SeaWorld to Its Critics: ‘OK, Let’s Talk’

An unusual public forum will match a company representative with orca and dolphin captivity critics.

Tilikum, SeaWorld’s 12,000-pound breeding male orca. (Photo: Milan Boers/Flickr)

May 16, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

SeaWorld is finally putting its mouth where its money is.

On June 5 at La Jolla’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a representative from SeaWorld will take on two prominent critics of the park to “talk through the issue” of keeping killer whales in captivity, according to Voice of San Diego, organizer of the unprecedented event.

“As far as we’ve seen, this will be the first time SeaWorld answers questions and offers its perspective directly to the public,” says VOSD’s website. In the past few years, SeaWorld has dispatched staff members to participate in panel discussions on captivity at a few marine mammal conferences, and company representatives have testified before Congress and a recent California Assembly Committee considering a bill to ban orca display in the state.

Now members of the general public will have an opportunity to grill a company rep as well as two captivity critics: Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, and Susan Gray Davis, a former UC San Diego professor who wrote the 1997 book Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience.

The panel discussion is the culmination of a major VOSD series on SeaWorld California that, according to the website, “dove into the ethics, economics, and fate of the park.” The outfit describes itself as a “member-based nonprofit investigative news organization that gives concerned citizens the tools they need to engage in important conversations about their community.”

SeaWorld “has long had a big impact on our region’s economy and national reputation,” the site adds. But that legacy “took a hit when filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite released her damning documentary Blackfish. SeaWorld was forced to deal with a heightened degree of scrutiny from a growing base of critics.”

The dissent reached a critical mass “where it might pose an existential threat to the theme park,” Scott Lewis, VOSD’s CEO, wrote in an email. VOSD thought, he continued, “that it was best for San Diego to begin grappling with what that means. What are the ethical concerns actually? What is SeaWorld’s actual economic and public policy impact, and what are the practical implications of various demands and proposed laws?”

Lewis’ group hopes for a “frank, respectful and enlightening conversation,” he wrote, adding, “We’re delighted that SeaWorld has chosen to confront the most difficult questions in public, unrehearsed.”

SeaWorld California’s publicity office did not respond to an email seeking comment.

But panelist Rose, a leading marine mammal expert who has taken on SeaWorld executives at private conferences and congressional and California Assembly hearings, wrote in an email that “accepting that this is a major breakthrough for the debate—a highly publicized public debate directly with SeaWorld, in a SeaWorld city—I am very much looking forward to it.”

Rose predicted that the SeaWorld representative, still unnamed, would offer many of the same arguments the company has put forth recently, including at the “Truth About Blackfish” Web page. It’s possible that the staff member “will say something novel,” she wrote, “but 1) I doubt it and 2) I’m sure it will be easily rebutted.”

Even so, the event offers an opportunity to contrast the two sides, Rose said, one based on “ad hominem attacks and emphasizing jobs (when the debate is about animal welfare) and rhetorical flourishes” and the other based on “facts, empirical evidence, and ethics, in front of an audience that is directly affected by the economics involved.”

Rose hopes that people “who are hostile to my position” will show up as well. “It’s always more challenging and productive to be on a panel in front of a mixed audience,” she wrote, “rather than simply preaching to the choir.”

Stay tuned for a major development in the 50-year-old debate over killer whales in captivity.

Tickets are $20; the event is free for VOSD members. To register, click here.