SeaWorld fights ac­cu­sa­tions that it mis­treats or­cas

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Hugo Martin

On video at Shamu Sta­dium, a baby gray whale named JJ, found near death off Ma­rina del Rey, swims out to sea af­ter 14 months of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion at SeaWorld San Diego.

“Our com­mit­ment to an­i­mals goes be­yond the bound­aries of our park,” an an­nouncer in­tones over the din of up­lift­ing mu­sic and ap­plause.

The scene moved An­drea Longlade from Toronto, watch­ing with her 6-yearold daugh­ter. “I think it’s good that my money is go­ing to­ward good things,” she said.

That’s ex­actly the re­sponse SeaWorld En­ter­tain­ment Inc. wants.

The park is still reel­ing from the 2013 doc­u­men­tary “Black­fish,” which ac­cused the com­pany’s parks of mis­treat­ing killer whales. The back­lash dam­aged the com­pany’s at­ten­dance, earn­ings and stock price, along with the whole­some im­age it projects.

In re­cent months, the Or­lando com­pany has been push­ing back against the doc­u­men­tary, which it de­cried as un­fair and in­ac­cu­rate. It has hired a new chief ex­ec­u­tive, an­nounced plans for larger orca tanks and launched a $10-mil­lion ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign de­fend­ing its treat­ment of whales and pro­mot­ing the com­pany’s work to ben­e­fit an­i­mals.

As part of its new $10-mil­lion pledge to fund con­ser­va­tion of or­cas in the wild, SeaWorld last month com­mit­ted $1.5 mil­lion to a part­ner­ship with the Na­tional Fish and Wildlife Foun­da­tion to help rebuild the pop­u­la­tion of en­dan­gered “south­ern res­i­dent” killer whales found off the Pa­cific North­west.

SeaWorld’s ef­forts to res­cue its rep­u­ta­tion may be help­ing.

Af­ter fall­ing 4.2% in 2014, at­ten­dance rose 5.6% in the first three months of this year at its 11 theme parks and at­trac­tions, although SeaWorld noted an early Easter helped boost crowds. Rev­enue rose just 1% be­cause the com­pany had to use “pro­mo­tional of­fer­ings” to help at­tract vis­i­tors, who spent less on av­er­age than a year ear­lier.

Joel Manby, SeaWorld’s new CEO, told in­vestors he was en­cour­aged by the re­sults so far.

“It’s very early, though, and it’s part of a long-term, very tar­geted ini­tia­tive,” Manby said in a con­fer­ence call dis­cussing the firm’s first-quar­ter fi­nan­cial re­sults. “We have heard from our part­ners, our em­ploy­ees, most im­por­tantly, our guests that they’re happy that we’re out there dis­sem­i­nat­ing the facts.”

An­a­lysts dis­agree on whether the coun­ter­at­tack will work, or whether the “Black­fish” con­tro­versy will per­ma­nently dam­age SeaWorld’s fu­ture prof­itabil­ity.

Stan­dard & Poor’s credit an­a­lyst Shivani Sood

said that neg­a­tive press could hurt the park’s abil­ity to raise ticket prices and draw ad­ver­tis­ers.

But Alex Petti, an an­a­lyst with Seek­ing Al­pha, dis­agreed. Even­tu­ally, he said, cus­tomers will for­get about the movie and it “will have less of an ef­fect this year.”

The com­pany ac­knowl­edges that the doc­u­men­tary, along with ac­tiv­ity by ar­dent an­i­mal rights groups, has prompted it to rec­og­nize that at­ti­tudes to­ward an­i­mal wel­fare are evolv­ing among the public.

“The sen­si­tiv­i­ties have changed,” said Brad An­drews, chief zoo­log­i­cal of­fi­cer at SeaWorld. “There is a lot more so­phis­ti­ca­tion out there.”

Wendy Pa­trick, a lawyer and busi­ness ethics lec­turer at San Diego State Uni­ver­sity, said com­pa­nies have to ad­just the way they do busi­ness: “It re­ally is a sign of the times that any time you are work­ing with an­i­mals you have to be com­pletely trans­par­ent and proac­tive.”

In­deed, in the last decade, 1,100 an­i­mal care laws have been adopted across the coun­try, in­clud­ing reg­u­la­tions to ex­pand cage space for hens and in­crease the fines for cock­fight­ing, said Wayne Par­cell, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Hu­mane So­ci­ety of Amer­ica, whose bud­get has bal­looned from $75 mil­lion a decade ago to $190 mil­lion last year.

SeaWorld isn’t alone in feel­ing the pres­sure.

Au­di­ence mem­bers of Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus won’t find ele­phants un­der the big top in fu­ture years.

In March, the famed tour­ing cir­cus said it would re­lo­cate 13 Asian ele­phants to a con­ser­va­tion area in Florida by 2018. The cir­cus said it could no longer battle lo­cal laws that ban the use of sharp bull hooks to man­age the ele­phants.

“It makes it dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble, to run this cir­cus,” said Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld En­ter­tain­ment Inc, par­ent com­pany of Rin­gling Bros.

An­i­mal rights ac­tivists take credit for in­creas­ing the public’s aware­ness of an­i­mal wel­fare is­sues.

“A lot of th­ese an­i­mal­abus­ing busi­nesses are tak­ing a lot of heat from the public as a re­sult of in­creased aware­ness of abuse of an­i­mals in cap­tiv­ity,” said Brit­tany Peet, deputy direc­tor of cap­tive an­i­mal law en­force­ment for PETA. “The mar­ket is forc­ing them to come out and get in front of the public con­cern.”

Although at­ten­dance at zoos and aquar­i­ums across the coun­try has re­mained steady for years, many have aug­mented their con­ser­va­tion ef­forts to ap­peal to the public’s an­i­mal-friendly atti- tude.

“Go­ing to a zoo to­day is a much dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence than go­ing to a zoo 20 years ago,” said Rob Ver­non, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of the Assn. of Zoos and Aquar­i­ums, a non­profit that rep­re­sents more than 200 at­trac­tions in the U.S.

“The ex­hibits are dif­fer­ent. What peo­ple see is dif­fer­ent. The ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams are vastly dif­fer­ent. Now more than ever zoos and aquar­i­ums see them­selves as con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions,” he said.

SeaWorld has a long his­tory of res­cu­ing sea an­i­mals. But the “Black­fish” ac­cu­sa­tions forced the com­pany to more heav­ily pro­mote its work.

The com­pany’s cam­paign of TV, print and on­line ads launched in March to cor­rect what the com­pany says are “in­ac­cu­ra­cies” re­peated by “an­i­mal ex­trem- ist” or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“Car­ing for the whales, we have a great re­spon­si­bil­ity to get that right,” SeaWorld vet­eri­nar­ian Lara Croft says in one of the TV com­mer­cials.

In ad­di­tion to the $10-mil­lion pledge for killer whale con­ser­va­tion and re­search, SeaWorld in­tends to es­tab­lish an in­de­pen­dent ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee of sci­en­tists to over­see its orca pro­gram.

SeaWorld rep­re­sen­ta­tives say their ef­forts are not an act of con­tri­tion.

“We don’t have any­thing to apol­o­gize for,” SeaWorld spokesman Fred Ja­cobs said.

CEO Manby, who wasn’t made avail­able for an in­ter­view, pre­vi­ously ran Her­schend Fam­ily En­ter­tain­ment, which owns the Har­lem Glo­be­trot­ters, Dolly Par­ton’s Dol­ly­wood theme park and other at­trac­tions.

He re­placed Jim Atchi- son, who re­signed in De­cem­ber as chief ex­ec­u­tive and pres­i­dent but stayed on as a direc­tor and con­sul­tant.

For some SeaWorld fans, the ac­cu­sa­tions lev­eled by “Black­fish” and an­i­mal rights groups don’t ring true.

“The staff mem­bers here love the an­i­mals,” said Dar­lene Tim­son, a re­tired legal sec­re­tary and an­nual pass holder for 51 straight years. “PETA is the dumb­est group out there.”

Shawnee Hale, a 30-yearold on­line video pro­ducer from Bur­bank, has vowed never to re­turn to the park since see­ing “Black­fish.”

“Watch­ing the movie high­lighted the fact that SeaWorld lies to its guests, which makes me feel un­trust­ing of the com­pany over­all,” she said.

Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

SEAWORLD is still reel­ing from the 2013 doc­u­men­tary “Black­fish,” which ac­cused the com­pany of mis­treat­ing killer whales. The back­lash dam­aged SeaWorld’s at­ten­dance, earn­ings and stock price.

Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

AF­TER FALL­ING 4.2% in 2014, at­ten­dance rose 5.6% in the first three months of this year at SeaWorld’s 11 theme parks and at­trac­tions, although an early Easter helped boost crowds. Rev­enue rose just 1%.

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