Quick business trivia question: Who owns SeaWorld? Disney? Good first guess. No, Disney would rather manufacture anthropomorphic computer-generated cartoon animals with hats and shtick than clean-up after real critters. Is it the Anheuser-Busch beer brewing company and its now parent-owner InBev, making great American beers from its headquarters in Belgium? Good second guess, because Anheuser-Busch did own the SeaWorld parks, bringing to bear the knowledge of marine life that can only come from years of brewing Bud Light.
Actually The Blackstone Group now owns SeaWorld. If you thought Shamu was big, go online and behold the dimensions of the Blackstone Group private equity empire. I think they’re in business with everybody except me, and I have to call in to them about my idea for a park where dolphins pet humans in the “PeopleZoo.”
Blackstone’s purchase of the SeaWorld parks (there are three of them) and other related attractions in 2009 was viewed as possibly the largest private equity buyout of that year. But of course, Blackstone was most interested in protecting life in the seas. Oh, wait, no they weren’t. A press release from InBev and Blackstone dated October 7, 2009 contained this thought from Michael Chae, Senior Managing Director of The Blackstone Group: “Blackstone sees tremendous opportunity for investing in leading businesses within the media and entertainment industries, where we have significant expertise.”
Not much in there about saving the oceans or leaving ocean mammals alone rather than capturing them and teaching them tricks. So officially from the owners, their SeaWorld parks are about entertainment. Visit the SeaWorld website and the first thing you encounter is a slide show with these images: Child touches live dolphin, child extends arms to dolphin through glass wall of dolphin tank in pose such that they appear to be hugging, woman touches manatee, whales jump for thrilled crowd, then there’s some roller coasters… and then an attractive young couple is having dinner. Salads are visible on their plates, but please tell me they didn’t pet their entrees earlier that same day.
If one perceives the hierarchy of life on this planet to be that every other living thing is subservient to the needs of humans, then confining and training large intelligent sea creatures so they can do stunts to make corporate theme parks profitable will seem both culturally acceptable and smart. Smart because to have nature on a leash, available for a cover charge and equated into a mix of entertainment with roller coaster rides and French fries, is clearly perceived by the public as a great day for the family. Unless of course nature fires back at some point during the whale show.
Last week the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA), in its findings concerning the death of a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando during contact with a killer whale on February 24, reported that SeaWorld was responsible for a “willful” workplace safety violation. Defined by OSHA, a willful workplace safety violation is committed “with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health.” Harsh words, although the Los Angeles Times made a point of highlighting that OSHA proposed fines on SeaWorld amounting to $75,000 after a year in which the SeaWorld parks generated 1.4 billion in revenue. But even if the fines were higher, it’s not OSHA’s job to penalize SeaWorld out of existence.
Do we all agree SeaWorld has a right to exist? The argument is that these facilities bring nature in close and thus provide humans with a deeper appreciation of the wonderful variety of life in the oceans. And if that intimacy simultaneously functions as entertainment, especially if you can train the big fish to literally jump through hoops… then, daddy, you’ve got yourself an attraction.
Personally, I see no connection whatsoever between a better understanding of whales and a show where human trainers stand on the whale’s head as it jumps out of the water while exhilarating music plays. In researching the potential educational dimensions of SeaWorld, a visit to the Cousteau Society web page failed to uncover even one reference to roller coasters or cheeseburgers and their place in understanding our fragile seas. I was similarly unable to find any marine biologists recommending that dolphins or manta rays be touched for hours on end while swimming in a cement pool because it’s a much better existence for them then that boring old ocean they live in.
Some of you may have enjoyed the “swimming with dolphins” experience available at some resort hotels. You may have even experienced an epiphany as a smiling dolphin pulled you through the waters; a sense of bonding that remains with you to this day. And to this day, that dolphin likely remains in a tank where he or she continues to apply an especially well-developed mind to functioning as a swimming rickshaw for the entertainment of humans. But if you did have that special moment then you’re just who I’m looking for, because you “get” it.
You see I’m going to need about a 100 full-time swimmers and jumpers for my PeopleZoo. You’ll do tricks every day, and various sea creature visitors will fawn over you and need to fondle your exotic skin. You will not be returned to your natural habitat. You will be paid in small dead fish. You will be slightly more popular than the roller coaster and the frozen yogurt. And you shall not endanger either the guests or your handlers, because you are happy in your role as an ambassador for a facility that “takes you on a one-of-a-kind journey to the wonders that exist beyond the ocean’s door.” And by “ocean’s door” we of course mean a cement tank near the pizza wagon.