Southwest, SeaWorld End Partnership After Animal Petition

Southwest Airlines Co., which has had SeaWorld animals painted on its planes, is ending its 26-year marketing relationship with SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. after coming under pressure from animal rights activists.

More than 27,000 people signed a petition that was delivered in January to Dallas-based Southwest, urging the airline to end the marketing arrangement.

A statement distributed by both companies said the severing of ties was a mutual decision “based on shifting priorities.” They will not renew their contract when it expires at the end of the year.

“Southwest is spreading its wings with new international service, and increased focus on local market efforts,” the statement posted on Southwest’s website said. “With an increasing international visitor base, SeaWorld is looking to focus on new and growing markets in Latin America and Asia, among others.”

The statement does not mention the controversy surrounding the killer whales kept at SeaWorld, the Orlando, Florida-based theme park operator. In January, a company posting on Southwest’s blog said it had heard the concerns of animal rights activists and was talking with SeaWorld about them.

“We are in a listening and education mode with the goal of upholding our commitments as a good corporate citizen,” Southwest’s January blog posting said.

“Blackfish” Backlash

SeaWorld’s treatment of the whales was highlighted in the CNN documentary “Blackfish,” which argued the creatures shouldn’t be held in captivity, and that SeaWorld ignored warning signs of the danger to handlers.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals petitioned SeaWorld for years to stop exhibiting animals.

Robin Merritt, a former PETA worker, now a university adviser in Edwardsville, Illinois, said in a telephone interview that she began the petition in November because Southwest’s marketing resonated with so many people.

“I felt like Southwest had a been a cheerleader for SeaWorld and if a company like that were to end their ties with SeaWorld it would be a big wake-up call,” she said. “Hopefully people will look more into animal cruelty and stop going to SeaWorld.”

She also said of Southwest: “I’d like to think they made the compassionate choice.”

Southwest and SeaWorld initiated their marketing partnership in 1988, and Southwest last year unveiled its latest co-branded aircraft, a 737-700 with images of SeaWorld penguins. Southwest’s statement today said the three specialty airplanes co-branded with SeaWorld will return to the airline’s traditional markings, or “livery.”

SeaWorld’s shares fell 1.5 percent to $27.85 and Southwest fell 1.9 percent to $28.28, in line with the broader market. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 2 percent.

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