October 29, 2013

Memo to the honchos at Sea World: You know that you are in a world of hurt when Newt Gingrich, of all people, starts to lecture you about your total lack of transparency, as he did the other night on CNN while discussing the stunning documentary 'Blackfish':

GINGRICH: Let me -- let me say, let me say, first of all, because I think the audience probably is curious about this. I want people to know that I'm disappointed that SeaWorld isn't representing itself. I'm delighted to have somebody as professional and as competent as Greg, but SeaWorld's a huge institution. This is a very important movie that raises some very troubling questions.

They did release a statement. They said, "The film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld, among them that SeaWorld is one of the world's most respected zoological institutions, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research.

Now, I thought we ought to say that in fairness, but let me also say personally, I would like to extend an invitation to SeaWorld, to have a representative come and be on the show one night. Because I think, as a multi-billion-dollar institution, they owe the country some level of transparency and some level of accountability. And I am disappointed that they're not here tonight.

Of course, there's a reason Sea World wouldn't come on CNN to talk about 'Blackfish' and instead was content to hide behind blanket and nonresponsive PR statements: The facts are not on their side.

As Tim Zimmerman, the film's co-producer, observed to the 'Crossfire' panel:

So they refused to participate in the movie. We tried endlessly to try to get them to provide their side of the story. And it's a little bit ironic to complain that the movie is distorted if, you know, you yourself refused to come forward and to present your point of view. So I don't really think that's a very fair criticism of the movie.

Sea World's hunker-down strategy was a catastrophic failure: Not only did CNN clean up in the network ratings thanks to 'Blackfish,' but the film was also the talk of Twitter through the weekend.

And it was also painfully obvious, if you watched the film, that Sea World's statement was a blizzard of irrelevancies and nonsequiturs designed to keep audiences from thinking too hard about the real issue the film raises: Namely, is keeping these large and intelligent animals captive the right thing to do?

As the blogger Cetacean Inspiration observes:

The ethics of keeping killer whales in captivity is totally irrelevant to conservation and rescue programs. Using these programs to justify killer whale captivity is a bit like defending an abusive person because they volunteer at a soup kitchen. The two are not related. Just because someone does something “good” does not mean that they are excused to do something evil.

So, Sea World folks, with your stock value plummeting and your Facebook page filled with angry cancellations, you really, really need to rethink your strategy. You do have a chance to come out ahead -- but only if you actually were to embrace the conservation ethic you claim to be teaching kids.

Naomi Rose, in fact, has a perfect plan: Begin a program of rehabilitation for the 13 wild-born orcas now in captivity with an eye toward releasing them in the wild, and involve the public every step of the way. Sell tickets. Warm hearts. Demonstrate that you really do have the animals' best interests at heart. Because no one believes that you do now.

As Rose observes:

The marine theme parks can shift with the paradigm or be left behind -- it is up to them.

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