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Read the correspondence between the Animal Welfare Institute’s Marine Mammal Scientist and SeaWorld’s CEO in a new blog post on our sister blog Final Days of Conventional Wisdom.

 

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Zhonghongnomics 101

Confused over who takes possession of Blackstone’s old SeaWorld stock when Zhonghong defaults on a loan? We’ve created an easy to understand chart for you.

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Fox World Malaysia. Photo credit: Danny Yap

This just in from Asia….

Back in December last year I wrote about the Disney acquisition of FOX:

One of the biggest unknowns surrounds the Fox World theme park currently being built at Resorts World Genting in Malaysia. Construction is well underway, but would Disney allow a Fox-only theme park operated by a company that operates a Universal Studios-licensed park in nearby Singapore to exist? I expect that over the next six months, we’ll find out the fate of the Malaysia park – if it will continue as is under its current contract, or if Disney will sink its participation in the project faster than the Titanic attraction going into it, causing Genting to seek out another (or multiple other) studio(s) to partner with.

Well, it took a little longer than that as today Genting filed a lawsuit against Fox and Disney for many alleged acts of evil deedery. Click here to read the initial filing. I’ll share more about the case as the courts make more available.

Meanwhile, in Asia….
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Wang Yonghong’s photo in the China Rich List 2015. Credit: Forbes (he was worth $850 million at the time)

It appears that Wang Yonghong remains in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong. He’s the owner of Zhonghong Zhuoye Group, the majority shareholder of Zhonghong Holdings, in case you didn’t know. I’d say he’s also the majority shareholder of SeaWorld Entertainment, but things are afoot behind the scenes that I’m not yet ready to discuss. Statewide, while Yoshi Maruyama retains the position of Chairman of the Board at SeaWorld Entertainment, it appears that he is no longer doing so as President of Zhonghong Americas LLC.

As for Zhonghong Holdings, the stock delisting process started on Friday, November 16 and will be completed on the final trading day of the year, December 28. A government mandated meeting with creditors that had been scheduled for November 16 has been postponed indefinitely due to Zhonghong just not having the documentation and analysis ready to deal with the hundreds of parties that filed against the company as creditors.

And now, a short break for a behind-the-scenes look at how rumors become news.
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The internet is full of passionate people. When that passion conflicts with statements on the internet, the outcome resembles a rabid raccoon stuck upside down in a trashcan full of cocaine. Although I know a Loro Parque staffer I was speaking with was joking about the name, I figured what the hell, and posted this photo on Facebook with the caption, “Newly released photo of Baby Ingrid at Loro Parque.” 43,000 views and 28 followers banned.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Welcome to the funhouse known as ThemedReality.

Two executives within a company involved in the proceedings told me that Six Flags was in talks to purchase all or or part of SeaWorld Entertainment. I was given permission by these individuals to post this information on grounds of anonymity. I was given additional information confidentially by these sources, but I adhere very closely to my six rules, so don’t expect those juicy tidbits to be shared until they’re public record.

The first thing I did after speaking with these executives was to attempt to contact the corporate PR directors at both chains for comment. I didn’t receive a response from either and made the decision to post the statement on the Facebook page and monitor feedback.

Now, if you look at the disclaimers that appear on both this blog and its accompanying Facebook page (in the Our Story window), you’ll see that:

. . . READERS ARE ADVISED TO CONSIDER STATEMENTS MADE BY ANONYMOUS SOURCES AS SPECULATIVE

Within an hour after posting, a follower of ThemedReality who happens to be a self-proclaimed expert on orca captivity, and who operates a website with the domain www.fromthedolphinspointofview.com, decided to tip off a reporter with the Orlando Sentinel. Although the reporter appears to have looked at the Facebook page, she never contacted me (though I must credit her for attempting to contact the theme park operators). Neither did individuals reporting on my post for the Orlando Business Journal and Orlando Weekly. In journalism, contacting a source before running a story is called due diligence and it’s part of the vetting process.

Yet, although this practice may not be the norm in Orlando, once the Sentinel article had hit the newswires and become international news, I was contacted by a number of major publications from the US, Canada, and the UK (it’s not that hard to contact me, even if it’s through a Facebook or twitter instant message). I explained to these reporters how this was a non-news story, that it should be considered nothing more than rumor, and a statement too broad and ambiguous to accurately interpret. They all agreed and it did not run in those publications.

One of the more interesting comments I found on a discussion thread accused me of panicking when I wrote two additional Facebook posts – one breaking down and analyzing the statement and the other disclosing that I do not own stock in either company – a preemptive move as the non-news mainstream media spread rumor had now bumped up share value at both companies. While this individual may call it panic, I call it being responsible. But I’m thankful for the hyperlinks in his comment to my posts. I learned a long time ago that the more people you piss off or get to ridicule you, the more likely it is that someone opposed to your stance will link to your post. And more links = more hits. It doesn’t really help me out financially. I’m not making $58,200** doing this. I’m not running ads on the blog (if you see ads, the money goes to WordPress), and I’m not in it for the notoriety. After all, this blog and its Facebook page are nothing more than my personal opinion and observations (it’s in the disclaimer), which is why, for the life of me, I have no idea why this small little blog nobody’s ever heard of recorded 72,000 hits in the first ten months of the year. Someone must be reading.

So now, this thing’s gone national. There’s analysis on message boards, videos are being made, and even the Motley Fool’s weighing in. What I found most interesting in following this is how many people took the statement verbatim. Everything I read was off the mark – with the exception of analysis by the website Behind the Thrills, where I’m an occasional contributor. The site’s owners were kind enough to not only contact me, but to enter into lengthy discussions about what I could share with them. But as strange as this might sound, the bloggers that took their information from or plagiarized Behind the Thrills still got their facts very wrong.

So how can this be?

Without breaking confidentiality, I can share one of the techniques I use when researching a personal blog post or a professional article that I’m writing for the day job. Often, it’s a matter of reading between the lines, looking at how words are grouped, and finding the message that isn’t on the surface.

In the Facebook post, I wrote:

Reliable sources inform me that Six Flags Entertainment Corporation is in talks to purchase all or part of SeaWorld Entertainment. More as details become available.

I never mentioned who Six Flags was in talks with.

Now, in all fairness, if Six Flags, SeaWorld, or another company involved contacts me and states on the record that talks never took place, I will gladly post a correction. But three weeks after the initial posting, that has yet to happen.

Finally, in Asia…..

Osaka has been named the host city of the 2025 World Expo. Congratulations!

The blog Disney and more writes that this is huge news for Universal Studios Japan, located in Osaka, and very bad news for Tokyo Disneyland. I couldn’t disagree more, and here’s why.

The error lies in a gross misunderstanding of the business of world’s fairs and their impacts on local tourism economies. Whereas Olympic Games welcome the majority of their visitors from foreign territories, World Expos invite local populations to see the best that other countries have to offer.

For the 2025 Expo, organizers anticipate just over 28 million visitors – 3.5 million from foreign territories and 24.7 million from Japan. Japanese are very loyal to the Tokyo Disney Resort and it’s highly unlikely that a visit to Osaka would result in not visiting Disney, rather that Disney would be scheduled for a different trip. Many of these local visitors will be visiting the Expo on a day trip basis (Osaka is only 3 1/2 hours from Tokyo via bullet train), and therefore will probably hit Expo but leave Universal for another holiday.

As for foreign visitors, based on travel patterns from past world expos (and most of the foreign visitors to Osaka are anticipated to be from the Asia-Pacific region), they are expected to make multi-day, multi-city trips involving the Expo along other cities and attractions across the country, including Disney.

Another important factor is the kind of visitor to World Expos, which tend to be multi-generational families, and both Disney and Universal have figured out how to cater to that demographic. So, based on visitor composition, it could go either way based on preference – and the same problem exists in Japan as in the Southern California and Orlando market for families with limited time – Mickey Mouse and Wreck-it Ralph or Harry Potter and Nintendo?

**$58,200 is how much the US government paid an orca expert for a few months of research that was ultimately canceled. I’ll explain how and why in a future post.

Death Knell for Zhonghong

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As I write this, I’m awaiting word from the Chinese authorities on whether or not Zhonghong Holdings will be the first company to be delisted from a Chinese exchange for trading under 1 yuan for over a month. At today’s exchange rate, 1 yuan is aproximately 14 US cents. Zhonghong Holdings holds the exclusive license to develop SeaWorld branded parks and entertainment centers in China, Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan,

Meanwhile, a development just as big is taking place. China Securities Journal reports that Zhonghong Holdings’ 33 billion yuan of unpaid loans are being auctioned off. At today’s exchange rate, that’s US$4,762,890,000. According to the report, buyers are less interested in taking on the debt, so much as there are in acquiring the collateral – the Zhonghong Building in Beijing.

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Now the SeaWorld shares owned by Zhonghong Zhuoye are safe from what’s happening to Zhonghong Holdings – kind of. And I’ll get to that in moment.

First though, some quick background. As I’ve mentioned before, Zhonghong Zhuoye and Zhonghong Holdings are two different companies. Zhonghong Holdings is a publicly traded real estate development company. Zhonghong Zhuoye is the private investment company that owns a sizable stake each of  Zhonghong Holdings and SeaWorld Entertainment. So technically, they’re different companies and this is where things get tricky.

When looking at Zhonghong Holdings’ attempts at expansion, one thing becomes evident: it wanted to be like its competitor, Fosun.

Fosun co-founded and funded the film and television company Studio 8, after which Zhonghong Holdings entered into a partnership to try and acquire DreamWorks Animation.

Fosun partnered with Fortress Investment Group to develop senior housing in China. Then Zhonghong attempted to purchase Brookdale Senior Living in the US. It could not secure the financing and ended the attempt. After which, Fosun invested in Brookdale.

Fosun bought Club Med, Zhonghong followed by buying luxury travel company Abercrombie and Kent.

Most importantly, a year before Fosun opened its Atlantis Sanya resort in Hainan, a co-venture with Kerzner International, Zhonghong Zhuoye paid 33% above market to purchase Blackstone’s remaining shares in SeaWorld. As part of the deal, Zhonghong Holdings got the license rights for China.

Now there is a victim in all this – and that’s SeaWorld Entertainment. The company had nothing to do with the Zhonghong Holdings situation. It didn’t determine who bought the stock – that was Blackstone. And as for the rather lucrative shareholder and licensing agreements that were signed – David D’Alessandro was the Chairman of the Board at the time the agreements were formulated, and he was a Blackstone appointee. In fact, he had been appointed Chairman of SeaWorld’s Board in 2010, when the company was 100% owned by Blackstone. If you consider Blackstone and Zhonghong to be a rock and a hard place, then SeaWorld was indeed between a rock and hard place.

By all indications, Zhonghong Zhuoye’s not doing so good either. A good portion of its assets are tied up in Zhonghong Holdings and were frozen by the courts. A year ago, the auction house Christie’s sued Zhonghong Zhuoye’s owner Wang Yonghong for HK$120 million (US$15,357,600 based on the exchange rate of Sept 25, 2017) for the amount due on a Chinese vase won at auction.

With Zhonghong Holdings not being in a position to build SeaWorld parks, those contracts will likely be dissolved. And without the contracts in China, Wang most likely will want to increase his equity, and that’s done through the sale of his shares in SeaWorld.

But wait! There’s more!

Because Zhonghong’s tale is the gift that keeps on giving.

To finance the purchase of that 21% of SeaWorld stock, Zhonghong took out two external loans.

The first wasn’t technically a loan. Zhonghong Zhuoye issued 10,000,000 Class B preferred shares of Sun Wise UK to China Huarong Investment for $100,000,000. Sun Wise is the dummy company Zhonghong Zhuoye created to purchase the SeaWorld stock.

So why does China Huarong matter?

Meet Lai Xiaomin.

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He was arrested yesterday after a lengthy investigation by Chinese authorities. Charges include bribery and his firm dolling out billions of dollars in loans to companies they allegedly knew were unable to repay. His corruption trial is expected to be the biggest yet in modern Chinese history.

Lai Xiaomin was the Chairman of China Huarong at the time the SeaWorld shares were purchased.

And continuing….

PAG (formerly Pacific Alliance Group) loaned an additional $150,000,000 for the purchase. I highly suspect that Zhonghong Zhuoye, if it has not yet, will default on a loan payment to PAG. Around the middle of August, colleagues of mine in China began telling me to look for something happening between Zhonghong  and PAG (though they weren’t sure if it was Zhonghong Holdings, which has had business dealings in the past with PAG, or Zhonghong Zhouye). About the same time, a mysterious page appeared on the SeaWorld Entertainment website, only to be taken down the same day:

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A few days ago, I posted on the ThemedReality Facebook page that I had been informed by reliable sources that Six Flags was in talks to purchase all or part of SeaWorld Entertainment (click on the Disclaimer tab above for my policy on anonymous sources. A similar disclaimer appears on the Facebook page). The one line post was picked up by national news (I guess the elections and Jeff Sessions resigning weren’t important enough) and there were quite a few naysayers, which I’m comfortable with, since I advocate free speech.

Now, I have no reason to doubt my sources. At the same time, I understand the reasoning behind those that do doubt the statement.

If you look at the statement of Six Flags and SeaWorld strictly as a domestic transaction, it makes little sense.

But it does make sense if it’s part of a global strategy.

Teir 1 parks are a growth market in China. The biggest submarket of those are marine life parks – places like Atlantis Sanya, Chimelong Zhuhai, and Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park, which is opening next week.

In Hainan alone, which is now a visa free tourist zone for visitors from more than 50 countries,  we can expect eight to ten large scale aquariums and marine life parks within the next decade on an island the size of the US state of Maryland.

The 2017 AECOM/TEA Theme Index gives us an idea of how many people visited the two flagship SeaWorld parks last year: 3,962,000 in Orlando and 3,100,000 in San Diego. During the same period, 5 million people visited Hong Kong’s Ocean Park, while 9,780,000 visited Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai, up 15.5% from the year before.

Without a doubt, the world’s most well known marine life park brand is SeaWorld. Whoever has control of the SeaWorld brand in China stands to make significantly more than they would off the SeaWorld branded parks in the states. Owning a significant amount of shares in SeaWorld makes it easier to secure those licensing rights.

Six Flags talking with SeaWorld? It’s about much more than Six Flags Tampa Bay.

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BREAKING (10/19/2018): Today, trading of Zhonghong Holdings has been suspended by the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. The Exchange has begun the process of delisting the stock, which it must finalize within 15 days. Once completed, Zhonghong Holdings will become the first company to be delisted on a Chinese exchange. As of close yesterday, its stock was valued at CN¥0.74 or US$0.10 per share.

Zhonghong Holdings holds the exclusive license to SeaWorld branded parks in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Its largest shareholder is Zhonghong Zhouye Group, the privately held investment firm owned by Wang Jihong, which purchased Blackstone’s 21% stake in SeaWorld Entertainment.

On Tuesday, Wang tendered his resignation as Chairman and Director of Zhonghong Holdings, as did Zhang Jiwei, the company’s President.

At this time, there has been no reportable direct impact on SeaWorld Entertainment’s ownership or board composition as a result of these changes. Updates will be posted on the ThemedReality Blog and ThemedReality Facebook page (Facebook.com/themedreality) as this story progresses.

Check out this new post on ThemedReality’s sister blog, The Final Days of Conventional Wisdom

https://finaldaysofwisdom.wordpress.com/2018/10/18/final-days-synopsis-on-the-expanding-future-of-killer-whale-exhibition/

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A warning for fans of John Hargrove: This is not a touchy, feely appreciation of Mr. Hargrove. It examines statements made by the animal rights activist counter to his claimed cause. All of his statements come directly from his social media accounts.

A warning for SeaWorld and marine life supporters: This post will paint individuals you are opposed to in a positive light. This is not an endorsement, but rather a matter of fact – leading animal activists are often among the first to be contacted by government agencies to assist with rescues.

A note about racism: Two paragraphs down, I will be quoting Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda. This is not an endorsement of the ideology in any way. My grandparents’ cousins, uncles, and aunts were all killed during the Holocaust and I do not take racism of any kind lightly. The quote is being used because it perfectly exemplifies a concern of mine not related to the actions of the Nazi party. In this post, I will not be addressing claims of racism with regards to Mr. Hargrove. The introduction of the video wherein Mr. Hargrove uses a racist term was an act of deflection by SeaWorld from the publication of his book, rather than an act of defense against its contents. I have addressed this matter elsewhere on this blog and do not feel it pertinent to the immediate matters at hand and, thus, will not be revisiting it.

A note on orca sanctuaries: In December 2017, I wrote a blog post on why building a whale sanctuary in the Pacific Northwest was a bad idea. A number of people, including some key members of the Whale Sanctuary Project’s board, construed this to be a statement against the construction of a whale sanctuary altogether. That was never the intent, nor ever mentioned in the piece, which I continue to stand by, especially after the incident involving a fuel barge this past July in West Vancouver.

Since I get asked by some, while others just assume, here’s my personal stance on sanctuaries: I am strongly supportive of any facility that provides superior care and space for any animal. Where I become critical is when political agendas override the animals’ needs, and I have concerns that with apex animals such as elephants and orcas, it may be a case of, as Joseph Goebbels stated: ““He who controls the medium controls the message. He who controls the message controls the masses.” In this case, the species at hand is the medium.

For one such species, orcas, a number of populations are dying out. If you are currently in college, chances are that the AT1 Alaskan transient pod will be extinct within your lifetime. The pod is now devoid of females as a result of one of the largest marine ecological disasters in US history.

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If you’re currently in college, there’s a very good chance that during your children’s or your grandchildren’s’ lifetimes, the J, K, and L pods of the Southern Resident population will also die out.

We know the earliest capture for exhibition from the Southern Resident population took place in British Columbia in 1964, when Moby Doll was harpooned and then displayed by the Vancouver Aquarium. By comparing hydrophone recordings taken at the sea pen of Moby Doll with the distinct calls of the Southern and Northern Resident pods, Canadian cetacean researcher John Ford determined that this first capture came from the Southern Resident J pod. Over the next decade, J pod would lose roughly 1/3 of its population to capture for public exhibition.

According to an EPA study of the Salish Sea, 66 whales were counted during the first comprehensive orca survey of the Southern Residents in 1973. By 1995, that number rose to 98. It has decreased again – now at 75 (including Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium, listed under the ESA with the rest of the group) at the time of this writing.

It’s easy to blame SeaWorld and the rest of the marine life parks for the current situation facing the Southern Residents, but that’s one small part of a bigger equation. The Salish Sea, where the whales live, is an unhealthy environment – the result of poor management by a number of Federal, State, Tribal, and local agencies over decades. This is the next great ecological disaster on the level of Yellowstone and the Everglades.

According to the EPA’s “Health of the the Salish Sea” report, between 1984 and 2010, the chinook salmon (food for the orcas) population decreased by 60%; between 2008 and 2011, 23 new species indigenous to the Salish Sea were added to the Endangered Species list; marine dissolved oxygen is showing a long term decline in the waters of Puget Sound and in the deeper waters of Georgia Strait – this results in less oxygen available for marine life; 10 of 17 rivers surveyed that feed into the Salish Sea have shown decreased water flow during summer, impacting mineral deposits into the ocean needed for life.

And there’s the dam issue – caught up in a bureaucratic whirlwind. Which raises the question – if a breeding generation of young orcas had not been taken away, would the Southern Residents be in the predicament they are now?

Likely, without proper ecological management, a larger population would create a greater problem as we would now have more individuals vying for the same diminished amount of food.

Which is why NOAA decided to do something about it, bringing together experts from around the world to help and keep an ailing Southern Resident, J50, alive. And yes, that included veterinarians from SeaWorld and the Vancouver Aquarium.

NOAA convened two sessions to discuss the rescue efforts, one at Friday Harbor and the other in Seattle. With J50 being declared deceased, these were turned into public comment sessions, both of which (especially the Seattle one) quickly turned into SeaWorld hate sessions.

There is nothing wrong with exhibiting disgust at a company and asking it be removed from the partnership group due to its past actions, but throughout the sessions and through social media, a number of conspiracies came to light, none of which were presented with undeniable evidence. Among the most popular:

  • SeaWorld has paid off NOAA to allow them to capture J50 and keep her permanently at a SeaWorld park.
  • SeaWorld has paid off NOAA to jeopardize the rescue plan (IMHO, a very poor PR move on SeaWorld’s part, were it true)
  • SeaWorld has paid off NOAA and is currently running the rescue operation.

While it’s great to vent, the reality of the situation is that we should be looking at this as a post-SeaWorld issue. As Pete Bethune pointed out from the microphone in Seattle, this is really a matter of poor ecological management. The whales are a symptom of a sick ecosystem. One of my favorite conservation programs in the world was based on this principle. The SeaDoc Society, which was also a partner in the effort to rescue J50, was developed by the University of California, Davis Veterinary School to monitor and treat the Salish Sea as one large biological entity.

Whether SeaWorld is involved or not shouldn’t matter unless somebody has definitive proof of malfeasance. As hundreds cried foul, few noticed or mentioned one member of the rescue team who can be seen over the NOAA employee’s shoulder in the very beginning of this video stream:

So yeah, Ingrid Visser was out on the rescue boats. But it doesn’t matter. And yeah, Jeff Foster was out on the rescue boats. But it doesn’t matter. And yeah, NOAA announced at both sessions that the plan if they had to capture the whale was to take it to a Fisheries lab that had both a hard pool and a sea pen and that once rehabilitated or showing signs it could not be, it would be returned to its pod – that they had no plans to permanently capture her. But it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because SeaWorld was there too.

So where does this rumor come from that SeaWorld was paying off NOAA?

Most likely, a Sept. 12 piece in the Seattle Times, where former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro is quoted as saying, “What the heck is NOAA doing, accepting money from Sea World over the past few years? Was that ever told to the public?”

In the paragraph prior to his statement is a link to a press release from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation showing 2017 grants for research on wild orcas and orca conservation issued by NFWF and funded by a partnership of SeaWorld, Shell, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. It’s impossible to tell without requesting an audit what amount specifically came from SeaWorld. Of the grants and matching funds, $560,631.00 went to two NOAA studies. This is out of a total of $2.18 million for eight overall programs.

And that is how SeaWorld bought NOAA.

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“He deliberately left you your boat because he wants to fight you alone on the sea.”

— Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling) “Orca” 1977

Crackin McCracklins is right! And, to add water to fire, the Whale Sanctuary Project cannot successfully acquire and transfer SeaWorld’s whales without the cooperation of SeaWorld.

So, two things are either happening here. Either Mr. Hargrove is aware of some deal going on between the Whale Sanctuary Project and SeaWorld, or, more likely, he’s typing faster than his brain can compute logical connections.

Here’s a good example of how that works.

I’m not an animal rights activist, but I know two important precepts of animal rights:

  1. It is based on the ideals of human rights and the two are very intertwined.
  2. If you make a name for yourself arguing against mother whales being separated from their calves, you can’t ignore the same thing happening to human beings in your country (unless you happen to be an avid Trump supporter, which Mr. Hargrove emphatically is).

Thus, on the Fourth of July, as a lone human rights activist scaled the Statue of Liberty to protest the Trump Administration’s separation of migrant children from their parents, we got this:

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I’ve spoken with a number of full time animal rights activists in the aftermath of the Whale Sanctuary Project tweets. Carly Ferguson, President of Canada’s Ontario Captive Animal Watch gave similar sentiments to the others I spoke with when she said, “We’re very disappointed. Such messages are counterproductive to the future welfare of captive animals.”

Regarding his book, his appearance in Blackfish, his legislative testimony, and time as an expert witness for OSHA, Cal/OSHA and PETA (I’m inclined to mash the three into a superclient of his I’ll call POSH), he’s served a purpose for a movement. But maybe it’s time for that movement to move on. I’ve previously addressed Mr. Hargrove (yes, that’s him I’m referring to) in this piece on Barnum. David Neiwart’s excellent piece on why you can’t defend orcas and Donald Trump simultaneously is included within.

I should point out that Mr. Hargrove has blocked me from social media for some time. And that’s fine, that’s his right. But that hasn’t kept others from sending me tweets and posts over the years. Some, like the above, I include here because they were posted publicly. Others, such as Mr. Hargrove’s debate with a follower over Trump and the merits of the Holocaust, were posted under a privacy setting and I have made the decision to not make those discussions public.

For the Whale Sanctuary Project, losing Mr. Hargrove’s endorsement can be a mixed bag. When I review his social media posts, interviews and book, I see a pattern developing of an individual who not only is out to pay retribution to his former employer, but as an addict to captive orcas, rarely speaks beyond “his” whales at SeaWorld, Marineland, and Loro Parque (and Lolita, for whom he was paid $90 an hour to speak) – a man who does not understand that in the intrinsically connected world of the whales, saving the wild ones is just as important. A man, who by my interpretation of his tweets, would rather a whale die in the wild than have SeaWorld involved.

On the other hand, Mr. Hargrove has a lot of followers. Perhaps you’re one. Many of these followers believe every word he expunges.

So now the conspiracy is out there – The Whale Sanctuary Project is in cahoots with SeaWorld.

“We’ve all become great admirers of your work around here, but all good things must come to an end.”

— Randolph Johnson (August Schellenberg), “Free Willy” 1993

 

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I invite those I’m questioning in this post to respond. Answers will help direct future posts.

For Merlin Entertainments:

In your October, 25, 2112 letter to NOAA Fisheries objecting to the receipt of 18 wild-caught belugas by the Georgia Aquarium and its partners, Janine DiGioacchino wrote:

“. . . . cetaceans are not suited to captivity…no matter how spacious or well-designed
the facilities.

“They are wide-ranging, highly intelligent and social animals which suffer acute
sensory deprivation in any kind of unnatural confinement.”

If this is how the company feels about cetaceans, does it feel this way about other wide-ranging, highly intelligent and social animals? If so, why are you keeping and breeding just under a dozen gorillas at a theme park on the outskirts of London?

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For Zhonghong Zhuoye and Zhonghong Holding:
  1. Did your subsidiary Sun Wise UK default on paying its $150,000,000 loan issued by Pacific Alliance Group (PAG) and applied to purchasing Blackstone’s shares of SeaWorld stock? If so, is PAG taking ownership of those shares?
  2. Sources working within the attractions industry tell me that you announced the location of your first Chinese SeaWorld-branded park without first notifying SeaWorld that you had determined a location. Is this true?
  3. Why did you make an announcement on the 28th of this month that Jiaduobao Group and Yinyi Capital had agreed to invest equity in Zhonghong Holding, when the result was Jiaduobao announcing that it had never signed an agreement with you and Yinyi announcing that it was unaware of the contents of the agreement?
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For WDC:
  1. At the same time you were working on releasing Chinese belugas to a sanctuary, were you aware, as a member of the China Cetacean Alliance, that two wild-caught belugas had been transferred to Atlantis Sanya in October of last year, along with twelve (according to Ceta-base: 6 bottlenose, 4 Pacific White-sided, and 2 pantropical spotted) dolphins captured and transferred from Taiji earlier this year?
  2. Were you aware, as the adviser to Thomas Cook on cetacean welfare, that, regardless of the fact that the owner of this resort also has an ownership stake in Thomas Cook, the travel agency was planning to sell packages to Atlantis Sanya?
  3. Is there a reason, being that you are the adviser on cetacean welfare to Thomas Cook (per publicity issued both by yourself and Thomas Cook), that you did not ensure the company did an advance assessment of the facility prior to including it in its sales portfolio?

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For PETA:
  1. If it’s still called Barnum’s Animal Crackers, doesn’t it still pay homage to Barnum and his circus menagerie?
  2. Did you notice how the new art is reminiscent of classic circus art designed to deceptively pull in audiences by showing animals living together in the wild (see slideshow below)?

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  1. Was this a grassroots PETA campaign, or did you piggyback on another group’s work, as I’ve been told you’re prone to do?
  2. Did you forget about the statement you made regarding The Greatest Showman (accessible via this prior blog post of mine)?
  3. Considering you’re PETA, do you even care that your victory is incomplete?

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At the beginning of July, a strange rumor started circulating on social media: In the shadow of the death and funeral of its owner, John Holer, Marineland of Canada, near Niagara Falls, had secretly shipped two of its beluga whales to China. Some of the posts and tweets stated that the sale and transfer was not a rumor, but a fact.

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The social media posts stemmed from a July 3 report in the Chinese government-controlled media. It reads, and this is a rough translation:

“A few days ago, Guiyang Customs escorted two beluga whales to the remote animal world isolation animal quarantine site in Longchuan, Hubei Province, and began a 45-day quarantine.

“It is reported that the beluga whales came from Canada, entered the Beijing Capital International Airport, and then transferred to Guiyang, and Guiyang Customs sent a staff to Beijing to carry out the whole process of quarantine supervision. Due to the long transportation time and the hot weather along the way, in order to ensure the safety of beluga whales, the customs officers responsible for quarantine quarantine and disinfect the contact personnel, quarantine sites and shipping vehicles, carry out full video surveillance of the unloading process, and package the whales. The objects and bedding are treated harmlessly. After 46 hours of long journey, after ensuring that the beluga whale is in good health and there is no trauma on the body surface, the beluga whale is safely placed in the isolation culture pond.

“In order to welcome the beluga whales, Guiyang Customs set up a working group for the quarantine supervision of the incoming beluga whales, organized professional and technical personnel to carry out quarantine supervision, arranged special personnel to follow up the disinfection vehicle pass, and implemented the site permit in advance, and went to the enterprise to isolate The quarantine-related system conducts policy announcements and prepares adequately.

“The white whale mammal is a national secondary protected animal because it likes to “sing” and is also called “sea canary”. The establishment of white whales in Guizhou will further enrich Guizhou’s species resources and add vitality to Guizhou’s tourism”

SCENARIO 1

The article clearly stated that “It is reported that the beluga whales came from Canada…” Since there’s only one facility in Canada that houses belugas – Marineland – there was no question where they could have come from. The easiest way to verify this would be to ask the park itself. After an email inquiry wasn’t responded to, I called the park directly, only to be thwarted by former Marineland trainer turned anti-Marineland activist Phil Demers.

Now, I’m not trying to be a dick, but this is what really happened. Demers has undertaken the practice of posting on social media everytime he hears about a possible injury, illness, or death of an animal at Marineland. As a result, his followers deluge Marineland with calls to inquire about the condition of that particular animal. And the park operator hangs up on them. You can actually find videos online of people filming themselves calling Marineland and being hung up on.

About 24 hours before I called Marineland, Demers hit twitter.

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So I called Marineland. I gave my name, gave the names of a few mainstream publications I write for, asked to speak to a media representative about the two belugas in China reported to be from Canada, and was promptly hung up on.

On my second call, I was told by the receptionist, “Tell your buddy Demers we record all his lies.” Then she hung up again.

And thus began an investigation involving eight attractions and tourism industry colleagues in the United States, Canada, Russia, and China.

The first thing we did was to contact Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada, the two agencies that would issue export permits for belugas. Neither had, which was confirmed by a conversation with an animal rights advocacy group conducting its own investigation. At that point, we knew it wasn’t Marineland.

SCENARIO 2

The line in the report that the beluga whales came from Canada was our only clue. We could rule out potential capture by First Nations or other parties due to the lack of export permit.

Taking a different approach, we kept in mind that when interpreting Chinese, words or groups of words can have different meanings.

Could this mean that the belugas originated in Canada, but were exported from a different country? This would include any belugas originating at either Marineland or Vancouver Aquarium and their offspring. We also looked into L’Oceanografic in Valencia, Spain, which is managed by the Vancouver Aqurium and houses a mating pair of beluga and their calf.

When we concluded our inquiries, all American and Spanish belugas were accounted for, so we ruled out this scenario.

SCENARIO 3

Then came a bombshell.

A government tourism analyst in Beijing told us that the photo op and article were staged. At his request, we are sharing his statements here strictly on grounds that we maintain his anonymity due to his position within the government.

Government staged propaganda is common in China to promote goodwill towards projects or opportunities. And a lot of it is fake. For example, even before Shanghai Disneyland opened, a number of provincial and municipal leaders staged press conferences surrounded by local teens wearing knockoff Disney costumes, where they announced that Disney had entered talks with them to open the next Disneyland in China. Far from the truth, but the ultimate goal was to build up corporate investment, particularly from overseas investors, in those regions.

So why stage a photo op of what appears to be a happy beluga whale flirting with customs officers? (It looks authentic. Not only are those actual customs outfits, but that’s an actual facility that we have photos of from a few years back, although this one was a photo we haven’t seen before).

According to the analyst, the news story was designed to counter two recent stories about belugas that the government deems negative.

The first involved a trainer applying lipstick to a beluga at a Dalian aquarium.

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The second involved the news that Merlin Entertainments would be moving its two belugas from Shanghai to a sanctuary in Iceland. According to the analyst, “The government is against this. The whales have become a vital part of economic development throughout the country. When a new aquarium opens, Chinese people expect to see the whales. The operation is often considered a disappointment if they are not there.”

One major factor that turned around government sentiments for Merlin’s export of the whales was a 2015 commitment by the company to increase development of attractions, such as Madame Tussauds and Sea Life, and build LEGOLAND theme parks throughout the country. However, although the sanctuary announcement was major news in Hong Kong and Taiwan, its coverage in Mainland China’s mainstream media was minimized.

Just how important are whales and dolphins to China’s economy?

My associate Michael Giskin, founder of China Orca News, has compiled this list, which is accurate as of the time of this post. Keep in mind while you’re reading this that we have estimated that on average, one new facility with marine mammals is opening in Mainland China every single month.

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SCENARIO 4:

This is the real story about the beluga whales that were shipped from Canada.

They were not from Canada.

They did not originate with Canadian owners.

They were not part of a publicity stunt.

On June 8, the two belugas departed Russia

From June 9 to about July 31, the belugas were at an unknown location or locations while the 45-day quarantine period began

Around July 1, the two belugas arrived at Colorful Guizhou City Polar Ocean World

On July 3, Chinese media reported on the arrival of the belugas, reporting erroneously that they were from Canada.

On July 23, the 45-day quarantine period was completed as one of the two belugas departed Colorful Guizhou City Polar Ocean World

On July 25, one of the two belugas arrived at Ganzhou Polar Ocean World

We know that  the transferred beluga is female with a given age of around eight years old. Often a year or two might be fudged on the age to make it appear younger. As the Russian government increases its crackdown on illegal captures, which is driven more by who’s a friend of Putin rather than actual animal welfare concerns, documentation and media reports within Russia on marine mammal export to China become harder and harder to find. A seven to nine year old beluga could have come from either a facility or a live capture – although much younger whales are generally preferred for capture.

We have suspicions that these two may have originated at the Utrish Marine Station, part of the collection of 18 belugas held for the Georgia Aquarium. There were two females, one each from the 2010 and 2011 captures, that would currently be in that age range. Keep in mind though, that right now,  my statement on the whales coming from the Georgia Aquarium collection is purely speculation and we will keep investigating. If you decide to pass it along as fact on social media, that’s all on you.

As for the whales being reported as having come from Canada, Michael has an interesting theory – someone told the reporter that wild belugas can be found in Russia and Canada and he got confused.

A simple mistake that set off a storm.

Special thanks to Michael Giskin, Annie Wong, and the entire research team.

thomas cook page

Look, I don’t know Luke Steele. I’ve never met him, never heard of him before I wrote my blog post about Thomas Cook and Fosun.  I think I hurt his feelings, because after all those months of campaigning to get Thomas Cook to drop SeaWorld and Loro Parque, some smart ass California moron (that would be me) says “Yeah, but why aren’t you addressing this?”

I know a few animal rights activists and talk with them once in a while. Some of them, like Howard Garrett and Naomi Rose and Ingrid Visser – when they celebrate victories and someone asks “Yeah, but why aren’t you addressing this?”, they answer “We celebrate this now. We celebrate more victories in the future, like that one.”

Steele doesn’t appear to understand this concept, which is an inherent central attribute of activism of any kind. Instead, as mentioned before in this blog, he intentionally sought out anywhere my post was shared in social media and attempted to paint it as a false claim.  I wonder if Steele in his insecurity realizes that in telling activists that the Thomas Cook/Fosun relationship is untrue, he’s actually not only failing in his effort to vilify me, he’s also claiming that animal rights activists are complicit to a lie – a lie well founded in documentation.

But there’s one comment that just blew me away, though not directly tied in with my post:

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Glad somebody liked his comment. Now Steele is correct. Thomas Cook has no responsibility over what Fosun does…

…strictly from the standpoint of business law. (By the way, Mr. Steele, Fosun is not an investment bank. It’s an investment firm and there’s a HUGE difference).

From an animal rights activism standpoint, Steele has absolved Thomas Cook of the responsibility of meeting its stated animal welfare objective and has thrown hundreds of animal rights activists and their efforts under the bus. Bravo.

But Thomas Cook made a public commitment towards animal welfare which, although they are a for-profit company, places them in the public trust for this topic.

In December 2016, Thomas Cook CEO Peter Frankhauser wrote:

We know that for many people, animals in captivity of any form is unacceptable. However, it is a sad truth that many captive animals cannot be safely returned to the wild. Tourism has a big role to play in raising standards for those animals during the transition to ending the practice of capturing animals for entertainment, and ending practices that are known to harm animals.

The 2017 Thomas Cook sustainability report states:

Beyond our auditing efforts, it is key for us to create a step change in our industry
towards higher welfare attractions in our industry.

To that end, we are committed to promoting and developing sea sanctuaries as a financially sustainable, higher welfare attractions which can provide a long-term alternative to captive whales and dolphins.

So here’s a question: Why would Thomas Cook tell both SeaWorld and Loro Parque that if they passed their audits, they would continue to be sold, only to announce they were being dropped at the same time Thomas Cook started selling packages to a dolphin resort owned by a company that is both in a joint venture with Thomas Cook and owns a portion of the British travel company itself?

You might need to read that two or three times to take it all in.

Now understand, I’m not out to disparage Fosun. I have some issues with where they sourced their animals (Taiji, Russia), but I leave it to you as to how you feel about Atlantis Sanya.

As Steele pointed out, Thomas Cook is an independent company that sets its own policy.

And Steele is correct in that Thomas Cook does not finance marine life parks….

…at least directly.

So Thomas Cook should have no role in affecting the operation of a marine life park that it shares an owner with.

Except there’s precedent….

Remember when both Merlin Entertainments and SeaWorld Entertainment shared a common owner – investment firm Blackstone Group (which is kind of the American version of Fosun)?

Well, this happened:

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While Steele was busy scouring the internet to protect his manhood from the emasculating nature of my post (it must have been the profile of that white sided dolphin), Dolphin Freedom UK took the opposite approach. Using my post as a springboard, along with their own research, they reported about the potential conflict on their blog, which then went viral in its own right.

The result of their effort? Thomas Cook announced that it will audit Atlantis Sanya.

I have this fear that perhaps Thomas Cook isn’t being so honest about its commitment to animal welfare. Its stock is about half the value it was a year ago.  Part of me wonders if this is an attempt to bring in a new audience – the animal rights audience – to supplement losses in other markets. Part of me wonders if the sudden dropping of orca parks was an attempt reminiscent of SeaWorld, where Joel Manby suddenly ended orca breeding in a not-well-thought-out effort to quiet animal rights protesters.

If Thomas Cook is being sincere, I don’t know if just audits for certification are enough. The ABTA guidelines for cetaceans in captivity can be found here. I don’t think it’s enough for a company pledging to protect animal welfare to just make guidelines available and say whether a property has passed or failed its audit.

Even as a for-profit company, once you dedicate yourself to a public cause, you develop a public trust, and that trust requires transparency.

I urge everyone, no matter what your view on captivity, to contact or petition Thomas Cook to make those audits publicly available. If the company is to share whether a facility passes or not, it should also tell us why, help us know what’s wrong with it so that we can work as a community to improve the lives of the animals who live there, regardless of our feelings on captivity.

And while you’re at it, see if they have any checks that need to be delivered to Luke Steele.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why someone hired by PETA, an organization that preaches “Animals are Not Ours to Use for Entertainment,” would go to such lengths to deny Thomas Cook’s association with a dolphin park that it shares owners with.

PART THREE WILL RUN TOMORROW. HOW A SINGLE LINE IN A CHINESE NEWS REPORT PUT A CANADIAN THEME PARK ON THE DEFENSIVE