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SeaWorld and many zoos seem more and more like a relic of the 19th century every day. Even the best CEOs have trouble going against a sea change in opinion.
SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. should have done more to counter the anti-captivity documentary “Blackfish” and in the future will promote its rescue and conservation efforts more aggressively, Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison said Wednesday.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Atchison also discussed the public pressure his Orlando-based company has been under. Last week, SeaWorld stock plunged 33 percent after a weak earnings report, and the company announced that it would nearly double the size of killer-whale habitats at its three SeaWorld parks.
Here are excerpts from the interview, which has been edited and condensed:
Orlando Sentinel: In hindsight, do you wish you had come out more forcefully, sooner, against “Blackfish”?
Jim Aitchison: In hindsight, yeah, we probably do, because the movie was so misleading, so full of falsehoods and so unfair in its framing and characterizing of what we do and how we do it and even our history. It’s a delicate balance, though, because one of the worst things you can do is to turn it into the movie SeaWorld doesn’t want you to see. Reacting too early to it might have made it more newsworthy, made it more of a marketing endeavor.
Sentinel: Some people might look at the new whale habitat you have announced and see that as sort of a concession that what you have now for the whales is not ideal.
Aitchison: You know, I recognize that. There’s probably little we can do or say to kind of unwind that. We’ve kind of recognized that’s just something we have to kind of accept and deal with and people are going to say that. The reality is, we conceived of these habitats before “Blackfish” was ever created. … Our first drawings go back to 2010, so it’s hard to call it a reaction to that when the reality is we started work before that. We’re going to continue to kind of evolve what we do, just as everyone in society should.
Sentinel: These won’t open for another few years. Is there a concern you need the benefit of these from a public-relations standpoint earlier?
Aitchison: We’re not building these pools, these projects, for that purpose. We’re building them because we want to make sure we continue to evolve and create a dynamic environment for the animals we care for and an equally dynamic environment for the guests to connect with it. At the end of the day, we’re focused on doing it right as well — really building something remarkable and special.
Sentinel: Are there any concerns you are making these huge investments and you may be facing a shift in public opinion, where more mainstream people don’t feel comfortable with the idea of whales in captivity, period?
Aitchison: We don’t feel that way. Our view is that there’s probably never been a more important time to connect people with animals than now. Here’s some perspective: 130 species go extinct every day on this planet — 130 today, 130 tomorrow, 130 the next day. Our view is, I think to maybe rephrase your question, has the time for zoos and aquariums passed? I don’t know about all zoos and aquariums, but it’s never been more important for us to do what we do right now. The world gets more and more and more complicated with respect to population growth and the imperiled environment and the wild. Heightened sensitivity around animals or environmental causes, we don’t think that’s inconsistent with what we do. We think that’s a great benefit to what we do.
Sentinel: But do you see the tide changing? Do you see more people in the mainstream feeling uncomfortable with SeaWorld having whales in captivity?
Aitchison: No. I don’t. There will be efforts, there will be propaganda, there will be messaging about trying to get people there, but we have a beloved brand.
Sentinel: So what happened in California during the last quarter, then? [Attendance was weak at the San Diego park, which SeaWorld attributed partly to news coverage of state legislation regarding animals in captivity.]
Aitchison: Really, the amount of media attention associated with that bill really started to just affect the demand around the park for that period of time, and that’s what created a problem for us. Ironically, we ended up having a terrific year last year, led by the SeaWorld-branded parks and through any matters you want to attribute to intensity of coverage last year, our SeaWorld parks led record performance and we had a record fourth quarter …What really hurt us in San Diego was just the intensity of the news cycle around that bill.
Sentinel: Do you think those people who stopped visiting in California are going to come back, and how are you going to get them back?
Aitchison: Well, that’s our job, and I wish I could open a door and figure it out and have them all there tomorrow. Yes, I do think we’ll get them back. We have an enormity of repeat visitors in our parks, and so I think some people who may have just put off a visit for any number of reasons — maybe they just wanted to do something else that year or they decided that it wasn’t that they didn’t like us anymore, they just wanted to try something different and new.
I think they’ll find a way back to us as we continue to innovate our parks and our messaging and the offerings we have. I’m not worried about our long-term ability to kind of [lure back those visitors]. I think it’s just our job to figure out how to keep doing that.
Sentinel: You’re looking toward international growth. Will you be opening parks such as Discovery Cove or will there be more SeaWorlds?
Aitchison: Or it could be something else, right? I don’t mean to be coy about it. But our discussions involve those brands. It also involves new concepts that we have in mind … that are different from what we do today.
Sentinel: Where would you get the whales if you open more SeaWorld parks?
Aitchison: We haven’t collected whales since the ’70s. We’re fortunate to have a successful, thriving breeding program within our parks. We certainly have those capabilities with our current collection of killer whales.
Sentinel: So would they come just from your current collection?
Aitchison: In all likelihood, yes. We don’t collect whales in the wild and we have 29 whales in our care, so we certainly have the resources to develop and build more parks as it sits.
Sentinel: There has been news about some captures of whales in Russia. Could any of those end up in some of your parks?
Aitchison: I’ve got to tell you, the news on all that is pretty sketchy…we actually probably don’t know a lot more than you about it. We have no formal, official knowledge around it. There’s a lot of speculation, a lot of rumor of what’s been done. What I have heard through that rumor, through that speculation, through those media reports appalls me. I hope none of it’s true. … I would have no interest in .. any animals that were brought in that fashion.
Sentinel: Why did you decide not to further pursue an appeal of the federal OSHA citation that keeps trainers from performing in the water with whales? [The citation followed the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau.]
Aitchison: We didn’t agree with it, and it had more to do with our reputation and our brand. The removal of our trainers from the water we did voluntarily [before the citation was issued]. It was more a matter to set history straight, if you will, so in that respect, the analysis we looked at was: Does it make sense to appeal this further? It doesn’t. It doesn’t change our business model.
Sentinel: But having the whales and trainers performing together — that was a big part of your brand, right? You’ve said as much in legal filings.
Aitchison: It’s certainly part of our history — how we’ve exhibited and connected people to these animals before. We realize when we voluntarily moved away from that in 2010, it was a historical and kind of quintessential part of the SeaWorld experience for a long time, but … we felt like we were still doing a great job connecting people with these amazing animals in ways that were still moving and inspiring and commercially viable.
Sentinel: So you won’t have trainers performing in the water with whales anymore. Now you will have new whale habitats with natural settings and these awe-inspiring views of whales just swimming. Does this represent a shift in direction for SeaWorld?
Aitchison: I wouldn’t say a shift. We are constantly, constructively restless about the care we have with our animals. We always want to get better. We always want to move and improve and raise the bar. We really think getting people more connected with animals is good for everybody. This is a different way to do it. …We’ll still have shows in our park, although those evolve and change over time, too. This will just be a new and different way to connect with those animals.
Sentinel: You have talked about wanting to ramp up communications to protect your brand and counter media attention on Blackfish and legislation as a result of that. How are you going to do that?
Aitchison: Whether we feel that attacks on our brand and business model and what we do and how we do it are unfounded or unfair … we can’t change that. What we have to do is do a better job of telling our story. We have to do a better job of sharing the good work we do every day, our massive efforts in animal rescue programs … sharing those efforts, sharing how we can work with the scientific community to do amazing research with animals in our care because you just can’t do them in the wild.
You can’t do a study of the metabolic rate of killer whales in the wild because … you can’t collect their exhaust when they exhale. There’s things we can only do because we have animals in our care. So it’s important for us to share those rescue efforts, those research efforts, those conservation efforts, the enormity of work and the millions of dollars we’ve spent on conservation around the world. Not just marine animals but all kinds of animals.