By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Last year a documentary film came out that opened our eyes to how the killer whales turned into performers at Sea World are cruelly confined and tormented in the name of entertainment.
Blackfish showed how the orca whales were delivered into a monotonous life swimming in circles and answering commands, deprived of companionship when they misbehaved, and maintained in ridiculously small aquariums. It exposed this dark side to a Sea World-going public that had hitherto been mindlessly dragging their toddlers to the splashy shows.
The film also revealed that trainers were put at critical risk working with these "Shamus," which are wild creatures no matter how many fun characterizations pop culture layers upon them. And bad things had happened, like at circuses when the tigers rebel against the rings of fire, and had been hushed up. (We won't spoil the documentary for you, because you should watch it to get the full impact.)
Twisting nature into entertainment is coming under increasing fire. Animal advocates have fought for better treatment for chimpanzees and dogs and other animals used in films, for horses harnessed to city carriages and for elephants whipped and chained on behalf of circuses. It was almost inevitable that someone would expose the pain and suffering, for trainers and animals, at Sea World's parks. Blackfish did a superlative job of it. Many felt it was unfairly snubbed for an Oscar nomination.
This year, post-Blackfish, Sea World seemed at first to rock on, to be weathering the protests by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). But the corporation acknowledged, finally, that attendance at its parks had slipped. Revenues were going to be down this year.
Then came the sharks – the Wall Street ones – punishing the venue for the projected drop in revenues.
Stock at Sea World dropped as fast as an orca diving back into the show pool, plunging yesterday to $18.90 from $28.15, a walloping 33 percent decline.
Today, Sea World hastily announced that it would be increasing the size of its killer whale tanks and funding programs to help killer whales in the wild. The company said it would spend $10 million on killer whale research and ocean health.
The first larger "whale environment" will be built at Sea World's flagship San Diego park and at 10 million gallons it will be nearly double the size of the existing facility with a surface area of 1.5 acres and length of more than 350.
Of course, 350 feet does not to an ocean compare.
PETA scoffed at Sea World’s squirming.
"This is a desperate drop-in-the-bucket move to try to turn back the hands of time at a time when people understand the suffering of captive orcas, and it will not save the company," the animal rights group declared.
"What could save it [Sea World] would be the recognition that it needs not to make larger tanks but to turn the orcas out in seaside sanctuaries so that they can feel and experience the ocean again, hear their families, and one day be reunited with them. A bigger prison is still a prison."
It's hard to argue with that. A prison is still a prison. The orca seems to have landed in the locked pen at the center of a wider debate over how we humans will treat the animals we profess to cherish.
(To be completely fair to Sea World, we're posting their entire news release from today below, though parts of it are cringe-worthy, like when CEO Jim Atchison, says the new orca "environment" will allow visitors to walk alongside the whales "as if they were at the shore" and will include "a fast water current" allowing the animals a bit of exercise — like in the real ocean! The changes don’t seem big enough to the task, though I guess we don’t expect Sea World to just throw up its hands and declare its entire business model to be untenable.)
SAN DIEGO (Aug. 15, 2014) – SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. announced today that it plans to build new, first-of-its-kind killer whale environments and that it will fund new programs to protect ocean health and killer whales in the wild. The new projects will build on SeaWorld's legacy of providing state-of-the- art, innovative homes for its animals, and will offer park guests unique and inspiring killer whale encounters for generations to come. As part of its vision for the future, the company also pledged $10 million in matching funds for killer whale research and is embarking on a multi-million dollar partnership focused on ocean health, the leading concern for all killer whales and marine mammals.
"For 50 years, SeaWorld has transformed how the world views marine life. The unprecedented access to marine mammals that our parks provide has increased our knowledge of the ocean and inspired generations," said Jim Atchison, Chief Executive Officer and President of SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. "Our new killer whale homes and research initiatives have just as bold a vision: to advance global understanding of these animals, to educate, and to inspire conservation efforts to protect killer whales in the wild."
Transformational New Environments
The first of the new environments will be built at SeaWorld San Diego where the killer whale environment is planned to have a total water volume of 10 million gallons, nearly double that of the existing facility. With a planned maximum depth of 50 feet, surface area of nearly 1.5 acres and spanning more than 350 feet in length, the new environment will also have views exceeding 40 feet in height, providing guests with the world's largest underwater viewing experience of killer whales.
Named the Blue World Project because of its size and scope, the new environment will allow for increased engagement with SeaWorld experts through new enriching experiences and other interactive programs. The environment will enhance the educational experience for guests, foster deeper knowledge of killer whales and their ocean environment and inspire them to celebrate and conserve the natural world.
"Through up-close and personal encounters, the new environment will transform how visitors experience killer whales," said Atchison. "Our guests will be able to walk alongside the whales as if they were at the shore, watch them interact at the depths found in the ocean, or a birds-eye view from above."
Expanding on SeaWorld's legacy of leading-edge animal environment design, the enlarged environment will provide killer whales with even more dynamic opportunities. It will support the whales' broad range of behaviors and provide choices that can challenge the whales both physically and mentally. Among other things, it is planned to include a "fast water current" that allows whales to swim against moving water, thus functionally increasing speed and diversity. Innovative features focused on husbandry and animal care will offer SeaWorld's animal health professionals and independent scientists unique access to the whales that can lead to a better understanding and care of the animals both in the parks and in the wild.
The San Diego environment is expected to open to the public in 2018 with new killer whale homes to follow at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio.
Killer Whale Research
As part of the Blue World Project, SeaWorld has committed $10 million in matching funds focused on threats to killer whales in the wild, especially those identified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration related to the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale. That includes new projects already funded this year: one that will help to understand the hearing ranges of killer whales and the other that will provide insight into nutritional status and reproduction of the Southern Resident Killer Whale. The matching funds will be in addition to killer whale research conducted by SeaWorld's scientists, which includes nearly 50 studies to date.
Recognizing that ocean health is a leading concern for killer whales and all marine mammals in the wild, the company also announced it will be embarking on a major multi-million dollar partnership focused on protecting the ocean. More details of the partnership will be announced in the coming weeks.
SeaWorld will also engage an Independent Advisory Panel to bring new perspectives and ideas to the project. The panel will focus on the creation of an environment that maximizes the health and wellbeing of the animals. Given the particular expertise of current panelists and those expected to join, the panel will further advise on integrated research projects that can be conducted within the new environment and foster partnerships within the science and academic communities working in the wild.
Current Advisory Panel members include:
• Dr. Paul Boyle, Senior Vice President for Conservation and Education, Association of Zoos & Aquariums
• Dr. Heidi Harley, Professor of Psychology, New College of Florida
• Dr. Dorian Houser, Director of Conservation and Biological Research, National Marine Mammal Foundation
• Dr. Linda Lowenstein, Professor Emeritus Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine
• Dr. Shawn Noren, Associate Research Scientist, Institute of Marine Science, University of California Santa Cruz
• Mr. Tom Otten, Chief Executive Officer, Reef Experience
• Dr. James F. Peddie, DVM, Distinguished Faculty Chair, Exotic Animal Training and Management Program, Moorpark College
• Dr. Paul Ponganis, Research Physiologist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
• Dr. Kwane Stewart, Chief Veterinary Officer and National Director, Film and Television Unit, American Humane Association
• Dr. Pam Yochem, Senior Research Scientist and Executive Vice President, Research, Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute
"I have high expectations for SeaWorld in light of today's announcement that major investments will improve the experience and outcomes for whales both in their parks and in the wild," said California Assembly Speaker Toni G. Atkins. "SeaWorld's decision to engage with an independent scientific advisory panel is a reassuring sign for the ongoing health and welfare of these amazing creatures. Given the San Diego region's leadership in the life sciences, I expect orcas and other whale species to directly benefit from the research and advances that come from the academic and scientific partnerships SeaWorld is building to address whale habitat and ocean health."
"Like so many others in science and industry, we are constantly learning more about how we can evolve our knowledge and continue to learn more about these amazing animals and stewardship of those in the wild," Atchison said. "We look forward to working with these experts to build on these learnings and achieve our vision of increased knowledge of killer whales and global efforts to protect those in the wild."