How SeaWorld's Pursuit to Personify Its Whales Backfired - Voice of San Diego

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How SeaWorld's Pursuit to Personify Its Whales Backfired

SeaWorld wants us to come to Shamu shows and see how human-like, how sentient and smart the animals are. But the more we feel like they are of us, the more we wonder why they are captive and made to perform for sustenance.

A few years ago, now, SeaWorld ran a Twitter feed for Shamu. It was a playful satire pretending that the ubiquitous identity of all its killer whales — Shamu — was actually an audacious, sarcastic show-off.

It was popular. Some of Shamu’s posts traveled far, amplified by dozens of retweets. Shamu would make fun of the sexual attractiveness of Norwegian curlers. He would laugh about other animals and react to visitors who came to SeaWorld and tweeted their joy.

Through Shamu, SeaWorld personified the killer whale. And he was funny.

Scott Lewis on Politics LogoBut then, on Feb. 25, 2010, Shamu abruptly stopped tweeting. It was a day after a whale, Tilikum, killed a SeaWorld trainer. He mutilated her, really.

Shamu issued a farewell tweet. He had lost his boyish sarcasm. He was no longer a killer whale, actually. He became SeaWorld: “At this difficult time, Shamu will not be active,” the feed said. And that was it.

Suddenly, personifying the whale had gotten extremely awkward for the company. If Shamu was a person, he had just committed a brutal murder.

The tragedy would go on to become the central drama of the documentary “Blackfish,” which poured a tank of gasoline on what had been a limited fire of discontent about SeaWorld.

It wasn’t the first time SeaWorld had personified its whales, though, and it wouldn’t be the last.

It did it again Sunday. The U-T ran a point-counterpoint about the controversy.

The company chose a veteran trainer to explain just how much SeaWorld appreciates its whales. To counter, the U-T presented a piece from Richard Bloom, the assemblyman from Santa Monica who wants to ban orca shows at SeaWorld.

In his defense of SeaWorld, Mike Scarpuzzi, the trainer, wrote a rather startling claim (emphasis mine):

“Connecting people to animals is a powerful, proven way to promote wildlife conservation. But with that comes the obligation to provide these animals, who are ambassadors for their species, the best care possible,” he wrote.

Scarpuzzi would have been better off acknowledging that it was probably not an ideal life but their sacrifice was worth the benefits to their species. Ambassadors for their species? That’s some Orwellian lingo. It’s as though he’s saying, no, these are not prisoners. They’re living a good life while they serve as ambassadors for their species.

That’s not the case here. An ambassador is appointed by her people to serve abroad. She can roam freely and she even has a certain amount of diplomatic immunity.

SeaWorld seems to want it both ways. They want us to come to Shamu shows and see how human-like, how sentient and smart the animals are. The whales wave and smile.

This bond cuts both ways. The more we feel like they are of us, the more we wonder why they are captive and made to perform for sustenance.

Some have poked at our recent coverage of SeaWorld and the quest to understand its role in San Diego that Lisa Halverstadt has been pursuing. When we point out how devastating to SeaWorld the bill would be or when we surface how deeply interested City Hall is in SeaWorld profits, some take it as though we’re defending the company.

Halverstadt’s coverage, however, has only made me more disturbed and worried. The “Blackfish” panic is gaining steam. Is San Diego ready for what may come?

No.

Yet, look at the headlines. When the assemblyman, Bloom, announced he was trying to ban orca shows at SeaWorld, the U-T and 10News had SurveyUSA poll San Diegans on the issue. They found that 49 percent thought the shows should remain legal.

That’s a plurality.

But it’s not a majority. The rest of those polled were either unsure whether the killer whale shows should be legal or thought they should simply be prohibited.

Can you imagine if 51 percent of your community was either convinced your business activity should be prohibited or they were unsure?

Look at the U-T itself, which has run two major commentaries mocking and decrying the so-called Blackfish bill, one of them unsigned by the editorial board, and one by Steven Greenhut, the conservative thinker on state policy issues.

Neither of these pieces helped ease my concern. Neither was willing to defend and articulate the morality of what SeaWorld was doing. Here’s the U-T’s position: “There may be legitimate questions about whether orcas should be kept in captivity. But Bloom’s legislation would not free a single whale.”

So a bill that actually freed the whales would be acceptable?

And here’s Greenhut:

“Whatever one thinks about the wisdom or seriousness of Bloom’s bill, there’s a reasonable discussion to be had about whether these magnificent creatures — accustomed to swimming 100 miles a day in the wild — are being humanely treated in their present tank-sized circumstance,” he wrote.

Remember this is in a column defending SeaWorld against this legislative attack.

Greenhut’s case is similar to the U-T’s unsigned take: The bill wouldn’t actually free orcas, some SeaWorld critics aren’t bright and legislators should work on more important laws.

That’s it. That’s his case. “If I were a killer whale, I probably wouldn’t want to be kept in captivity,” Greenhut writes.

Me neither.

So here’s where we are: The Legislature will consider a bill that would ban orca shows. Even a majority of San Diegans is not against it. And the two most prominent defenses of SeaWorld in the local media acknowledge the moral concern but don’t like the bill because it actually does not go far enough.

If I’m the PR manager for SeaWorld, I’m worried. This is a genuine existential threat.

Which gets us back to San Diego and our quest. The idea that SeaWorld could easily absorb the elimination of killer whale shows — that the company could easily pivot to a more acceptable business model — is naïve.

It’s time to understand SeaWorld’s place in San Diego because its efforts to personify whales, to make us empathize with them, have profoundly backfired.

Yet SeaWorld is tied to our economy and our city government.

If the company doesn’t have a plan for handling this beyond further personifying the whales as ambassadors, we’re going to need to get one ourselves.

This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous story – SeaWorld Execs: ‘Blackfish’ Isn’t Hurting Business – and the next in our series  Three Big Moral Questions ‘Blackfish’ Raises.

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