11 min read

#AskSeaWorld: The Art Of Deflecting And Why It's Bad For Business

<p><a href="https://flic.kr/p/xBoZc" target="_blank">Josh Hallett / Flickr</a></p>

In an effort to rehabilitate its image, SeaWorld promised to answer questions from the public on their new 'You Ask. We Answer.' website. Part of this involved using the Twitter hashtag #AskSeaWorld, which backfired in a spectacular way. The hashtag was flooded with questions to which the company responded by stating "trolls and bots" were overwhelming them.

Questions that were initially answered appeared to be from SeaWorld-friendly accounts. Other answers were frank deflections or distortions, leaving yet another ill-conceived public relations campaign mired in accusations of lies and distortions, leaving many questions unanswered and changing the minds of exactly no one.

A few examples:

SeaWorld, why did you decline to be on Blaskfish?

How does saying "If Blackfish wanted to present the facts, they could have" answer the question why SeaWorld declined? It's well known that Simmons changed his mind since Blackfish was released, but that does not explain why SeaWorld declined to tell their side of the story.

SeaWorld, how do you justify separating killer whale families?

According to this answer, mother and calf stop being mother and calf at some point. The question is about family, not necessarily mother and calf, so it looks like SeaWorld feels mothers and calves stop even being family. That raises more questions than it answers. When and how do mother and child stop being mother and child? And if they're no longer considered to be family, just what is their relationship according to SeaWorld?

In the wild, the most well-studied killer whales stay with their mothers' pod for life. Those pods consist of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandmothers - for these killer whales, family is all that matters. Each family has their own language, diet and culture and all this family-specific knowledge is passed on from generation to generation by the older females in the pod.

In the included video, trainer Wendy Ramirez uses a lot of dramatic facial expressions to show us just how horrified she is at the thought of babies being separated from their mother, but she never answers the question: just how does SeaWorld justify separating families? She doesn't even explain how or why mothers and their offspring, brothers and sisters or aunts and uncles stop being family.

We think the real answer is SeaWorld simply doesn't respect any family bonds, and considers any other killer whale to be just as suitable a 'pod'member as actual family members:

We provide our animals with restaurant-quality fish, exercise, veterinary care and the company of other members of their species. (emphasis added)

And even that statement is up for debate, as not all killer whales are of the same ecotype and a typical SeaWorld collection is usually a mix of these different types and/or hybrids bred by SeaWorld. Scientific studies have revealed many different populations -- or even potentially different species or subspecies -- of killer whales worldwide. In the wild, the different types are not known to intermix with one another. SeaWorld not only puts these different types together in one habitat, but is actively crossbreeding them resulting in at least 20 hybrid animals so far.

SeaWorld, how long do killer whales live?

The debate about lifespan seems never ending. Data can be interpreted in different ways while the debate about lifespan takes the focus away from the questions about quality of life. One could argue that both are equally important and that the quality of life is likely to have an effect on the the quantity.

The report SeaWorld refers to left out calves up to 12 months old, which SeaWorld fails to mention. Leaving out (captive) calves and their mortality-rate impacts the numbers in favor of SeaWorld, and with the help of some confusion about median age versus mean/average age, SeaWorld claims both wild and their captive killer whales have the same life expectancy.

Let's, for argument's sake, say wild and captive killer whales have an equal life expectancy. On their blog, SeaWorld states

The animals at SeaWorld do not face many of the challenges of wild animals. They are not subject to hunger or pollution. If they're ill or injured, they receive veterinary care.

Animals at SeaWorld have a more comprehensive preventive medicine program than most humans. Rather than just a yearly physical, the whales at SeaWorld receive complete health assessments every month.

Considering the lack of healthcare and the dangers wild killer whales face, and the comprehensive care captive whales are given, shouldn't captive killer whales outlive their wild counterparts? Or, at the very least, live long enough to clearly show their life expectancy equals that of wild killer whales, without the need to hunt down favorable reports and interpret data in the best possible way? And the most important question: why do captive killer whales need such intensive care just to have their life expectancy more or less match up to that of their wild counterparts?

SeaWorld is picking the wrong battle

These questions and their answers are just a few examples of how SeaWorld still refuses to give out clear information to the public. What the company just doesn't seem to understand is that their battle is not with the "animal rights extremists" but rather a battle over many of the people they accuse of being extremists: the general public that has concerns about captivity and the welfare of the animals in SeaWorld's care.

Yes, there are activists that want SeaWorld to close and some hard core activists will go out of their way to make SeaWorld look bad. But their numbers are too few to be of any real concern if handled in a professional manner. Just like there aren't enough hard core SeaWorld supporters (that will visit the parks no matter what) to keep them afloat, there aren't enough 'whacktivists' to be of any real concern to them. Many of the people SeaWorld dismisses as 'extremists' are simply concerned (potential) customers that would visit their parks if only SeaWorld would respect and address their concerns by acknowledging their questions and giving them a few straight answers.

Those are the people SeaWorld should focus on, in a positive and engaging way. By calling everybody tweeting critical questions "bots and trolls" they are once more alienating the most important people in the captivity debate and blatantly disrespect the real concerns these people have. On top of that, the answers to the few questions they have chosen to answer seem to consist of not much more than a deflective text, written by their PR department -- making it look like they don't think people are smart or knowledgeable enough to notice.