— A print version of this interview is available in the Spring 2016 edition of the Lower Island News. Republished with permission.
SeaWorld polishes its marketing message partnering with HSUS
by Diane Walsh
Washington DC — Lower Island News has had the pleasure of conducting a one-on-one interview with Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of The Humane Society (HSUS) to find out more about their new partnership with SeaWorld announced on national television in April 2016. The announcement came as surprise to many – albeit an excellent surprise. The following Q & A examines the promises that have been made by SeaWorld and the role that HSUS will play in the partnership, in Mr. Pacelle’s own words.
Lower Island News: Can you describe what was the triggering event or culminating set of discussions which led Sea World to adopt this progressive arrangement?
Wayne Pacelle: Former Congressman John Campbell, who was a leader on animal protection issues during his terms in Washington, is a friend of mine. He suggested I talk with SeaWorld’s new CEO Joel Manby and see if we could find common ground. I think Campbell had a sense that as the new person leading SeaWorld, maybe Manby could be the change agent needed there. We decided to pursue discussions with the goal of ending — decisively — the possibility of further breeding of orcas; and addressing a series of other critical animal protection issues.
We succeeded in this aim and won an agreement to stop breeding orcas and to phase out the undignified and unnatural theatrical performances with the whales. We also reached terms to have SeaWorld redouble its work in rescue and rehabilitation of marine creatures in distress, to invest in advocacy campaigns against whaling, finning, and sealing, and to revamp its food policies. These were terms that far exceeded the expectations of the activists pressing hardest on the SeaWorld front. In short, nobody had any real plan concerning how to stop breeding of the orcas in San Antonio, Orlando, or in Spain, for example, and nobody was really talking about the major step up in rescue and rehabilitation; campaigning against whaling, sealing, and finning; or changing the company’s internal food policies.
LIN: News of the joint letter to President Obama regarding still-shocking Japanese whaling was equally moving – have you had a response from the office of the President?
WP: No, but we know that officials at other levels of government with an interest in the issue were encouraged by the joint appeal and are optimistic about this administration taking some steps to apply additional pressure on Japan. It’s no secret that our whale campaigners have been arguing that the United States needs to reclaim its leadership on this issue. The International Whaling Commission will meet later this year and that’ll be the real test of the U.S. government’s resolve to do more.
LIN: SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby appears to be willing or at the very least open to assisting with the messaging for sea-hunt and shark finning eradication efforts which are often high-profile campaigns [noticeably affiliated with movie stars, e.g. Pamela Anderson]. News reporting has tended to impress on the idea that there has been some kind of shift in thinking and that Manby has nearly become an ally of the animal-rights movement — Is this overstated or has something major happened?
WP: These commercial killing activities result in the death of millions of marine creatures every year. If SeaWorld can give us a shot in the arm in our efforts to fight these terrible practices, then that’s a great development. With more than 20 million visitors, SeaWorld can educate a lot of people about these subjects.
LIN: Was your book manuscript The Humane Economy scheduled to be published or did the new arrangement delay or change the timeline in some way?
WP: The discussions with SeaWorld did not delay the publication of The Humane Economy, which came out on April 19. The original manuscript was quite critical of SeaWorld, reflecting The HSUS’s long record of opposition to keeping orcas in captivity, starting with the hiring of Dr. Naomi Rose in the mid-1990s to lead a campaign against these practices. It did forecast that SeaWorld had to change. When I made the agreement with Joel Manby on the set of animal welfare reforms, I did add a postscript so readers would know that my forecast had come true. There are close to 5000 words in the book on SeaWorld and the shift away from animals in entertainment and spectacle. The humane economy is forming right before our eyes.
LIN: Readers have understood that the California Coastal Commission has been instrumental in placing pressure to end orca breeding in the state of California, with a state bill. What happens now? Does SeaWorld’s ‘promise’ just simply extinguish the need to do anything more in California state-wide? Will state-government efforts be channelled to Texas and Florida and elsewhere?
WP: SeaWorld is fortunately looking to drop its lawsuit against the Coastal Commission, and it’s supporting a bill in the state legislature to ban orca breeding. I doubt the other states will adopt similar statutes, but the key is that the company has publicly committed to ending breeding of orcas.
LIN: What hold does HSUS have on Sea World other than an honour system?
WP: The agreement received as much attention as any major animal welfare story in many years. SeaWorld has declared its intention to chart a new course and has taken some concrete steps. With each move, SeaWorld tracks more closely toward the values and approaches we support, and it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the company would backtrack or renege. The public attention and scrutiny is so great, and the will to move forward is also strong on the part of SeaWorld’s management.
LIN: SeaWorld’s commitment/promise to end orca breeding is commendable. But given the animal-rights movement have been vilified thus far, is the shift believable?
WP: SeaWorld’s taken some definitive steps forward, advertising its commitment to end commercial whaling and signing the letter to President Obama, and it’s going to take additional steps in a number of areas in the months ahead – steps that will make plain its change of emphasis and its determination to play a positive role in producing reforms that benefit marine and terrestrial animals and their habitats.
LIN: The exhibition of orcas is to end in due course. Is there a date certain and if so, when? What leverage does HSUS have to ensure this promise occurs in the time-frame?
WP: SeaWorld has declared its intention to replace theatrical based performances and instead move toward demonstrations based on showing the natural behaviors of orcas by 2017. We are looking forward to working with the company as it takes additional steps to associate its business and its brand with animal protection.
LIN: Please permit a few queries rolled together into one here, to enable further reflection. The idea of a research-medical facility where the public could learn science and nature is an outstanding one. A philosophical shift to rescue and provide veterinary aid to injured and distressed marine animals is promising on the face of it.
However in this scenario, the so-described ‘un-releasable animal’ supposedly becomes the only permissible ‘contained’ animal able to-be-viewed by the public where education, about ongoing threats to orcas in general, can occur. Do you see any issue with this set-up? For instance in terms of the specific plans to revamp SeaWorld’s general setting; which is [performance-oriented at this time].
Could you foresee any economic and capital forces that might come into play when determining whether an Orca ‘should be freed’? And moreover – what concrete steps could be taken right away, e.g. sea sanctuaries?
WP: We’ve always viewed tanks and swimming pools as compromised habitats for wide-ranging, enormous animals like orcas, in spite of active veterinary care and proper feeding. We were involved in the effort about 15 years ago to fund the release of the orca whale Keiko into a sea pen. Keiko was, however, a wild-caught whale, and his circumstances are somewhat different than the SeaWorld whales. SeaWorld has nearly 30 orcas, with the vast majority captive-born. SeaWorld stopped live-capture of orcas 40 years ago. The sea pen discussion will play out over time, and this agreement did not end that discourse. We are committed to looking at all options to provide the best living environment for wild-caught or captive-bred orcas, and were going to support further investigation and research on whether the orcas can be safely and economically moved from their holding facilities to other settings in the future.
LIN: Can you expand on how HSUS will be involved in getting only sustainably-sourced food (e.g. seafood, free-range chicken/eggs) and additionally vegetarian food-choice sources made available on-site at SeaWorld?
WP: There are supply chain specialists both within and outside of The HSUS who work on this kind of thing. We’ll make all of our resources available to SeaWorld to move in this direction and have the company be a model one in terms of the food offerings at its parks.
LIN: News of the promise to protect coral reefs and reduce capture and exhibit of exotic and rare fish is engaging as well. How do you see this develop?
WP: Most urgently, it would involve support for a campaign to educate consumers in the United States and abroad about the harmful and inhumane collection and trade of coral reef wildlife (in Hawaii and the Indo-Pacific) for the aquarium trade.
LIN: There is no doubt that these promises are impressive, the concern appears to be when and how, and HS becoming a sort of gatekeeper of other animal-rights groups. Quell the resistance – sort of idea. Please assure readers this is not the case.
WP: There’s nothing that would prevent other groups and parties from reaching out to SeaWorld to discuss issues of concern, or pressing such matters through public campaigns of one kind or another. But we are social reformers at HSUS, and this is what we do. We’ve negotiated agreements to advance animal welfare in every sector of the economy, and we’re going to step up this work in the years ahead.
LIN: The #Blackfish film-effect has been remarkable. It’s likely to have helped embolden the development on no-further Orca-breeding as well as centre the discussion on the plight of those life-long captive Orcas that SeaWorld maintains can’t be released.
WP: Blackfish was a breakthrough phenomenon in shifting the landscape around orca captivity, and it’s the primary reason we are where we are now. We’ve encouraged SeaWorld to keep moving on its agenda of engaging the other issues on which we did agree, and to do more to educate the public about those concerns.
LIN: Thank you for sitting down with us, Wayne!
Readers can visit humanesociety.org/news – @HSUSNews and @humanesociety on twitter.
You can reach Diane Walsh, MA @dwalshmedia indydianewalsh.com