was driving my packed U-Haul truck from Marin, CA here to Cambridge, I received a worried phone call from a colleague at an animal advocacy group. She just had been apprised that the commission likely would not deny SeaWorld’s permit. So in my final project initiated as Director of Legislative Affairs for the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), we then hatched a strategy to turn the Commission’s decision from being a simple yes or no, “Up or Down” vote, into a “Yes, but only if SeaWorld halts all further captive breeding and doesn’t acquire any additional orcas.” Putting together a coalition of other organizations, ALDF then took the lead on proposing this “middle way” which would achieve most of what AB 2140 tried to accomplish.

The Commission agreed with our proposal and on October 8th, unanimously voted to approve the permit contingent upon the amended conditions. This means that if SeaWorld moves forward with the project, the 11 orcas currently in San Diego will be the last ones ever to endure captivity in California. Our strategy very deliberately boxed SeaWorld into a “lose-lose” corner that left it only two options:

  1. Build the new tanks and agree to end the captive breeding and further import of orcas at SeaWorld San Diego; or
  2. Renege on the expansion plans altogether after making so many public pronouncements about how vital the larger tanks are for the orcas’ wellbeing.

This week’s declaration that SeaWorld is modifying its San Diego orca “presentation” is its first attempt at Option 2––trying to find a face-saving way to back out of building the larger orca tanks by framing the move as somehow beneficial for the animals. One indicator that this subterfuge might be a motivation behind the announcement is that SeaWorld only mentions modifying the orca performances at its San Diego theme park (apparently having no concern with forcing orcas to continue performing tricks in Orlando and San Antonio). And even regarding San Diego, nowhere does SeaWorld’s official statement say it will discontinue exhibition of the orcas. In fact, the document even refers to the planned “new orca presentation” as a “show,” just one that reportedly will “evolv[e] the guest experience to align with consumer preferences for experiences that matterto learn more about the natural world, the plight of animals in the wild, along with family entertainment and attractions” (emphasis added).

After the announcement to investors, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby further described the more “natural” show as a “very marketable attraction that gets a return on investment.” Importantly, Manby said that developing this new show would use up to half of the $100mm SeaWorld previously allocated for the tank expansion, saying, “[w]e can achieve those objectives with a lot less money.” This clearly signals that SeaWorld does not intend on expanding the tanks, and is merely hoping the public will buy the headlines and believe the hype that this business move in any way improves the lives of SeaWorld’s captive Orcas.

As my colleague Carney Anne Nasser at ALDF summarized the announcement of the new presentation, “there’s no escaping the fact that it is an entertainment show based on the use of orcas who are deprived of adequate space, enrichment, social and family bonds, and the ability to live lives that bear any resemblance to those of their wild counterparts.” It is the fundamental captivity of these animals that is the issue, regardless of the size of their concrete tanks, and irrespective of how much information on “conservation” accompanies their public exhibition.  

Chris Green is the Executive Director of the HLS Animal Law & Policy Program.

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