The controversy surrounding marine mammal captivity has intensified since the premiere of the documentary Blackfish in 2013, and while all marine facilities have taken a hit since the release, Blackfish specifically targeted SeaWorld Theme Parks.

The PR team for SeaWorld continues to be on the defense, regularly generating new ad campaigns to combat the criticism. They’ve taken to referring to the documentary as a piece of propaganda filmed by a group of extreme animal rights activists, but their record drop in attendance and the abrupt loss of their CEO paints an entirely different picture: the public’s perception of marine mammal captivity is changing.

The Manipulative Tactics of SeaWorld Theme Parks

SeaWorld has released a number of ad campaigns in an attempt to redeem their reputation. Their newest campaign, “Ask SeaWorld” on Twitter quickly backfired as the company was overwhelmed with hundreds of users raising legitimate concerns about the welfare of the animals being held in their parks.

Instead of responding to these concerns, SeaWorld blamed animal rights activists for their overwhelming digital “harassment” that took away from the “real questions” the public had. Their PR team chose to block outspoken Twitter users, including Leilani Munter of Racing Extinction.

For those to whom they did respond, they took to avoiding and distorting specific information. For example, when questioned why SeaWorld isn’t willing to release their animals into sea pens, SeaWorld responded that the SeaWorld parks are home for their animals and that releasing them into open sea pens would expose them to pollution, ocean debris and life threatening pathogens like the morbillivirus.

Conveniently, SeaWorld didn’t opt to disclose the number of animals in their care that have died from pneumonia, influenza, encephalitis, fungal infection and heart failure. Not to mention the animals that have died in their care at unnaturally young ages.

marine mammal revenueFlickr

Similarly, when questioned on their “Ask SeaWorld” page as to why they have not publicly shunned the dolphin drives in Taiji or intervened, they claimed that while they are opposed to the hunts shown in The Cove, they have not made an attempt to help the animals killed during the drives since the 1980s because they, “didn’t want to be a party to it.”

Truthfully, it would be hypocritical for SeaWorld to aid the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Ric O’Barry, the Oceanic Preservation Society or any other organization actively working to end the dolphin drives and dolphin trade considering SeaWorld tried, quietly and unsuccessfully, to import a six-year-old Pacific White-sided dolphin from Kamogawa Seaworld in Japan to their San Antonio park as recently as 2012.

Contrary to any explanation their PR team expressed in the wake of the Blackfish backlash, SeaWorld – nor any other facility housing marine mammals – never stopped importing marine mammals into captivity because they thought it was immoral, but rather, because it was made illegal by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

For what has now become quite typical of SeaWorld, throughout the entire Twitter chat they stuck to manipulation and diversion to ignore the legitimate concerns over marine mammal captivity.

How Much Does SeaWorld Invest in Conservation?

While the “Ask SeaWorld” chat raised a number of questions that the marine park couldn’t be bothered to answer – one thing that they continued to hold onto was that they are a conservation-minded corporation due to the amount of funds they expend on marine protection and conservation.

When directly questioned on “Ask SeaWorld” about just how much money SeaWorld spends on research, rescue and education, they stated the “amount varies per year,” but that in 2014 they invested seven million dollars (a conservative estimate) into research, rescue and education, noting that in the past 50 years, they’ve rescued over 25,000 animals in need.

On the official website for the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund (SWBG), they leave little room for criticism – despite the fact that the focus of this fund is not marine animals. The donations made through SWBG, rather, go toward conservation efforts ranging from aiding the ongoing anti-poaching efforts in South Africa, to finding solutions for human/elephant conflict in Thailand.

Additionally, the SWBG Conservation Fund donates to The Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary in Congo and contributes to Mountain Gorillas monitoring in Rwanda. According to the SWBG, $1.2 million in grants was allocated amongst 93 specific conservation projects in 2013, many of which we’re all familiar with and support.

On the surface, these claims seem anything other than encouraging, but if there is one thing we’ve learned, it’s the length SeaWorld will go to, to defend their reputation. They’re incredibly skilled in deception, and lying about the degree to which they aid conservation efforts is one of the most deceiving.

While figures haven’t been made readily available to the public for 2014-2015, there is plenty of other information to address the question of how much SeaWorld actually funnels into conservation organizations.

According to Cetacean Inspiration, the 2009 annual report for the SeaWorld and Busch Garden’s conservation showed a total contribution of a mere $782,372. Blackstone Entertainment, that at the time was the single largest shareholder in SeaWorld theme parks, donated only 22 percent of the total fund.

What exactly does that mean? SeaWorld averages a total revenue of $1.4 billion every year. The SeaWorld Busch Garden’s Conservation fund totals $900,000 on average, just .0006% of their annual revenue.

Even further, Sea Shepherd states: “According to its 2011-12 Annual Report, SeaWorld has given only $9 million dollars over the last decade toward conservation efforts. That means for every 100 dollars in revenue they bring in, they donate approximately 1 cent toward saving the animals in the wild whose captive counterparts they are exploiting. That’s .0001 percent of their income going to help animals in the wild.”

Further, SeaWorld operates a “rescue, rehabilitation, release” program where they take in injured marine mammals. While they have rescued and released a total of 22,000 marine animals over the course of the past 45 years (equivalent to one per day), they also conveniently keep and display the animals they have deemed “unfit for release” – Morgan, the orca who now resides in Loro Parque is just one example of this.

What is quite possibly more outrageous is that SeaWorld claims that the profits that their spectacles bring in are necessary to fund their rescue and release programs. While yes, a fraction of good is done to a small sect of animals who benefit from this program, this idea completely ignores all the harm – that is done on an international level – which is wrought from perpetuating the idea that marine animals are more “profitable” and “useful” in captivity than they are in the wild.

What Can We Do?

Despite the respectable conservation efforts made by the rescue and rehabilitation teams at SeaWorld, in making some animals “martyrs” for others and stating that a select few have to continue to suffer to benefit the larger whole, SeaWorld illustrates one of many flaws in their way of thinking.

Rather than viewing injured or threatened marine life as worthy of rescue and rehabilitation on their own right, SeaWorld uses them as a bargaining chip to cover up all of the shortcomings in their treatment of captive marine mammals.

While we respect and admire those that rehabilitate and release wild animals in need, how can we be expected to support and comply with marine facilities conservation efforts when they continue to breed, abuse and exploit the marine mammals in their care?

As consumers, we must see past these excuses that attempt to justify holding inherently wild animals in captivity; we must refuse to pay for their suffering. There are plenty of organizations who are raising funds for animal conservation that do not “require” the suffering of another species.

If you’re interested in supporting organizations that are seriously interested in helping marine animals, check out Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Sea Shepherd, Save Japan Dolphins and Oceanic Preservation Society.

Lead image source: Ajari/Flickr