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SeaWorld to Send Zoologist to Branson-Led Whale Summit

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., taking on critics of its killer-whale shows, will send a senior member of its zoological staff to a conference on animal-related tourism organized by billionaire Richard Branson.

The Virgin Group Ltd. founder drew complaints this year from animal rights activists because his travel agency was selling tour packages with trips to SeaWorld and other parks where whales and dolphins perform. In February, Branson said his company wouldn’t work with any organization that takes animals from the sea and promised to lead a six-month “engagement process” on the issue.

SeaWorld, based in Orlando, was invited to the conference in Miami, scheduled for June 3 and 4, and will send the zoological representative, according spokesman Fred Jacobs.

Christine Choi, a spokeswoman for London-based Virgin Group, said in an e-mail that media won’t be allowed to attend the event. She said “progress will be shared afterwards.”

SeaWorld President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison has told Branson that the only wild whales and dolphins coming to the company’s parks in the past three decades are beached, orphaned or injured animals the U.S. government deemed unreleasable, according to Jacobs. More than 80 percent of the marine mammals living at SeaWorld were born there or in zoological institutions, he said.

“As we have informed Virgin, a long-standing travel trade partner of SeaWorld, we have always been willing to lend our expertise to any objective, science-based process that seeks to assure the health and welfare of animals living in zoological environments,” Jacobs said in an e-mail.

SeaWorld shares fell 1.6 percent to $30.76 at the close in New York today. The stock is up 6.9 percent in the year.

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