It started with the horrific and terrifying death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld’s Orlando, Florida theme park venue whose public performance with killer whale Tilikum on Wednesday, February 24, 2010 ended with her being dragged underwater and mauled, killing her as thousands looked on helplessly.
SeaWorld at first said the veteran trainer had fallen in the pool, then that the killer whale was just acting like a killer whale and then, somewhat preposterously, that Ms.Brancheau shouldn’t have had her hair tied in a pony tail, allowing the whale to drag her to her death.
Here’s what really happened as narrated by a Spanish-TV reporter:
As Sea World then tried to dig itself out of its PR hole, a documentary called “Blackfish” first shown on CNN in October 2013 went behind the scenes, exposing, though interviews with former SeaWorld trainers, just how gruesome the killer whale breeding program was, starting with capturing whales from the wild, and the prevarication and PR spin Sea World owners attempted to cover up the trainer’s ghastly death and the less-than-cozy underside of having killer whales transport and kiss human beings as adoring spectators look on. Not so, said “Blackfish.”
SeaWorld’s PR campaign never got traction. Its testimony by current staff and veterinarians as to its animal-friendly practices, its claims to be saving an endangered and beautiful mammal, failed to convince critics and more importantly visitors and investors, that Sea World was doing the right thing, must less telling the truth.
This past week it had apparently had enough. In the face of regulatory and legislative efforts to ban orca captivity, along with falling ticket sales to the parks along with a 60% dive in its stock price, it reached out to Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, a longtime critic of SeaWorld that worked with it on the new reform measures.
Those new reform measures include ending entertainment shows with the so-called killer whales and SeaWorld’s breeding program to propagate them. In addition, SeaWorld will commit $50 million over the next five years, with a goal of being the largest rescue organization in the world. And, in keeping with the Humane Society’s urging of SeaWorld to become a progressive zoo, SeaWorld will continue rescuing dolphins and other large sea mammals, including 1,000 dolphins stranded last year and hundreds of sea lions in California at risk. Under the agreement, SeaWorld will keep the orca whales currently in captivity, considering the fact that captive whales would be a danger to themselves if suddenly released into the wild.
Humane Society’s Wayne Pacelle also designed the rehabilitation program for former Eagles quarterback Michael Vick who had been convicted and imprisoned for arranging and betting on dogfighting on his Virginia property when he was the Atlanta Falcons quarterback.
The “Blackfish” documentary was considered a “defining moment” in SeaWorld’s decision to reconcile the theme park’s PR and operational woes. The trailer is offered below:
Animal activists are being given credit for unmasking this episode of corporate cover-up and mistreatment of animals, but without the collective action of the general public believing and responding to what the activists had claimed and evidently able to document, both visually and in released testimony, SeaWorld might never have recanted or changed its practices. Chalk another victory for collective action.