Good news for Right Whales, not so good for dolphins in the Keys

For Immediate Release, November 24, 2014 by Center for Biological Diversity

 Feds Agree to Protect More Habitat for East Coast’s Most Endangered Whales by 2016

BOSTON— A deadline for expanding critical habitat protections for the North Atlantic right whale — one of the world’s most endangered whales — has been set in response to a legal settlement agreement. Each year most of the 500 North Atlantic right whales remaining on Earth migrate from their feeding and breeding grounds off the U.S. Northeast to their nursery areas off the Southeast. But only a tiny portion of this expansive range is protected as federally designated “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act, making the whales more vulnerable to threats that include commercial fishing gear, ship strikes and oil drilling.

The settlement requires the federal government to make a final decision by February 2016 about where and how much additional habitat should be protected.

Animals in captivity didn’t fare as well today.

British Airways refuses to cut ties with SeaWorld.  With over a quarter of a million signatures on the petition, Jonathan Counsell, British Airways head of environment sent out the following update:

We have actively sought the views of and evidence from a range of people and organisations including the leading NGOs in this field on the issue of cetaceans in captivity. 
We welcome the extensive work undertaken by ABTA in publishing best practice guidance for the welfare of animals in tourism, particularly in countries where laws do not govern animal welfare. SeaWorld has assured us that its animal care standards exceed this best practice guidance and are governed by US federal and state laws alongside accreditation standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as well as the Association of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. Further, SeaWorld does not collect cetaceans from the wild and has not done so for nearly three decades.

On this basis we currently see no reason to end our relationship with the organisation. We will continue to offer our customers the option to make their own decisions on whether to visit SeaWorld.

We recognise that the science of cetacean welfare is evolving and we encourage further study in this area.

Dolphin Research Center, located in Marathon, is offering “Holiday photos with a dolphin”, the very definition of exploitation.  According to Virtual-Strategy Magazine,

Holiday Photos with a Dolphin takes place now through Dec. 19 at the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon. Visitors can bring their own Santa hats, reindeer antlers or other accessories to use while posing. The Dolphin Research Center’s experienced photographers will shoot the photos using high resolution digital cameras. Guest can go onto a floating dock to give backrubs and share a “flippershake” with a dolphin while having their photo taken.

Feel free to contact DRC to ask them to stop exploiting dolphins at drc@dolphins.org

SeaWorld Tries, and Fails, to Improve Their Image

Just another day at the office?

Orca Cow Office

SeaWorld is desperate.  Last week, the park reported dismal 3rd quarter earnings.  Orlando’s WESH 2 put things into perspective:

While SeaWorlds’ dismal earnings reports may be the result of a combination of factors, a look at the performance of SeaWorld Shares since  “Blackfish” was released is revealing.

When “BlackFish” was released in July 2013, the share price was around $38, but a decline begin and in August 2014, after a discouraging second quarter earnings report, the stock dropped to $27. As of Wednesday, it was down to $16, which is a 43 percent decline.

Financial analysts agree.  SeaWorld Flops It’s Most Important Quarter of the Year…the headline says it all.

The first performance indicator which is suffering is park traffic. Attendance in the summer quarter fell from 8.9 million last year to 8.4 million this year, a 5.6% drop. The third quarter of the year is SeaWorld’s most profitable season, but it’s impossible to make money if guests aren’t spinning the turnstiles.

The next place to look is revenue. The 5.6% drop in park attendance carried over to an 8% decline in total sales. That’s a pretty bad sign. Not only are fewer people showing up to SeaWorld, they’re also spending less money.

SeaWorld is trying desperately the improve their image.  However they continue to miss the boat.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Atchison told analysts last week that SeaWorld has hired new people with expertise in public affairs, along with outside advisers “to help us navigate some of this.”  SeaWorld plans to spend an additional $10 million on marketing next year.  SeaWorld points out it is also embarking on a “major multimillion-dollar partnership focused on protecting the ocean” but is not yet providing details. Earlier this year the park committed $10 million for killer-whale research at the same time it announced plans to nearly double habitat for its orcas (although specific plans have not been revealed).

None of this changes that fact that SeaWorld has NO PLANS to stop breeding their killer whales in captivity, retire their collection or phase out their shows.  In fact, according to Businessweek today…

For Atchison, there’s no tension between his responsibility to shareholders and the welfare of SeaWorld’s animals. “Our killer whales, our killer whale program, and all of our animals are emblematic of the whole brand. I have to protect our brand. I have to grow our brand. How we care for those animals may make me feel good morally, but that is also my fiduciary responsibility.”

Atchison says SeaWorld will continue with its killer whale shows and its captive killer whale breeding program, though it’s promised larger habitats and better safeguards for trainers. The Blue World Project, a 1.5-acre, 50-foot-deep killer whale habitat to be built in San Diego, will cost about $300 million. Atchison insists that whales at SeaWorld enjoy “great lives, full lives. I think they have enriching and socially well-adjusted lives, but you do not know what animals are thinking or feeling. You cannot know. What’s interesting to me is that so much of those who criticize us are basing that on their own opinions.”

But the story gets even more disturbing.  Writer Karl Taro Greenfeld shares his story of grabbing a cup of coffee with Fred Jacobs, vice president of communications, at a town hall meeting in September.   As Greenfeld adds milk to his coffee, Jacobs shares “I once had killer whale milk. I’ll starve to death before I have that again. It tastes like fish. It’s got like 15 times more fat than cow milk.” SeaWorld’s domestic breeding program, in addition to frequent testing of pH levels to see when female whales are ovulating, also stores plenty of killer whale milk in case a mother rejects her calf. Apparently, the staff used to taste the milk, and nobody gave much thought to that.

SeaWorld execs drinking killer whale milk and veterinarians collecting semen is not the way to win over the public. If they truly want to revive their image they need to take a close look at why people are not visiting the park.

Yes, SeaWorld does great work in their rescue and rehabilitation program.  Turtle Trek is the most educational and informative exhibit in their Orlando park. Sadly, it is also the smallest exhibit and it is tucked in the far back corner away from traffic. Turtle Trek houses manatees and sea turtles who are either in rehabilitation and awaiting release or deemed unfit for release.  These animals are not performing shows and are not bred in captivity.  To truly reinvent themselves, these local animals’ stories should be brought to the forefront.  Manatees and sea turtles suffer greatly due to boat strikes, fishing line, crab traps, cold stress, etc.  Engaging the public on these issues would be meaningful, tangible education.

In the meantime, SeaWorld needs to wake up the fact that the PUBLIC, not just animal activists, are over watching killer whales doing tricks for food.  It is a tired, old way of thinking that does not give a true perspective of who killer whales are or any real challenges they face.  If the park was providing accurate education about killer whales, it would be obvious that animals who travel in family pods, hundreds of miles per day, with incredible intelligence do not cope well with captivity. Instead, lets concentrate on the face that the Southern Resident population is dwindling due to lack of chinook salmon, boat traffic, and simply still trying to recover from the captures of decades ago.

There is a simple, quick fix to the problem.  Stop breeding, stop shows, and retire your collection.  The decision to do the right thing would not take $10 million in marketing or PR to improve their image, money which would be better spent on building sea pens to retire their whales.  Only then will everyone be comfortable visiting the park again…and SeaWorld will be the hero.

Four years of Awareness since Dawn’s Death

Today marks the 4th anniversary of Dawn Brancheau’s death and the four year journey of heightened awareness of orcas in captivity. Sadly, that awareness came too late for Dawn.  One has to wonder how she would feel if she were still here today, especially knowing that she was blamed for her own death.  There is no denying that her story opened the eyes of millions of people to the issues surrounding captivity.

I still remember that day clearly, the local news in Orlando constantly showing Tilikum alone inside his tiny tank as if being punished.  I didn’t know what to think.  Up to this point, I had never considered captivity being wrong.  I had visited the park on many occasions and had undoubtedly seen Dawn perform in several shows through the years. She was a local hero and a senior trainer at the park. I was dumbfounded.  Who’s fault was it? What would happen to Tilikum?

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Photo from WFTV gallery

Many others also began questioning what went wrong.  First was Tim Zimmermann who wrote the comprehensive Killer in the Pool, an inside look into the subject of orcas in captivity.  He writes about Dawn:

IF ANYONE WAS GOING to take care around Tilikum, it was Dawn Brancheau. She was one of SeaWorld’s best and completely dedicated to the animals and her job. (She even met her husband, Scott, in the SeaWorld cafeteria.) She had worked at SeaWorld Orlando since 1994, spending two years working with otters and sea lions before graduating to work with the killer whales. She was fun and selfless, volunteering at a local animal shelter and often keeping everything from stray ducks and chickens to rabbits and small birds at her home.

Next, David Kirby writes Death at SeaWorld, giving detailed information of not only Dawn’s death, but also those victims before her. Kirby also outlines many other prior incidents previously hidden from the public.  Coupled with the studies of wild orca populations by Dr. Naomi Rose, the book exposes the dark side of orcas in captivity.

Following the release of the book, HSUS released The Real SeaWorld, a powerful 4 minute video featuring David Kirby, Dr. Naomi Rose, Jeff Ventre, Sam Berg and Carol Ray.

Probably the most powerful change has been the release of Blackfish.  Blackfish director Gabriella Cowperthwaite tells David Kirby that she made the film to answer the questions: Why was a senior trainer killed by such a highly intelligent animal, an animal with whom she presumably had a relationship?  Why would such a highly emotional, intelligent animal bite the hand that feeds it?

Blackfish opened at Sundance Film Festival last January and premiered on CNN October 24, 2013 as #1 in cable news averaging 472k in the key-demo adults 25-54 rating. Millions of people have seen the film and the views of the public are rapidly changing against captivity.

Dawn was the fourth victim taken by killer whales in captivity, but it was her death that brought the captivity issue into the forefront of public awareness.  There is no doubt that she had a love for the animals she cared for. I only hope that her story changes the way we view these animals and that our love for them is translated into doing the right thing.

Kid Rock at Bands, Brew and BBQ

SeaWorld announced it’s first two acts for Bands, Brew and BBQ in the middle of last week after 9 other acts bailed out of the line-up. Although there wasn’t much time, petitions were launched for both Alan Jackson and Kid Rock to cancel the show.  Unfortunately they both followed through.

Kid Rock’s petition had close to 3,000 signatures by the time he took the stage on Superbowl Sunday, plus numerous phone calls, messages and tweets were sent to him and his management team.

So why did he go through with it?  During the show, Kid stated that he likes SeaWorld because “they pay taxes”.

Apparently he hasn’t read the post from Scott Maxwell in the Orlando Sentinel last April.  Maxwell quotes SeaWorld Orlando CEO Jim Atchinson:

“We won’t be a taxpayer for several years to come,” SeaWorld Orlando CEO Jim Atchison boasted in a recent Sentinel article by reporter Jason Garcia. “That’s a great advantage for us.” 

And goes on to say: thanks to a boatload of tax breaks and deductions, SeaWorld won’t be paying for any of those things through income taxes.

Businesses don’t expand to get tax breaks. They expand to boost profits.

That’s what SeaWorld did. It mounted an aggressive expansion and rebranding — not to stimulate the economy or for any greater societal good — but to boost its bottom line.

And it did so in splendid fashion.

We can all applaud that success. But we can also ask the successful to pay for the public services they consume — instead of shifting the burden to others.

The show is over, but Kid Rock still needs to get the memo.  Education never stops.

 

 

Going to SeaWorld? Get your blinders ready

Whether you’re an avid fan, an activist, or indifferent SeaWorld has likely gotten your attention in recent weeks.

Beginning with the premiere of Blackfish on CNN October 24th, the hype has not let up.  CNN had major publicity for a week leading up to the premiere.  The film was the highest ranking film on CNN this year and was the second most mentioned cable news show on Twitter.  #BlackfishonCNN trended for a good portion of the opening weekend.  Blackfish also had a big younger viewer turnout. SeaWorld San Diego facebook page was forced to disable comments following a ridiculous debate including SeaWorld, and captivity, advocate Jack Hanna. Word was, and still is, spreading quickly!

Friday, Animal Rights Florida staged an “Orca in a Crate” demo in downtown Orlando.  The event was a huge success.  It was followed by a protest outside the park on Saturday morning to commemorate Tilikum’s capture 30 years ago.  Protesters were met by Orange County Sheriff’s department after an apparent threat to the park Friday.  Officers circled protesters on bikes and left the cars parked through out the day.

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The law enforcement was also present inside the park.  As a guest, I’m not sure if this would make someone feel more secure or make them question why.

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(Orange Co. Sheriff’s Dept. in green)

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Tuesday SeaWorld was in the stoplight again as they entered the US Court of Appeals for the ongoing OSHA saga.  SeaWorld, with the assistance of Eugene Scalia (son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), is appealing OSHA’s use of the General Duty Clause when issuing it’s original citation in 2010.  Comparisons were made to football and hockey players and NASCAR drivers. The difference, however, is that there have been feasible safety changes and improvements in these sports.  Scalia also repeatedly dismissed expert testimony by OSHA witness David Duffus, stating that he lacks knowledge to captive orcas.  It is important to note, however, that Duffus was involved in reviewing the coroners report for Keltie Byrnes (Tilikum’s first victim 20 years ago) and stated at the time that her injuries were consistent with the predatory behaviors he witnessed in wild orcas.  Scalia also repeatedly stated that SeaWorld’s “product” is the close contact between trainers and the killer whales.  What about education???

You can listen to the entire audio of Tuesday’s hearing here.  

While we await the decision, today SeaWorld released their highly anticipated 3rd quarter earnings report which states:

Attendance for the first nine months of 2013 declined by 4.7% compared to the same period in 2012 from 19.9 million to 18.9 million guests. Attendance was impacted by new pricing and yield management strategies implemented at the beginning of 2013 that increased revenue but reduced low yielding and free attendance, adverse weather conditions in the Company’s second quarter and in July, and the negative impact of an early Easter in 2013.

According to their press release:

Attendance trends improved in the third quarter compared to the second quarter reversing a negative trend earlier in the year, with a 3.6% decline versus a 9.5% decline in the second quarter.  Attendance trends also improved steadily within the quarter with July attendance down 5.7% due to adverse weather and August/September attendance down 1.8% as weather conditions improved.  Preliminary attendance in October showed continued improvement with attendance comparable to prior year levels. In addition to adverse weather, the attendance decline in the third quarter was an expected result of planned strategies that increased revenue but reduced low yielding and free attendance.  These strategies were implemented at the beginning of 2013 to increase revenues and operating margins through higher quality attendance which the Company achieved in the third quarter. – See more at: http://seaworldinvestors.com/news-releases/news-release-details/2013/SeaWorld-Entertainment-Inc-Reports-Record-Third-Quarter-2013-Results/default.aspx#sthash.pnWoig83.dpuf

Is the saying true that all publicity is good publicity?  Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish director, has repeatedly said in interviews, making Blackfish was peeling back the layers of an onion.  The onion has been peeled and the crying has begun.  For anyone planning to visit SeaWorld in the future, get your blinders ready.  There is too much to look past to visit without them for anyone with a conscience.  I don’t think it’s the weather keeping people away either!

Blackfish gives SeaWorld an Opportunity to Step Up to the Plate

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As the World Series rages on, Blackfish has been shown several times on CNN over the past few days.  The ratings have shot through the roof as the film ranked #1 in cable news during the debut screening with a total of 1.36 million viewers. The film ranked #1 in page views on CNN films as well.

CNN covered the film with major publicity throughout the week.  They repeatedly invited SeaWorld to be part of the conversation, yet they were repeatedly denied.  This is the same scenario that Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish director, faced as she put the film together.  David Kirby, author of Death at SeaWorld, experienced the same unwillingness to contribute while researching for his book.

Instead, CNN aired several debates with other spokespeople speaking out in defense of SeaWorld and captivity in general. These debates included input from Jack Hanna, Bill Hurley of Georgia Aquarium (who incidentally has also appealed NOAA’s decision to deny the recent beluga whale import permit) and Grey Stafford.  Those who were speaking out for captivity clearly did not bring a strong enough case to justify the practice now that we know better.  Hopefully SeaWorld will take note.

CNN conducted a poll, and public opinion has shown an overwhelming 90% now against captivity.  This gives SeaWorld the amazing opportunity to be a leader in the industry and do the right thing. Dr. Naomi Rose explains it best as the opportunity to be a win-win situation for trainer safety and orca welfare by creating sanctuaries where captive orcas to be rehabilitated and retired.

It is not realistic to demand that all captive orcas be released since  many have been bred in captivity and are not good candidates.  However there is no reason why they can’t invite the public to visit these sanctuaries from a safe distance and use current trainers to help these animals adjust to being wild animals again. No shows.

So what’s it going to be SeaWorld?  It’s time for you to step up to the plate.

A Treadmill is No Substitute for the Ocean

As David Kirby pointed out after talking to several activists last week, SeaWorld has introduced a new “treadmill for whales.” In my opinion, this seems to be a last-ditch effort for them to be portrayed as a facility who cares for their animals.  As David said, “If you make something less bad, it’s still bad.”

Yes, it is true that Tilikum spends the majority of his time stationary in a small, back pool.  He could benefit from some exercise, but we should not stray from the big picture.  No matter what kind of machine is introduced, the bottom line is that he is still living in a small concrete tank.

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There are many unknown variables with this new treadmill, but I can’t help but wonder about the potentially detrimental factors.  We do not know what kind of noise it makes or how cooperative Tilikum will be.  If the machine is loud underwater, I would think that it will be doing him more harm than good.  An animal who naturally uses sonar to assess his surroundings should not be exposed to anything that will further harm his senses any more than his concrete tank already does.  I also have to wonder what frustration this might cause for him.  Although he is not being asked to perform, he is being asked to swim.  In a performance, he would get frequent dead fish as a reward following any command.  How long must he swim before he is rewarded (if you call dead fish a reward).  I feel that Tilikum is smart enough to realize that he is being duped.  Although I can’t speak for him, if this was happening to me I would be extremely frustrated.  Frustration could possibly lead to another injury to himself or to someone else.

The real issue continues to be the fact that Tilikum and all of the other cetaceans in all parks don’t belong in captivity. Period.  It is a sad fact that SeaWorld must look for other ways of “enrichment” for Tilikum’s life when the natural ocean provides all the enrichment he could ever need.

As activists, the focus needs to continue to be on stopping their breeding program and phasing out the captivity of these animals for good, not finding a way to make captivity better.

I tend to agree with Naomi Rose who stated, “It’s still not good enough.  Only the ocean is good enough.”