SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. is moving to address public concerns about its treatment of killer whales after the company's shares fell nearly 35 per cent this week on concerns that negative publicity had begun to hurt ticket sales.
The company, which is known for its marine parks and marquee shows starring enormous black-and-white orcas, is pledging to nearly double the size of its killer whale tanks. SeaWorld also said it would establish what it calls an independent advisory panel to ensure the expansion meets the needs of the large whales.
The moves come in the wake of financial results on Wednesday that one analyst called "surprisingly weak." Revenues had declined and the company slashed its financial forecast as it acknowledged that fallout from the release of a critical documentary called Blackfish was beginning to hurt the company's earnings.
The feature-length film – which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is available on the streaming site Netflix – explores the risks and ethics of keeping enormous whales in captivity. The documentary centres around the death in 2010 of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was dragged under water by a 12,000-pound Orca named Tilikum.
Through interviews with former trainers – many of whom were frank about their lack of training – and various experts, the documentary stresses these highly intelligent creatures have extensive emotional depth, suffer grief when they are separated from their calves and die much earlier when they are kept in captivity.
Tilikum, the star of the film, was also involved in the death of a trainer in British Columbia's now-closed Sealand of the Pacific in 1991. Two eyewitnesses interviewed in the film describe seeing the whale drag a trainer underwater and watching horrified as the trainer surfaced, called for help, and was dragged under again.
Spurred on by the popular documentary, which also highlights the majesty of the whales in their natural environment, two California lawmakers proposed an amendment to legislation in the U.S. that would ban killer whales from performing in SeaWorld shows and place numerous restrictions on how they are treated and cared for in captivity. The company lobbied furiously against the measure, saying it was based on a "propaganda" film and has no scientific basis. The measures announced on Friday do not mention the film or the legislation, but the company's announcement – which also pledges $10-million (U.S.) for killer whale research and ocean health – quotes California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins.
"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," Ms. Atkins is quoted as saying.
The company says it will expand its San Diego killer whale tank to about 38 million litres by 2018, with expansions at other facilities to follow.
These moves however, are unlikely to mute the criticism that has arisen from the documentary, which forcefully makes the point that killer whales should not be kept in captivity at all.
In an interview, Blackfish director Gabriella Cowperthwaite said that SeaWorld has been able to weather all sorts of public criticism – including the release of the film Free Willy – but that a hit to its financial results "is the language they speak."
"I think a move like that looks great on paper, but really it's an emergency release valve," Ms. Cowperthwaite said.
She also said that none of the problems highlighted in the film will disappear with a larger tank, and that SeaWorld's plans to expand to Asia, India and the Middle East will entail the captive breeding of more whales – a process that is likely to entail yet more separation of female orcas and their calves.
"The expansion would accommodate more whales," she continued. "Until they claim that they'll stop the captive breeding program, there's nothing incredibly meaningful about changing the pool size."
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said in a statement Friday that a "bigger prison is still a prison."
The Animal Welfare Institute, which is a sponsor of California's legislative efforts, called on SeaWorld to end its orca breeding program and said the company's falling share price was evidence of a growing public awareness that orcas suffer in captivity.
"The proposed expansions of the orca enclosures, while a small improvement from the existing tanks, are nonetheless inadequate to meet the welfare needs of these animals due to their size, intelligence, means of communication, and family ties and relationships," said Naomi Rose, a marine animal scientist, in the Animal Welfare Institute's news release.