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SeaWorld Hopes New Orca Habitats Will Stem A Tide Of Criticism

Visitors watch an orca performance at SeaWorld in San Diego this year. The company has seen attendance slip in the year since the release of a documentary film critical of the company's captive whale program. (Reuters/Landov)

It's been a strong business year for the nation's theme parks, with a notable exception: SeaWorld.

The company, which has parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando, Fla., saw its attendance drop in recent months. The company blames that, in part, on fallout from Blackfish, a documentary film that's critical of SeaWorld's treatment of its captive killer whales.

Now, SeaWorld is trying to put Blackfish behind it, announcing plans for an expansive new orca habitat in its parks. Even so, critics say the planned moves don't go far enough — the entire industry, they argue, needs to move away from profiting from animals in captivity.

A Death, A Film And A Damaged Public Image

When the midday show ends at SeaWorld's Shamu Stadium in the Orlando park, a few thousand visitors stream for the exits.

The show's over, but SeaWorld trainers are still working with the animals that are the park's main attraction: its captive orcas, also known as killer whales. They jump out of the water onto a "slide out" where they interact with trainers, based on hand signals.

Tilikum, a large male, is SeaWorld's best-known orca. He's been involved in the deaths of three people — the most recent being trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed in 2010.

That incident is the centerpiece of Blackfish. In the film, critics such as former trainer Samantha Berg question SeaWorld's business model: using captive killer whales as attractions in popular entertainment.

"It's time to stop forcing the animals to perform in basically a circus environment. And they should release the animals that are young enough and healthy enough to be released," Berg says in the film. "And the animals like Tilikum, who are old and sick and have put in 25 years in the industry, should be released to an open ocean pen."

SeaWorld said little when the documentary debuted last year. But after CNN acquired Blackfish last fall, things changed. The network aired the film more than a dozen times — bringing it, CNN says, to tens of millions of viewers.

Perhaps even more damaging to SeaWorld, lawmakers in California took up a bill this spring that would ban using killer whales in shows. SeaWorld lobbied hard against the proposed law and it was tabled.

The company began a vigorous campaign on the Web and social media in December. SeaWorld's head veterinarian, Christopher Dold, says that was a great day for him and other staff, because it marked the moment when the company finally began telling its side of the story.

"The frustrating thing is that, at the root of the criticism, is this sense that we don't care — that we're heartless in our approach to the care of these animals," Dold says. "And that's the main thing that is wildly off-base. We obsess about this."

Plans For Expanded Orca Habitats

Over the past several months, while other theme parks did well, SeaWorld's attendance declined. Last month, the company finally conceded what many had suspected: that the debate over captive killer whales was hurting its bottom line. The company's stock price plummeted by a third.

Tuna Amobi, an entertainment analyst for Standard & Poor's Equity Research, says he believes SeaWorld will eventually overcome its current problems and is still a good investment.

"The belief is that this sentiment will wear out, and the valuation at this level seems relatively attractive, given the declines that we've seen," he says.

Days after its steep stock drop, SeaWorld took a step toward repairing its public image, with the announcement of a new environment for its whales. The new project, called Blue World, will greatly expand the orcas' habitat, Dold says. It will also add oceanlike currents and other features designed to stimulate and challenge the whales.

"This is the best viewpoint and vantage point to see that where our whales live today is a series of large pools," Dold says, standing at the edge of a pool in Shamu Stadium. "A very large habitat and facility. And Blue World is about doubling this entire space."

The expansion will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, with the first SeaWorld phase planned for the San Diego park.

Tim Zimmermann, a writer for Outside magazine and an associate producer of Blackfish, says SeaWorld seems to be acknowledging that the pools it's been using are inadequate. But the plans still sidestep key issues, he says.

"Nothing about enlarging the pools will deal with the stress and health issues associated with captivity. So, to me, enlarging the pools shows that they understand there's a problem with the environment," he says.

"But really what they're doing is tweaking their captivity model, as opposed to really taking a close look at how they could reinvent it or even transition away from it," he adds.

SeaWorld doesn't expect to open its new orca habitat in San Diego until 2018. In the meantime, it's facing a new challenge. This week, some SeaWorld shareholders filed suit against the company, claiming that it lied about earlier attendance declines and its treatment of killer whales.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's been a pretty good year for business at the nation's theme parks, with a notable exception. SeaWorld, which has parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando, saw its attendance drop in recent months. The company blames that, in part, on fallout from "Blackfish," a documentary film that's critical of the way SeaWorld treats its captive killer whales. NPR's Greg Allen has a report on how SeaWorld is trying to get past the film's bad publicity.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: At SeaWorld's Orlando park, the noon show has just ended. A few thousand visitors stream for the exits. Chris Dold is SeaWorld's chief veterinarian.

CHRIS DOLD: This is Shamu Stadium. We're standing here looking out over the front pool, where the guests have an opportunity to enjoy the show and see the whales.

ALLEN: The show's over, but SeaWorld trainers are still working with the animals that are the park's main attractions - its captive killer whales. The killer whales, or orcas, are coming out of the water onto a slide-out, where they interact with trainers.

DOLD: Tilikum is approaching the slide-out, and he's here with Trua. And so we have given the signal asking them to both slide up out of the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

ALLEN: Tilikum is a large male and SeaWorld's best-known orca. He's been involved in the deaths of three people. The most recent was trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed in 2010, an incident that is the centerpiece of the film documentary "Blackfish." In the film, critics like former trainer Samantha Berg question SeaWorld's business model using captive killer whales at attractions in popular entertainment.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY "BLACKFISH")

SAMANTHA BERG: It's time to stop forcing these animals to perform in basically a circus environment. And they should release the animals that are young enough and healthy enough to be released.

ALLEN: When "Blackfish" debuted last year, SeaWorld said little publicly. But things changed after "Blackfish" was acquired by CNN, which aired the documentary more than a dozen times, bringing it, CNN says, to tens of millions of viewers. Perhaps even more damaging to SeaWorld, lawmakers in California took up a bill that would ban using killer whales in shows. SeaWorld lobbied hard against the proposed law, and it was tabled. The company finally began a vigorous campaign on the web and social media. Dold says for him and others at SeaWorld, that was a great day, when they finally began telling their side of the story.

DOLD: The frustrating thing is that at the root of the criticism is this sense that we don't care, that we're heartless in our approach to the care of these animals. And that's the main thing that is wildly off-base. We obsess about this.

ALLEN: Over the last several months, while other theme parks did well, SeaWorld's attendance declined. Last month, the company finally conceded what many had suspected, that the debate over captive killer whales was hurting its bottom line. The company's stock price plummeted by a third. Tuna Amobi, an entertainment analyst for Standard & Poor's equity research, says that he believes SeaWorld will eventually overcome its current problems, and it's still a good investment.

TUNA AMOBI: The belief is that this sentiment will wear out. And the valuation at this level seems relatively attractive, you know, given the declines that we've seen.

ALLEN: Days after its steep stock drop, SeaWorld took a step toward repairing its public image with the announcement of a new environment for its killer whales. SeaWorld chief vet Chris Dold says a new project called Blue World will greatly expand the orcas' habitat. Standing at the edge of a pool in Shamu Stadium, he says it will also add ocean-like currents and other features designed to stimulate and challenge the killer whales.

DOLD: This is the best viewpoint to see that where our whales live today is a series of large pools - a very large habitat and facility. And Blue World is about doubling this entire space.

ALLEN: It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, with a first phase planned for SeaWorld San Diego. Tim Zimmerman, a writer for Outside Magazine and an associate producer of "Blackfish," says that SeaWorld seems to be acknowledging the pools they've been using are inadequate. But he says the plan sidestepped key issues.

TIM ZIMMERMAN: Nothing about enlarging the pools will deal with the stress and health issues associated with captivity. So to me, enlarging the pools shows that they understand there's a problem with the environment. But really, what they're doing is tweaking their captivity model as opposed to really taking a close look at how they could reinvent it or even transition away from it.

ALLEN: SeaWorld doesn't expect to open its new orca habitat in San Diego until 2018. In the meantime, it's facing a new challenge. This week, some SeaWorld shareholders filed suit against the company, claiming that it lied about earlier attendance declines and its treatment of killer whales. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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