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The billionaire founder of the Virgin group comes under attack in a new campaign by Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), a global charity that works on the conservation and protection of cetaceans.
WDC has made a video showing Sir Richard’s head superimposed onto a naked body, with subtitles that suggest: “don’t make a whale pay so you can make some profit on your Virgin holiday” and “selling package trips to SeaWorld sucks/do you really need the cruelty bucks”.
The WDC campaign, which is also targeting operators such as Thomas Cook, Cosmos, Thomson and First Choice, is calling for holidaymakers to sign a petition asking Virgin Holidays and the other tour operators to stop selling trips to theme parks like SeaWorld.
The campaign appears to have achieved some success: Virgin Holidays told Telegraph Travel today that it has begun an “engagement process” to investigate the debate around captive cetaceans as it expects its industry partners to meet required welfare standards. As part of this six-month process, Sir Richard plans to visit some theme parks and other tourist facilities in person.
Sir Richard said: “I’ve instructed Virgin Holidays not to deal with any organisations that do not pledge that they will never again take cetaceans from the sea. We hope other holiday companies will follow suit. Since – I believe – that animals bred in captivity cannot safely be released, we will examine what is best to do with this issue and others in the engagement process.”
SeaWorld is not the only attraction offering shows starring the mammals – others include Discovery Cove in the US and Atlantis in Dubai – but it is the most high profile in the UK.
The WDC campaign literature argues that guidance from Abta, the UK travel association of which Virgin and others are members, recommends that “animal handling and contact by the public should be discouraged” and that “animals should be able to escape other individuals, public view and interaction at all times”.
On its website, WDC asks why the trips are being offered to the public and why the likes of Virgin Holidays are “still profiting from the cruel captivity industry.”
The charity said it is singling out Branson because of his ongoing involvement in marine conservation, and argues that this is at odds with selling holidays that include trips to SeaWorld.
Virgin said that its engagement process will gather a broad spectrum of opinion from the scientific community, commercial partners, other travel companies, the general public, conservation organisations and the travel industry, to improve the company’s knowledge of issues surrounding animal welfare in the travel industry.
WDC claims that five SeaWorld orcas were taken from the wild and that “most of the orcas held by SeaWorld die in their teens.” It also says that an orca at SeaWorld would have to circle its tank 1,400 times to match the distance it would naturally travel in the wild each day.
In an entry posted yesterday on his blog, Sir Richard wrote: “I believe no dolphins or whales should EVER again be killed by humans, or TAKEN from the ocean for marine theme parks. However, as far as I know, animals that have been bred in captivity cannot safely be released. So if the ones who are currently in captivity have to be kept there it is critically important that they are treated properly and given the necessary environment to thrive. As long as this criteria is met I believe access to these magnificent creatures in the proper humane conditions – alongside ocean research and exploration – can help to educate our children and improve our understanding.”
Last year, a documentary film called Blackfish, a Native American name for killer whales, brought international attention to the plight of orcas kept in captivity, telling the story of Tilikum, a killer whale held by SeaWorld. It also showed the dangers associated with keeping the creatures in tanks, after Tilikum was involved in the killing of three people.
Also in 2013, the group PETA, which stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, bought shares in SeaWorld so that it could attend shareholder meetings, and called for the theme park group to release all its captive cetaceans into the wild.