* This version includes a correction to the paragraph about the Georgia Aquarium's bid to import beluga whales.
The HSUS has been making the case against marine mammal captivity for a quarter century, long before the remarkable sequence of developments we have all seen unfold since February 2010, when the captive orca Tilikum killed trainer Dawn Brancheau during a performance at SeaWorld Orlando, triggering the release of David Kirby’s book Death at SeaWorld and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish.
Yet, even for those of us who were involved in laying the groundwork for the vigorous debate now underway about the ethics of captivity, the dramatic erosion of public support for SeaWorld and other aquaria seeking to capture and display marine mammals is nothing short of stunning. The month of August has delivered a cascade of news on this front.
First came the company’s August 13th revelations concerning its underwhelming financial performance over the course of 2014, a year in which SeaWorld’s credit rating and stock value plummeted as investors lost faith with the company in what analysts are calling “the Blackfish effect.” Standard and Poor placed SeaWorld at BB, a credit rating equal to junk status, while earnings for the company are down 22 percent based on second-quarter reporting of lower attendance. The year also saw more than a dozen scheduled musical acts and its longtime corporate partner, Southwest Airlines, abandon SeaWorld and leave it without that support and those cultural moorings.
Two days later came SeaWorld’s announcement that it would expand the size of its orca whale tanks, best answered by the late night comic Conan O’Brien in this funny but astute tweet.
Then, on August 19, SeaWorld dropped its challenge to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ruling that prohibited trainers from entering the water with whales, a performance routine that SeaWorld had insisted it would never relinquish.
Finally, on August 20, the Georgia Aquarium, SeaWorld’s partner in a bid to import 18 beluga whales taken from the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia, went toe-to-toe with the government in a lawsuit seeking to compel the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to issue the import permit.
The fraying of SeaWorld’s business model will one day be the subject of case studies in business schools and schools of communications. For now, it’s providing one of the most vivid examples in the turn of fortune for a major corporation that is on the wrong side of public opinion on a long-standing humane concern. In just a few short years, the company has lost its feel-good cachet, seen its value downgraded, mishandled a tragic incident by re-victimizing Dawn Brancheau, and maintained against all available evidence that its revenue model and business prospects were not being affected by swelling public skepticism and rejection.
Whenever I talk about the SeaWorld situation with animal protectionists who came into the field in the mid-1980s, as I did, we keep coming back to the notion that it would have been impossible to conceive of the dramatic change in attitude that we’re seeing. And when The HSUS launched its anti-captivity campaign in the mid-1990s, I still thought it would be a long time coming, even though we could properly argue that orcas were not endangered, that captivity was not good for them, and that orca performances are less conservation-minded and more vaudevillian.Once the other shoe drops on the Georgia Aquarium’s gambit to bring those beluga whales to the United States, perhaps we’ll know for sure that the end of the era for captive display of whales for entertainment is truly within sight.