SeaWorld’s (Slippery) Support Of The Virgin Pledge

SeaWorld has released a statement supporting the Virgin Pledge:

SeaWorld welcomed the opportunity to participate, along with similarly accredited organizations, in the six-month stakeholder engagement process on marine mammals conducted by Virgin Unite. We have always been willing to lend our expertise to any objective and science-based process that seeks to assure the health and welfare of animals living in professionally operated zoological institutions.

SeaWorld has supported efforts to protect and conserve our oceans for future generations since we first opened our gates 50 years ago. We were pleased to share this commitment with Virgin Holidays, and fully support their pledge concerning the collection of whales and dolphins from the wild — something SeaWorld hasn’t done in decades. The millions of guests who come through our gates each year are not only inspired and educated by what our parks offer, but also are key contributors to the important conservation and research we do that helps protect wildlife and wild places. We thank Virgin for recognizing the vital role zoological facilities can play in ocean preservation and conservation and look forward to working with them on these efforts in the future.

I highlighted the section about wild captures because it makes two questions pop into my head:

1) How does this statement lauding SeaWorld’s restraint regarding wild captures square with the fact that SeaWorld was part of a consortium led by Georgia Aquarium that in the past few years both captured 18 wild belugas and tried to import them into the United States?

The import permit was denied (Georgia Aquarium is appealing), which I suppose allows SeaWorld to stay technically consistent with the Virgin Pledge. Though to the extent that SeaWorld was part of the consortium that captured the belugas (even if Georgia Aquarium was acting as the umbrella for the group) I don’t think they can honestly say they haven’t “collected” from the wild in decades.

2) If protecting and conserving our oceans is linked to refraining from wild dolphin and whale captures, why stop with those species? Why not help protect and conserve our oceans by refraining from all wild captures?

Both those questions posed, I do credit SeaWorld for taking the Virgin Pledge. I also think it will have positive implications going forward, implications that SeaWorld may or may not have thought through. Having signed the pledge, plenty of people (like me) will keep an eye on the extent to which SeaWorld remains true to the spirit and letter of the pledge. And that could constrain how they pursue their marine mammal entertainment business.

For example, what if Georgia Aquarium wins its appeal regarding the wild beluga import? Will SeaWorld take its allotment of 11 belugas, and say “oh well, never mind” with regard to the Virgin Pledge? Or will it make a painfully self-interested argument that the beluga import is about conserving a wild species (even though belugas are not listed as endangered by the IUCN)? Or will it say “Hey, those belugas were caught before February 2014, so stop hassling us?”

No matter what option it chose, SeaWorld’s choice would come under extra-detailed scrutiny because it has signed the Virgin Pledge. Is it even conceivable that SeaWorld would take a look at how bringing in 11 wild belugas would look in light of changing public opinion about captivity and their support of the  Virgin Pledge, and take a pass on the wild belugas? Unlikely, I know. But these days it seems like almost anything is possible.

I can also forsee other choices SeaWorld might have to make in the future that will get extra scrutiny, and may even be constrained, thanks to SeaWorld’s commitment to the Virgin Pledge (even if the action comports with a very lawyerly, narrow reading of the words of the pledge).What about engaging in breeding loans with captive facilities that violate the Virgin Pledge? Or keeping future rescue animals for SeaWorld shows? Or breeding wild caught rescue animals, like Morgan, to increase SeaWorld’s killer whale holdings and benefit its bottom line?

That sort of analysis against the Virgin Pledge will be a very good thing. And while enthusiastically signing onto the Virgin Pledge today might yield a quick PR bump, I wonder if SeaWorld may come to regret taking the pledge down the road.

The Virgin Pledge** (**Including Loopholes And Caveats)

After months of deliberation, Sir Richard Branson has finally settled on the language of the pledge he wants captive facilities to make if they would like to continue to do business with Virgin companies. Here is how the Virgin Pledge reads:

THE_VIRGIN_PLEDGE_crop_sept_2014-1

While Branson and Virgin should get credit for at least engaging on this issue, and while this pledge would mean that a marine park can’t just buy a Taiji dolphin and continue to do business with Virgin, that’s about all it achieves. If you caught lots of wild dolphins for your shows before February 2014, no problem. If you engage in breeding loans with marine parks that capture wild dolphins and killer whales, no problem as long as the animal you are importing wasn’t wild caught (though it can be the offspring of a wild dolphin or whale, allowing your breeding program to benefit from wild captures). So the limitations it places on marine parks are quite narrow. Perhaps that’s why many, including SeaWorld, have already signed the pledge.

More problematic is the fact that the pledge is riddled with potential loopholes, for “rehabilitation,” “rescue,” and (this one could eventually be massive) “support for endangered species.”

The pledge says that rehab of injured or stranded wild dolphins or whales is okay, as long as you go to the trouble of at least pretending that you intend to try and follow rehab with release. But if you don’t happen to follow through, then feel free to go ahead and use the rehabbed animal in your shows and in your breeding program. Sorry, Morgan.

Rescue is similar. If a government authority deems your rescued dolphin or killer whale non-releasable, you are good to go. Shows, breeding, whatever.

What is not clear is whether a “rehabilitation” animal needs a government agency to say the animal can’t be released (making the animal a “rescue” animal?) in order for a facility to keep the animal. Or whether the simple declared intention to rehab and release is enough for Virgin to continue doing business with you if you decide circumstances have changed and you can’t release your rehabbed dolphin or whale. If the latter, then the “rescue” provision pretty much does nothing.

In some ways, that distinction doesn’t really matter. If Sir Richard and Virgin had dug deep enough into the issue of rehab and rescue they would have discovered that it is without question a backdoor into captivity for at least a proportion of wild animals, often with the willing assent of government authorities who for decades have sided with the marine parks over conservation groups when it comes to deciding whether an animal is releasable or not.

The last exception, “Support For Endangered Species” sounds like it could develop into a significant loophole, though we’ll have to see how Virgin chooses to interpret its language. These days, many wild captures or import permit requests claim that bringing a wild animal into captivity will help conserve it in the wild. However, most dolphin species (including most killer whale populations), and many whale species are not listed as endangered.

So what will this exception mean in practice? If the Georgia Aquarium succeeds in reversing the National Marine Fisheries Service denial of its request to import 18 wild-caught belugas, would Virgin stop doing business with Georgia Aquarium? Georgia Aquarium, notably, has not yet signed Virgin’s pledge. But SeaWorld has. Would SeaWorld be able to “borrow” some of Georgia Aquarium’s wild-caught belugas and claim this exemption by arguing it will be helping conserve wild beluga populations? If it could then the exemption will open up a pretty big door into captivity for wild-caught animals, especially as wild populations continue to come under pressure from pollution, noise and climate change.

Here’s the bottom line. Virgin says that “our core objective was to eliminate demand for whales and dolphins from the wild.” I think a fair reading of the pledge is that it could reduce demand for wild captures (and how great that reduction is will depend on how Virgin interprets the actions of marine parks according to the Pledge), but it will certainly not eliminate demand.

For all these reasons, whale and dolphin groups have issued a statement in response to the Virgin Pledge, correctly noting its limitations. Smartly, they call on Virgin to continue refining its pledge to reflect evolving public opinion on the issue of marine mammal captivity:

Although the pledge is a step in the right direction, we expected more from the Virgin stakeholder process, and we are calling on Virgin to return to the table to discuss  key future actions including a commitment to (1) work with suppliers to end shows and captive breeding programs within a specified timeframe , (2) prohibit breeding or display as part of rescue or rehabilitation programs, and (3) help develop sanctuaries or other alternative display environments that ultimately improve the quality of life for captives that may never be returned to the wild.

This is exactly the right response, and since this controversy over captivity will not go away simply because Virgin has issued its first take on the pledge, I think that the dialogue between Virgin and all stakeholders will continue to evolve over the coming years. Of course, that does not do much good for the dolphins and whales currently in captivity. But I think the Virgin Pledge reflects an important acknowledgement that there are ethical issues with regard to the current captivity model, and that changing public opinion means that the captive industry is not always a good industry to be doing business with (as Southwest and others have also concluded).  And as public opinion and awareness of the ethical issues raised by marine mammal captivity continue to build, businesses like Virgin will continue to challenge the captive industry to evolve and change for the better.

[Personal nit-pick on the Virgin Pledge: Sir Richard, in his introduction of the Virgin Pledge, says that the announcement he made in February, which set all this in motion, was that Virgin businesses would only do business with suppliers who pledge not to take “sea mammals” from the wild. Yet the pledge only applies to cetacea (dolphins and whales). So as far as Virgin is concerned it is still a free-for-all when it comes to capturing wild sea lions, walruses, and other pinnipeds for the shows. Somehow they got dropped from the pledge, and since that is the case Virgin should stop referring to the “Virgin Pledge On Sea Mammals.”  It should correctly be called be the “Virgin Pledge On Some Sea Mammals (But Not All Of Them Because People Care More About Dolphins And Whales)”].