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Column: Money talks as orcas' plight revealed

SeaWorld's stock took a dive last week in the backlash against its treatment of captive killer whales.

The company reported that attendance at its marine theme parks fell 4.3 percent during the first half of the year, and predicted revenue will continue to drop substantially in the coming months.

In the entertainment business, this is known as a wake-up call. It's time for SeaWorld to quit using orcas like trained poodles and think up a new act.

The company's headaches began last summer with the release of a powerful documentary called Blackfish, which chronicles the exploitation of killer whales beginning with the first specimens that were herded up and taken from their family pods in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Some of the footage is sickening to watch, and it doesn't get much easier as the film goes on. By the time it's over, you're disgusted, angry — and in no mood to take your family to see orcas doing tricks for a bucket of dead fish.

Unfortunately for SeaWorld's shareholders, Blackfish came out in July 2013, only three months after the company went public. The documentary was widely aired on CNN, and provoked such a strong public reaction that Willie Nelson, Heart and other popular music groups cancelled scheduled performances at SeaWorld's Orlando park, home to the troubled orca featured in Blackfish.

Weighing six tons, Tilikum is believed to be the largest male killer whale in captivity. He's also a basket case, depressed and unpredictable after a long, tedious life of swimming circles in concrete pools.

No killer whale in the wild has ever attacked a human, but "Tili" has been involved in the deaths of three people — most recently that of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, thrashed and drowned in February 2010.

That incident, recorded on tourists' videos, is the heartbreaking focus of the Blackfish documentary. Afterward, SeaWorld officials actually blamed Brancheau, speculating that her ponytail had incited the whale.

That was a clear signal that the company would stoop to any tactic in order to protect its lucrative performing-mammal franchise.

It didn't work. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration ruled that SeaWorld put its trainers in dangerous situations and ordered the company to install barriers separating the orcas from employees.

A federal judge agreed with OSHA, but SeaWorld vigorously appealed, saying that "contact with killer whales is essential to the product."

In other words, customers won't line up merely to observe one of the planet's most spectacular, intelligent animals. You gotta make them critters do some stunts!

Like swim 'round and 'round with a full-grown human balancing on their nose — yeehaw, that's educational. And also the highlight of any whale's day.

But not so fast. In April, a U.S. appeals court ruled 2-1 that SeaWorld had exposed its trainers to "recognized hazards" while they interacted with orcas. The decision allows OSHA to set stricter rules for contact.

SeaWorld, which owns 11 theme parks in the United States, said it has already enacted new safety measures, including removing trainers from the water during the killer whale performances.

Still, California is debating a proposed ban on keeping any orcas in captivity. The publicity has hurt business at SeaWorld's San Diego park, and was a factor in the company's stock dropping last week.

Back in Orlando, moody Tilikum is still on display. Despite his history of attacks, the SeaWorld empire highly values his stud service.

Because it's now illegal to take killer whales from the sea, captive breeding is the only source of fresh talent for the company's "product." Tilikum's sperm is priceless, having produced more than 20 baby orcas.

For older whales that were snatched from the wild decades ago — such as Tilikum, and Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium — a return to freedom could be perilous. They don't know how to hunt for fish, and nobody's going to toss them a mackerel for doing somersaults in Puget Sound.

If they can't safely be released, there's got to be a better future. Rodeo horses get more space to roam than captive orcas.

SeaWorld says they look forward to their daily tricks, which is another way of saying they're bored stiff most of the time. If only the company cared about the whales as much as the staff that works with them do.

For the past year, SeaWorld has blasted Blackfish as "inaccurate and misleading," yet the credibility of the experts and former trainers interviewed in the documentary holds up.

See for yourself. You can order the film from Netflix, iTunes or other sites. Everybody should watch it — parents, kids and especially investors considering SeaWorld stock.

© 2014 Miami Herald

Column: Money talks as orcas' plight revealed 08/19/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2014 1:24pm]
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