We’re trying something new here today and taking an opinionated look at a topic in local and national news lately… SeaWorld’s response to Blackfish.
I’ve been a fan of SeaWorld (and a past annual passholder) for a long time. But this year, my opinion of them has changed. I attribute this change in opinion to the film Blackfish – a documentary that SeaWorld touts as propaganda. I’ve watched with fascination how SeaWorld is handling the fallout from the film Blackfish and it’s response to critics. I think it’s laughable, and here’s why…
Animal Conservation isn’t the Argument
From the public relations strategies in traditional and social medias SeaWorld is employing, you would think that everyone who is questioning SeaWorld’s practice of keeping killer whales in captivity is a PETA-donating, extreme-leftist, SeaWorld-hating, agenda-driven Kraken-like monster. They are interacting with their critics like they are all on the far left of the bell curve of public opinion.
But in reality, I think the most people are more towards the center.
In this CNN article, SeaWorld spokesperson Nick Gollattscheck defended the allegations made in Blackfish by (rightly) stating that the film “ignores the park’s conservation efforts and research” and that the multiple bands that have been canceling have an open invitation to “learn for themselves how we care for animals and how little truth there is to the allegations made by by animal extremist groups opposed to the zoological display of marine mammals”. He also stated that the bands were a “small group of misinformed individuals.”
Taking a look at their Facebook account, we are inundated with stories about SeaWorld’s animal conservation efforts. There are photos of sea turtles being released into the wild, manatees that are being rehabilitated and species survival stories for birds. Noticeably absent from the newsfeed are stories about killer whales (except for a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Float article).
And in their official ”Response to Blackfish” Press Release. Their Vice President for Zoological Operations Michael Scarpuzzi laments that Blackfish doesn’t mention, “one word about the thousands of ill, orphaned and injured animals rescued by SeaWorld or the millions of dollars we dedicate to supporting conservation and research.”
And that “there is no acknowledgment anywhere in the film of the great things SeaWorld does every day or the simple fact that our animals are healthy and passionately cared for.”
The strategy their PR team is employing is one of changing the topic of conversation, rather than addressing the one question the public wants answered…
Is Holding Killer Whales in Captivity Healthy?
Nobody is denying or accusing SeaWorld of being grossly negligent in taking care of animals. They are always the first to respond to an injured animal on the coast of Florida. But the question that people want answered, the question that is at the crux of the film Blackfish, and the question that SeaWorld needs to answer to satisfy the backlash is… “Is holding killer whales in captivity healthy?”
Both the cancelled bands and general public are asking that question. And SeaWorld’s response is to talk about sea turtles. It’s like we’re in bizzaro-world.
If we were to compile SeaWorld’s current PR responses into a real-life conversation it would look something like this:
Public: Is it unhealthy for orcas to live in captivity?
SeaWorld: We are committed to animal conservation.
Public: So is that a yes or a no?
SeaWorld: We’ve rescued and released thousands of animals, many of them endangered.
Public: I understand that, but can you speak specifically to killer whales, are their tanks big enough to accommodate them?
SeaWorld: We’ve learned a lot about killer whales since we’ve studied them in captivity, and that has enabled us to educate the public and inspire others to work to protect them.
Public: That’s a great answer to the question, “Have you learned anything about killer whales by having them in captivity and has that helped you to educate the public? But I asked if their tanks are big enough. Are they?
SeaWorld: SeaWorld is dedicated to educating and inspiring people towards animal conservation.
SeaWorld’s response is evasive and makes them look foolish. Only once, in an interview with CNN in mid-October, did we hear SeaWorld’s response to Blackfish. It was lukewarm at best. SeaWorld acknowledges that killer whales may travel 100 miles per day but that is likely foraging behavior and not necessary for their well-being since they are so well fed at the park. When asked what about whales have been learned by having them in captivity, the reader is left with links to bibliographies that the common person would have to spend a considerable time researching and reading. The only clear answer we’re given about what we’ve learned is: “anatomy, reproductive biology and capacity to learn” – none of which explains why it’s necessary to keep the animals captive to learn that.
Can You Imagine Disney Without Mickey?
SeaWorld’s silence on the topic of killer whales is not surprising for a (now) publicly-owned company. Any acknowledgement that their iconic (translation: profitable) killer whales might not be living in appropriate habitats could potentially mean a devastating loss of attendance and profits. It would be akin to Disney having to get rid of Mickey Mouse. Can you imagine what that would be like?
SeaWorld’s killer whales are a big attendance driver to the parks. Packed stadiums, Shamu-shaped ice creams and plush merchandise swimming off the shelves equate to dollars. Where would that lost revenue be made up for? Could SeaWorld survive without the killer whales?
The bigger fear, if we acknowledge that the killer whale tanks aren’t appropriate enough for them, might we start to question the enclosures for the dolphins, beluga whales, polar bears, sea lions and more? Where does it end? If it is indeed true that the killer whale habitats are not conducive to their well-being, there is extraordinary value in keeping this information private.
There’s no doubt in my mind that coming up close and personal to animals ignites an interest in conservation. But at what cost? That’s the second question everyone is asking.
SeaWorld’s constant shifting of focus to their greater animal conservation efforts feels like it’s a passive acknowledgement that keeping killer whales in captivity is not good for them, but is excusable because of all the other conservation efforts they are doing. The public of yesterday may have been okay with that, but the for public of today (and more importantly, the public of tomorrow) that’s not sufficient.
Consumers today make purchasing decisions based on brands that share their personal values. A Chick-fil-A sandwich is no longer just a piece of meat between bread. A portion of the money that the consumer spends on that sandwich goes to organizations and individuals that may/may not share their personal values. As a result, consumers make a conscious choice to dine or avoid that particular business.
The same is true for SeaWorld. SeaWorld is wrong in criticizing the audience for succumbing whole-heartedly to the beliefs of the one-sidedeness and propoganda-driven nature of Blackfish. Today’s consumers are smart enough to know there are two sides to the story. The mainstream consumer’s value system has been challenged and expanded. And the mainstream consumer wants clear answers. Even the Barenaked Ladies (as referenced in the first, linked CNN article) acknowledge that, “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 consumer has more questions today, than they did yesterday. And for SeaWorld to continue to touch the hearts of it’s audience, it needs to start answering them.
What Do You Think?
I’ve shared my thoughts, now I’d like to hear yours. Comment below with your thoughts on any of the following questions.
1. Has your opinion towards SeaWorld changed recently?
2. Do you believe their killer whales are kept in acceptable enclosures? Why or why not?
3. Do you believe that the greater good for all animal conservation efforts outweighs the potential need to keep some animals in habitats that are ultimately unhealthy?