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August 07, 2013

Belugas, Orcas, and Doublespeak

You probably heard the news that SeaWorld recently hired a big-league PR firm to try and counter the bad publicity resulting from the movie expose “Blackfish.”

Well, let me say that SeaWorld’s image troubles cannot be addressed in their entirety by throwing money at public relations. Even with the best spinmasters in the world, it’s very hard to reverse the growing public perception that whales should not be contained in sterile swimming pools.

More and more, the public is becoming aware that SeaWorld, which is an innovator in so many ways, has fallen behind the times – decades behind, and more with each passing year. As a consequence, majestic animals suffer in environments that cannot meet their behavioral and social needs. In short, SeaWorld clings to a 19th century-approach to putting animals on exhibition, and it’s high time to change the business model. There’s some strong nature education that SeaWorld conducts, but that doesn’t offset the archaic treatment of the whales.

Belugas
Tyson Paul/iStockphotography

For one thing, SeaWorld executives are quick to note that the orcas they put on display are not taken from the wild. That statement is, in itself, recognition that the only thing worse than trying to keep such large, intelligent and social animals on display in miserably small, artificial containers of water, is capturing them in the wild. But if SeaWorld recognizes that fact, then what can we say about the recent effort by the Georgia Aquarium and other partners, including SeaWorld, to import wild-caught beluga whales, another majestic marine mammal, to put them on display in parks?

Here’s what we can say: Thank heavens for yesterday’s decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. After tens of thousands of Americans raised their voices, the agency refused to bend the nation’s two-decade old policy of “no wild capture” of whales. As a result, the import permit for 18 wild-caught belugas, some of them destined for SeaWorld, was denied.

And we can also say this: The movie “Blackfish,” plus David Kirby’s important book “Death at SeaWorld,” build on years of work by The Humane Society of the United States and other respected organizations to bring an end to the captive display of whales by eliminating breeding and allowing whales the opportunity to live in large sea pens. The public would learn more about whales by seeing them in more natural settings. Never in our nation’s history has there been a better time for the promotion of humane, environmentally sustainable education about marine mammals. As SeaWorld should know by now, that is earned with real leadership not with a PR contract.

And for those of you familiar with the great Canadian children’s songwriter Raffi, let’s give him the last word on what to say. He knows where beluga whales belong, and it’s not in a cement pool:

   Baby beluga in the deep blue sea,
  Swim so wild and you swim so free.

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