As a person who volunteered for several nonprofit community organizations and served on various boards and commissions before entering the political arena, I’m often asked: How can citizens organize effectively to create change? How do you change public opinion about issues and get people to pay attention, or force the government or private organizations to change their practices?

I usually reply with a few questions: What resources are available to you? People? Money? Time? Do you have paid staff to support your volunteers and coordinate activities? Pro-bono attorneys to file lawsuits – or defend against them – in case the issue crosses legal boundaries? Contributors or sponsors who will help pay for administrative, legal and other ongoing expenses?

I use this short checklist because, depending on the change someone is trying to make in the world, it is likely they will need to apply all of these elements to be effective.

The most recent case in point: the announcement by SeaWorld that it will start phasing out its captive orca breeding program and theatrical shows and begin partnering with the Humane Society of the United States. It has also pledged to shift its focus to more educational and conservation-oriented activities.

For the general public, this announcement may have come as a surprise. But for the thousands of people in San Diego and elsewhere who have considered SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas inhumane – and at times dangerous – the changes are the culmination of years of protests, petitions, calls for boycotts and other activities.

Economic boycotts are not new, but they take time to show an impact. Likewise, protests near businesses can be effective, but require an ongoing source of volunteers. In addition, people must be willing to put up with negative responses to their presence and activities and also be prepared for harassment and unexpected situations.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

For example, after previously being allowed to walk through the SeaWorld parking lot to catch a bus at the public transit center, local activists were denied access to the property, which is leased from the city. They were told they would have to walk nearly a mile to another bus stop across Ingraham Street following their protest rallies.

One important change in the last several years; activists now have a variety of social media tools at their disposal and have been able to share information quickly and effectively across a global network. SeaWorld protesters used this to organize a massive letter-writing campaign to the California Coastal Commission, to block (or modify) the company’s request to expand its orca tanks. After the death of a trainer in Florida, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ruled against the company regarding allowing trainers back in the tanks, activists spread the news.

Likewise, activists have been quick to research and publicize the news whenever SeaWorld’s stocks slipped or attendance dropped – and this happened consistently in recent years. Were these adverse rulings and stock value declines the result of the organized protests and calls for boycotts? Did the Coastal Commission decision permanently damage the company’s financial future? Or was it the fact that the movie “Blackfish” – a critical look at the safety and well-being of SeaWorld’s orcas and their trainers – began appearing so often on CNN?

Perhaps it was a perfect storm of all of the above that made the company’s executives shift course.

Or perhaps a PR tipping point was reached last year, when the animal rights group PETA accused the theme park management of infiltrating the ranks of protesters with SeaWorld employees who were allegedly encouraging people to take more direct and even destructive action during rallies near the park property. It reminded many observers of the FBI’s tactics from the 1960s and ’70s, when the agency disrupted organizations with dirty tricks that included placing informants in their ranks to try to incite violence.

By the time this happened, it was clear SeaWorld was on the ropes: Within a few months, it issued the announcement that it was ending the orca breeding program and refocusing efforts on education and conservation.

So what does it take to create change? Patience. People. Publicity. Funding. Legal counsel. And, as with many ventures, a bit of luck.

No one could have foreseen the deaths and injuries of SeaWorld trainers and others would make it beyond the public relations firewall that had worked so well for the company for so long. The sad fact is that people had been injured by orcas numerous times going back decades, yet no one was connecting the dots.

This month, the dots came together and SeaWorld is finally taking steps toward treating orcas more humanely.

That’s great news, but we see what’s needed next: demands for coastal retirement sanctuaries for aging orcas that have performed for years in tiny tanks.

I’m betting the activists are on it.

Lori Saldaña is an associate professor of computing and business information technology for the San Diego Community College District, a candidate for San Diego mayor and a retired state assemblywoman. Saldaña’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: Opinion, SeaWorld

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    Michael Robertson
    Michael Robertson subscribermember

    This is hilarious. Especially the part about how whales can be dangerous. Indeed. That's why it's entertaining! Beasts that weigh tens of thousands of pounds are maneuvered by a 130 lb female. 

    That's part of the thrill. Also dangerous are cows, horses, and dogs. And if you think for a second they're stopping at killer whales then you're misguided. These are animal radicals appealing to emotion not logic. 

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    First question: Is it possible to train Orcas born in captivity to live in the open ocean? What happened to Willy after he was freed.

    Second question: how will an educational program about Orca's natural lifestyle work? Orcas travel in family pods for hundreds of miles across the open ocean, something you can't demonstrate in a closed exhibit space. Wild Orcas spend much of their time catching and eating seals and sea lions, something the public and PETA members probably don't want to watch. It will be interesting to see what Sea World come up with next.

    Good outline of how public activist groups can help shape public opinion and corporate behavior.

    lorisaldana subscriber

    @Don Wood Did you see this letter re:Keiko? 

    from Jean-Michel Cousteau, Santa Barbara

    The writer is founder, president and chairman of the Oceans Future Society.

    (excerpt- full letter is at

    "Keiko lived in the wild in a very large bay pen for the latter years of his life. He interacted with orca and other wild animals in the open ocean and gained health and stamina from being able to swim long distances. While he did not reconnect with wild orca on any permanent basis, he interacted with his own kind in his natural birth environment in ways he never could have in captivity."

    For questions re:educational programs- well-produced videos and virtual reality displays, along with all the other educational options now available, can be used for this goal. 

    Granted, nothing beats boating with these critters in the wild, or seeing them from shore- something that has happened in Tijuana/IB in recent months.  But clearly that's not available for everyone. 

    For a glimpse of Baja orcas, see thisYouTube video by Keith Berkley, a friend who travels often to  Baja. He posted thisincredible show of orca interactions with his boat, in Sea of Cortez, near Bahia de Los Angeles:

    Randy Janssen
    Randy Janssen

    Another American corporation bullied by a bunch of vegans. Groups like PETA and the HSUS are vegan cults that want to stop the use of animals in society. To do this they pretend that animals have the same or similar emotions as humans. Yet if you follow this thinking to its logical end, we will have to start asking chickens if they want to be fried or steers if they want to be steak.

    In the case of Sea World, they use pseudo science, without any actual scientific evidence to make people believe that the Orcas are sad. I have horses that are every bit as talented as these mammals. They dance, they bow, they can do cala and cola. They do this because they are trained to do the tricks. Now does that mean my horses should be set free, because I keep them in stables at night and tied out during the day. Do you think they are abused. Please read this:

    So Sea World needs to think about what it is doing. That is because you can't deal with these crazies. Next it will be dolphins then turtles. These fanatics will not be happy until they shut Sea World down.

    joey racano
    joey racano

    @Randy Janssen You are so wrong to paint us all with one brush. I hate SW and orca/dolphin captivity, always have since childhood. Now I'm a 60 yr old man, member of the NRA and an armed forces veteran. Set them free!

    Phoenixlake subscriber

    @Randy Janssen Another American Corporation being Bullied by Vegans? I believe it is Un American to make Slaves out of these animals. America stands for Freedom and Sea World represents a prison for animals,  anything but Freedom. 

    America is the Land of The Free right? How can we take away Freedom for these intelligent animals? make them work like Corky II here in San Diego for 45+ years with no end except dying in a pool trying to please a bunch of ignorant people. 163 Orcas have died in Captivity. 

     The ocean is full of animals that are Free not trapped in a bathtub.

     Veganism is not eating Factory Farmed Meat which is killing most Americans with Obesity Arteriosclerosis and Cancer...but Vegans are Crazy? Global warming and human starvation Deforestation from feeding Factory Farm Animals but Vegans are Crazy? 

     You say we are fanatics for demanding Freedom of the Sea World Slaves. I say we will be asking for the release of Dolphins too, they have sentience and are extremely intelligent yes free the dolphins now. 

     Sea World Parks and Entertainment has lost over 40 Belugas. How can you justify that? 

     You can go feast on your cows pigs and chicken meat and get extra cheese too...with every bite just remember they are taking you to the grave with them.

     Ask your Crazy Vegan Cardiologist or your Crazy Vegan Oncologist. 

    We are also getting the Vegan Turtles out of jail someday....they are also on the Crazy Freedom List. 

    Go to and Learn the facts about the deaths at Sea World Parks and Entertainment. It is all true and all published as Facts even you cannot ignore. 

    Here is a list of the dead Cetacean animals from San Diego;