Saving SeaWorld

Facing a backlash over the treatment of its animals, SeaWorld reveals a plan to save itself
Atchison in Shamu Stadium, Orlando Photographs 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.

SeaWorld acknowledges that ticket sales have declined because of changing perceptions of killer whale shows, as well as competitive pressure. Rivals Disney and Universal have recently added crowd-pleasing Pixar and Harry Potter attractions, respectively, that SeaWorld has yet to counter. On Nov. 12 the company reported a 28 percent drop in profit and a 5.2 percent drop in attendance, to 8.3 million, in the three months ended Sept. 30. It also announced a $50 million cost-cutting measure. For SeaWorld, whose logo features an orca’s dorsal fin, Blackfish has gone from being a public relations problem to a potentially catastrophic threat to a $1.4 billion-a-year business.

“There is no recipe to follow. There’s very little intuitive about it,” says Atchison. “Do I wish we would have taken a more aggressive action earlier? On an emotional level I do, because I was offended by it personally. … One of the things we had to measure early on was, how do we engage in it? We don’t want to aid the marketing of the film by engaging too openly, too aggressively, too early. We didn’t want to turn it into the film SeaWorld doesn’t want you to see. And the film didn’t really gain any kind of notable momentum until CNN started airing it. Repeatedly.”

The company initially pushed back by hiring public relations firm 42West and sending a letter to film critics denouncing Blackfish as animal-rights propaganda, but a longer-term rebranding effort began in earnest this past summer with the launch of national “SeaWorld Cares” TV spots, designed to promote SeaWorld as a zoological and research organization, rather than simply a theme park company. The idea, as Senior Marketing Officer Peter Frey puts it, is to “turn the parks inside out, so that guests can see all the good work we’re doing with animals in terms of rescue, rehabilitation, treatment, to promote a greater appreciation of the whole mission.”

Frey breaks down potential SeaWorld customers into three categories. There are the loyalists and fans, who will keep coming no matter what, and there are a minority of animal-rights activists who will never come again, if they ever did. In the vast middle, there are those who are “confused by what they are seeing on social media. They are not necessarily critical of SeaWorld, but they have questions, like, ‘Are you taking good care of your animals?’ We need to message that consumer that we are taking care of the animal side of the business.”

Atchison adds that critics of SeaWorld fail to account for how toxic and dangerous the real world can be for orcas. “We cooperate with studies right off the coast of Florida, and we find that calf survival rates are down. They’re consuming fish that have mercury, other pollutants, and those fish consumed other fish that had that. I mean, it’s bad.” The question for SeaWorld is whether too many potential visitors have already made up their minds about the treatment of captive orcas. SeaWorld can change its marketing but may not be able to figure out what it becomes if it can’t rely on its killer whales.
On a recent Friday, Tilikum, the whale that killed Brancheau, has just completed a Shamu show and slides onto a concrete deck after the soaked and satisfied crowd files out. He rocks up and down slightly as Kelly Clark, SeaWorld’s curator of animal training, rubs Tilikum’s Prius-sized head. “Hi, Tili!” Clark points out a minor scrape beneath one of Tilikum’s eyes that is several years old and rejects the notion that SeaWorld’s treatment of Tilikum is in any way cruel. “If you look at our whales—our whales are beautiful and clean and have healthy weights. Look at Tili, he’s just beautiful! If there was ever anything more than a superficial injury on this animal, I couldn’t do my job.”

The orca is an undeniably striking animal: stately, porcelain-skinned, its yin-and-yang coloring endowing it with awe-inspiring symbolism. Its intelligence is what makes it the perfect attraction, as it can twirl, flip, leap, dive, and splash on command, eager to earn a handful of smelt or herring. Since 1964, hundreds of millions of people have reveled in the Shamu show, the signature climax of which used to be the rocket hop, when a young, fit trainer would go soaring off the rostrum of a killer whale leaping from the pool. It made for the perfect SeaWorld moment: a large, beautiful aquatic mammal and a small, beautiful human, in seemingly perfect harmony.

There has always been a segment of Americans who were repelled by that image. Represented by animal-rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), these critics have long bemoaned the treatment of captive animals, including cetaceans, the order that includes Orcinus orca. These activists can be vocal and persistent, but they were relatively obscure. In large part because of Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, yet also because of dolphin advocate Ric O’Barry (the trainer for TV’s Flipper who later became a SeaWorld critic) and websites such as Cetacean News Network, many more have become aware of the case against orca captivity. Tilikum’s own saga has come to be seen as emblematic of how mentally debilitating life in captivity is for these regal animals. He was prominently featured in the film for having killed three people, Brancheau being the third. (The second death was a park guest in Orlando who slipped into the pool area after hours. He was found the next morning, mutilated, dead, and draped over Tilikum’s back.)

An orca in captivity does appear to live a diminished life compared with whales in the wild, who range over thousands of miles, live in tightknit pods, and form lasting relationships with other whales. The size and complexity of their 15-pound brains and their phenomenally sophisticated hearing suggest they communicate via a rich language of clicks, calls, and whistles. Critics insist that SeaWorld’s habitats, basically very large swimming pools, fail to provide anything like the amount of stimulation or environmental diversity these intelligent creatures require, resulting in depressed animals and diminished immune systems. Despite heavy doses of antibiotics and frequent blood and urine tests, life expectancy among captive orcas appears to be far shorter than among wild orcas, which can live into their 80s. Orcas in captivity have been known to kill other orcas, something scientists have never observed in the wild.

“Performing for food is, for an animal as sentient and intelligent as an orca, the worst option of all captive environments,” says Blackfish producer-director Cowperthwaite. “They are forced to do unnatural behaviors on a daily basis, and food is often withheld when they don’t perform. When you have an entertainment-driven business model, you cannot afford to have a whale not performing up to par. You’ll lose business.”

This is what SeaWorld CEO Atchison is up against. At 48, he has a soothing, patient manner and works to keep a sympathetic smile on his face even as he recalls some of his most trying experiences as CEO. As he bites into a pulled pork sandwich at Laguna Grille, one of the all-you-can-eat buffets at Discovery Cove—a SeaWorld satellite park that specializes in close-up encounters with sea life—he remembers the moment he heard Brancheau had died. “I happened to be at that park that day. I knew Dawn from having run that park for years. She was a remarkably engaging, warm, bubbly cheerleader. Things do not get worse than that day. But it is extraordinary work that people like Dawn do, and it has its own risks.”

Atchison’s a lifelong employee in a company filled with them, getting his first job parking cars at Tampa’s Busch Gardens when he was 16. The son of a Jersey City policeman who retired to Florida, Atchison is the only one of 10 siblings to have gone to college, earning a soccer scholarship at the University of South Florida, continuing to work for the company throughout his education, becoming a business analyst at SeaWorld during his junior year, and then working across the SeaWorld empire in various parks.

The majority of the 60 orca trainers at SeaWorld, he says, came to the Shamu show as children and were mesmerized, some deciding right then to become SeaWorld animal trainers. The work is athletic, challenging, and, according to trainers, very rewarding. They rave about the whales, but not all have been as kind to SeaWorld. John Hargrove, a trainer for 14 years and the author of the forthcoming book Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, says that in 2009 a SeaWorld supervisor was working with orca trainers at Loro Parque, Canary Islands—an independently owned and operated facility—when a whale killed one of them. Trainers were pulled from the water at every SeaWorld park as a precaution, but they were soon ordered back in the pools. “For Atchison to say our No. 1 priority is the care and safety of our trainers and our whales, if that was true, then you would never have us swim with killer whales in shows two days after a trainer was killed and dismembered.”

Atchison estimates that 500 trainers have been employed at SeaWorld parks working with killer whales, making for a fatality rate of 1 in 500 over decades. With trainers no longer performing with killer whales, the risk has been largely eliminated, though Atchison, clearly, would like to get his people back in the water with the whales.

“We would give anything to unwind the one fatality associated with a trainer in our program, I really would. You also have to look at this: We’ve cared for these animals for 50 years. We’ve had millions of occasions to interact with them. We had one that ended horribly. It does not mean we have not had other issues once in a while. I have to say it’s pretty rare. It’s extremely rare.”

Atchison has also fought against proposed legislation that would prohibit orca shows and even force their return into the wild. Introduced by California Assemblyman Bloom in March, the bill has been moved into “interim study,” although he vows to bring it back soon. “SeaWorld went to the mat on this issue,” Bloom says. “They brought out their big guns and did a full-court press. I was a little taken aback at the tenor of some of their opposition.” The Santa Monica rep concedes that his initial bill, proposing to release captive orcas back into the wild, even those bred in captivity, was flawed. No captive orca has been successfully released back into the wild. “I’m not convinced we have the answer on precisely how orcas should be treated,” he says. “I don’t think anyone has the market cornered on what the answer is here.”
SeaWorld hasn’t participated in capturing wild orcas since the practice was banned in 1972. Of the 29 whales it manages, five were captured—including Tilikum—and the rest were bred in captivity. Atchison says SeaWorld can sustain its killer whale population entirely from its breeding program. In fact, SeaWorld can breed enough whales to seed another park, but in the wake of Blackfish, Atchison is wary of opening another SeaWorld in the U.S. or Europe. Cultural sensitivity around marine mammals is different in, say, China, the Middle East, and Russia. And in September, SeaWorld announced a partnership with Australian media company Village Roadshow to develop parks in Asia and Russia.

“Our international expansion ambitions are fully within the structure of the animals we have,” Atchison says. “We can have another SeaWorld park with four or five whales in it pretty easily.” The impediment to his company’s expansion, as Atchison sees it, is the number of whales SeaWorld can breed. “The limitation we have over somebody who has an IP that is movie-based, book-based, or something like that is that we cannot do 10 of these. … We don’t have an unlimited supply of them.”

SeaWorld’s breeding program has also come in for fierce criticism, as marine biologists have faulted SeaWorld for breeding orcas at a younger age than females would breed in the wild, 8 years vs. 15. During the OSHA hearing about SeaWorld, it was revealed that in 2005 the company mistakenly allowed a sexually mature male, Taku, to breed with his mother, Katina, resulting in an inbred calf, Nalani. The film Blackfish criticizes SeaWorld for separating calves from their mothers, citing wild orcas’ strong, lifelong parent-child connections. Wild male orcas, for example, spend most of their lives close to their mothers, separating for a few weeks at a time to breed. “The animals’ welfare is only a factor for SeaWorld in as much as they are maximizing their profit,” says Naomi Rose, a marine biologist for the Animal Welfare Institute, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to better treatment of animals. “They are making a great deal of money off the performances of these animals. Let’s face it, if you can maximize your profit without fully protecting their welfare, you’ll do that.”

For Atchison, there’s no tension between his responsibility to shareholders and the welfare of SeaWorld’s animals. “Our killer whales, our killer whale program, and all of our animals are emblematic of the whole brand. I have to protect our brand. I have to grow our brand. How we care for those animals may make me feel good morally, but that is also my fiduciary responsibility.”

Atchison says SeaWorld will continue with its killer whale shows and its captive killer whale breeding program, though it’s promised larger habitats and better safeguards for trainers. The Blue World Project, a 1.5-acre, 50-foot-deep killer whale habitat to be built in San Diego, will cost about $300 million. Atchison insists that whales at SeaWorld enjoy “great lives, full lives. I think they have enriching and socially well-adjusted lives, but you do not know what animals are thinking or feeling. You cannot know. What’s interesting to me is that so much of those who criticize us are basing that on their own opinions.”

Core to its rebranding strategy, SeaWorld wants everyone to know that its care for marine life extends beyond its orcas. SeaWorld does 23,000 rescues, rehabilitations, and releases of animals every year, the largest number of any individual institution. The company estimates that it spends at least $7 million annually on rescue and release, and that does not include salaries of employees who spend part of their time on that program and other shared resources, such as medicine and food. At any given moment, there are manatees, pilot whales, dolphins, and sea turtles in the veterinary pools, being rehabbed and prepped for return to the wild. A tour of the park on a recent Thursday reveals a team of veterinarians in a surgical suite performing a biopsy on a Gentoo penguin whose air sacs weren’t properly inflating.

SeaWorld has also begun to trumpet its own contributions to scientific journals and aquatic mammal studies. In a paper published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Ann Bowles, a senior scientist at the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, used the company’s San Diego killer whales to study how orcas learn dialects from each other. Orcas from different regions have different dialects and different behaviors, though scientists still consider them to be of the same species. In captivity, different orca ecotypes are thrown together and even breed, unlike in the wild, where they don’t mix.
In September, Atchison holds a town hall meeting with about 300 SeaWorld employees in the Ports of Call auditorium at SeaWorld Orlando. His enthusiasm for the SeaWorld mission is on full display. He plays video clips of a new Busch Gardens attraction, Falcon’s Fury—“60 miles an hour, face-down adrenaline”—and discusses how excited he is about having “lots of irons in the fire overseas. And we feel great about where we are positioned.” The Blue World Project and its 40-foot-tall viewing gallery gets plenty of mention, as do various conservation projects that will be concurrent with Blue World, including what he describes as “a substantial pledge” for killer whale conservation. An ultrasound image of a gorilla fetus from Busch Gardens is shown.

About halfway through the meeting, Atchison gives the microphone over to Vice President for Veterinary Services Chris Dold, and I wander back to where there are tables of cookies and coffee, pouring myself a cup. Fred Jacobs, the vice president for communications, a veteran of SeaWorld who goes back to the Anheuser-Busch ownership—a time when there was free beer available at every SeaWorld—is standing by the coffee. He sees me adding milk and says, “I once had killer whale milk. I’ll starve to death before I have that again. It tastes like fish. It’s got like 15 times more fat than cow milk.” SeaWorld’s domestic breeding program, in addition to frequent testing of pH levels to see when female whales are ovulating, also stores plenty of killer whale milk in case a mother rejects her calf. Apparently, the staff used to taste the milk, and nobody gave much thought to that. Those days are definitely over.

Onstage, Dold is saying that one thing he’s noticed as he walks around the corporate offices is how “everyone loves animals. I see some pictures of family, but I see lots of pictures of animals, so I know we’re an animal organization.”

Atchison considers the gathering a great showcase of SeaWorld’s mission. “We’re most proud of how we connect people with animals,” he says. “And it’s great to think that every kid in America, every kid in the world, can get close to amazing animals. But our ability to do that can work against us sometimes. When you connect people with animals, that can be a double-edged sword, because they can get excited and go off and become activists. That inspiration can go too far in people and become misguided.”

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