by Gael O’Brien

SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment has reached an impasse in its self-described purpose to educate and entertain. It has been defending itself against negative publicity exacerbated by a 2013 documentary, “Blackfish,” which accused it of cruelty; a charge the company refutes. In April 2014, SeaWorld’s violation of a workplace safety law was upheld by a Florida court. In addition, since 2013 when Blackstone, its largest investor, took the company public, its stock price has lost about half its value. In August 2014, SeaWorld admitted that negative publicity had resulted in a drop in attendance and sales. Moody’s downgraded SeaWorld’s rating from positive to stable.

Petting the dolphins at SeaWorld Orlando.

Petting the dolphins at SeaWorld Orlando.

SeaWorld hasn’t budged from its defense of cetaceans in captivity or given an indication it will shift its business model in response to changing times and scientific research that increasingly conflicts with its own. The company dismisses as “radicals”  those who protest conditions for dolphins. And its answer to the harm critics say cetaceans – the dolphin family including whales – experience in captivity was to announce in August that it will double the size of their tanks over the next several years.

The issue of the ethical treatment of animals is complex particularly as it relates to the implications of keeping highly intelligent and emotionally evolved cetaceans in captivity. In May 2014, the National Aquarium in Baltimore announced it is considering retiring its eight bottlenose dolphins and looking into creating a seaside sanctuary. In July, the Vancouver (Canada) Park Board voted to allow its aquarium to keep cetaceans in captivity but required an oversight committee of animal welfare experts be created to ensure cetaceans “safety and wellbeing.” The board also asked staff to investigate alternatives to putting dolphins in exhibits.

SeaWorld finds itself the face of a polarizing debate about animal cruelty. I talked recently about this with Thomas I. White, author of In Defense of Dolphins and a fellow at the Oxford Center for Animal Ethics. White is the Conrad N. Hilton Professor of Business Ethics at Loyola Marymount University and director of its Center for Ethics and Business.  An excerpt of the interview follows.

How is current research on dolphins different from previous research?

TW: When businesses using dolphins were launched years ago, relatively little was known about cetaceans in comparison to what we know now. Over time, however, we have learned that dolphins and orcas cannot thrive, cannot flourish, in captivity. An objective evaluation of the evidence for the sophisticated emotional and intellectual abilities of dolphins combined with an understanding of the conditions in which they live in the wild makes it clear that dolphins and orcas cannot experience an acceptable quality of life in captivity.

As not all scientists agree that captivity harms cetaceans, isn’t there reasonable doubt?

TW: Not from an ethical standpoint. At the very least, there is plenty of scientific evidence that calls into question the appropriateness of captivity. And from the perspective of ethics, when you have a questionable situation, the benefit of the doubt goes to protecting those who could be harmed. Also, while it’s true that there is not agreement among all marine mammal scientists on this issue, there is among the more progressive scientists. More to the point is the question:  Which research a business should pay attention to? I would argue that it’s the most cutting edge research, not the most conservative research. And this is especially true for a business like SeaWorld, which argues that it has an educational mission, as well as a financial one. If you are operating a business that has a connection with the world of science, you should go with the most advanced science, not possibly outdated research.

Are you saying SeaWorld’s business model is dead?

TW: I do not think that SeaWorld’s business model can be successful for the long term. A variety of trends—scientific, demographic, what’s popular in the entertainment industry, and the like—are already underway. They’ll only accelerate. Management’s obligations to stakeholders and shareholders are long-term, not short-term. The company’s most prudent strategy, then, would be to get ahead of the problem rather than be caught from behind. Management also needs to abandon its ‘bunker mentality’ and stop claiming that the only people who object to its practices are ‘radicals.’ Tarring internationally known scientists with such a label only weakens the credibility of SeaWorld’s management. While scientists may have the luxury of saying they won’t take a position until the evidence suggests that something is 99% certain, in business this is a formula for disaster. In business, we want to read trends and to be on the cutting edge. You never want to have to play catch up. I personally see it as a major failing of SeaWorld’s management that they are not ahead of the curve. A more aggressive management would shift the business in a way that guarantees profitability 10, 20 years down the road.

What are the trends you believe will impact their current business model?

TW: There are trends internationally. For example, India last year banned the use of captive dolphins. The Orca Welfare and Safety Act introduced in the CA legislature would prohibit live orca shows and captive breeding. Recently, Southwest airlines backed off its 26-year partnership with SeaWorld, and activists are talking with other carriers that sell packages there, like British Airways and Virgin. The directors of the Vancouver and National Aquariums are looking at captivity concerns. Most importantly, the trends in the scientific research that identify the conditions these cetaceans need in order to thrive will continue to show the problems with captivity. So a central question becomes: Given these trends and the momentum they will generate, how likely is it that a business like SeaWorld can remain successful?

How could SeaWorld shift its business model?

TW: Young people have been raised on digital technologies and amusement rides that provide very intense, very rich and engaging entertainment experiences. Look at the success of the Harry Potter properties, for example. Millennials are also very sensitive to environmental issues. I have had students in their 20s tell me when they are older with kids, they won’t take them to SeaWorld. SeaWorld has an opportunity to reposition itself to take advantage of these facts. Their most obvious option is to convert their stadia into theaters that feature something like IMAX films. I can tell you from personal experience that dolphins in the wild are far more interesting than dolphins in captivity. It should be easy films and virtual experiences that capture this.

Wouldn’t that kind of repositioning cost a great deal?

TW. The path they are going down now is not going to work for the long haul. The debate on the ethical treatment of dolphins is not going to go away. It’s being driven by scientific findings and ethical sensitivity.  Even if SeaWorld doubles the size of the pools, this is not going to make it all better. It is still a pool. Despite what SeaWorld claims, this sort of environment does not provide the conditions that allow beings this sophisticated to flourish. As many of us have argued for a number of years, dolphins and orcas are, from an ethical perspective, nonhuman persons. They are very much like humans. They are highly social, self-aware beings with very sophisticated intellectual and emotional abilities. That means that what they need for a high quality of life is also very similar to ours. And a pool cannot provide that. SeaWorld has a dilemma: figure out a positive solution and accept the costs, or continue to throw good money after bad in a situation that is not going to turnaround.

Photo: via Wikimedia Commons

Gael O'Brien_2012_CropGael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.

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