After months of debate over orca captivity stirred up by the documentary "Blackfish," and months of the world's largest keeper of captive killer whales refusing to participate, the company was finally persuaded to sit down at a table and engage the issue with its critics, in the form of a remarkable roundtable discussion sponsored by Voice of San Diego and titled, "What SeaWorld and 'Blackfish' Mean for San Diego."
The roundtable, which was held Thursday in San Diego (you can watch the entire discussion here), featured SeaWorld veterinarian Todd Robeck, a senior animal trainer at SeaWorld named Kristi Burtis, former UC San Diego professor Susan Gray Davis, who has analyzed the park's business model, and Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute, a veteran orca biologist. It was hosted by Scott Lewis and Lisa Halverstadt of Voice of San Diego.
Getting them to even engage in an open debate was an achievement. When "Blackfish"aired on CNN last year, SeaWorld refused to even come on air to discuss the film and its contents. Rather than expose itself to open questions, it chose to counter the film with an in-house spin campaign that revolved around a dishonest website it titled, "The Truth About Blackfish."
But more recent developments -- including pending legislation now in the back rooms at the California Legislature that would outlaw orca performances in the state and require SeaWorld to begin returning its orcas to the wild -- seem to have had their effect, and so when Voice of San Diego suggested this forum, SeaWorld finally deigned to open up and finally deal with the debate.
The company probably regrets this now. If you break down the hour-and-a-half discussion, it becomes fairly evident why SeaWorld has so assiduously avoided an actual debate over the facts with its critics, because whenever its representatives tried to make some kind of factual point, they either were blown out of the water by their critics' tart factual counters, or they wound up looking foolish as they fumbled about with charts and graphs.
They fumbled about when confronted with a question about the negative health effects of captivity for orcas. They had to admit that they had published misleading material. Their claims to offering "education" to children and substantive research in the scientific community were exposed as shams.
In the end, the best they could muster was a strangely emotional appeal to their audience's children and the ostensible benefits that SeaWorld offers them, marking an odd nadir in the debate. It seemed particularly ironic, given that SeaWorld is prone to accusing their critics -- who were resolutely fact-oriented throughout the discussion -- of relying on emotional appeals.
Moreover, on the really central questions in the debate, SeaWorld came off as incompetent and dishonest. The apotheosis of this came when Robeck -- who is chief of SeaWorld's breeding program -- evaded the seemingly softball question: "Is it really your contention that there are no health effects to being in captivity?" [The video atop the post features this moment.] Robeck first attempted to deflect disingenuously, and then spent the next several minutes pulling out charts and graphs that he claimed proved that, with their improvements in the care for the animals, their orcas lived as long as orcas in the wild now -- all of which Rose deftly punctured in a brief and devastating retort.
There were many other telling moments in the debate. Another key question -- SeaWorld's claim that its "animal ambassadors" provide a unique educational moment for children -- came fairly early in the discussion, and what was revealing was how shallow and facile SeaWorld's claims were in the face of hard-nosed academic findings that its "education" was really just a facade for marketing the park and its experience, while the truth about animals such as orcas and dolphins is distorted and sometimes outright false.