Why And How SeaWorld Lost The Roundtable Debate On Orca Captivity Badly

After months of debate over orca captivity stirred up by the documentary Blackfish, the company was finally persuaded to sit down at a table and engage the issue with their critics. It did not go well for them

[Cross-posted at Orcinus.]

Finally, SeaWorld decided to talk.

It did not go well for them.

After months of debate over orca captivity stirred up by the documentary Blackfish, and months of the world's largest keeper of captive killer whales refusing to participate, the company was finally persuaded to sit down at a table and engage the issue with their critics, in the form of a remarkable roundtable discussion sponsored by Voice of San Diego and titled, "What SeaWorld and 'Blackfish' Mean for San Diego."

The roundtable, which was held Thursday in San Diego (you can watch the entire discussion here), featured SeaWorld veterinarian Todd Robeck, a senior animal trainer at SeaWorld named Kristi Burtis, former UC San Diego professor Susan Gray Davis, who has analyzed the park's business model, and Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute, a veteran orca biologist. It was hosted by Scott Lewis and Lisa Halverstadt of Voice of San Diego.

Getting them to even engage in an open debate was an achievement. When Blackfish aired on CNN last year, SeaWorld refused to even come on air to discuss the film and its contents. Rather than expose itself to open questions, it chose to counter the film with an in-house spin campaign that revolved around a dishonest website it titled, "The Truth About Blackfish."

But more recent developments -- including pending legislation now in the backrooms at the California Legislature that would outlaw orca performances in the state and require SeaWorld to begin returning its orcas to the wild -- seem to have had their effect, and so when Voice of San Diego suggested this forum, SeaWorld finally deigned to open up and finally deal with the debate.

The company probably regrets this now. If you break down the hour-and-a-half discussion, it becomes fairly evident why SeaWorld has so assiduously avoided an actual debate over the facts with their critics, because whenever their representatives tried to make some kind of factual point, they either were blown out of the water by their critics' tart factual counters, or they wound up looking foolish as they fumbled about with charts and graphs.


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They fumbled about when confronted with a question about the negative health effects of captivity for orcas. They had to admit that they had published misleading material. Their claims to offering "education" to children and substantive research in the scientific community were exposed as shams. 

In the end, the best they could muster was a strangely emotional appeal to their audience's children and the ostensible benefits that SeaWorld offers them, marking an odd nadir in the debate. It seemed particularly ironic, given that SeaWorld is prone to accusing their critics -- who were resolutely fact-oriented throughout the discussion -- of relying on emotional appeals.

Moreover, on the really central questions in the debate, SeaWorld came off as incompetent and dishonest. The apotheosis of this came when Robeck -- who is chief of SeaWorld's breeding program -- evaded the seemingly softball question: "Is it really your contention that there are no health effects to being in captivity?" [The video atop the post features this moment.] Robeck first attempted to deflect disingenuously, and then spent the next several minutes pulling out charts and graphs that he claimed proved that, with their improvements in the care for the animals, their orcas lived as long as orcas in the wild now -- all of which Rose deftly punctured in a brief and devastating retort.

There were many other telling moments in the debate. Another key question -- SeaWorld's claim that its "animal ambassadors" provide a unique educational moment for children -- came fairly early in the discussion, and what was revealing was how shallow and facile SeaWorld's claims were in the face of hardnosed academic findings that their "education" was really just a facade for marketing the park and its experience, while the truth about animals such as orcas and dolphins is distorted and sometimes outright false.

Similarly, SeaWorld's oft-touted claims that it conducts research that benefits orcas in the wild too (see Sam Lipman's superb debunking for more on this) was trotted out, and promptly became a fiasco when Rose pointed out that, for a company that holds the largest collection of captive orcas in the world (not to mention one that is awash in money), a mere 50 research papers in 50 years' time is an output that can only be described in one word: "pathetic."

The sharpest illustration of the dubiousness of SeaWorld's claims came during the discussion of orca dorsal fins. SeaWorld has claimed [see No. 42] that "Nearly one-quarter of adult male southern resident killer whales in the wild have collapsing, collapsed or bent dorsal fins." Yet anyone who has studied the southern resident killer whales -- here's a complete catalog, so you can see this for yourself -- knows that not a single one of these whales has a collapsed fin.

The study that SeaWorld cites, in fact, is a study by Dr. Ingrid Visser of a single small population found in the waters of New Zealand, and who are not even remotely related to southern residents. And even then, as Melissa Cronin at The Dodo explained, it grossly misinterpreted that dataset: "Only one orca had a collapsed fin in the study, but SeaWorld confused fin abnormalities with collapsed fins in an attempt to make the public think that dorsal fin collapse is normal among orca whales. The park also neglects to use updated research that has been published in the years since by Visser and others."

Appropriately, Visser was outraged at the misuse of her research: “I hope, that as a scientist yourself and as the Director of Research at SeaWorld,” Visser wrote in an e-mail to SeaWorld's research Dr. Judy St. Leger, “you can see how wrong this misrepresentation is – not only to inform the public by distorting the facts but also misrepresenting the data by not presenting it in context.”

And sure enough, in Thursday's roundtable, Todd Robeck -- at the end of a robust discussion of orca dorsals in which the veterinarian also mistakenly claimed the fins are made of cartilage, then retracted that when called on it -- acknowledged directly that this information was "misleading," and appeared to suggest that SeaWorld regretted making the claim.

Yet even though Robeck acknowledged directly that the claim by SeaWorld was false and misleading (and also indicated an astonishing ignorance of the wild orca's natural history), the claim remains up on the SeaWorld site. Anyone visiting "The Truth About Blackfish" even today (being June 7) will still read this false claim in the "Blackfish Analysis" (not to mention the risible assertion that there's no evidence wild orcas live with their mothers their entire lives -- see No. 24).

Finally, the debate became truly telling when the debate turned to the question of "water work" displays in which trainers get into the water with orcas -- something that SeaWorld is currently forbidden from doing, per the order from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration that followed the death of Dawn Brancheau, the focus of Blackfish.

This included a brief moment of hilarity when Burtis, at the end of an enthusiastic rant about how totally awesome it is to work for SeaWorld, because everyone always asks how they can get her job, cluelessly opines: "I don't know too many jobs where people are asking, 'Hey, how do I get a job writing for Voice of San Diego?'"

To which host Scott Lewis quickly retorts: "All the time." The audience bursts out in laughter.

Then, Burtis' enthusiasm is turned on its head, offered as evidence that, indeed, SeaWorld really is not about education by Dr. Davis, who offers some keen insight into just how important these shows are to SeaWorld's entire business model.

As she explains, the shows with trainers are the essence of SeaWorld's brand, not any "education" or "research" or "animal rescue" fig leafs (worth noting: SeaWorld has never yet participated directly in the rescue of a wild killer whale, except when it was taking one captive). What SeaWorld is selling is not an understanding of the animals, but a spectacle -- the jaw-dropping sight of seeing a relatively tiny human mastering these gigantic creatures and seemingly controlling them.  

After all these telling blows accumulated, the SeaWorld spokespeople were only left, in the end, with an emotional appeal. And even that failed.

It came at the closing, as everyone gave their final thoughts. As they had throughout, Rose and Davis were calm and thoughtful and referenced the science and business acumen behind their positions. But when Burtis and Robeck took their turns, it was get-out-your-hankies time.

First, Burtis referenced the plight of one of her admirers whose fragile health and well-being were bolstered by her visits to SeaWorld and the time she spent with killer whales, suggesting that the animals had special healing qualities (something we thought only the hippies and psychics believed). And then Robeck became severely choked up as he tried to explain how special SeaWorld is to children -- pulling out a picture of his 9-year-old son on his iPhone at one point -- and then asserting, in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary (not to mention a paucity of substantiating evidence), that the knowledge gained from keeping orcas captive would be critical to helping wild orcas survive.

It was all strangely maudlin. But in the end, it was probably fitting. Because that was the best SeaWorld had, and it remains probably the only card they have left to play.

At some point, the heart-tugging narratives are going to have to contend with the cold reality coming their way. As Dr. Rose noted, "The market will speak." The truth is getting out, and no amount of tears or smears will change that. SeaWorld can either come to terms with the reality coming their way, or they can crawl back into their hidey hole and watch as their brand name goes the way of the Edsel.

About David Neiwert

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