The pressure is on Australian venues that keep marine animals in captivity and make them perform, as “public perception issues” continue to plague US theme park operator SeaWorld.
The impact of 2013’s damning documentary Blackfish, which shone a light on the plight of SeaWorld’s captive orca Tilikum, continues to be felt around the world.
Tilikum died earlier this year with SeaWorld’s last captive-born baby orca dying just last month.
The latest quarter’s results revealed falling attendances and a U.S $269 million write-down.
The return of ill-feeling towards the brand was attributed to a decline in ad spending and consolidated brand and reputation-focused campaigns, according to travel publication Skift.
Over the past two years, the company invested heavily in order to address negative publicity around its treatment of killer whales and to promote the end of its orca breeding program.
However, this year it dropped the spend with disastrous effects.
“We have learned that if we are going to generate the necessary levels of national awareness and website traffic, we cannot reduce our domestic advertising spending as we did over the last few months and we must continue to address perception issues,” chief executive Joel Manby said, as reported by Skift.
Whether that will be enough remains to be seen.
THE GLOBAL TIDE IS TURNING
Perhaps the damage has already been done.
World Animal Protection survey showed that, since 2014, there has been significant shift in how the public perceives animal activities, with all seen as less acceptable.
However, the biggest declines were seen in some of the most popular activities which include swimming with dolphins and watching animal performances.
Of the Aussies surveyed, 68% thought swimming with dolphins was okay – more than the global average. But only 38% of Aussies thought that watching an animal show was acceptable – lower than the global average and lower than the 2014 figure.
CLOSER TO HOME
Not surprising then that, although not affiliated in any way with the US operator, Sea World (two words, rather than one) on the Gold Coast has also suffered in the aftermath of Blackfish. Heightened awareness of animal welfare issues has seen it come under scrutiny, specifically for its offer of sea lion and dolphin shows.
Activists stormed the park in February, unfurling banners at the theme park’s dolphin show which highlighted the plight of captive animals.
A petition, accusing Sea World of being an “aquaprison” for dolphins, has so far gathered more than 20,000 signatures.
Dolphin Marine Magic in Coffs Harbour also offers these types of shows, along with dolphin encounters. It too has come under fire.
World Animal Protection is currently campaigning to end these types of shows within Australia as well as overseas, describing them as “unquestionably cruel”. This year, the organisation has been running a campaign against Dolphin Marine Magic specifically.
“The conditions in which these intelligent, sociable animals are kept are simply unacceptable and don’t allow them to engage in their natural behaviours or live a happy life,” WAP senior campaign manager Ben Pearson said.
“In the wild, dolphins – for example – swim up to 100 kms a day and deep dive hundreds of meters. They cannot do this in the tiny, chlorinated pools in which they spend their entire lives at venues like Dolphin Marine Magic.
“The performances that the dolphins and seals are made to perform on a daily basis are stressful and demeaning for the animals.”
The organisation’s over-arching message is that keeping wild animals captive so they can put on shows is “wrong”.
“It’s time to end the animal shows,” Pearson urged.
But those running the dolphin shows aren’t backing down.
Following the protests mentioned above, Sea World firmly defended its position in a statement.
“Sea World is very proud of its world class exhibits including some of the largest filtered natural sand bottom lagoon systems in the world for dolphins” it said.
“The health and wellbeing of our animals is of the utmost priority and we have a strong reputation for caring for marine animals with a health and welfare programme designed to promote a long, enriched life.”
In an interview with the Gold Coast Bulletin in 2015, marine sciences director Trevor Long insisted the conditions at Sea World Gold Coast were not comparable with those seen in Blackfish.
He insisted the facility would “never allow” animals to languish like Tilikum in Blackfish and described the subsequent scrutiny of animal welfare standards as a “good thing”.
Meanwhile, Dolphin Marine Magic manager of life sciences Aaron Tolley told KarryOn that despite complaints about the facility having been lodged with a number of bodies, all of the resulting investigations had cleared it of any wrongdoing.
He insisted the operation offered its animals a “high standard of care” with an experienced veterinarian overseeing them. In 2015, the operation also engaged an independent veterinarian to assess the health of its dolphins.
“His report concluded that the that our health monitoring program was “comprehensive” and that removing our oldest dolphin from activities such as show presentations or swims would possibly be detrimental to his mental health.”
Tolley also drew attention to its various initiatives that “support the conservation of marine animals in the world”. These include research projects, along with its rescue program which enables it to rehabilitate seals and cetaceans onsite and assist sea birds and marine animals in the nearby area, he said.
BUT IS THERE A BETTER WAY?
Over in Western Australia, in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area about 850 kilometres north of Perth, Monkey Mia Reserve does things a little differently.
The RAC resort offers what it describes as a daily “immersive dolphin experience” which has been in existence since 1982. American researchers Richard Connor and Rachel Smolker visited the area and discovered a small group of wild bottlenose dolphins that would swim to the shoreline to be fed by humans nearly every day.
Now, the experience is managed by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions with a team of on-site researchers to monitor and provide guidance to the team of rangers.
“Monkey Mia is a different situation because the dolphins are in the wild and are able to interact with humans of their own accord,” Pearson said.
“However, for the safety of animals and people, we have concerns with any operation which encourages direct interaction with animals.”
Other examples of this type of operation are Tangalooma Island Resort and Barnacles Dolphin Centre – both in Queensland.
But organisation Australia for Dolphins takes a stronger stance, drawing parallels between the plight of these wild dolphins and their captive counterparts.
Not only can it alter their behaviour, putting them at risk, but it can lead to the transfer of diseases, higher calf mortality rates and increased chance of injury or death, according to AFD.
It also gives out a conflicting conservation message, it says.
“Free-ranging dolphins can choose to swim away if they don’t want to be around humans, like captive dolphins don’t have to perform tricks if they don’t want to, right?,” it said.
“Well, no – not if we factor in the potential for behavioral conditioning to influence free will.”
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