SeaWorld Sea Change an Example of the Slow, Steady Process of Citizen Activism - Voice of San Diego

Opinion

SeaWorld Sea Change an Example of the Slow, Steady Process of Citizen Activism

For the general public, the announcement that SeaWorld was ending its orca breeding program may have come as a surprise. But for the thousands of people in San Diego and elsewhere who have considered the company’s treatment of orcas inhumane, the changes are the culmination of years of protests, petitions, calls for boycotts and other activities.

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.

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.

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