You’ve got to love it when a group called Heart spurns SeaWorld on account of its keeping killer whales captive for entertainment at its theme parks. Heart is one of eight major bands that have cancelled out on SeaWorld’s “2014 Bands, Brew and BBQ Fest” since the documentary “Blackfish” aired. The other names – all major players in the music industry – are REO Speedwagon, .38 Special, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Cheap Trick, Barenaked Ladies, and Willie Nelson. In addition, Joan Jett and Edgar Winter have reportedly asked SeaWorld not to use their music in the theme parks’ shows. That’s some list, and some rebuke. Just two musicians set to appear haven’t yet made the pledge.
The action taken by these performers amounts to a run on the bank when it comes to SeaWorld’s cultural capital. It’s an indicator of the tremendous slippage in the theme park’s reputation since February 2010, when the orca whale Tilikum killed trainer Dawn Brancheau and SeaWorld officials threw the dead trainer under the bus, suggesting that the incident was her fault.
It’s also the sign of the tremendous power of culture in stimulating and shifting public discussion. Over the weekend, the legendary Miami Herald writer and satirist Carl Hiaasen praised the impact of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Blackfish”in raising awareness of SeaWorld’s cruelty in keeping such majestic creatures of the oceans in “extreme and stressful confinement” in “glorified guppy ponds.” CNN created a cultural moment around the issue several months ago, with its repeated airing of the documentary. Like David Kirby’s 2012 book “Death at SeaWorld,” “Blackfish” examines the heart-wrenching misery associated with whale capture and captivity and the entire history of fatal accidents that culminated in Brancheau’s death.
Not long ago, SeaWorld’s primary investor, the private equity firm Blackstone Group, announced its decision to trim its ownership share from 63 percent to 45 percent. This means that SeaWorld will no longer be a controlled company and will eventually have to appoint a majority of independent directors. This could bode well for the end of captive orca performance at the theme park, something The HSUS began campaigning for in the early 1990s and a position from which we’ve never wavered.
Yet Hiaasen’s column warns of SeaWorld Entertainment’s record take of $120 million in the third quarter of 2013, and of its likely ability to weather the storm of Blackfish, just as it did with the film “Free Willy,” and Kirby’s book in prior years. In mid-November, SeaWorld appealed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s ruling that the park, having subjected trainers to a hazardous environment, would be required to keep humans out of the water with killer whales unless physical barriers were present to reduce the risk of serious injury or death.
And in September, the Georgia Aquarium and SeaWorld – part of a consortium trying to import 18 wild-caught belugas (of which SeaWorld would take 11) – appealed the ruling of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association that such action would further the decline of the wild beluga population from which the whales were captured.
As part of this genuine grassroots uprising against SeaWorld, we’ll be asking Justin Moore and Scotty McCreery to cancel their appearances, too. And we’re asking consumers to take their entertainment dollars elsewhere until SeaWorld Entertainment ends its captive whale performance programs and its support for taking whales from the ocean. However long that takes, 2013 will be remembered as a year in which an absorbing film, aired in prime time on a national network, placed the issue in front of millions of viewers worldwide, stirring the conscience of the American public and setting the stage for a strong moral correction on the treatment of whales in captivity.