A week after a tell-all book by a disgruntled ex-trainer went on sale, SeaWorld’s gone to war with its former employee. It’s just the latest in the company’s long, strange journey in responding to “Blackfish,” a critical documentary that argues the park’s whales don’t belong in captivity.

Complaints about SeaWorld’s treatment of animals have circulated for years on a lower frequency. But it wasn’t until “Blackfish” debuted – then got boosted by airings on CNN and Netflix – that a broader audience started to question the company’s ethics.

Since then, SeaWorld has boomeranged between writing the film off and aggressively countering its claims.

Here are some of the most notable entries on the timeline of SeaWorld’s evolving responses to the film.

This ticket price cut and decline in visitors has nothing to do with “Blackfish.”

SeaWorld San Diego started offering a tasty price cut to attract midweek visitors in August 2013: a free child-rate ticket for every adult ticket purchase, a $71 value according to Bloomberg Business. SeaWorld Orlando also knocked its midweek ticket price, giving visitors a 46 percent discount.

“I’ve never seen a SeaWorld promotion that aggressive in the 10-plus years I’ve been listing SeaWorld coupons and deals,” Mary Waring told Bloomberg. Waring runs MouseSavers.com, which caters to theme park visitors.

A SeaWorld spokesman said this was a reaction to falling attendance rates falling 9 percent, but attributed the decline to higher prices, holidays and bad weather – not “Blackfish.”

“We can attribute no attendance impact at all to the movie,” the spokesman said.

Around that same time, the company saw a drop in stock price, down 6.5 percent to $29.70, which at the time was the lowest it had been since SeaWorld went public in April 2013.

Nothing to see here; move along.

As 2013 drew on, SeaWorld largely ignored “Blackfish” despite its spreading reach. It wasn’t until December 2013, when it took out full-page ads in the New York Times, USA Today and other major papers that SeaWorld appeared to be reacting to something.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, the so-called Open Letter from SeaWorld’s Animal Advocates “defends the way SeaWorld cares for the 29 whales in its corporate collection. Although it never identifies ‘Blackfish’ by name, the ad is the first step in a campaign to rebut criticisms raised by the film and the animal-rights activists promoting it.”

Battles are best fought on social media.

A couple months later, SeaWorld stepped up its online game in a big way. The company officially named “Blackfish” as its target, then used its social media accounts and a special section of its website to tell the “truth” about the parks’ offerings.

The campaign painted “Blackfish” as propaganda, not a documentary, and chastised its creators for using “emotionally manipulative” footage. Along with hacking away at the film’s credibility, SeaWorld continued to say there was value in keeping orcas in captivity.

We’re still sittin’ pretty.

Earnings announced in March 2014 gave SeaWorld a boost of confidence that “Blackfish” hadn’t hurt its baseline. In fact, the company reported record revenues and an uptick in attendance. Its then-CEO sounded almost folksy as he told investors not to worry:

“The assertions by the animal rights and animal activist community, they don’t necessarily burden themselves with fact, and we have to deal with that from time to time but we have seen no effect on our business,” SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison said.

He even speculated that the movie had increased interest in “marine mammal parks” like SeaWorld.

A month later, SeaWorld reported visitor numbers had dropped 13 percent.

It’s our constitutional right to keep orcas in tanks.

Remember the “Blackfish” bill?

SeaWorld execs told an Assembly committee in April 2014 the bill, which would have banned shows featuring killer whales and captive breeding programs, would violate the company’s rights:

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution bars the taking of life, liberty or property without due process and SeaWorld claimed robbing it of its star animal would constitute a violation of that clause.

SeaWorld said depriving the park of its star animal would represent a violation of its Fifth Amendment rights, which prevent the taking of life, liberty or property without due process.

“The ban and restrictions in the bill constitute a classic taking under the Fifth Amendment as it deprives SeaWorld of the economic value of these whales,” Wetch said. He suggested the state would be exposed to millions in legal fees as a result.

Lawmakers tabled the bill, and it’s been on the sidelines ever since.

The orcas are here to stay. But check out these new tanks!

The same week as a major stock price plunge, SeaWorld announced plans in August 2014 to build bigger tanks for its orcas. By deciding to pour several hundred million dollars into the development, SeaWorld effectively doubled down on the orca-focused image woven into its branding. (We took a look at its other options, i.e., a Shamu-less SeaWorld, here.)

Then-CEO Jim Atchison, who left his post in December 2014,  said the company had been planning the expansion for years and that it was – you guessed it – in no way caused by public pressure related to “Blackfish.”

Just two days earlier, the company publicly acknowledged for the first time that the film was having a negative impact on its reputation.

Fact check this.

March 2015 was a big month for SeaWorld’s PR team, starting with an aggressive web video and newspaper ad campaign attacking PETA and “Blackfish.” Here’s NPR:

The Web video takes aim at claims made by animal-rights activists that SeaWorld’s killer whales don’t live as long as those in the wild. [SeaWorld head veterinarian Chris] Dold refutes those claims, citing a federal scientist who found survival in the wild is comparable to survival in captivity.

“So don’t believe what PETA and Blackfish are saying. Our killer whales live lives just as long as killer whales in the wild,” he says.

That may not be surprising, though. Captive animals don’t face the dangers of living in the wild.

The campaign stands apart from previous ads in that it directly names PETA. More from NPR:

“We know that for PETA this is a long-term campaign,” says Jill Kermes, SeaWorld’s corporate vice president. “This is something they do to raise money. And they will continue to spread claims about us. And so we will continue to take them on and make sure people have all the information that they need.”

Twitter AMAs never, ever backfire.

Slate nails it: Why do companies, especially ones at the center of years-long controversies, keep trying Twitter AMAs (“ask me anything”)? SeaWorld learned a hard lesson late last month with its #AskSeaWorld campaign, where the company invited Twitter users to tweet questions for veterinarians and trainers to answer. Of course it derailed.

[fold-tweet url=”https://twitter.com/thatshowirolled/status/581559531919917056″]

It looks like the folks supervising the AMA quickly came to appreciate the full weight of their mistake.

SeaWorld later blamed PETA for spamming the campaign, noting that 70 percent of questions came from bots and animal rights groups.

You think orca captivity’s bad? Ever heard of racism?

We’ve watched SeaWorld gradually narrow its focus in responding to attacks – from broad explanations of the “truth,” to emphasizing PETA’s heavy hand, and now zeroing in on a single person, one of its former trainers.

When news about John Hargrove’s damning book first made the rounds, SeaWorld got real patriotic in its response: “This is America. He can write what he pleases,” SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs told the Orlando Sentinel. “All we hope is people who read it and are concerned … just reach out to us, come visit the park, see for yourself, talk to (employees), and then you can make an informed decision about what you’re reading.”

Then, SeaWorld got its hands on a five-minute video of Hargrove, courtesy of an “internal whistleblower.” In it, Hargrove is having a slurring, presumably drunken, phone conversation with a friend in which he repeatedly uses the N-word.

(Obviously the video below contains offensive and decidedly NSFW language, so be advised.)

https://youtube.com/watch?v=iNbqdUe15Io

“Anyone interviewing the ‘Blackfish’ star should certainly be aware of it,” Jacobs said, according to the U-T. “We are offended by John’s behavior and language. The video is particularly reprehensible since John Hargrove is wearing a SeaWorld shirt. SeaWorld would have terminated Hargrove’s employment immediately had we known he engaged in this kind of behavior.”

There’s no excuse for the language Hargrove uses on the tape, and his explanation after the fact falls dreadfully short. From the U-T:

“This was me and another SeaWorld employee who got together after work,” said Hargrove, who was also featured in the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which raised questions about SeaWorld’s long history of housing whales in captivity. “I remember parts of that night and drinking, and you can clearly tell we definitely had a lot to drink. But that video is taken completely out of context. There’s not a proper beginning or end.

But he’s maybe got a point here:

“It’s not surprising but it’s disgusting that SeaWorld would resort to this level of a smear campaign, making personal attacks.”

Sure, Hargrove is a former employee, but it’s laughable to think airing a trainer’s drunken (and disgusting) misdeeds would somehow nullify the wholly separate critiques of SeaWorld’s very structure.

Catherine Green

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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