Eight notable acts have withdrawn from SeaWorld's Bands, Brew and Barbecue event in the past several weeks following online campaigns described by SeaWorld as "digital harassment."
Performers such as Willie Nelson and Martina McBride withdrew from the festival after citing concerns over the documentary, Blackfish
. The film, which examines the life of killer whales at the park, sparked a backlash that forced the multioperation marine park into a corner.
So far, SeaWorld has been reluctant to defend the allegations made by the film. Yesterday however, SeaWorld took out full page ads in The New York Times
, Orlando Sentinel
and USA Today
, to name but a few.
According to Jason Garcia of the Sentinel
, although SeaWorld:
Never identifies "Blackfish" by name, the ad is the first step in a campaign to rebut criticisms raised by the film and the animal-rights activists promoting it.
SeaWorld President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison, told Garcia that the acts' withdrawal:
Ended up getting more coverage and became a story of its own, and, accordingly, what we wanted to do is to make sure that some of the misconceptions that were floating around related to that coverage were put to bed.
But can SeaWorld really put concerns to bed as long as it continues to refuse interviews from news programmes? CNN for example, who first aired the documentary last October, has repeatedly asked (and been denied)
, all requests for an on-camera interview.
The ad, also released online at SeaWorld.com
, paints SeaWorld operations as flawless. But no company is ever perfect.
SeaWorld's justification, critics say, also stops short of the entire truth. Had the corporation chosen to elaborate their arguements, the facts are not so pretty. Take this statement for example:
Due to the groundbreaking success of our research in marine mammal reproduction, we haven’t collected a killer whale from the wild in 35 years.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act clearly states that all captures of wild marine mammals must be humane. SeaWorld, with a permit, can capture a cetacean in US waters. It doesn't, because humane methods of capture are impossible to achieve and highly controversial.
Recently however, SeaWorld joined with other aquaria to fund research into beluga whales. The research wasn't designed to benefit wild beluga populations, but was conducted as part of a permit application
to import 18 wild-caught belugas from Russia to the United States. The permit was ultimately denied by NOAA Fisheries on the basis that population sustainability could not be determined.
SeaWorld and others currently continue to challenge
this decision. If NOAA changes its mind, it would set a dangerous precedence for all cetacean species, including several killer whales recently captured by Russia.
Blackfish stars respond to SeaWorld's advertisement
Jeffrey Ventre MD
and Carol Ray MA, CCC-SLP
are both former trainers at SeaWorld, Both also had prominent roles in the Blackfish
documentary, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Neither of them seemed overly impressed with SeaWorld's published ad. Ray described it as "the same old" rhetoric that the aquarium usually churns out.
Digital Journal asked Ventre and Ray to highlight the areas of SeaWorld's ad that exasperated them the most.
The killer whales in our care benefit those in the wild. We work with universities, governmental agencies and NGOs to increase the body of knowledge about and the understanding of killer whales — from their anatomy and reproductive biology to their auditory abilities. Some populations of wild killer whales have been classified as endangered or threatened, demonstrating the potential critical nature of these research opportunities. This type of controlled research and study is simply not possible in the wild, and has significant real-world benefits to the killer whales that live there.
There is no evidence to support SeaWorld's claim that "their collection" benefits wild killer whales. The opposite is true
. SeaWorld states, "some populations have been classified as endangered," and that's true of the Southern Resident group. As far as I know, it's the only free-ranging population that has been classified that way. And, they're endangered because of SeaWorld
During the collection era, and prior to getting kicked out of Washington state, SeaWorld whale catchers Don Goldsberry and Ted Griffin, decimated the Southern Residents by removing so many from the ocean for entertainment. Here's a video that shows Don Goldsberry in action and earlier footage of Blackfish cast member John Crowe:
I've written a couple of killer whale papers
with Dr. John Jett
, which has led us down the path of reviewing the professional scientific literature regarding killer whales in captivity. Contributions from SeaWorld are conspicuously few and far between. To their credit, there is a paper on artificial insemination, and on how a couple of their whales have died from mosquito born disease, but not much else.
These studies do nothing to promote wild whale conservation, especially as SeaWorld has never released a killer whale, nor intends to. And to top things off, SeaWorld of California was cited in 2012 for polluting Mission Bay, in California. Here's the story: SeaWorld Cited for Exceeding Mission Bay Effluent Limits
Lastly, in 1995, I picked up a clipboard in the Shamu Stadium office, from the conference table in there. It was a typed, single-spaced summary list of research proposals submitted to SeaWorld of Florida, from institutions like the University of Central Florida and other nearby colleges. The list was of scientific proposals submitted by graduate students hoping to do peer reviewed articles or dissertations on the whales at Shamu Stadium.
Every single study proposal had a ball point pen scratch mark through it, indicating they had all been rejected. My interpretation of the rejections was that they didn't want actual scientists in the area making real observations regarding the conditions of captivity. If that would have happened, the jig might have been up a couple decades ago. In summary, there was no science going on when I was there, and based on the current scientific literature, SeaWorld has contributed very little to our understanding of wild populations.
Carol Ray worked at SeaWorld when the original Baby Shamu, Kalina, was separated from her mother Katina at just four years of age. Kalina was born at SeaWorld Orlando on Sept. 26, 1985, and was the first killer whale successfully born in captivity.
Ray shared a particularly close bond with Kalina, and was on duty the day the young killer whale was moved. Ray told The Orca Project
After Kalina was removed, I stayed and made observations throughout the night. This is one of the worst memories I have from my time there. Her mother, Katina, was not an overly vocal whale but that night I watched her for hours as she stayed floating in one spot, alone, emitting such heart-wrenching vocalizations it truly broke my heart.
Ray would later describe the event in much further detail in the Blackfish
We do not separate killer whale moms and calves. SeaWorld recognizes the important bond between mother and calf. On the rare occasion that a mother killer whale cannot care for the calf herself, we have successfully hand raised and reintroduced the calf. Whales are only moved to maintain a healthy social structure.
These are the same points they've always tried to make, so not necessarily "untrue" but more a twisting of the facts. For example, with regard to the separations, they've used the word "calf" which makes the statement technically accurate as they do not remove a calf that is still nursing.
This statement we have to assume they consider an offspring who is no longer nursing, to be a mature and independent animal, which we all know is incorrect. That's similar to saying a toddler, or a five-year-old school age child is ready and okay to be taken from his or her family.
The point is that they break families up for business purposes and there's a long history of this. One simple example is the young ones they moved to Loro Parque
Also, this long list previously posted by John Kielty
, shows young orcas who have been separated from their mothers, and their ages at the time of separation.
Katina's history is particularly haunting and tragic. Ray told Digital Journal that the female killer whale "has always been a well-bonded and responsible mom and has never 'rejected' her own calf." Yet she's had most of her young taken away from her:
Kalina was Katina's first baby. She was taken from her at four years old, but then returned years later. She is now deceased.
Katerina, Katina's second baby was taken at just two years of age. Katerina died in 1999 at SeaWorld San Antonio in Texas. She was 10.5 years old.
Taku her third baby was taken at age 13 and died soon after.
Unna, the 4th baby, was taken at six years old and is at another park.
Ikaika (Ike) was also taken from Katina and sent to Marineland Ontario on a breeding loan. He was was just four years old. SeaWorld reclaimed Ike in 2011, but sent him to San Diego where he now lives.
"Katina has had five of her seven calves removed from her," said Ray, and "she currently lives with Nalani (her offspring after she inbred with her own son Taku), and Makaio."
Ray also expressed surprise that SeaWorld would mention calf rejection given that "it opens the door for a discussion about the inadequacies of their breeding program," she said. "Calf rejection would rarely, if ever, happen in the wild," Ray added.
There were other points the trainers touched upon, such as the $70 million SeaWorld said it had invested "in our killer whale habitats and millions of dollars annually in support of these facilities."
"I would hope so if that's what it takes to feed them and have veterinary care for them," Ray countered. "I'm sure the 70 million over three years includes set design, OSHA abatements and rising floors, or else they wouldn't have chosen that span of years."
SeaWorld concluded its defense with the following quote from naturalist Baba Dioum. "In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught."
But somebody even took exception to that.
In an "Open letter back to SeaWorld
" written by Amy Costanzo and published at The Orca Project, Costanzo called SeaWorld's citation of the quote audacious and disrespectful, given that Dioum is a founding member of the IUCN.
"I highly doubt Baba Dioum would support what you are doing, considering he helped found a conservation organization that relies on field research to do its job," she said. "Perhaps you should stop quoting him – the man and his work don’t appear to support your cause at all."
In true Orwellian fashion, SeaWorld seems to like using quotes to score a point. Ironically, the Animal Farm
writer disliked political prose with a passion. He said that it was used "to make lies sound truthful."
Orwell also said, "when there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."
Perhaps he has the better point?