SeaWorld is having a very, very bad year. The release of the documentary "Blackfish," which exposed the harsh lives of captive orcas at SeaWorld parks, became a huge hit, making the rounds on CNN, Netflix and iTunes. That film has had a ripple effect on SeaWorld, and SeaWorld finally replied.
SeaWorld took out a full-page ad in major national newspapers, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the LA Times, and SeaWorld's hometown paper, the Orlando Sentinel, with an open letter. In it, SeaWorld lays out its defense--never mentioning "Blackfish"--in an effort to, as they say, "set the record straight."
It's an understandable attempt to spin the news, because the news has been exclusively bad. Major shareholders shed millions of shares of stock. Nearly every performer slated to perform at SeaWorld has cancelled. A five-year-old's reaction to the film on YouTube went viral. A California elementary school that has taken an overnight field trip to SeaWorld every year for years made news by cancelling this year's trip. Fearing a loss of ticket sales, SeaWorld turned to discount seller Groupon.
But the full-page ad is the most complete response yet to the furor. The only problem: many parts of the ad are misleading or outright factually incorrect. We called up Tim Zimmermann, writer of the original Outside Magazine piece that inspired "Blackfish" (and also a writer and producer on the movie) to find out more.
Zimmermann led us through the ad, point by point. SeaWorld claims that it "does not capture killer whales in the wild." That's true, says Zimmermann, but only technically. "Of the 29 total whales in their collection right now, six of them are wild-caught," he says. "Sometimes other people caught them and SeaWorld traded for them." He points to a killer whale named Corky, caught in Canada by Sealand of the Pacific, a killer-whale-focused aquarium that's since closed. SeaWorld has acquired several killer whales from Sealand, include the famous Tilikum. SeaWorld may not physically capture wild killer whales these days, but it still participates in the practice. And SeaWorld absolutely does capture other wild animals that are no more suited to life in captivity, like beluga whales. "Either through rescue and rehab or through just straight purchase, SeaWorld is bringing wild animals into their collection on an ongoing basis," says Zimmermann.
"We do not separate killer whale moms and calves," says the second point in the ad. "There's a bit of semantics there," says Zimmermann. Killer whales usually live in family units called pods in the wild, mating with other pods they pass to keep up genetic diversity. They stay in their family pods for their entire lives. But SeaWorld declares a killer whale no longer a calf at four years old, and may separate it from its family at any point after that. But that's no more natural or less cruel than separating the young whale at three years old, or less. "Captivity, regardless of whether you're separating four-year-olds from their mothers, is an unnatural thing to do, and potentially stressful to the killer whales." And SeaWorld admits it will remove calves from mothers at under that four-year mark "to maintain a healthy social structure," which is quite vague.
Perhaps the trickiest bit of spinnery comes when SeaWorld claims that "SeaWorld's killer whales' life spans are equivalent with those in the wild." But, says Zimmermann, "that's just not true." SeaWorld is looking at the median age of whales in the wild, which, according to the NOAA, is about 30 years for males and 50 years for females. But that's only the median age; killer whales are known to live as long as 90 years. So when SeaWorld brags about how "five of our animals are older than 30," that's only approaching the median age. None have ever approached the age of even a slightly above average wild killer whale's lifespan.
Worse, "the vast majority of captive killer whales die in their teens or before," says Zimmermann. "There's no question that they die younger and die sooner in captivity." And that's unusual; many animals actually live longer in captivity than in the wild, thanks to humans looking after their every need. Killer whales do not. "They don't have any killer whales that are approaching the upper ranges" of a natural lifespan, says Zimmermann.
SeaWorld is, despite the tone of its press release, in panic mode. As Oscar season approaches, "Blackfish" will almost certainly receive another bump in the press when it's nominated for Best Documentary, and the hashtags and petitions show no sign of slowing. SeaWorld's very bad year looks like it'll extend into the new year and beyond.