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SeaWorld Attempts to Muzzle Academic and Scientist Critical of Cetacean Captivity

Effort linked to company’s portrayal of any person or group who opposes captivity as being “radicals”

When it comes to silencing those who cause damage to their bottom line, SeaWorld clearly has no qualms with pulling dirty tricks.  At the American Cetacean Society's annual conference last November, SeaWorld defied convention and requested that a panel that included scientists who are staunchly anti-captivity not be recorded.

Now, one of those panelists is speaking out.

Orca at SeaWorld, San DiegoPhoto by Mike LiuDr Thomas White says SeaWorld’s current financial troubles are self-inflected due to its management’s failure to recognize the growing body of scientific evidence about cetacean intelligence and shifting public opinion about how animals should be treated.

Dr. Thomas White, Professor of Business Ethics at Loyola Marymount University and author of In Defense of Dolphins, is everything that SeaWorld fears — a qualified, respected individual whose book and presentations clearly illustrate why keeping animals in captivity is unethical. He was invited to speak on a panel on  captivity with Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute and two captivity proponents, one from the Dolphin Research Center and the other from SeaWorld.

Here what White has to say of his experience at the conference: "Right before the session began, we were told that the session wasn't going to be recorded [unlike all the other sessions at the conference]. I later discovered that SeaWorld had made the request."

White suspects the reason behind SeaWorld's request is linked to their portrayal of any person or group who opposes captivity as being “radicals.” It is more challenging to paint university professors as radicals, however.  "The fiction is easier to maintain as long as there's no evidence to the contrary," White says. 

White isn’t exactly a radical animal rights activist. Yes, like many animal welfare advocates, he does believe that dolphin and orca captivity is morally unethical given their emotional and cognitive intelligence. But White is also a business ethicist who believes corporations owe it to their stakeholders to be profitable. SeaWorld’s current financial troubles are self-inflected, he says, due to its management’s failure to recognize the growing body of scientific evidence about cetacean intelligence and shifting public opinion about how animals should be treated. Because it’s losing money by ignoring the writing on the wall, the company is violating its duty to its shareholders, White argues.

SeaWorld’s strategy to shut White up is common for businesses and governments alike. Take this chilling example from Canada on Bill C-51, where environmentalists, native groups and others could soon be considered and tried as "terrorists".  These words — radicals, terrorists, extremists — are part of a transparent attempt to disempower vocal critics and to remove the legitimacy and potency of their arguments.

SeaWorld tried to make sure there was no evidence of “non-radical” opposition: White's panel was the only one not recorded at the ACS conference.

In the spirit of transparency, White has posted his talk online. You can view it below, along with an introduction that further expands on his experience at the conference.

SeaWorld can try to silence the anti-cetacean captivity movement, but the truth will continue to get out whether the corporation likes it or not.

Laura Bridgeman
Laura Bridgeman is director of Sonar, an organization that advocates for dolphin and whale personhood, and Campaign & Communications Specialist at Earth Island's International Marine Mammal Project.

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How intelligent are Orcas? Very intelligent - it seems probably enough to know that they’re not made to live in captivity. Let’s debate it openly like this: . Once a bunch of pros and cons are out in the open, the right course of action will be clear to all.

By Don on Thu, March 12, 2015 at 8:38 pm

Dear Dr White,

Thank you very much for this presentation and the recording. I am very happy that you made it possible to follow on the contrary of SeaWorld’s request.

I am a psychologist/ethologist and thinking very similar way of cetaceans’ but other mammals’ captivity as well, although emphasizing that flourishing (or basic needs) question has to be answered in order to decide about ethical issues is a great insight for me.

Thank you very much!


By ZIta Fekete on Sat, March 07, 2015 at 8:05 pm

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