SeaWorld’s stock is down 25% from its high point. The company blames it on “bad weather” affecting theme park attendance. However, the company is aware of the negative publicity brought by the surprise hit movie Blackfish. Before going public, the company described the risks to its business:
An accident or an injury at any of our theme parks or at theme parks operated by competitors, particularly an accident or an injury involving the safety of guests and employees, that receives media attention, is the topic of a book, film, documentary or is otherwise the subject of public discussions, may harm our brands or reputation, cause a loss of consumer confidence in the Company, reduce attendance at our theme parks and negatively impact our results of operations. Such incidents have occurred in the past and may occur in the future. In addition, other types of adverse publicity concerning our business or the theme park industry generally could harm our brands, reputation and results of operations. The considerable expansion in the use of social media over recent years has compounded the impact of negative publicity.
Statements by the company try to discredit the movie, calling it “shamefully dishonest.” SeaWorld recently took out a full-page advertisement in seven major newspapers condemning “inaccurate reports” while reiterating its advocacy for killer whales and their humane treatment.
But the facts tell another story. There are no records of killer whales in the wild ever attacking or killing humans. Of course, humans have a difficult time getting near the animals, so that alone does not really say much.
However, I have seen elephants, tigers and bears in zoos perform repetitive motions in their cages, wandering back and forth in the same pattern, wearing down the concrete beneath their feet. I have recently seen the dolphins at Dolphin Encounter in Hawaii circle their little enclosed habitats over and over again.
It is no surprise that an animal weighing up to 10 tons that is kept in a tight tank, fed on a diet of thawed fish, might exhibit similar stress. Like circus animals, they have to perform regularly, and often they are separated from their cubs or relatives against their will.
Between 1960 and 2012 there have been 114 cases of orcas in captivity attempting to harm their handlers or trainers.
It will be interesting to see if the business model of SeaWorld can survive this severe blow.