SeaWorld almost closed two years ago when the documentary Blackfish unveiled the animal cruelty occurring in the park, causing a huge public movement advocating the protection of animal rights. Blackfish focuses on Tilikum, a male whale who was captured as a calf and raised in captivity. The movie follows his life story as he was refused food for poor performances and forced to live in isolation. Mostly interviewing past SeaWorld employees, this documentary aimed to uncover the underbelly of SeaWorld training, the terrible living conditions of the captive whales, and the emotional intelligence of these huge gentle giants.
Whilst no orca whale has been reported to have acted aggressively towards humans in the wild, there have been several encounters in captivity, the primary offender being Tilikum, who attacked three people. Whilst these killings were made public, trainers have also been subject to many smaller rebellious attacks. The former Sea World trainer, Samantha Berg, acknowledged that there were over 70 killer whale induced injuries at SeaWorld, but said that she “knew about none of them”. These attacks are therefore not independent occurrences, nor do they seem unjustified.
Whilst true abusive force was never exercised to make performers out of these majestic, wild beings, the mere action of taking them from their families in the wild may be seen as immoral. One captor described the process as “the worst thing (he) ever did”. But the process of separating these animals, which naturally live in family herds, did not stop there, as even orcas born into captivity were separated. The young orca, Kalina, was separated from her mother and moved to a different park when she began to disrupt her mother’s performance in shows. Her mother can be seen mourning the loss of her baby by crying in solitude. A whale speech specialist evaluated her sounds, pronouncing them as reaching a new, louder pitch, which would reach further, as she was trying to “call Kalina back”.
This documentary caused attendance at the parks to drop by 7.4 per cent from 2012 to 2014, as many people began to boycott the parks, protest against animal captivity, and publically affront SeaWorld. In the last four months alone SeaWorld lost $25.4 million. This forced the managers of the institution to create a new image, which is currently in progress. Chairman of the board of SeaWorld, D’Alessandro, said that their new target audience would be people who want to “hear our side of the story”, not animal rights advocates who had demonised and tarnished animal entertainment. He recognises that this “opposition won’t go away”, yet he is determined to bounce back. S&P Capital IQ analyst Tuna Amobi also seems to think that it may take a few years, but SeaWorld will “rebound from the brand damage”.
However, organisations including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals fear continuation of the park and its resurrection to its former glory. They are calling for global aid through the means of petitions, aiming to permanently close the park. Animal rights advocates may be encouraged by the plummeting earnings and visitation rates of SeaWorld coupled with the resignation of SeaWorld’s chief executive in January 2015, as even he chose to abandon the sinking ship.
However, The Guardian promises that this year will be “one of significant change” as SeaWorld is investing $300,000 in larger tanks, which may be its final chance to bring up visitation through a new company image of a kinder SeaWorld.
However, this investment did lead to the dismissal of 300 employees which may lead to poorer performance.
Not only is D’Alessandro hoping to reinstate SeaWorld to its former glory, he wishes to expand it. He is making plans to open another park in the Middle East, in a location where SeaWorld’s image is not yet tarnished.
However, it seems that media coverage of the SeaWorld killer whale attacks have been viewed globally, and the low SeaWorld company revenue will make this dream impossible.
Photograph: David Barina