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Saving SeaWorld

Facing a backlash over the treatment of its animals, SeaWorld reveals a plan to save itself
Atchison in Shamu Stadium, Orlando
Atchison in Shamu Stadium, OrlandoPhotographs by Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek

Jim Atchison, the chief executive officer of SeaWorld Entertainment, holds morning meetings in a conference room down the hall from his corner office, the one with elephant carvings and a ceramic white tiger. On a typical day, Atchison and a team of executives, including Chief Financial Officer Jim Heaney and Chief Zoological Officer Brad Andrews, review various SeaWorld KPIs, or key performance indicators. The KPIs are 40 different metrics, everything from park cleanliness to merchandise sales to food items; this morning they discuss a new pretzel available at the Williamsburg (Va.) Busch Gardens, which is owned by SeaWorld. The company owns 11 theme parks in the U.S., including three right here in Orlando—SeaWorld, Discovery Cove, and Aquatica. Sixty percent of SeaWorld revenue comes from admissions. The rest is in-park spending, and the team is looking for ways to increase the latter, given that figures for the former have been in bad decline for six months straight.

During that time, this conference room has also served as a sort of situation room, as Atchison and his team have dealt with fallout from Blackfish, the documentary that shed unwelcome light on the lives of SeaWorld’s most valuable assets, the 29 four- to six-ton killer whales, or orcas, kept and trained at parks it owns or helps manage. Blackfish portrays numerous practices related to orca captivity as unconscionable: SeaWorld’s domestic breeding programs; the separation of calves from their mothers; the sizes of the orca environments; and the safety of the trainers themselves, including the 2010 death of popular San Diego SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was dragged into the performance pool and drowned by a 13,000-pound orca called Tilikum. After Brancheau’s death, SeaWorld was fined for unsafe work conditions by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which also banned trainers from working in the water with captive orcas. Last March, California State Assemblyman Richard Bloom of Santa Monica went further, introducing legislation forbidding the use of orcas in California aquatic parks and ordering their release back into the wild.