Last week the toymaker Mattel announced the discontinuation of its SeaWorld-related merchandise, including SeaWorld Trainer Barbie.
This move is part of the backlash to the release of the powerful 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” a film that calls into question SeaWorld’s safety practices, as well as its treatment of marine mammals, especially orcas.
For decades, the world’s most prominent merchandiser of killer-whale-based entertainment has managed to shrug off the complaints of animal-rights activists about the wellbeing of the captive orcas essential to its brand.
But now SeaWorld has begun to suffer repercussions. Entertainers such as Pat Benatar, Willie Nelson and the Beach Boys have canceled previously scheduled appearances, and Southwest Airlines has ended its long-term promotional partnership with the park.
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The consequences are real and painful: SeaWorld stock fell by 50 percent in 2014, and attendance at its parks dropped by a million.
But the best defense is a good offense. SeaWorld is deploying a print and video campaign centered on attractive, young killer whale trainers.
In an ad in my local newspaper, Kristi assures us that, as a mother of two children herself, she would not work at a place that separates “killer whale moms” from their “dependent calves.”
The word “dependent” seems carefully chosen, and Kristi admits that young whales are, in fact, separated from their mothers, but only after they are “weaned and socially independent.”
But this way of thinking has several problems. The killer whale’s natural habitat is a complicated matrilineal pod based on lifetime associations that, common sense tells us, simply cannot be managed according to the practical requirements of SeaWorld’s various performance venues.
Former killer-whale trainers tell us the same thing. An impressive number have given in to their consciences and gone public. In March on National Public Radio, former-trainer John Hargrove asserted his knowledge of 19 cases of calf separation, sometimes while the calves were still nursing.
Hargrove says that killer whales are smart enough to understand when a separation is coming; when they hear the lifting cranes advancing toward the pool, they move closer together. Separations are accompanied by “extremely upset vocalizations,” from both the separated whales and the ones left behind.
He says that when the killer whale Takara was transferred to another park, her mother, Kasatka, produced a series of long-range vocalizations that SeaWorld researchers determined were an effort to locate her missing calf. Hargrove called the sounds “heartbreaking” and says that they continued “for a long time.” Takara was 12 years old.
Considerable evidence supports Hargrove’s characterization of killer-whale motherhood in captivity over Kristi’s. But she insists that captivity may actually be good for the whales. We’ve actually developed practices in captivity, she says, that help killer whale mothers “nurture their young successfully.” Maybe our research can help with calf abandonment, which “can be a real issue for killer whales in the wild.”
Indulge my fanciful anthropomorphism, but I suspect that wild killer whales would say to this proposal, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Space doesn’t permit discussion of the many reasons why keeping intelligent, social, wide-ranging, predatory animals like killer whales and dolphins in tiny sterile environments is an unhealthy, exploitative practice. But you might consider seeing “Blackfish” before you visit SeaWorld again.
In fact, if keeping creatures like these in the marine equivalent of solitary confinement throughout their long lives is a bad idea, nothing will remedy it except declining attendance at killer whale and dolphin performances, the withdrawal of corporate partnerships and boycotts by entertainers.
The transparent disingenuousness of the current SeaWorld public relations campaign is an index on the corporation’s desperation. Considerable revenue is at stake. But so is considerable misery on the part of these seagoing beasts.
In one SeaWorld promotional video, a comely, smiling young trainer says, “We love our killer whales. And we know that you do, too.”
I don’t know who first said, “If you love something, set it free.” Presumably it wasn’t SeaWorld.
ABOUT THE WRITER
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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