The news: Blackfish, the award-winning, heart-wrenching documentary about the despicable conditions orca whales live in at SeaWorld parks, seems to have hit SeaWorld right where it hurts them the most: their wallet. Shares in the park operator fell by an astonishing 33% or so on Wednesday after the company reported an expected revenue drop of 6-7% this year, spooking investors who had anticipated a robust year.
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While the company was quick to blame increased competition from Harry Potter-themed attractions at competitor Universal Studios Florida, a statement on the SeaWorld website admitted that some of the decreased revenue was thanks to public awareness of SeaWorld orcas' squalid conditions. Specifically, the company said that a proposed ban in California on holding orcas in captivity was hurting ticket sales, legislation prompted almost entirely by Blackfish. FBR Capital Markets analyst Barton Crockett told CNN Money it was the first time SeaWorld has ever acknowledged attendance problems thanks to animal activism.
What's the hubbub all about? If you haven't seen Blackfish, you should. The documentary provides compelling evidence that cramped, dark and socially isolated living environments for SeaWorld orcas constitute animal abuse — and that said conditions more or less helped cause the death of three separate people by Tilikum, one of the company's bull orcas. It's full of harsh claims, including that captive orcas live 25 years compared to a natural lifespan of 50-80 and that the vast majority of captured orcas have died.
NYMag's Kevin Roose writes that the company has denied rumors of any trouble caused by the documentary all year, presenting their own version of the events and even alleging Blackfish had increased business by drawing attention to marine animals. Now after stonewalling needed changes, SeaWorld seems to have realized their business runs the risk of alienating animal-loving and environmentally friendly consumers.
Andy Brennan, an analyst contacted by the Christian Science Monitor, says that SeaWorld is underperforming even relative to comparable companies and that disastrous publicity is to blame. Adding insult to injury, Southwest Airlines recently ditched a long-standing partnership with SeaWorld after a Change.org petition with more than 30,000 signatures called on Southwest to terminate the relationship. Earlier this year, nearly every single musical act at SeaWorld's "Bands, Blues & BBQ" concert series canceled.
Why you should care: For fans of both documentaries and animal welfare, this is fantastic news. Blackfish can now proudly count itself among other documentaries that have changed the world like Harvest of Shame, Bowling For Columbine, An Inconvenient Truth and Michael Buerk's report on the 1980s Ethiopian famine.
SeaWorld's fundamental business model is now at stake, and the company may need to make drastic changes, such as radically changing the conditions of its live animals or ending performances entirely. The years of depression and de facto torture endured by SeaWorld's orcas may soon be coming to an end.