SeaWorld seeks OK for new orca encounter stage

November 2, 2016

A year after announcing it would phase out its longstanding Shamu show in San Diego, SeaWorld is asking the California Coastal Commission this week for permission to start constructing a stage for its new orca encounter.

If the commission signs off at its meeting on Friday, SeaWorld says it could begin construction in January, with completion expected by April.

To date, the company has described the revamped killer whale attraction in broad terms, explaining that visitors to the park would no longer see the orcas engaging in theatrical, synchronized leaps and dives but instead would be able to witness the marine mammals’ natural behaviors like hunting, eating and communicating.

Those theatrical shows will end this year, and the San Diego park will be the first to debut the new attraction, with the Orlando and San Antonio parks to follow.

In its application submitted to the commission — whose staff is recommending approval — SeaWorld is proposing to dismantle Shamu Stadium’s existing show set, now dominated by four LED screens and a giant depiction of a whale tail. In their place would be a new backdrop behind the show pool designed to mimic an outdoor coastal setting in the Pacific Northwest.

The new scenery will be a pastoral landscape, incorporating a rugged coastal inlet, artificial Douglas fir trees, cliffs, and waterfalls. The set will be framed by a rockwork facade fashioned from fiberglass, with no part of the backdrop higher than 30 feet.

Complementing the scenery will be a large video screen that will feature imagery of killer whales in the wild, along with graphics and other information about the orcas to help educate SeaWorld visitors.

In addition, various stairways within the stadium will be demolished and reconstructed, and there will also be sound and lighting upgrades.

The company emphasizes that the project involves no reconstruction or modification of the pools where the orcas are housed.

That’s a major departure from a $100 million plan, since abandoned, that the Coastal Commission approved last year to double the volume of the orcas’ habitat. While the commission OK’d the plan, it imposed a condition that SeaWorld cease breeding its orcas.

The company protested, but months later, responding to mounting public pressure, announced it would end captive breeding of its killer whales at all three SeaWorld parks. It also said it would no longer move forward with the tank expansion project.

Plans for the new orca encounter drew several letters of support, including some from its former critics like the Humane Society of the United States and state Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, who two years ago introduced a bill that would have outlawed captive orca breeding and prohibited SeaWorld from using orcas in its shows.

“I applaud SeaWorld’s commitment to end orca breeding and phase out their orca shows and believe that their actions demonstrate a forward-looking, humane and market-responsive approach,” Bloom wrote in a letter to the commission.

Although Bloom favored the changes made by SeaWorld, he still pursued legislation signed into law in September that will outlaw orca breeding and captivity programs. The new legislation also prohibits California parks from featuring killer whales in performances for entertainment purposes. They could, however be used for educational presentations.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which has called on SeaWorld to release its killer whales into seaside sanctuaries, was critical of the new orca attraction.

“By decorating its underwater prisons with a backdrop of a fake ocean stretching out behind them, SeaWorld would make a mockery of the animals’ lack of opportunity to swim in the real ocean,” the activist group said in a statement. “This marketing ploy is designed to deceive visitors while doing nothing for the orcas floating listlessly in tiny concrete tanks.”

In recommending approval of SeaWorld’s design for its new orca experience, the commission staff imposed conditions focused more on the construction in order to minimize noise impacts on the orcas and to avoid interfering with public access.

SeaWorld, for instance, said that its construction contractor will work with the orca trainers to address any issues they might observe as they monitor the orcas during the construction period.

To minimize noise impacts, SeaWorld said the construction work will be screened by 8-foot-tall panels and when louder work, such as demolition, occurs, the whales will be moved into the pools farthest away.

SeaWorld San Diego said it has no issues with the staff conditions and “will comply with the conditions outlined in the staff report.”

Source: San Diego Union Tribune.com

Update – New orca stage approved November 3, 2016

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Judge allows SeaWorld shareholder lawsuit to proceed

October 11, 2016

ORLANDO, Fla. – A group of investors who claim SeaWorld executives misled them about the effect the documentary “Blackfish” was having on theme park attendance will be allowed to continue their revised lawsuit against the company, a federal judge has ruled.

“The Court tentatively finds Plaintiffs have sufficiently pleaded the element of falsity based upon allegations made by confidential witnesses, allegations regarding negative publicity targeting SeaWorld Entertainment, and attendance declines at SeaWorld Entertainment parks,” wrote U.S. District Judge Michael M. Anello.

SeaWorld attorneys attempted to get lawsuit thrown out, arguing that the investors had failed to present adequate evidence suggesting the company might have misled shareholders.  Following a court hearing last month,  the judge denied SeaWorld’s motion to dismiss the case, court records show.

“Plaintiffs’ allegations cannot be reconciled with various statements by Defendants that ‘Blackfish has had no attendance impact,’ and that SeaWorld Entertainment ‘can attribute no attendance impact at all to the movie’,” Anello said of the amended lawsuit.

In April, the judge dismissed the investors’ original lawsuit against SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.  According to the judge, that original complaint did not sufficiently show that theme park attendance was harmed by ‘Blackfish’, a 2013 documentary that criticized the practice of keeping killer whales in captivity.

However, the judge allowed the shareholders to amend the lawsuit and address its legal deficiencies.

In their amended complaint, the investors cited SeaWorld’s recent decision to end its killer whale breeding program as further evidence that the 2013 documentary had changed the marine park’s core business.

“The announcement was a tacit acknowledgement that SeaWorld could no longer afford to deny the profound impact ‘Blackfish’ has had on its business or continue to blatantly ignore the data showing a clear shift in public sentiment regarding its killer whale program,” the amended complaint stated.

The investors, which include the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System and a teacher’s pension fund based in Denmark, presented additional data compiled by the Themed Entertainment Association, a nonprofit amusement industry organization that provides unofficial attendance figures for many theme parks.

“Historical attendance figures demonstrate that attendance at SeaWorld-branded parks, Disney parks, and Universal parks in the Florida and California areas ordinarily rise and fall together,” the complaint states.

In 2014, after “Blackfish” was released, SeaWorld Orlando suffered an 8 percent decline in attendance and SeaWorld San Diego lost 12 percent of visitors, while Disney and Universal parks saw comparable or increased attendance, according to the lawsuit.

At the time, SeaWorld executives blamed the attendance problems on bad weather, the timing of holidays, and ticket price increases, the complaint states. “Historical attendance figures demonstrate that the dramatic attendance declines SeaWorld-branded parks saw in 2013 and 2014 had to be the result of ‘Blackfish’ and not the other generic excuses SeaWorld offered,” according to the complaint.

SeaWorld has previously claimed in court filings its fluctuating attendance trends did not correlate with the airing of “Blackfish.”

The company also suggested SeaWorld-branded marine parks, which were the subject of the documentary, outperformed their other amusement properties during that period.

“Although ‘Blackfish’ premiered on CNN early in the fourth quarter of 2013 (and was purportedly viewed by millions), it was this very quarter that the SeaWorld-named parks had record setting attendance,” SeaWorld attorneys wrote in their motion to dismiss the original lawsuit.

The following quarter, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. reported a 13 percent drop in attendance companywide, which the company blamed on several factors except “Blackfish.”

“Indeed, that attendance declines at SeaWorld were attributable to bad weather during certain peak times, the timing of the holidays and SeaWorld’s intentional pricing strategies, which decreased attendance while increasing revenue, is a far more compelling and cogent inference than fraud,” according to SeaWorld’s attorneys.

On Aug. 13, 2014, SeaWorld officials announced another 4.3 percent decline in attendance. In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, SeaWorld acknowledged for the first time that attendance “was impacted by demand pressures related to recent media attention surrounding proposed legislation in the state of California.”

The proposed California law would have banned the display of captive killer whales for entertainment purposes. The bill’s sponsor, California Assemblyman Richard Bloom, said the proposed law was partially inspired by “Blackfish.”

That same day, SeaWorld’s stock price plunged 33 percent.

“The company had finally admitted that ‘Blackfish’ was hurting attendance at SeaWorld parks,” the investors wrote in their original lawsuit.

SeaWorld insisted the SEC disclosure was not about “Blackfish.”

“Notably, this same disclosure also included guidance that SeaWorld had significantly lowered its full year revenue numbers, a more plausible cause for the subsequent stock price drop,” wrote SeaWorld’s lawyers.

In their amended complaint, the investors suggested SeaWorld may have been worried about the impact of “Blackfish” as early as Thanksgiving 2013.  That’s when People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claims their organization was infiltrated by SeaWorld employees posing as animal rights activists.

SeaWorld officials later acknowledged its employees had spied on the organization.  It has since stopped the practice, according to SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby.

“SeaWorld’s chosen strategy was to ignore ‘Blackfish’ and deny its credibility – both to the public and investors,” the new complaint states.

SeaWorld attorneys must file a formal response to the shareholders’ lawsuit by October 28, the judge ordered.

Source: Click Orlando.com

SeaWorld’s CEO speaks to the future of the parks and Shamu

October 3, 2016

Blackfish, the documentary released in 2013, was highly critical of keeping whales in captivity. It generated plenty of attention about the plight of orcas, especially those under the care of the SeaWorld parks. Backlash from the film combined with other factors caused the marine life theme parks to take on water. Attendance and revenues plunged, while PR headaches rose.

In April 2015, SeaWorld brought in a new captain, Joel K. Manby, to right its listing ship. Prior to becoming president and CEO, he led the theme park and entertainment company, Herschend Enterprises. Among the parks under Manby’s guidance were Dollywood in Tennessee and Wild Adventures in Georgia.

After trying unsuccessfully to wage a proactive PR campaign and maintain the status quo, Manby and his SeaWorld team decided to halt their orca-breeding program and make changes to the whale stadium shows, moving from an entertainment focus to an educational one. The struggling company made the about-face announcement in March 2016.

USA TODAY spoke with the CEO about the chain’s new direction and how it is influencing the new attractions and shows coming to SeaWorld parks in 2017. We also discussed the difficulties that led to the sea changes at the company.

USA TODAY: Talk about the circumstances you faced when you arrived at SeaWorld. How did you arrive at the decision to halt the breeding of orcas?

JOEL MANBY: It was the ultimate paradox. We built our brand around Shamu, yet it became the biggest reason people weren’t coming to SeaWorld anymore. When I first came to the company, I though getting the truth out about how well we really care for animals would do the trick. But the idea of having orcas under human care was not a positive thing. We looked at the data and considered whether we would continue to fight the trend or not. It felt like we had to make the decision we did. It was huge – the single hardest business decision I’ve been involved in.

USA TODAY: Had SeaWorld spoken with or worked with The Humane Society prior to the announcement of your new partnership?

JOEL MANBY: We had never spoken with them. We were adversaries. We were monologuing at each other. I thought, let’s dialogue and see where we have common ground. We have partnered on issues such as shark finning, the practice of whale hunting, and Canadian seal hunting. We are going to be coming out against the Taiji dolphin hunt [in Japan] soon as well.

Any time people in leadership make a bold move, they are going to get arrows in their backs. Partnering was a risk for both of us. We don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on protecting animals in their habitats.

USA TODAY: What impact has the announcement about SeaWorld’s orcas had on attendance and revenue?

JOEL MANBY: So far, so good. We’d like more, faster. We think brand issues are abating. Our partners are coming back. We all feel a bit more pep in our step.

We think [the announcement] makes it possible for people to listen to SeaWorld again and see us as a good organization doing the right thing for animals – not a bad organization doing the wrong thing. We are pleased with the impact. (Internal research shows) our favorability ratings are eight-to-one more positive than before the announcement. Our intent-to-visit ratings are five-to-one more positive.

Attendance is a lagging factor. We’re seeing improved trends in California. There’s a chance we will be flat or slightly down [in 2016] with no new product. Next year and in 2018, we have very strong product offerings, and we fully anticipate that we’ll be up in California by next April for the first time in four years. In Texas, we should also be up in attendance and revenue for the first time in four years. In Florida, we will not be up. But it’s more of a Florida issue that is affecting all of the state’s theme parks. We hope that will stabilize.

USA TODAY: Wall Street has not been kind to the company’s stock (SEAS was trading at 13.54 on Friday, with a 52-week low of 12.12). What will it take to turn investors around?

JOEL MANBY: We haven’t proven that we’ve hit bottom yet. If we back out international issues [that are affecting attendance and revenue in SeaWorld Orlandoand other major Florida theme parks] we would be up. As soon as we show the Street that we’ve hit bottom and we are starting to grow, I think you’ll see our stock do well.

USA TODAY: Instead of using live animals, might you turn to more media-based attractions like ones at the Disney and Universal parks? For example, Universal can’t bring the actual stars of the Harry Potter films to its parks, but it can provide virtual Potter experiences.

JOEL MANBY: We wouldn’t build attractions to the scale of Harry Potter or Spider-Man. They cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But we can do similar attractions that we can afford and do really well.

USA TODAY: Disney and Universal use popular movies and characters at their parks. You have Sesame Street characters. What about bringing in more intellectual properties to SeaWorld?

JOEL MANBY: We are looking at opportunities. There are lots of possibilities with media players who are in the animal care-focused area. They would be naturals for us.

USA TODAY: You’ve announced the changes you will be making with your orcas. What about SeaWorld’s dolphins, sea lions and other animals?

JOEL MANBY: We’re going to look at [how we might change our policies about using other animals] once we learn from the orca encounter. I’d hate to commit one way or the other. We need to make sure that guests appreciate what we do. In my mind, we would look to do that if we can pull this off in a successful manner with the orcas.

USA TODAY: Was there ever a thought about making a more radical shift in direction at the SeaWorld parks?

JOEL MANBY: The radical shift is that in five-plus years, we don’t want to be seen as an animal entertainment company. We want to be known as an entertaining place that has a purpose and vision to help animals in the wild. How we execute that over time will be different than the SeaWorld of the past. I know that mission and vision is compelling to guests.

Source: www.USA Today.com

SeaWorld will stop paying dividends

September 20, 2016

Theme park operator SeaWorld says it will soon stop paying its shareholders a quarterly dividend.

SeaWorld, known for its water shows featuring killer whales and dolphins, has been dealing with falling attendance and revenue as people’s feelings about using animals for entertainment has soured. Earlier this year, the Orlando, Florida, company said it won’t breed killer whales and stop using them in shows.

The company said late Monday that it will pay its last dividend on Oct. 7, and the amount it pays will be cut by 52 percent to 10 cents for each share owned, down from 21 cents in the previous quarter. SeaWorld says the money saved on dividends will be used to buy its own shares.

Last month, the company reported that its second-quarter revenue fell 5 percent from the year before, and the number of people entering its parks fell nearly 8 percent to 6 million.

SeaWorld operates 12 parks, including Busch Gardens, Sesame Place and Aquatica.

Source: Jacksonville.com

Orca Shows and Breeding Banned in California

September 14, 2016

California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Orca Protection and Safety Act into law on Tuesday, banning the breeding of killer whales in captivity, as well as the circus-like shows that have them performing for crowds.

Facing increasing criticism since the 2013 documentary Blackfish exposed concerns about orca welfare, SeaWorld had already agreed to discontinue breeding their orcas in all of their U.S. parks. The new law mirrors several changes that SeaWorld had already committed to making, but the bill’s sponsors say the legislation was still important to make sure that SeaWorld can’t change its mind, and that no other California park can breed or do non-educational orca shows in the future. (Read SeaWorld to End Controversial Orca Shows and Breeding.)

“This codifies this corporate policy in law, so they’re stuck now,” says Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute, which co-sponsored the legislation along with state assembly member Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica.). “And now we have more momentum to build on,” Rose says.

In practice, the bill will mean that the only orcas allowed to be kept in captivity in California will be the 11 already grandfathered in at SeaWorld San Diego. Orcas can still be rescued and rehabilitated if they are found stranded, but Rose says that’s unlikely.

“I can count on one hand the number of times an orca has been stranded alive, was rescued, and survived in captivity,” says Rose, referring not just to California, but the world.

While the act bans the use of orcas in entertainment, SeaWorld can continue orca shows if they are educational. The company has already decided that their theatrical killer whale shows will be replaced with what they call “educational orca encounters” starting in 2017. “Guests will feel like they are taking part in a live documentary,” wrote Dave Koontz in an e-mail to National Geographic, “with a modified habitat for a more natural looking setting.” (Read Former Trainer Slams SeaWorld for Cruel Treatment of Orcas)

Next, the Animal Welfare Institute hopes to retire animals to a marine sanctuary, making orcas in concrete tanks a thing of the past. However, SeaWorld does not plan to return its 11 orcas to the wild. Koontz wrote that “the best, and safest, future for these whales is to let them live out their lives at SeaWorld, receiving top care, in state-of-the-art habitats.”

While the orcas at SeaWorld San Diego aren’t likely to be released, it’s nearly certain that they will be the last in captivity there. “As more and more members in the public in this post-Blackfish era are deciding to turn away from entertainment, the future holds a more hopeful animal-friendly entertainment outcome,” says Carney Anne Nasser, senior counsel for wildlife and regulatory affairs at the Animal Legal Defense Fund. (Read SeaWorld Orca Was Trying to Save Itself, Not Kill Itself.)

Other states have passed similar legislation. South Carolina prohibits the public display of whales and dolphins—although the state doesn’t have any in captivity anyway. In states without marine animal parks, such laws prevent future developments. But the fact that California already has SeaWorld San Diego makes this bill a more powerful development. “This is real, this is a state that has them,” says Rose. “This is a real change in business as usual.”

The next states that animal activists hope will consider a similar bill are Texas and Florida, as they have marine parks with cetaceans in them as well. Nasser believes that there is hope for orca captivity to end. “It’s only a matter of when, not if, the use of animals in entertainment will become a relic of the past,” she says.

Source: National Geographic.com

This Former Killer Whale Trainer Is Taking On SeaWorld

August 28, 2016

SeaWorld has been a lightning rod for controversy in recent years, and no one knows that better than John Hargrove. On this week’s episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Hargrove—a former SeaWorld animal trainer—recounts his experiences working with orcas in captivity. From heavily medicated killer whales to the tragic death of his colleague, Hargrove paints a picture of an entertainment company in crisis.

SeaWorld, a nationwide chain of parks well known for its displays of marine animals, purports to blend “imagination with nature” and enable visitors to “explore, inspire and act.” It’s perhaps most famous for its orcas. Also known as killer whales, orcas are actually the largest member of the dolphin family. They weigh thousands of pounds and are, in the words of National Geographic, “one of the world’s most powerful predators.” SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas has come under intense scrutiny; the 2013 film Blackfish recounted the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau and showed the dangers (for both whales and humans) of keeping orcas in captivity. Hargrove appeared in the film.

Hargrove spent most of his time at SeaWorld as an orca trainer. Since he left, he has repeatedly accused the company of mistreating animals and endangering employees. Representatives of SeaWorld have denied these allegations, telling NPRin 2015, “We don’t put any animal in any stressful situation” and calling conditions depicted in Blackfish “a bit of exaggeration.” (You can read the company’s point-by-point rebuttal to Blackfish here.) When Hargrove came out with a book criticizing the company, SeaWorld denied many of his claims and said that he had quit the company “‘after being disciplined for a severe safety violation involving the park’s killer whales’ that resulted in his transfer from the orca stadium,” according to the Orlando Sentinel. (Hargrove denied that he was responsible for the safety violation, according to the paper.) SeaWorld also released a video showing Hargrove repeatedly using the n-word while intoxicated several years earlier. (“We do a lot of things we shouldn’t do when we drink,” Hargrove told the Sentinel. He went on television to apologize for the video.)

On Inquiring Minds, Hargrove tells co-host Indre Viskontas that it wasn’t just his colleagues who were in danger. Hargrove says he had multiple encounters with aggressive killer whales over the course of his career. In one incident, which took place when Hargrove was working at a different park not owned by SeaWorld, he describes escaping a close call with an orca named Freya, who he says had pulled him underwater before. When she wasn’t responding to his signals, Hargrove made a decision that he believes may have saved his life. Rather than swimming like mad for dry land, he moved to the center of the pool and waited for Freya to approach. Trying to outswim an orca is impossible, says Hargrove—it just makes it more fun for the giant predator to hunt you. If he had tried to make an escape, he says, “that would have equaled almost certain death for me.” In the end, Freya’s behavior changed. She followed Hargrove’s instructions and even helped push him out of the pool.

But two other trainers, Brancheau and Alexis Martinez, weren’t so lucky. Both died after being viciously attacked by orcas owned by SeaWorld. Martinez, who worked at a non-SeaWorld park, was killed in December 2009 by a whale on loan from SeaWorld. Brancheau died two months later at SeaWorld’s Orlando park after being violently attacked by a whale named Tilikum. “It was not a shock to me that he had done that to her,” recalls Hargrove. “I know he was capable of it. All the whales are capable of it.”

For Hargrove, SeaWorld was a childhood fantasy gone terribly wrong. While he had dreams of working at the park as a child, he soon discovered that the relationship between man and whale wasn’t what he had envisioned. Hargrove claims he and his colleagues were frequently hurt on the job. And he says he often worked while sick or injured—diving deep into cold water and sometimes emerging spewing bloody sinus tissue.

SeaWorld declined to respond to detailed questions about Hargrove’s allegations on Inquiring Minds, but the company did say in an email that many of Hargrove’s claims are “false.”

Since leaving SeaWorld, Hargrove has become an activist and has written a book called Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish.He’s now a central figure in the campaign to alter the way SeaWorld does business. And that campaign seems to be having an impact. Earlier this year, the company agreed to end its orca breeding program and to change the way it exhibits its orcas.

“Society has changed and we’ve changed with it,” SeaWorld said in an email. “We’re focusing our resources on real issues that help far more animals, like working with [the Humane Society of the United States] to fight commercial whaling, shark finning, and continuing our efforts to rescue, rehabilitate and release injured and sick animals to the wild.”

Source: Mother Jones.com

California Lawmakers Pass Bill Banning Orca Shows, Captive Breeding

August 26, 2016

The California State Legislature on Friday approved a historic bill that would ban the breeding of captive killer whales and orca performances in that state. It would also prohibit the export of captive orcas out of North America.

Violators would face fines of up to $100,000.

The legislation, presented in the State Senate as a rider to a budget bill, passed 26–13, strictly along party lines, with Democrats voting in favor of the measure and Republicans opposing it. It now goes to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Naomi Rose, a killer whale expert and a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, which cosponsored the bill.

“It took us long enough, and it was quite the wild ride, but it’s done, although it still has to go to Governor Brown,” Rose said. “But we hear he is inclined to sign it.”

“The governor has until Sept. 30 to take action,” Deborah Hoffman, Brown’s deputy press secretary, wrote in an email. “We generally don’t comment on pending legislation.”

The move to ban orca breeding and shows in California, home to 11 killer whales at SeaWorld San Diego, was introduced by Democratic Assemblymember Richard Bloom in March 2014.

That bill, which also required that killer whales be sent to retirement in sea sanctuaries, was opposed by SeaWorld and the Assembly majority leader at the time, Toni Atkins, who represents San Diego. It was tabled in committee.

This spring Bloom reintroduced the measure, without the sea sanctuary provision, and it passed an Assembly vote on June 21.

“Today is a victory many years in the making,” Bloom said in a statement. “The Orca Protection Act is a product of scientific consensus, immense public support, and a concerted legislative effort to protect this intelligent and majestic animal.” . . . .

. . . . .

Read the full article HERE at www.takepart.com

Root Canal: SeaWorld Gets Drilled In New Killer Whale Teeth Report

August 17, 2016

SeaWorld’s CEO Joel Manby has been all smiles since he and Wayne Pacelle, CEO of The Humane Society of the United States announced that their organizations had reached an agreement to end the captive breeding of killer whales at SeaWorld’s parks in California, Texas and Florida along with the six killer whales under SeaWorld’s care at Loro Parque in Spain. But when it comes to the killer whales themselves, they’re not smiling because there is something missing – their teeth.

Dentition as a Welfare Indicator

Do you  remember going to the dentist as a child for a checkup? Do you remember how happy you were if you didn’t have any cavities? Do you remember the sound of the dentist’s drill when you did?

A new report from the Free Morgan Foundation (FMF) examines the condition of killer whale teeth as a measure of their welfare in captivity. The report, Ongoing concerns regarding the SeaWorld orca held at Loro Parque, Tenerife, Spain provides extensive photographic documentation that chronicles the dentition of the six killer whales in SeaWorld’s care at Loro Parque. Based on the report, it appears that cavities are the least of their problems.

The authors of the report, Dr. Ingrid Visser and Rosina Lisker, visited Loro Parque in April of this year where they observed and photographed the killer whales over a period of three days. During their visit, Visser & Lisker received personal assurances by Dr. Javier Almunia of the Loro Parque Fundación and two Loro Parque veterinarians, that there were no health problems with the killer whales.

When specifically asked about the wild-born female Morgan, the authors were told she had no broken teeth:

All three employees denied that Morgan had any broken teeth. Subsequent to the authors’ visit, on 28 April 2016, Loro Parque posted on their official website blog the following text; “Dr. Visser asked about Morgan’s broken teeth, and the veterinarian staff confirmed that Morgan does not have broken teeth just abrasion in [sic] some of them.” [emphasis added].” (Visser & Lisker at p. 16.) 

The photographic evidence collected by Visser & Lisker, however, adds to the growing stack of documentation regarding welfare issues facing the killer whales held in that facility.

Morgan is of particular concern to Visser & Lisker because during her time in captivity beginning at Dolfinarium Harderwijk in 23 June 2010 and then at Loro Parque since 29 November 2011, she has suffered significant, progressive dental distress that would not have occurred had she been returned back to the ocean following her rehabilitation:

According to the authors, in 3 years, 10 months, 10 days, Morgan went from 0% severe damage of her right mandibular teeth to 75%. The report goes on to calculate that between 41.66% and 75% of the mandibular (lower jaw) teeth were moderately or severely damaged among the six killer whales observed at Loro Parque.

Drilling and Flushing – Superior Dental Care?

Drilling and daily flushing of killer whale teeth is portrayed as ‘superior dental care’ by Seaworld. But is it really? I asked former SeaWorld trainer John Jett Ph.D. to describe the daily dental care of killer whales from a trainer’s perspective:

We used a variable-speed drill, with a stainless drill bit that was disinfected with betadine prior to the drilling procedure. It was a Dremel brand drill like you can buy at a hardware store. The holes were flushed using a Waterpik filled with betadine. We would receive cases of 1,000mL bags of betadine from the animal care department, which we would cut with scissors and pour into the Waterpik basin in preparation for tooth flushes.” (John Jett Ph.D. July 2016)

Another former SeaWorld trainer, Jeffrey Ventre MD, gives further detail about pulpotomies, tooth flushing and the health impacts of dentition of killer whales in captivity in this video:

Five Freedoms

The welfare issues at Loro Parque extend far beyond the killer whales teeth. Visser & Lisker also asses the welfare of the killer whales through an analysis and discussion of the physical conditions at Loro Parque with respect to the ‘Five Freedoms’ of animal welfare:

  • FREEDOM FROM HUNGER AND THIRST.
  • FREEDOM FROM DISCOMFORT.
  • FREEDOM FROM PAIN, INJURY OR DISEASE.
  • FREEDOM TO EXPRESS NORMAL BEHAVIOR.
  • FREEDOM FROM FEAR AND DISTRESS.

These standards are internationally recognized as providing the absolute minimal requirement for an animal’s physical and mental well-being.

In the report, Visser & Lisker document violations of four of the ‘five freedoms’ of the killer whale’s welfare at Loro Parque. Their report also meticulously documents 23 violations of animal welfare standards affecting the killer whales at Loro Parque using the C-Well® welfare standards. (Visser & Lisker at p. 33.)

SeaWorld and the Humane Society

Wayne Pacelle is the CEO of HSUS, a position he has held since 2004.
Six years after he began working in that position, in November 2010, his organization wrote a letter to the US Government highlighting the animal welfare violations at Loro Parque. HSUS requested that the US Government act according to the letter of comity provision (the legal principle that nations will mutually recognize and respect each other’s laws) of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). They requested to have the SeaWorld killer whales seized and repatriated back to the United States:

Therefore, it is imperative that NMFS and APHIS undertake an immediate investigation and make an official finding as to Loro Parque’s non-compliance so that NMFS can take action to seize the orcas or work with SeaWorld to arrange for their repatriation to the United States.” (HSUS letter 11 November 2010.)

The revelations in the Visser & Lisker (2016) report are stark and startling and reaffirm the validity of the HSUS welfare concerns raised in November 2010 about SeaWorld’s killer whales at Loro Parque.

This new report by the FMF has also been submitted to representatives of the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Office of Protected Resources
as a not so subtle reminder that it cannot wash its hands of responsibility for monitoring the conditions of the killer whales at Loro Parque through feigned ignorance and denial of readily verifiable facts and observable conditions.

The fact that SeaWorld keeps six of its claimed twenty-nine killer whales at an off-shore facility is a detail that is often overlooked, yet these individuals represent approximately 20 percent of SeaWorld’s entire killer whale collection.

Although Loro Parque is not owned by SeaWorld, the killer whales held there are ultimately under the care and responsibility of SeaWorld. Furthermore, as a consequence of the original transfer of four SeaWorld killer whales to Loro Parque in 2006, there is also a responsibility of the US Government pursuant to the MMPA to pay attention to the welfare conditions of the killer whales held at Loro Parque today. (See the FMF white paper on whale laundering.)

On 17 March 2016, SeaWorld and HSUS made an announcement – in partnership – that shook the very foundation of the marine theme park industry, setting in motion the beginning of a gradual phasing out of the commercial display of killer whales in captivity. But is that enough?

The HSUS policy position regarding SeaWorld’s killer whales at Loro Parque as expressed to the US Government in 2010 was powerful, principled and represented the humane mandate for the welfare of the killer whales, and of all animals, that the HSUS represents. It is a position that SeaWorld needs to fully embrace.

SeaWorld has a moral and legal obligation to these animals and must act to secure their welfare. “ (HSUS letter 11 November 2010.)

Whether the HSUS partnership with SeaWorld will result in a softening of HSUS’s stance on the deplorable welfare conditions that continue to plague the killer whales at Loro Parque is uncertain. No doubt, it is an important question that will have to be answered by HSUS – preferably with actions rather than words.

To that end, the FMF sent an “open letter” to Mr. Manby and Mr. Pacelle asking them to meet with the FMF regarding the situation at Loro Parque and to discuss a long term commitment to work together to return Morgan to the ocean in a controlled, natural environment. To date, neither Mr. Manby or Mr. Pacelle have responded to the FMF invitation to talk.

Morgan as Her Own Best Advocate

Ever since being taken from the wild in 2010, Morgan has commanded the public’s interest in an international spotlight. Over the course of the last several months, Morgan’s plight has increased public awareness and outrage over the welfare issues facing her and other killer whales in captivity.

Two recent viral videos show Morgan ramming her head into a heavy metal segregation gate while being confined in a small medical tank and also show her “hauling-out” onto the main performance stage for an extended period after a performance. This was apparently in an attempt to escape the aggression of SeaWorld’s other killer whales who are also held with Morgan at Loro Parque.

The stories of these two events spread across social media and received mainstream coverage, including National Geographic, Time, People, The Dodo, HuffPost UK, and in this exclusive television interview with former SeaWorld trainer Dr Jeffrey Ventre on Sky News with Kay Burley.

For their part, SeaWorld and Loro Parque have gone to great efforts to try to spin the story about Morgan, claiming that she is healthy and doing well in captivity and that the recent videos show normal behavior. However, in fact, they are quite alarming and such a response underscores the paradox of perception by those who want to continue to profit from the captivity of these sentient beings and those who wish to put an end to it.

The Visser & Lisker report draws attention to the clear and obvious issues of Morgan’s teeth and explains why the damage is due to confinement in a concrete tank. This report and Morgan’s plight continues to gain international attention with new in-depth articles about Morgan appearing in the Dutch news magazine Vrij Nederland and German newspaper Donaukurier in August.

Pain Relief?

The images of the killer whales teeth in the report speak for themselves.
They are graphic, indisputable and universally recognizable as “painful” to any person who has had a cavity, chipped, broken or lost a tooth, or had a tooth drilled by a dentist.

These latest revelations about SeaWorld’s killer whales has the potential to take yet another bite out of the bottom line of the struggling marine theme park industry as it continues to struggle with a public relations campaign, trying desperately to distance itself from the Blackfish effect.

On 4 August 2016, SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. (NYSE: SEAS) reported its financial results for the first half and second quarter of 2016. The results were not encouraging for investors. One analyst even suggested that SeaWorld should reinvest in the business, pinning its hopes on the addition of new roller coasters – not killer whales.

The world is rapidly changing and national and international laws and regulations and the government entities that are entrusted to enforce them, need to catch up to society’s expectations and demands. What happens next is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for sure, the Visser & Lisker report gives both government regulators and marine theme park executives something to chew on.

Source: www.huffingtonpost.com

SeaWorld weighing in on orca bills

August 14, 2016

SeaWorld Entertainment has ended orca breeding, but the company continues to weigh in on legislation phasing out display of killer whales, according to lobbying records.

The company spent $650,000 lobbying federal lawmakers on a variety of issues so far this year including a bill phasing out killer-whale display. Records show SeaWorld spent $120,000 on lobbying costs in California this year, with a bill banning orca breeding the only one listed.

The only other American facility with orcas is Miami Seaquarium, which has a lone, aging killer whale named Lolita.

SeaWorld spokeswoman Aimee Jeansonne Becka said the company is not taking an official position on the California bill but has been “working with” its sponsor, Assemblyman Richard Bloom. He unveiled his legislation with SeaWorld San Diego’s park president the same day the company announced it would phase out its killer-whale program by ending breeding.

Bloom had been trying to pass similar legislation since 2014, although the most recent bill eliminated a provision calling for the orcas’ release to sea pens. A staffer for Bloom said the company’s lobbying on the bill appears to be for the purpose of making sure no new requirements get added to it.

Jeansonne Becka said the company isn’t advocating against the bill but “we don’t think the federal legislation is necessary.” She said the company is explaining to lawmakers “the changes we’ve already made at SeaWorld.” Staffers for the sponsors of the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement Act had no comment.

Source: Orlando Sentinel.com

SeaWorld Stopped Breeding Orcas, But What About Their Other Whales?

August 13, 2016

A baby beluga whale was born at SeaWorld San Antonio Thursday morning.

The newborn calf is a stark reminder that although SeaWorld announced in March it was ending its captive orca breeding program, the marine mammal park appears to have left other animals out.

The decision to end orca breeding came after sustained public outcry over the park’s treatment of the animals. But it made no mention of the other highly intelligent cetaceans — beluga whales and dolphins — that live at SeaWorld parks.

Critics of SeaWorld, spurred by the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” have largely focused on the park’s iconic orcas, saying that life in a tank is cruel and stressful for such large and intelligent animals.

But animal advocacy groups note that beluga whales and dolphins — both of which are kept at SeaWorld parks — suffer similarly when kept in captivity for human entertainment. In 2014, conservationist Jane Goodall called captive beluga whale breeding programs “no longer defensible by science.” She wrote in an open letter to the Vancouver Aquarium that the highly social, intelligent species cannot “thrive and achieve good welfare” in an aquarium environment.

The father of the newborn calf at SeaWorld San Antonio is a male named Imaq who was transported to the Texas park from Vancouver, Canada. The nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Conservation has noted that transportation is highly stressful for belugas.

Former SeaWorld employee Sarah Fischbeck painted a chilling picture of SeaWorld’s beluga breeding protocol in a December interview with The Dodo.
Fischbeck said the park repeatedly bred a female beluga named Ruby, even though she repeatedly tried to kill her own offspring. When a miscarriage caused Ruby to become fatally ill in 2014, Fischbeck alleges the park put her out in a small pool alone, out of sight.

The current state of beluga and dolphin breeding programs SeaWorld — and whether the company has any plans to phase them out — is unclear and they did not immediately reply to a request for comment from The Huffington Post. A dolphin calf was born at SeaWorld San Diego in October, and a 3-week-old beluga born prematurely at SeaWorld San Antonio died in July 2015.

Source: Huffington Post.com