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SeaWorld CEO Responds to Controversy Over Whale Handling

A file photos shows 'Believe, The Spectacular Shamu Show,' resuming on February 27, 2010, at SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.'s Shamu Stadium in Orlando, three days after a killer whale pulled a veteran trainer to her death. Photographer: Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/MCT via Getty Images

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison responded to the controversy over his company’s treatment of killer whales, sparked by the documentary “Blackfish” that ran in theaters and on CNN.

SeaWorld, the Orlando, Florida-based theme-park operator, published full-page ads in eight newspapers yesterday, firing back at “inaccurate reports” about the company and its animal performers, as well as defending its treatment of the whales, the marquee performers at its namesake properties.

“Blackfish” was purchased in January by CNN Films and Magnolia Pictures. CNN, part of Time Warner Inc., held a TV premiere of the film in October and has run related segments before and after the initial air date.

“It firmly crosses the line of what you would expect from a news organization,” Atchison said yesterday in a telephone interview. “They are leveraging the imprimatur of a news agency for what really, clearly is another business venture of theirs, which is buying and marketing films.”

The network stood by its handling of the picture.

“CNN made continued offers to SeaWorld to appear in conjunction with our coverage, and always disclosed our connection to the film in our reporting,” the network said in a statement.

SeaWorld’s ad is an open letter from the company’s zoological team, and a response to an online boycott campaign that led artists, including Willie Nelson and Cheap Trick, to cancel appearances next year at the park in Orlando.

Employee Letter

“The men and women of SeaWorld are true animal advocates,” they said in the letter. “We are the 1,500 scientists, researchers, veterinarians, trainers, marine biologists, aquarists, aviculturists, educators and conservationists who have dedicated our lives to the animals in our care as well as those in the wild that are injured, ill or orphaned.”

“Blackfish,” directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, argues killer whales shouldn’t be held in captivity and that SeaWorld ignored warning signs of the danger to handlers. The film is “a story about the consequences of captivity for these animals that have thrilled millions in performances, but lead a much darker existence when the show is over,” according to an October CNN release.

Cowperthwaite said the airing on CNN was crucial to reaching a wider audience.

“The people who attend documentaries in theaters are a little more self-selected,” she said in a Dec. 17 interview. “With the broadcast, you’re going to have people stumbling upon it and people who are going to just back into an issue that they’ve never even thought about.”

11 Parks

SeaWorld, operator of 11 parks, rose 0.2 percent to $29.34 yesterday in New York. The stock has gained 8.7 percent since the company went public in April. Blackstone Group LP owns about 43 percent of the company, according to a Dec. 11 regulatory filing.

“Through our acquisitions and commissions of exceptional factual content, we aim to encourage dialogue on the issues raised in the films with our filmmakers, experts, and other stakeholders via our robust television, digital and social platforms,” CNN President Jeff Zucker said in October.

“Blackfish” has been mentioned in press accounts as a possible contender for an Academy Award in the documentary film category. Nominations will be released Jan. 16.

“I’ll defer to the Academy folks as to what they pick,” Atchison said. “The film is a misleading bit of animal rights propaganda and I would not consider it a documentary worth watching.”

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