Corporations sometimes make for strange bedfellows. Consider the rich and powerful Blackstone Group, one of the world’s leading private equity firms. In an odd twist of venture-capital fate, New York-based Blackstone now finds itself a global house divided; the parent of two vast entertainment companies scornful of each other’s fundamental business models.
It’s hard for SeaWorld to attack critics, when its sister company is openly stating precisely the same thing.
One recent Blackstone acquisition, SeaWorld, celebrates, promotes, perpetuates and profits from the confinement and display of dolphins and whales (cetaceans) for public amusement. SeaWorld officials decry and denigrate anyone who criticizes the practice or calls for the early retirement of performing cetaceans to coastal marine sanctuaries.
In direct contrast, another Blackstone holding, Merlin Entertainments Group and its aquarium division, SEA LIFE, is just as adamantly opposed to keeping cetaceans in tanks, aggressively supports the development of retirement sanctuaries for performing animals, and is publicly resisting efforts by SeaWorld and other U.S. venues to import and display 18 wild-caught Russian beluga whales.
MORE: SeaWorld's Convoluted Logic on Taiji's Dolphin Slaughter
What does SEA LIFE know that SeaWorld refuses to see?
U.K.-based Merlin is the leading attraction operator in Europe and number-two in the world, including LEGOLAND, Madame Tussauds and SEA LIFE. Its business ethics are so fundamentally irreconcilable with SeaWorld’s that it’s difficult to see how parent company Blackstone can deal with the sibling dissonance, other than to ignore it (inquiries to Blackstone went unanswered), and keep collecting revenues from both.
Still, it’s hard to ignore. Blackstone earned hundreds of millions in tax-free profits last year from whales and dolphins it now owns at SeaWorld and related amusement parks.
That practice, however, is opposed by “all leading authorities in this field and indeed the majority of ordinary American citizens canvassed on this subject,” said Janine DiGioacchino, divisional director of Merlin Entertainments (Midway) USA, in a remarkable letter last month that received zero mainstream media attention.
“Cetaceans are not suited to captivity,” DiGioacchino asserted as bluntly as I did in the book Death At SeaWorld, “no matter how spacious or well-designed the facilities. They are wide-ranging, highly intelligent and social animals which suffer acute sensory deprivation in any kind of unnatural confinement.”
Calls to Merlin and DiGioacchino went unreturned. But her letter underscored Merlin’s longstanding opposition to using cetaceans for live entertainment. “Keeping cetaceans of any kind, even when there is some educational merit,” she said, “is a vastly different proposition to the display of fish and other marine creatures.”
The letter, dated October 25 on Merlin letterhead and addressed “To Whom It May Concern,” was submitted to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to express “the strongest possible opposition” to importing the belugas.
That effort, vehemently opposed by activists, was spearheaded by the Georgia Aquarium, with the full participation of several venues, especially SeaWorld, which stands to gain the lion’s share (11) of the beguiling white whales on “breeding loans.”
DiGioacchino’s unyieldingly worded letter went further, arguing that any benefit to the public by importing these animals would be drowned in a sea of animal misery.
“The argument that such displays are good for education and conservation does not, in our view, come anywhere near to outweighing the undoubted suffering and stress incurred not only by the captured animals themselves, but also by the family groups from which they have been so cruelly and abruptly separated,” DiGioacchino wrote on behalf of “SEA LIFE Centers worldwide, not least the five centers here in the US.”
Importing wild-caught marine mammals for U.S. display is not illegal, but it is highly controversial. No import permits have been approved since 1993, leaving SeaWorld and others to rely on breeding programs and the rescue of stranded animals deemed unsuitable for release.
“Unless they are injured or ailing rescued animals requiring full time care, it is just plain wrong,” DiGiaocchino continued. “We would be failing in our responsibility as the world’s largest aquarium operator were we not to say so publicly.”
The highly influential National Aquarium has also opposed SeaWorld’s efforts, citing its new policy against capturing wild cetaceans “for any purpose.”
Equally remarkable are Merlin’s current steps to deliver captive cetaceans into peaceful, early retirement, or even release into the ocean, a concept that SeaWorld routinely and derisively pooh-poohs as unrealistic and hopelessly romantic.
Despite its own policy, Merlin has acquired three parks with cetaceans but, “rather than further exploit these animals for profit,” DiGiaocchino said, “we are urgently progressing plans to create a natural sanctuary where these and hopefully others from other public attractions around the world, can be re-homed, retired and if feasible, rehabilitated."
Merlin’s plan is fairly under-the-radar but hardly secret. Groups like Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and Humane Society International have been working closely with SEA LIFE/Merlin to select a suitable warm-water site for a dolphin sea-pen sanctuary, and eventually a cold-water site for belugas, and possibly orcas and others.
“Interim activities are being developed and explored to improve the conditions of the animals at the Merlin facilities, and these will be the first candidates for the sanctuary/retirement facility, with a goal towards release,” said WDC’s Courtney Vail. “With our own expertise and involvement in release projects, and in consultation with others, we are working with Sea Life/Merlin to make this a reality. It is a complex and delicate process, but it’s in progress.”
SEA LIFE’s letter, “ruffled a lot of feathers, and it put a line in the sand,” Vail told me. “The statements really called SeaWorld and others out regarding their practices,” she said. “But maybe this change will provide the motivation needed for teetering parks to come out against cetacean captivity.”
SEA LIFE wants to provide retirement to cetaceans “around the world,” which presumably includes U.S. facilities like SeaWorld. “America,” DiGioacchino wrote, “is an enlightened nation which should be leading the world in demonstrating care and compassion for special creatures like these. Instead we are one of the worst offenders in perpetuating an outdated and wholly unethical trade and practice.”
It’s hard for SeaWorld to attack critics, (including me), when its sister company is openly stating precisely the same thing.
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David Kirby, a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, has been a professional journalist for 25 years and was a contracted writer for The New York Times, where he covered health and science, among other topics. He has written for national magazines and was a correspondent in Mexico and Central America from 1986-1990. His third book, Death at SeaWorld, was published by St. Martin’s Press.