Amid SeaWorld struggles, signs of a more 'pro-animal' future

SeaWorld profits fall short of expectations as circuses, zoos, and grocery stores face public pressure to curb unfair treatment of animals.

Damian Dovarganes/AP/File
Animal rights activist Kirby Kotler, with his daughter, Kirra, from Malibu, Calif., holds up signs as opponents and supporters fill the room during a California Coastal Commission meeting, Oct. 8, in Long Beach, Calif. The commission approved SeaWorld's request to expand orca tanks at the company's location in San Diego – but the commission stipulated that SeaWorld could no longer add to the tanks’ population with orcas caught in the wild or bred in captivity.

Several years after allegations that it abused and neglected orcas at its theme parks, SeaWorld continues to see declining profits and attendance – a trend that some say speaks to a broader shift in public attitudes toward animals.

The company, whose third-quarter profits fell short of analysts’ forecasts, is one of a number of United States businesses – including circuses, zoos, and grocery stores – facing consumer pressure to curb what Americans increasingly see as unfair treatment of animals. The push comes amid growing public awareness of both animals’ level of consciousness and humans’ widespread impact on the environment.

“There’s a larger interest in what’s going on for other animals ... [and] the ways that we’re changing the planet,” says Lori Gruen, professor of philosophy and co-coordinator of Wesleyan Animal Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. “People have questioned what kind of relationship we want to have with other animals.”

The increased public concern is having an impact, especially in the entertainment and recreation industry.

SeaWorld has struggled to overcome negative publicity brought on by the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,"  which accused the company of mistreating the orcas in its facilities. Attendance has continued to drop over the past year, although CEO Joel Manby says the decline has slowed, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The business sustained another blow last month, when the California Coastal Commission approved its request to expand the orca tanks at SeaWorld San Diego – but with the tough stipulation that the company could no longer add to the tanks’ population with orcas caught in the wild or bred in captivity.

Other organizations have also been dealing with changing public attitudes about animals in captivity. In March, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it would be retiring its elephant act by 2018 amid “a mood shift among our consumers,” said Alana Feld, an executive vice president for the company, put it to the Associated Press. “A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants," she added.

“Having elephants in zoos is going to be a thing of the past, and the same is true for SeaWorld,” Professor Gruen says. “People aren’t going to support it [anymore].”

The food industry, too, is seeing signs of change. Across America, states are outlawing animal husbandry practices considered inhumane, and businesses are offering products and services that seek to improve the lives of animals in captivity, as Fabien Tepper reported for the Monitor last year:

There are people on all sides of the issue – farmers, distributors, government regulators, animal welfare advocates, and research scientists – who concur that animal welfare is now an established and growing ethic in the US production of food. The view that food animals are simply a commodity is yielding increasingly – albeit haltingly – to the perception that these animals are also sentient beings deserving of more-humane treatment.

Not everyone agrees with where the trend is going. Some say that the move toward banning animals for entertainment purposes, for instance, deprives the public of the chance to interact with them.

“While it is noble to bring attention to improving the living conditions of all animals – from circuses to SeaWorld – to intimidate owners into political correctness and deprive us of the beauty of these beasts is simply misguided, selfish, and wrong,” Beverly Hills psychiatrist Carole Lieberman told the Monitor earlier this year.

Others, meanwhile, are calling for broader, more radical change. Gary Francione, a professor of law and philosophy at Rutgers School of Law in Newark, N.J., supports bringing to an end all industries that take advantage of animals – in particular for food. 

“Animal welfare reinforces the idea that there’s a compassionate way to exploit living things. That there’s a right way to do the wrong thing,” he says. “Incremental steps are not valid. Once you decide something violates fundamental rights, you stop.”

Despite these disagreements, “public pressure is now mounting to protect animals in a range of contexts,” Charles Camosy, professor of theology at Fordham University in New York, told the Monitor earlier this year. “The future is definitely pro-animal.”


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