Columns, Opinion

RENNER: SeaWorld on right track to reinvent itself

To those who have seen it, the movie “Blackfish” is as gut-wrenching as it is action-inspiring. In retrospect, many cite its release in 2013 as the turning point in the battle of SeaWorld versus everyone else, a battle that seems to have just been won.

SeaWorld announced Thursday that it would no longer breed killer whales in captivity. A practice that has gone on since 1985, when the first orca whale was born in captivity, orca breeding has provided the theme park with its most lucrative enterprise.

The orca shows at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida are iconic. Since the 1960s, “Shamu shows” have been synonymous with the name SeaWorld itself and are an absolute must-see for anyone visiting the park. Named after the very first star of the show, who died just six years into her time in captivity, these shows have evolved over the years from “Shamu Goes Hollywood” to “Shamu the Yankee Doodle Whale” and finally, “One Ocean.”

From the stands, these shows are magical. An enormous, majestic beast does tricks right before your eyes and seems to smile the entire time. This illusion is crafted by the slight upward curve to the whale’s gray-scale lips — lips that part to reveal broken, stubbed tooth-like structures that you might not have noticed at first. You also probably didn’t notice the whale’s bent dorsal fin or the cracks in its skin.

As “Blackfish” shows, after the spotlights are dimmed and the upbeat music is turned off, these shows aren’t so magical. Those whales are injured and unhappy. These trainers are putting on a front. This theme park just made money off of your ignorance.

As people became aware of these facts, the corporation suffered. Cited as “brand challenges” by the theme park operator, SeaWorld’s dramatic drop in earnings and attendance since the release of “Blackfish” has been damning. An August 2015 Fortune article stated, “SeaWorld Entertainment is still struggling to resuscitate the brand. According to the Orlando, Fla.-based company’s second quarter results, earnings dropped 84% in the three-month span. Attendance, meanwhile, has dropped about 2% in the past year to 6.48 million visitors.”

Although the park’s decision to end its breeding program is a huge win for the animals, it’s far too late for the company. SeaWorld Entertainment CEO Joel Manby spoke out after the announcement, telling the Associated Press, “Society’s attitude toward these very, very large, majestic animals under human care has shifted for a variety of reasons, whether it’s a film, legislation, people’s comments on the Internet … It wasn’t worth fighting that. We needed to move where society was moving.”

He is not wrong, but he is three years too late.

Instead of being proactive in the face of very negative, expository PR, or at least pretending to be, SeaWorld fought back with weak retorts and accusations. The company continued to advertise pictures of smiling whales, even after the public recognized these images were untrue. SeaWorld may have missed its opportunity to save face, but the power this company has both financially with its billion dollars in revenue and publicly with its current captive hold on media audiences could create some real magic if put to good use.

Resources such as “Blackfish” and other informative blogs have given people so much insight and ammunition to fight an institution that has committed grotesque wrongdoings, but the changes SeaWorld is making now are only just the beginning. This little victory shows us that we the people hold the power over these huge, name-brand companies. Looking ahead to the future, I see a world where the word “SeaWorld” no longer conjures up thoughts of animal mistreatment and harm, and “millennial” is synonymous with regeneration.

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