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SeaWorld Continues Struggle To Overcome Negative Publicity Brought By Documentary 'Blackfish'

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Two years ago, a documentary that focused on Tilikum, an orca that was supposedly held captive by SeaWorld, was screened at the Sundance Film Festival. "Entitled Blackfish," the documentary aimed to depict the story behind the captivity of killer whales in marine life theme parks, as well as the death of an orca trainer who worked at the establishment in 2010.

Five years after the tragedy, SeaWorld continues to experience struggles and problems brought on by the negative publicity influenced by the documentary.

Decline in visitors

SeaWorld Entertainment President and CEO Joel Manby reported the attendance of theme park visitors has been declining, although the drop has slowed down over the past year.

He said the park experienced a 2 percent decrease in visitors or about 100,000 fewer visitors than it did at the same period last year.

"We realize we have much work ahead of us to recover more of our attendance base, increase revenue and improve our performance as returning to historical performance levels will take time and investment," said Manby.

Public perception towards captive animals has been shifting, and other companies are affected as well. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that they will stop the presentation of elephant acts by 2018. Alana Feld, the company's executive vice president, said people were getting uncomfortable with watching acts that included animals in captivity.

"Having elephants in zoos is going to be a thing of the past, and the same is true for SeaWorld. People aren't going to support it [anymore] ... People have questioned what kind of relationship we want to have with other animals," explained Wesleyan University Professor Lori Gruen.

The Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement Act

At the wake of the Blackfish documentary, Southern Californian lawmaker Adam Schiff proposed a bill that would slowly stop the displays of killer whales for public entertainment, ban the breeding of captive killer whales, prohibit their capture in the wild and end the importation and exportation of these marine animals.

After the existing animals in SeaWorld's killer whale shows pass away, the new law would effectively and completely stop these displays.

Schiff added that strong evidence which shows the physical and psychological harm done to killer whales far outweighs any profits gained from their public display.

The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums disagreed with Schiff's proposed legislation, saying that these facilities conduct valuable whale research which could help increase the public appreciation for these marine animals and understand how they live.

Next move

Meanwhile, SeaWorld released an analysis of the Blackfish film which they said was "propaganda, not a documentary."

The company said the techniques used in Blackfish were misleading and were all falsehoods "employed in the service of the film's obvious bias."

SeaWorld also announced they will be funding a US$100 million project to expand its orca enclosure in San Diego.

No wild orcas have been captured since 1976 and none have been imported since 2001, the company said.

Animal rights activists, however, condemn the mistreatment of these theme parks to orcas, and they believe that these animals are too intelligent to be kept inside glass and concrete enclosures. They also demand SeaWorld to release their 11 captive killer whales to seaside sanctuaries.

Photo : Tammy Lo | Flickr

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