Who Runs San Diego? … How Do You Solve a Problem like Sea World?

by on September 19, 2014 · 13 comments

in California, Culture, Economy, Environment, History, Media, Ocean Beach, Politics, San Diego, Sports

Shamu, we hardly knew ye

Womans Democratic Logo

By Linda Perine /San Diego Woman’s Democratic Club

For most of us it has been a slow, painful process to understand that our love affair with cute, cuddly, smiley Shamu has made us participants in a cold-blooded business that imprisons and mistreats sentient, social creatures in ways that turn the stomach and shock the conscience.

Concerned environmentalist and civic leaders have been telling us for years that the capture of orcas was nasty and brutal involving bombs and machine guns, the violent separation of babies from their mothers and resulting in injury and death to many orcas in the wild. Books and PBS presentations criticizing the Sea World business model and its exploitation of captive whales and dolphins just did not register.

We didn’t know, or didn’t care, that the magnificent mammal jumping and breaching and smiling and being petted for some tossed fish and our applause has a brain capable of complex language, dialects and generational transfers of knowledge.

We didn’t concern ourselves that caging a 30 foot long 8 ton mammal, built to range 100 miles a day in deep wild ocean, in enclosures less than one ten-thousandth of one percent the size of the species’ natural home range, was akin to putting a human in solitary confinement in a closet for life.

Killer whales live in a complex matriarchal society, in which sons and daughters live with their mother throughout their lives, even after they have offspring of their own, creating “matrilines that combine into pods with which they share unique dialects and then interact with other pods to form clans. We failed to acknowledge that, as Jean-Michel Cousteau said, “we have outgrown the need to keep such wild, enormous, complex, intelligent and free-ranging animals in captivity”.

If we felt uneasy or that something wasn’t quite right, the excited squeals of the children splashed by the final orca breach, or the cute stuffed animal or t-shirt, or the myriad corporate images of a happy Shamu made us put such thoughts aside.

But in 2010 a beautiful young trainer at Sea World Orlando was killed by an orca named Tillikum. This was the third human death associated with Tillikum who has sired 21 calves. Gabriela Cowperthwaite began to examine in earnest the business of using Cetaceans for entertainment and corporate profit. In 2013, the resulting documentary Blackfish made it impossible for people like you and me to ignore the ugly truth about what we are doing to Shamu.

PETA-ORCA-INJURED-SEAWORLD-570San Diego, We Have a Problem

For those of us in San Diego, this sudden and disquieting awareness has far reaching implications.

The City of San Diego is Sea World’s landlord. Since the money the city receives is tied to how much money Sea World makes, we are more than just consumers who can stop going to Sea World as a manifestation of our disapproval of their business.

If you think what Sea World is doing to Shamu is a crime, we are accessories before and after the fact.

We are business partners with Sea World. If you think what Sea World is doing to Shamu is a crime, we are accessories before and after the fact. If it is morally wrong, we are passive enablers. If we are in the business of making money off the imprisonment and mistreatment of sentient beings, then we are profiteers.

But even if you are not personally moved by the overwhelming evidence Cetaceans should not be held in captivity for entertainment and profit, a lot of people are. Willie Nelson, the Beach Boys, Heart, Southwest Airlines, Taco Bell, Virgin Airlines and, of course, the stock market have all voiced their displeasure with the Sea World business model. So whether your motivation is compassionate or materialistic: San Diego, we have a problem.

Southwest-ShamuSea World’s Corporate Situation

Sea World (SEAS on the NYSE) is a company with some serious problems. Blackstone Group LP (BX), the world’s largest private-equity firm, owns 22 percent of SeaWorld shares. The New York-based firm bought SeaWorld from Anheuser-Bush Cos. in 2009. On April 19, 2013 Blackstone took Sea World public on the NYSE. Perhaps ironically, stock values seem to have hit their highest point of nearly $39 in mid July 2013, just around the July 19, 2013 official New York release of the documentary Blackfish.

…for most of us, Sea World is Shamu. This is a deep structural issue for the company.

Independent of the Blackfish public relations nightmare, Sea World was brought public in a leveraged buyout and is massively indebted. Some analysts see SEAS as overvalued for a company of its maturity and compared to peers with less forward-looking risks.

But for most of us, Sea World is Shamu. This is a deep structural issue for the company. 60+% of revenues come from admissions. Admission are driven by– Shamu the Killer Whale and the dolphins. This makes the Sea World business model extremely vulnerable to the issues surrounding cetacean captivity.

Sea World initially denied that concerns about its treatment of the orcas was impacting its business. But on August 13 shares of SeaWorld Entertainment plunged 33% after the company’s earnings missed Wall Street expectations. Share prices have dropped from roughly $39, when Blackfish was released, to $20.

Large hedge funds may be losing faith in Sea World’s business model. Southwest Airlines has ended a 26 year relationship with Sea World. Blackstone appears to be sharply reducing its stake in the company it took public and is increasing its stake in competitor Merlin.

Sea World has dropped an appeal of OSHA citations it received after the 2010 drowning that inspired Blackfish, ending any chance of trainers ever again swimming with orcas during shows.

While the “Blackfish Bill” introduced in April, 2014 to make it illegal to “hold in captivity, or use, a wild-caught or captive-bred orca for performance of entertainment purposes” died in committee, it will almost certainly be brought up again in the CA legislature. The fact that 1.2 million people signed a petition in favor of the bill does not bode well for the future of orca performances.

On Sept 9, 2014 shareholders filed suit in San Diego against Sea World. The suit alleges that SeaWorld failed to disclose it had improperly cared for its orca population and continued to feature and breed a whale that had killed and injured numerous trainers.

SeaWorld has refused to recognize the growing movement for more humane and ethical treatment of animals by corporations worldwide. From cruelty-free cosmetics, toiletries and household products (animal testing for these products is now banned in the European Union) to 2008 Proposition 2 providing more humane captivity conditions for farm animals,concern for animal welfare is reshaping the bottom line for many industries.

South Carolina banned dolphin and porpoise shows in 1992 and extended this ban in 2011 to whales (all cetaceans). There hasn’t been a captive cetacean show in the UK since 1993.

In 2013, India became the first country to acknowledge that cetaceans’ high level of intelligence grants them the status of “non-human persons”. It also joined three other countries Chile, Costa Rica and Hungary in banning cetacean shows.

As you can see, Sea World is being battered from many angles. It is simply on the wrong side of the powerful and growing realization that humans have a moral obligation to treat fairly and kindly with other living beings and this ethical failure has created a financial firestorm.

We will continue this conversation about Sea World and its place in the discussion of Who Runs San Diego? We will look at its influence in our community and how it ranks as a neighbor to its Mission Bay cohabitants. We will also look at the very favorable terms of its lease with the City of San Diego and what alternative business practices might help it and San Diego out of an unpleasant financial and public relations problem.

This is the ninth installment of the Who Runs San Diego? series, a project of the Democratic Woman’s Club, published weekly in the OB Rag and San Diego Free Press. The Democratic Woman’s Club mission is to promote Democratic Party principles including equality of opportunity, a level playing field, and fair and equal treatment for all.

Linda Perine is the President of the Democratic Woman’s Club. She was chair of the LGBT Redistricting task Force in 2011 and served as Mayor Filner’s Director of Community Outreach.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

John September 25, 2014 at 9:59 pm

All mammals are by definition sentient, including the average 800 seals and other marine mammals a killer whale consumes per year.
There is also no scientific evidence to lead us to believe the following:

1. That orcas are “sentient” of concepts such as corporations or profits or realize money is being made by those who invested money in their care.
If this alone is cause for moral outrage I invite evety activist who works for a company that turned a profit last year to quit your job.
2. That orcas are sentient you consider them “magnificent”.
This is a significant issue as it reveals the agenda is not dtiven by the needs of the animal but for the self indulgence of those purporting to champion their cause.
3. That orcas prefer swimming 100 miles a day fot their food sustainance over performing a few silly tricks and having it brought to them.

If the prior were really better than the latter why would humans have built restaurants and grocery stores? Why dont you want to chase down and kill a deer every day for a meal?


Marc Snelling September 26, 2014 at 11:59 am

Your points don’t make much sense.
1) How does awareness of profit-making make any difference to this debate?

2) Self-indulgent as some PETA activists may be there is a thousands-year old history of orcas being “magnificent” http://obrag.org/?p=85885

3) Many humans do prefer hunting to buying food in a store, many also prefer growing their own vegetables and cooking to eating in a restaurant. Show me the human who prefers living in a jail cell and eating institutional-grade food as opposed to being free and eating what they choose.


John September 28, 2014 at 2:16 am

Doesnt make sense like demanding fairness and kindness towards orcas but not demanding the same from the orca who devour 800 fellow mammals a year- often toying with their prey? (Please don’t tell me its instinct and they cant help it then also pound in how intelligent and sentient they are)

1. Then we agree corporate profits are irrelevant if the issue is concern for what the orca wants. Not just a straw man for peoples hypocritical anti-corporate polemic- i.e; money is only evil if someone makes more than they do.

2. So there have been self indulgent activists for many years. News to me.
THE POINT is when people start talking like that they reveal they are only concerned with fulfilling THEIR vision of what the orca wants. Not whats best for the orca.

3. Thats a real howler. What percentage of the population of san diego subsists on hunting for their food? Perhaps 1/1000 of 1 percent?

THE POINT (if you would like to try something other than feigned ignorance in a reply) is humans have done everything they can to make our existence sedentary and convenient. If you applied what you expect of the orca you would see all humans living as cavemen with each neal taking the most effort.

In short there is no evidence the orca prefers swimming 100 miles to an easier life.

I will bring up another uglier point. It seems the effort is to ruin sea world financially. This us not well thought through. Almost all these animals cannot be released and even if they were the cost would be enormous. So if you ruin sea world tbey will discard them in the least costly manner. Yet left to go on and profit sea world would be expected to take very good care of their goose laying golden eggs wouldnt they?

Thus the pitfall of thinking with emotions. You cant see how misguided this all is. How ruining sea world can only harm the local ecological situation by curbing their conservation efforts. It only indulges tbe activists who will pat themselves on the back that they “made a difference”-and sleep well even though they didn’t. Or worse.

Look up “shipbreaking”. Caused by EU environmental activists. Really.


Marc Snelling September 28, 2014 at 7:29 am

People are asking that orcas not be kept in tanks for entertainment, not that we be ‘fair and kind’. All living things eat other living things – plants or animals. How does where an animal sits in the food chain have a bearing on this?

Corporate policy is irrelevant to the orcas, not to humans. There is a lot more to criticism of the corporate model than money. Lack of corporate accountability while enjoying the rights of ‘coroporate personhood’ among them. SeaWorld in particular has long been critisized for not paying enough for their leasehold in Mission Bay Park, for not being good neighbors due to noise, traffic and not paying for adequate infrastructure upgrades to handle the use their business generates.

It is a fallacy that humans want a sedentary lifestyle. How many health problems today are caused by this type of lifestyle? You are arguing we all want to be obese and have back problems from sitting at desks all day? That is clearly not true and there are many people who put great effort into trying to live outside of that model. If it were true why isn’t everyone who works a manual labor job lining up to work behind a desk?

The problem of releasing captive orcas wouldn’t exist if SeaWorld hadn’t captured and bred them in the first place. There are plenty of other ways SeaWorld could organize their business without doing cative orca shows. If they changed their business model to something didn’t cause widespread revulsion for a section of the population they would be better of morally and profit-wise. It is SeaWorld itself that makes the argument about money, not activists.

There isn’t much hunting in San Diego, thats just one place. There are still plenty of places in this continent where people go out at this time of year and shoot a deer or other animal to put in their chest freezer to feed them over the year. San Diego does have many people who grow their own veggies rather than buy them. By your arguments why would anyone do this? Shouldn’t they all be going to the grocery in battery-powered wheel-chairs to maximize the dedentary lifestyle we supposedly love so much? Why do people pay more money for organically grown vegetables that are more labor-intensive to grow?

Ignnoring emotion is just as much a pitfall as relying on it 100%. It never works in the longterm. The oft-cited evidence that orcas prefer swimming in the wild to being kept in an enclosure is their dorsal fins. The orcas in captivity have bent dorsal fins where very few in the wild do. Kind of like humans who have lost thier spirit with their backs bent over desks. Really.


John September 28, 2014 at 7:42 pm

“People are asking that orcas not be kept in tanks for entertainment, not that we be ‘fair and kind”

Did you read the article? Thats
That is exactly what it says.
This whole thing seems to come down to MORALS.

You want to force yours upon everyone else.

See you in church on Sunday!

(actually not)

I for one have no problem with a KILLER WHALE being placed in captivity, treated humanely and being taught to perform tricks if the company who does it also invests in research and conservation in that and other marine species. Fortunately the majority of constituents in this democratic republic agree with me and will not allow extremists to drive legislation.


Marc Snelling September 29, 2014 at 10:39 am

The SeaWorld debate is about not keeping Orcas in captivity. The fairness and kindness in this article is in relation to life in general, which is a no-brainer. This is just one in a long series of articles in opposition to SeaWorld’s practices. You don’t have to believe in fairness and kindness to animals to see how wrong it is to do what SeaWorld is doing.

Legislation wouldn’t have been introduced in CA if this were an extremist issue. We are way past that now. That vote hasn’t even happened yet. When it does we will see if you are in the big majority you think you are. When was the last time anything related to SeaWorld was actually voted on? Prop D for their 90-foot roller coaster in the 90s? The one that squeaked by 0.4% with every community around them voting against it.


John September 29, 2014 at 12:25 pm

You declaring what sea world is doing is “wrong” holds as much water for me as an anti-abortionist declaring a womans right to choose is the same.
Never mind your opinion and entire portrayal of sea worlds overall operations is based on a one sided propaganda film- where were the cameras of blackfish when sea world personnel were rescuing all the young seal pups beaching themselves locally?
Why dont the producers show orcas in their habitat brualizing baby seals in volleyball like games before they consume tbem- hurling them hundreds of feet and battering them senseless with their tails? See this on youtube.
Nope they are just magnificent kind creatures to hug.


Marc Snelling September 29, 2014 at 2:00 pm

You are free to think whatever you want and to not take my word for it. There are plenty of others saying the same thing.

Oppositiom to SeaWorld started long before Blackfish. Back when it was just us ‘extremists’ as you put it. OBGO organized a SeaWorld protest 13 years ago and I wrote about it here. There have been several others. Blackfish just made it mainstream, it didnt start this.

Many ancient cultures have noted their magnifence. This is not a modern trend. The activists are arguing they shouldnt be hugged. Its SeaWorld thay kept putting trainers in the tank to play with them. That didnt stop until an OSHA court ruling went against them. That shows just how important their profit motive is versus trainer safety.

I find it strange that you blame a film for making the orcas out to be something they are not. It is SeaWorld who has made millions making Shamu cute and cuddly and selling reams of Shamu-related merchandise.


John September 29, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Again what do corporate profits have to do with the welfare of the orcas? Strange you keeo returning to that subject after you deflected the obvious fact that if sea world were returning a healthy profit they would give them the best of care and could even build them larger tanks-but continuing your agenda to financially ruin them will be the worst thing for all orcas in captivity.
What was that response again… if sea world hadnt done it in the first place?
Whatever makes you sleep at night after putting thousands of good people out of work and those whales to be discarded as refuse, right?


Marc Snelling September 30, 2014 at 6:42 am

You brought up the point about activists supposedly making orcas cute and cuddly – counter to their behavior in the wild. Yet is it not SeaWorld themselves who are most responsible for this mistaken image? Trainers riding and hugging dolphins, Shamu blow-up float toys, planes painted to look like orcas – all manner of merchandise. The point I was making is that SeaWorld has created this image and they have made a lot of money from it. They created that problem themselves.

For you to turn around and blame activists for creating the image of the cute and cuddly KILLER whale is inaccurate.

You talk about the way orcas feed on seals as if that is somehow a justification for their imprisonment and the right to profit from that imprisonment. I can only assume this is because of what you perceive an animal right activist to be. Like PETA opposition to the seal hunt in Canada?

The fact is PETA do not speak for many people who feel strongly about this issue, myself included.

The seal hunt in Canada using clubs is a very old tradition in this continent’s indigenous culture. Many people who love and respect animals feel PETA is very wrong on the issue of the Canadian Seal Hunt. As Inuit artist Tanya Tagaq recently said ‘F–k PETA’.

Orcas don’t need to be cared for or forcibly inseminated to create more captive animals, they need to be left in the wild where they belong. If SeaWorld truly cared about these animals well-being they could find an ethical way to make a profit.

John September 29, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Again what do corporate profits have to do with the welfare of the orcas? Strange you keeo returning to that subject after you deflected the obvious fact that if sea world were returning a healthy profit they would give them the best of care and could even build them larger tanks-but continuing your agenda to financially ruin them will be the worst thing for all orcas in captivity.
What was that response again… if sea world hadnt done it in the first place?
Whatever makes you sleep at night after putting thousands of good people out of work and those whales to be discarded as refuse, right?


John September 29, 2014 at 4:21 pm

Sorry about the double post. Please delete at your convenience.


OB Dude November 9, 2015 at 11:05 am



Will the overly loud Fireworks be toned down? Hint Hint to Sea World!


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