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What Should SeaWorld Do Now?

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If you were the new CEO of SeaWorld, what would you do?

Last week, you saw yet another nail being driven into the coffin of your company when the California Coastal Commission ruled that if you want to build new, bigger and better tanks for your killer whale shows, you’ll also have to stop doing any more captive breeding and refrain from transferring any more whales in or out of the country.

As CEO, you’re also trying to deal with the fallout from your company’s latest financial report: net income for the second quarter of this year fading from $37.4 million in 2014 to $5.8 million in 2015.

And you’re struggling to turn back the growing tide of public opinion against having killer whales and dolphins doing circus tricks in exchange for food. (Plus you’re dealing with seemingly endless scandals like when a SeaWorld staffer was found posing as a badly-behaved animal protection activist.)

So, what are you going to do? The options you’re considering are:

  • Giving up on your Blue World Project (the bigger tanks), and simply keeping the orcas in the small tanks they’ve been living in. That will enable you to still breed them, but it risks the likelihood of State Rep. Richard Bloom re-filing his Orca Captivity Bill again next year, which means more trouble and more bad publicity.
  • Taking the Coastal Commission to court to get the ruling overturned, except that you risk losing the case and getting yet another round of bad publicity.
  • Agreeing to the terms for the bigger tanks and being prepared to close down the shows when the current generation of killer whales dies. That’s still a risky strategy since you know that the millions of young people on whom you’re counting for your future audience are being constantly exposed to the knowledge that orcas are autonomous, cognitively complex beings who don’t belong in circuses.
  • Or saying “Screw it!”, closing up shop in the U.S., and moving the orcas to countries like Dubai and Singapore, where regulations are a lot less tough.

In other words, you’ve got four bad options to choose from.

Joel Manby, the latest new CEO, has told reporters and analysts that “We will continue to fight with the facts, because the facts are on our side.” But he knows, and they know, that the facts really aren’t on his side at all.

There is one other option, and it’s being proposed not only by animal protection groups, but by business analysts, too.He also announced that he will lay out his vision for SeaWorld at a special media event on November 6th. This will probably include details about the horrendous “swim with the dolphins” program that the company is planning for its San Antonio facility and that’s going to infuriate the animal protection world.

There is, however, one other option, and it’s the one that makes the most sense, except that no one at SeaWorld wants to even think about it. Except that you know they must be thinking about it because even business analysts are now saying it’s what they should do.

As San Diego Tribune columnist Dan McSwain writes:

When the tide turned against it, SeaWorld had a golden opportunity to completely overhaul its business model.

… SeaWorld arguably employs the world’s finest team of marine mammal researchers and veterinarians, who routinely rescue sea lions, otters and other impossibly cute wildlife. San Diego’s Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute plays a leading role in saving threatened species of fish.

Bolder managers might have shut down animal performances completely and built a new eco-brand based on environmental education. Instead of fighting [animal protection groups], SeaWorld could have expropriated the … campaign to keep killer whales in giant outdoor pens or reintroduce the animals into the wild.

Full reintroduction may be impossible, because most of the whales were born in captivity. Yet the effort could restore the company to the forefront of compassionate treatment.

And a “Free Shamu” project would make for an amazing IMAX film, cartoon series and toy empire. Theme parks have thrived on less.

But instead of embracing their critics … SeaWorld’s managers chose a dangerous and possibly doomed middle path [the bigger tanks that the California Coastal Commission has just ruled on.]

Meanwhile, moves are afoot in the animal protection world to get the whales out of these marine circuses regardless. Last year, the Toronto Zoo finally bowed to pressure and agreed to let three elephants go to the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s sanctuary in California.

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has a series of lawsuits working their way through the New York State legal system on behalf of chimpanzees. Next year, they’re expected to go to court on behalf of one or more elephants, too.

And the other animals who are well suited to being granted a writ of habeas corpus since they, too, possess extraordinarily complex cognition and autonomy, are whales and dolphins. But the NhRP cannot seek their release until there’s somewhere for them to go. It would make far more sense for SeaWorld to reach out to people in the animal protection world with whom they feel they could work.

Marine mammal protection groups, meanwhile, are already in early discussions about what would be involved in putting together a coastal sea pen sanctuary for killer whales. Two months ago, at the Compassionate Conservation Conference in Vancouver, Dr. Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy discussed the possibility of this with Discovery News and the Vancouver Observer. It’s only a matter of time before such a facility is built and lawsuits are filed.

SeaWorld cannot forever keep on trying to turn back the tide. It would make far more sense for them to create a new business model or to reach out quietly to people in the animal protection world with whom they feel they could work.

It’s a bold plan that works with, rather than against, the animal protection world, and that would make SeaWorld true leaders in the field of conservation to which they aspire. It would put an end to the hemorrhaging of their audience numbers and their stock price. And it would be a classic win-win, good for the animals and good for the company, which could shuck off its image as the villain of the piece and emerge as a hero.

(Check out my footnote to the above: The Whale Who Took Down SeaWorld.)

Update: SeaWorld has decided to go for Option Two above, announcing that it will sue the California Coastal Commission. 

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