Just last week, SeaWorld Entertainment reported what analysts called “disappointing second-quarter results,” as company officials acknowledged that negative media coverage of its treatment of captive orcas has hurt attendance.
Shares of SeaWorld have declined down 22% in the past year, according to the Wall Street Journal. For the first quarter of 2014, SeaWorld reported a loss of $49 million, which was attributed to a 13% drop in attendance.
“The company believes attendance in the quarter was impacted by demand pressures related to recent media attention surrounding proposed legislation in the state of California,” SeaWorld stated in its earnings news release.
A 2013 documentary “Blackfish” savaged SeaWorld’s handling of orcas and dolphins, arguing that captivity heightens killer whales’ aggression, which is blamed for several injuries and the deaths of two trainers.
SeaWorld has defended its practices, but the parks no longer allow trainers in the water with the performing marine mammals.
Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines ended its 25-year marketing partnership with SeaWorld because of what the Dallas-based carrier called “shifting priorities” after activist groups accused the airline of supporting animal cruelty.
Of course, PETA jumped into the act, filing a lawsuit against the San Diego International Airport for refusing to accept an anti-SeaWorld ad (see photo) that featured actress Kathy Najimy.
(Yeah, I didn’t know who she is, either. Turns out, she’s in the cast of the HBO comedy “Veep,” among other projects).
Putting on a happy face
In some ways, it’s revealing that activists have made such serious headway against a multi-billion dollar company that markets itself as the ultimate protector, not exploiter, of marine mammals. Indeed, the SeaWorld-Busch Gardens complex puts an incredibly happy face on its operations, lauding its commitment to a three-pronged approach that is very supportive of wildlife.
The problem is that SeaWorld does a lousy job of it. In fact, a cursory review of its website (www.seaworldcares.com) might lead a casual visitor to conclude that the company is some sort of wildlife NGO, not an entertainment enterprise. And a close read quickly calls into question some of the claims SeaWorld’s copywriters have so artfully fashioned. For example:
- Animal care. SeaWorld and Busch Gardens claim that “we care for 86,000 animals,” which sounds incredible. However, 78,000 of that number are fish living in any of the dozens of giant aquariums the parks maintain for visitors to gawk at as they stroll toward the amphitheater where Shamu does his thing. Yes, the company’s animal collection includes cheetahs, Bengal tigers, manatees, endangered black rhinos and polar bears. But nowhere are the parks’ alleged “world-class standards of care” or its “state-of-the-art animal habitats” described in any sort of credible detail.
- Wildlife rescue. The parks claim to have rescued 23,000 animals by “responding to wildlife in crisis,” although they provide no evidence to substantiate that number. SeaWorld claims its wildlife biologists partner with state, local, and federal agencies, and that the parks maintain rescue teams on 24-hour standby to assist animals that are “orphaned, ill or injured.” Maybe so, but since the only mention of any rescued animals involves marine mammals (like manatees), sea turtles and birds, it hard to believe an operation that’s merely a sideline to the company’s primary business could have saved tens of thousands of animals.
- Conservation. Here again, the company’s positioning appears very compassionate—replete with striking photos of cheetahs and polar bears—until you read how they actually define their corporate commitment: “We have inspired more than 24 million guests in 2012 to celebrate and conserve the natural world through up-close animal encounters.”
I’ll give you the “up-close encounters” part. Having visitors stand next to a giant pool so they can get soaked by an orca’s belly flop has been a signature of the park’s animal shows for years. And the families that forked over an average of $250 for admission tickets certainly get exposed to plenty of conservation-related posters and booklets, which are as intrusively displayed on the grounds as the ubiquitous stuffed Shamu toys.
Whether visitors inspired to do anything about wildlife conservation, whoever, is another matter. Unless the company wants to document its own monetary contributions, it’s egregious to claim the mantle of conservation champion.
That mantle is already wearing thin, and there’s no reason to think animal activists will slack off their attacks on the company.
The semi-professional protestors agitating against the very concept of SeaWorld may be land-based mammals, but like their marine counterparts, they can smell blood in the water. ÿ
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.