The startling news that SeaWorld will stop breeding its captive orca whales, and will phase out theatrical orca shows in favor of exhibits highlighting whales' natural behaviors, is an indicator of a broader trend in society.
SeaWorld realized that making orcas do tricks in small concrete pools is no longer a sustainable business model. After negotiations with the Humane Society of the United States, the company is pledging changes including redoubling its efforts to rescue and rehabilitate distressed marine animals and advocating against commercial whaling, seal hunting and killing sharks for their fins. SeaWorld knows its audiences want it to be on the side of the animals.
The SeaWorld changes come a year after Ringling Bros. agreed to phase out its elephant acts in traveling circuses, again due to customer concern about animal welfare. Walmart recently joined other major food retailers, including Costco, McDonald's and Target, in pledging to buy eggs only from suppliers that allow hens to move around instead of inhumanely packing them into small cages on large-scale factory farms.
These are reforms that animal welfare advocates have worked on for years, and the breakthroughs are encouraging and welcome. For me, the shift in market response supports the core thesis of my new book, The Humane Economy, that businesses that do right by animals have the potential to surge, while businesses clinging to old, inhumane practices court controversy and face an endless stream of brand risks — from protests to lawsuits, to social media campaigns and fading enthusiasm from customers.
We are seeing that the humane economy is forming faster than many of us could have imagined and it's hitting with full force. The world is becoming alert to the needs of all animals, and the smartest CEOs aren't resisting the change. They are harnessing the momentum and turning it to their advantage.
Government officials, however, are often slow to pick up on the cues from the public, and that's especially the case in Florida.
State wildlife officials started pushing for a trophy hunt on the imperiled Florida black bear almost immediately after wildlife management authorities removed them from the critical list. But Florida's bears still face great risk because their populations are fragmented and hemmed in by development; they are also hit by cars and shot by poachers. With all of these threats confronting them, it's reckless for Florida's government to put more bears in the cross hairs of trophy hunters. Polling shows that Floridians don't support their government on this issue, but some key state leaders are catering to the trophy hunting crowd by offering up a bear hunting season.
Florida government is at odds with residents and businesses on another issue — greyhound racing. Nearly 40 states ban greyhound racing, but incredibly, Florida actually mandates it. The state forces racetracks to hold greyhound races if they want to conduct casino-style gambling. Gamblers cluster inside buildings, playing cards and slots, while greyhounds run around tracks with mostly empty grandstands.
When the free market operates properly, rather than being distorted by these sorts of government mandates, most dog racing will disappear because few customers are interested. Wagering on dog racing has dropped 20 years in a row. Taxpayers pay a small price, but the major costs are to the greyhounds. On average, a greyhound dies on a Florida track every three days. It's time Florida lawmakers stop propping up this bygone business and pass laws to end animal suffering for a "sport" that no one watches.
On the one hand, I'm heartened to see companies listening to customers and adopting more humane practices; on the other, it's frustrating to watch government clinging to old ways, inordinately influenced by special interests and crony capitalists. As voters and taxpayers, we need to insist that our leaders recognize the rising tide of concern for animals and become full-fledged members of the humane economy.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, is author of the just-released book "The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals." He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.