'SeaWorld of Hurt'
Orca cause catches on as artists cancel appearances at Florida marine park and Rose Parade nears
By André Coleman 12/12/2013
The battle raging over how orcas, or killer whales, are treated in captivity at SeaWorld marine parks spilled into the streets of Old Pasadena last week, with some two-dozen protesters demanding that the SeaWorld float set to appear in the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day either be changed or removed from the event.
Meanwhile, the controversy has taken on national dimensions, with the rock band Barenaked Ladies, country-western star Willie Nelson, Heart and Cheap Trick canceling appearances at SeaWorld’s Florida facility.
“In this day and age, especially since the documentary ‘Blackfish’ came out, people know that SeaWorld is synonymous with animal abuse,” said Lisa Lange, a vice president with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which organized the local protest.
Adults and children dressed in orca costumes, and others carrying signs that read “Get Orca Abuse Out of the Rose Parade” and “Respect Life, Boycott SeaWorld,” marched along portions of Colorado Boulevard at around lunchtime Thursday.
SeaWorld, Lange said, “is a corporation that rips apart orca and dolphin families, and when you look at the Rose Parade, it is a family-oriented event. It’s a real embarrassment, because while the world is waking up to the fact that SeaWorld means animal abuse the [Tournament of Roses] is putting them in such a revered parade and ignoring how the public feels.”
Officials with PETA have asked parade organizers to either eliminate the float or change it to depict the alleged abuse that the animals suffer at the park.
The Rose Bowl float depicts two orcas living free and happy in the open sea. The suggested design by PETA would show a whale confined to a fish bowl surrounded by chains at its base. The caption reads: “Sea World of Hurt — Where Happiness Tanks.”
“This year’s float is designed to illustrate the wonder of sea life in a manner that can inspire millions to learn more about our oceans, which is consistent with SeaWorld’s ongoing mission,” Tournament of Roses spokesman David Gordon said in a prepared statement. Tournament officials deferred to Gordon’s remarks when asked to comment.
Fred Jacobs, vice president of communications at SeaWorld’s corporate office in Orlando, Fla., called the question ridiculous when asked whether the organization was willing to change the float for the parade.
“You’re asking whether SeaWorld has altered its own float to reflect the ridiculous allegations made by PETA? Is that a serious question? The answer is no. Nor have we contemplated pulling out of the parade,” Jacobs said.
SeaWorld, with operations in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio, Texas, allows more than 10 million people a year to learn about and experience marine life, according to Jacobs. “We support marine conservation, research, and we administer one of the world’s most active animal rescue and rehabilitation programs,” he said.
Thursday’s demonstration marked the third time in recent months that PETA has staged a protest against the float. In October, a handful of PETA members, also wearing orca costumes and carrying signs, marched outside the Rose Queen coronation ceremony held at the Church of the Nazarene on Sierra Madre Boulevard in East Pasadena. Earlier, members of the group staged a similar protest outside Tournament House on South Orange Grove Boulevard.
“We have gotten requests from people all around the country who want to protest SeaWorld,” said Katie Arth, SeaWorld campaign manager for PETA. “Before ‘Blackfish,’ people did not know that these orcas spend their whole lives living in a space the equivalent of a bathtub. If they were in the wild, they would be swimming up to 100 miles a day, but they are forced to swim in circles in small tanks at the water park.”
“Blackfish,” a documentary by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, tells the story of Tilikum, the orca who killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. The film explores how locking the giant creatures in concrete tanks and depriving them of their natural habitat can lead orcas to commit violent acts. Since 1986, 26 orcas have died in captivity at SeaWorld facilities. Using interviews with former orca trainers, Cowperthwaite builds a damning case against sea parks for their attitude toward trainer safety, as well as their decision to use Tilikum as a sire via artificial insemination.
After several months of attempting to convince Macy’s department store to not place a SeaWorld entry in its annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, the group took to the streets of Manhattan in protest. At one point, a 12-year-old girl named Rose McCoy jumped over the parade barricade as the SeaWorld float approached, holding a sign reading, “Boycott SeaWorld.” Police quickly escorted the girl back behind the barricade. Parade officials told ABC News they were “not aware of any protesters … among the three million spectators,” at the parade.
If a protest does happen at the Rose Parade, it will be the third such protest at the annual parade since human rights supporters rallied against a float sponsored by China in the 2008 parade. The next protest occurred at the 2012 event, when members of the Occupy movement marched down Colorado Boulevard at the conclusion of the parade.
Although Barenaked Ladies and Nelson have backed out of playing at SeaWorld in Orlando, other artists have not. Still scheduled to perform later this year are Cheap Trick, REO Speedwagon, Martina McBride, 38 Special, Justin Moore and Scotty McCreery.
More than 8,500 people have signed a petition appearing at change.org, urging other acts to pull out of scheduled performances at SeaWorld.
“We here at Barenaked Ladies have made a decision based on what we feel. It’s not about money, or petitions, or press,” the group posted on its Web site on Nov. 27. “But it is about our fans,” the band’s post states. “We listen to them, and they’re important to us.”
Jacobs would not comment on why the performers were canceling appearances at the park. “SeaWorld books many artists for appearances in its parks. If a musician chooses not to perform, you’d have to ask them what their motivation is.”
Lange said she was happy to have the support of Nelson and the Barenaked Ladies, She hopes more acts cancel their scheduled appearances.
“This is typical,” said Lange. “Every day we are getting news like this. Fewer people are going to the park and their investors are investing less money. We are sending a box of vegan chocolate orcas to thank Willie Nelson and the Barenaked Ladies.”
Cowperthwaite said she didn’t set out to make an anti-SeaWorld documentary. It just turned out that way. Whatever her motivation might have been, the end result of her work prompted SeaWorld to issue a statement in its defense.
“‘Blackfish’ is billed as a documentary, but instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau’s family, friends and colleagues,” Variety first reported on SeaWorld’s statement. “To promote its bias that killer whales should not be maintained in a zoological setting, the film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld — among them, that SeaWorld is one of the world’s most respected zoological institutions, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research.”
In response, Cowperthwaite told Canada.com, “I think SeaWorld is just looking to sow a seed of doubt because they have to. There were so many things I didn’t include because they took us away from Tilikum, but they were very disturbing and could have easily loaded the film and turned it into a piece of activism — which was never my intent … I never started out thinking I wanted to shut SeaWorld down. I’m not an activist. I am a storyteller. And to me, this was a classic narrative with a 12,000-pound protagonist swimming right at the center.”