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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

 

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There are a lot of things I want to cover today that aren’t related to marine life parks, but I want to get these three stories out of the way while they’re still relevant. I’ll have a separate post towards the end of the month covering Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi, Two Bit Circus, California Trail at the Oakland Zoo, and new coaster experiences at Europa-Park and Liseberg. Today’s post will be split into three different ones posting throughout the day. And now, some breaking news.

SEAWORLD: INCREASING NUMBERS FROM THE OUTSIDE, FEWER NUMBERS ON THE INSIDE

For the first half of 2018, SeaWorld reported increased attendance and revenue (although there was actually a loss in revenue for the first quarter due to severance payments for a number of executives). The company has gone back to its roots and is operating its destination parks in Florida and California as if they were regional parks, pushing annual passes in the local market and building up events year round to pull those pass-holders back in, which increases both attendance and per cap spending in the parks.

The policy of adding a new attraction or show every year in each park is one that has proven successful for both Six Flags and Cedar Fair, again promoting return visits, which lead to increased annual pass sales. The increased regional attendance has filled the void created by a loss of tourism from foreign territories in the prior few years.

In the company’s filing with the SEC were a few juicy morsels. Here are a few of them:

On February 27, the day after he resigned, Joel Manby received a lump cash payment of $6.7 million. Yeah, that’s a lot of money for a company trying to cut costs. But I’m not surprised. The annual report’s exhibits include an amendment to the contract for Denise Godreau, who left the company after just over a year of employment as the Chief Marketing Officer. The amendment offered her up to $2 million to purchase a house.

These next two come straight from the 10Q. We’ll be addressing this later today, when I look at Thomas Cook, PETA, and the ethics of animal rights and welfare:

“Negative publicity can also impact our relationships with our business partners and ticket resellers. For example, in July we were informed that one of our ticket resellers in the United Kingdom will discontinue selling SeaWorld-branded tickets beginning in July 2019. Although we do not expect this decision to have a significant impact on our business nor do we currently consider this to be a material trend, we continue to monitor any such items that could impact attendance trends. As a reminder, historically, aggregate attendance from the United Kingdom represents approximately 5% of our total annual attendance.”

But first, I’m going to address this:

“We are exposed to the risk of loss in the event of non-performance by such strategic partners or other counterparties. Some of these counterparties may be highly leveraged and subject to their own operating, market and regulatory risks, and some are experiencing, or may experience in the future, severe financial problems that have had or may have a significant impact on their creditworthiness. For example, in April 2018, it was reported that an affiliate of ZHG Group was experiencing financial distress. The inability of affiliates of ZHG Group to pay amounts due to us or otherwise fulfill their obligations to us under their agreements with us, including the ECDA and/or the CDSA, could have an adverse impact on us. In addition, the sale or transfer of our common stock owned by affiliates of ZHG Group, or the perception that such sales or transfers could occur, could harm the prevailing market price of shares of our common stock.”

So there are two companies named Zhonghong.  One is Zhonghong Zhuoye Group (ZZG), a private investment firm. The other is Zhonghong Holdings Group (ZHG), a publicly traded real estate development and tourism company. Both are in China. ZHG has the license to develop SeaWorld parks in China. ZZG owns Blackstone’s former 21% stake of SeaWorld Entertainment.

Zhonghong Zhuoye holds a substantial amount of stock in ZHG and the financial woes of the latter greatly impact the stability of the former. On April 17, I reported the following on the ThemedReality/Final Days of Conventional Wisdom Facebook page.

Some news on Zhonghong Holdings, the company developing SeaWorld-branded parks in China. Zhonghong Holdings predicts an expected loss for its first quarter (Jan 1 – Mar 31, 2018) of 300 million yuan (US$47,731,500). This is in comparison to the same period last year, which saw a profit of 8.95 million yuan (US$1,424,437.25 based on today’s exchange rate). For those of you not adept at math, the ThemedReality Computronic Gizmo computes that to be a staggering decrease of 3451.96% for first quarter profits from 2017 to 2018.

Here’s more fun with numbers. Zhonghong Holdings also released an amended estimate for fiscal year 2017 (Jan 1 – Dec 31) of a loss of 248 million yuan (US$39,463,000), down from a 2016 profit of 157 million yuan (US$24,990,475). The ThemedReality Computronic Gizmo computes that to be a drop of 1679.13%.

So questions have arisen among some of the card-carrying members of the ThemedReality Universal Team of Helpers (TRUTH) as to whether or not Zhonghong Holdings will be able to pay off its loans, due within two years, for its 90.5% stake in British tour operator Abercrombie and Kent. The loans consist of a US$77.5 million loan from Zhonghong Zhouye group, a major Zhonghong Group shareholder (whose shares in the company keep getting frozen by Chinese courts) and the owner of a 21% stake in the US theme park company SeaWorld Entertainment, and another US$335 million in interest bearing loans from non-Chinese banks. The company’s lack of profit precludes it from using earned revenue to pay of the principal on the loans.

On the same day, April 17, I also reported:

According to the ThemedReality Computronical Gizmo, Hill Path Capital now owns just over 28% of SeaWorld Entertainment, which, according to the ThemedReality Computronical Gizmo, is also more than the 21% stake that Zhonghong Zhouye Group purchased from Blackstone. Hill Path Capital is the investment firm of SeaWorld board member Scott Ross (the investment banker, not the famed harpsicordist). At Apollo Global Management, Ross played key roles in the acquisition of both Chuck E Cheese and Great Wolf Resorts, both of which were turned profitable and then sold off by Apollo (a corporate version of house flipping). Then again, the ThemedReality Computronical Gizmo is an abacus held together by duct tape….so there’s that…

Although the proxy material sent out by SeaWorld to its shareholders eight days after my Facebook post stated that Hill Path owned 15.3% of common stock, a small footnote indicated that SeaWorld’s figure was based on a November 2017 filing. If my figures are correct, Hill Path is now the largest shareholder of SeaWorld Entertainment and the staff layoffs that took place the day after 2nd quarter earnings were announced is a strategy straight out of the Apollo playbook.

One thing that differentiated this staff cut from others is that it wasn’t simply a matter of eliminating one individual and consolidating their responsibilities into the duties of another just to save money.  This one was very well thought out (the advantage of having a Chief Strategy Officer onboard, it seems).  Quite a few middle managers were eliminated and the process of parlaying information and data between the top and bottom of the heirarchial personnel structure has been streamlined.

This is usually done in anticipation of a sale, as an efficient HR structure is more appetizing to potential suitors and minimizes issues with staff integration during an acquisition or merger.

A number of my contacts in Hong Kong and China have advised me to expect an announcement within the next week or two by Zhonghong of a sale to Hong Kong-based investment firm Pacific Alliance Group (PAG).  However, I’m hearing different details as to what that sale entails.

In one scenario, PAG purchases Zhonghong Zhyoue’s shares in Zhonghong Holdings. This is a risky move based on three factors:

  1. Chinese courts have frozen ZZG’s shares in ZHG from being traded.
  2. The shares are basically worthless.
  3. It was announced yesterday (August 14) that Chinese regulators were investigating ZHG for filing fake financial records.

More likely, PAG could purchase ZHG assets, which include the luxury tour company Abercrombie & Kent, some nice real estate, and the exclusive SeaWorld license for China.

Most likely is this scenario, which is based on the highly probable belief that ZZG may have missed one or more escrow payments to Blackstone and defaulted on their contract for the stock sale.  If this is the case, then the 21% stake of SeaWorld that ZZG owns is being transferred to PAG.  And if Hill Path sells its shares to PAG, then PAG will end up owning almost half of SeaWorld.

And there’s one other little surprise. CLICK HERE

That’s right. If it’s scenario three, we’re back at the beginning.

Still to come: Marineland smuggles a pair of belugas to China and PETA’s mouthpiece gives Thomas Cook immunity

 

Trolls

This is gonna be a very long post, so grab your Starbucks, your Timmies, or your Shotter (for my British readers, Coffee Shotter is a vegan coffeehouse/cafe in Croydon that’s been highly recommended by friends).

THE THOMAS COOK/FOSUN POST

On July 29, I wrote a blog post about Thomas Cook’s relationship with the Chinese company Fosun. Within two days, it had been viewed 40,000 times. I wasn’t expecting that. I usually get double digit readership, on rare occasions, triple. Obviously, this post certainly hit a cord with a number of people. And to think – this blog is simply a place for me to share my thoughts and observations.

What happens after that is just humanity in motion.

HISTORY OF THEMEDREALITY

I am a journalist covering the attractions industry. That is my profession (click on the “disclaimer” tab above. Readers should understand that this is a personal blog and is independent from any professional work I do). For the past seven years, I have professionally written extensively about theme parks, waterparks, wax museums, haunts and Halloween mazes, giant screen theaters and planetariums, virtual and augmented reality, museums, zoos and aquariums, cruise ships, and casinos for trade publications read by attraction designers and operators.

In February 2013, I started this blog. It was a way for me to examine the industry and the aspects of it that interested me in a voice unique from that of the trades. Most of its earlier posts were written in a sarcastic and sardonic fashion, often with a wink at individuals working within the industry.

On November 3 of that year, Blackfish aired on CNN. I was following the comment stream on SeaWorld’s Facebook page as the entries became vulger with wave upon wave of obscene comments – to the point that SeaWorld shut down comments altogether on the page with a note about it being “family friendly.” I blogged about this. But I wanted to understand more about why this happened. Upon request, I was sent a press DVD of the film by the distributor and watched it over and over, and I bought a copy of David Kirby’s book “Death at SeaWorld.”

These led me to write the paper “Dissecting Blackfish,” where I examined how the editing and writing of the film and Kirby’s book were designed to meet narrative goals. I recently reexamined “Dissecting Blackfish” and found it to be a horrible piece of work – not in its content, but in the writing and context, which were both poorly executed by myself. If I were to write it now, it would come out a completely different document.

I HAVE A SECRET AGENDA – HERE IT IS

Following the release of “Dissecting Blackfish,,” I was contacted by a number of leading zoo and aquarium professionals, as well as a number of animal rights activists. Somewhere in this process, I realized that if I was going to understand the issue of captivity, I had to open up and listen to both sides.

Over the past five years, I have established strong friendships with quite a few animal rights activists and also with a large number of zoo and marine life park staff and supporters.

There are quite a few on both sides that remain skeptical about my intentions and, although we may not see eye to eye on most everything, they have proven to be courteous and respectful individuals who want to hear what I have to say while sharing their thoughts in a direct two-way dialogue (much appreciation on this front to FJ and HG for our lengthy and informative chats).

Then there are those who have opted to villianize me, which is fine.

To the park lovers who find me a traitor, I’m an agent of PETA (because many actually believe PETA runs the entire animal rights activism movement. I’ve been told by friends of mine active in the animal rights movement that this is because PETA allegedly takes credit for others accomplishments. I use the term “allegedly” because PETA has never taken credit for anything I’ve done).

To the animal rights activists who can’t stand me, I’m on SeaWorld’s payroll (which would be nice, because if SeaWorld payed me for the amount of personal blogging I’ve done on my own time and at my own expense about cetacean parks, including posts that aren’t quite complimentary to the company, I could probably afford to visit SeaWorld more than once every twenty years).

I am neither an animal rights activist nor an anti-cap.

I am also not a die hard zoo or marine life park fan who believes that such places can do no wrong.

I believe that zoos and aquariums can and do serve an important purpose, but I also acknowledge that many animal exhibitors should not be in operation and that quite a few facilities, even some reputable ones, practice antiquated husbandry techniques.

I believe that zoos and aquariums need to reevaluate their mission – how they exhibit and care for their animals, how they develop and implement educational programming, how they establish conservation programs to protect animals, plants, and ecosystems in the wild, and how they fund this all.

My agenda is simple on this blog – I share what I see on a variety of topics. Not just animals. Readers are welcome to do with that what they want or to discard it altogether.

That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

I sometimes quote individuals as sources – some I name, many ask for anonymity due to the nature of their work and the political situation of the country in which they reside. All numbers given in the blog come from publicly available documentation.

HAINAN

For the past seven years, I have been covering the attractions industries in China and Russia both professionally and as a blogger. As a result, I have gained some very strong connections in both countries.

This past June, I wrote an article about Chimelong Group expanding into Hainan. This is an important milestone, as to date, Chimelong has concentrated on its three resorts in Guangdong Province – Chimelong Guanzhou Resort, home to the company’s original park, Chimelong Safari; Chimelong Zhuhai Resort, home to Chimelong Ocean Kingdom; and Chimelong Qingyuan Forest Resort, the 13.5 square mile animal park and resort being built in the mountains.

Now, Chimelong, which in 2017 saw more people attend its five Guangdong parks than Six Flags saw in all of its 20 North American parks, is going to build a huge resort based around marine and terrestrial wildlife in Hainan. Word is that it will likely be in Ledong, a two hour drive from Sanya, home to two major marine life parks – Atlantis Sanya and R&F Ocean Paradise (set to open next year). How will these two resorts be impacted by Chimelong’s entrance into the market? I was researching this when, on July 16, Thomas Cook announced a strategic partnership with the Hainan government “to promote international tourism to Sanya.”

In short, a major shareholder of Thomas Cook owns a three-month old luxury marine life park in a market that Thomas Cook has just agreed to promote. Thomas Cook has a huge role in  Fosun’s larger long-term entertainment/tourism strategy. On July 4, Fosun applied with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange to spin off its Tourism and Culture Group into a separate publicly traded company, with assets including Atlantis Sanya, Club Med, Thomas Cook China, and the Chinese operations of Cirque du Soleil.

And then the SeaWorld decision came down from Thomas Cook and puzzle pieces started fitting together. I’ll explain in a moment, but first…

A SHORT DISCUSSION ON TROLLS…BROUGHT TO YOU BY PETA

I began two other blogs as offshoots of this one – “The Mid-Cap Chronicles” and “Final Days of Conventional Wisdom” – to focus primarily on the issue of animal captivity and exhibition. I also started a Facebook discussion group on cetacean exhibition that grew to over 2,000 members from both sides, created an hour long video examining the business situation at the five North American parks housing orcas, and maintained a Facebook page which proved a great platform for discussing issues with both park supporters and activists. It also became a page where I could share real time updates on natural disasters, something of concern to me, such as the week I spent monitoring and reporting on Florida’s zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries during and after Hurricane Irma, monitoring for more than 24 hours when the storm hit South Florida. Suffice to say, all this has taken its toll and I’ve been downsizing my blogging and social media posting this year.

While doing all this over the past few years, I’ve encountered plenty of internet trolls and haters. They’ve never angered me, just annoyed me. And it was easy to deal with them.

But a certain reaction to the Thomas Cook/Fosun blog post piqued my curiosity. When people started posting links to it on their Facebook accounts and in Facebook groups, I started receiving messages from them about what appeared to be a troll attempting to discredit my blog. Upon examination, it turned out neither to be a troll nor a hater. It turned out to be a man trying to defend his life’s work. And who it was fascinated me.

Luke Steele (and I am quite envious of the fantastic name) is a successful and well known animal rights activist in the UK. He is a consultant to PETA UK and played a key role in the group’s Thomas Cook campaign.

In one comment, Steele wrote:

This is a blog by somebody who says their objective is to stop any threat to the entertainment industry, including bans on orca breeding. Of course somebody of that mindset isn’t going to be applauding this decision.

In another, he attempted to discredit the entire blog post with a simple explanation:

This is untrue. Thomas Cook is ending involvement in all captive orca attractions across the globe, including SeaWorld and Loro Parque.

In all kindness, I won’t go so far as to call Mr. Steele a liar, but I will point out that his claims are both false and intentionally misleading.

“This is a blog by somebody who says their objective is to stop any threat to the entertainment industry…”

As somebody who has over twenty years experience in hospitality and attraction management, I’ll share a simple truth. If a company or park goes out of business, it’s either due to poor operations or because management is unable or unwilling to adjust to a changing market. I’m not in the business of saving entertainment companies. They go out of business all the time.

To be clear, my objective has never been to “stop any threat to the entertainment industry,” as Mr. Steele claims, and I’ve never stated as such. I have, however, opted to bring attention to some key threats to the industry. As we’ve seen with the #metoo movement, the biggest threats to the entertainment industry are internal. I’ve addressed that with a number of blog posts – on issues ranging from the wild capture of dolphins and whales for aquaria to the legal ramifications of pedophiles in waterparks, racism, and this one on homophobia, which I was excited to see one of my colleagues reference during an on-stage discussion with Greg Louganis at an entertainment industry summit (the video is on YouTube).

As for stopping “bans on orca breeding,” Mr. Steele undoubtedly missed the January 1, 2014 blog post which originally appeared here and was later moved to The Mid-Cap Chronicles, wherein I advocated for an end to orca breeding and choreographed shows, and the construction of bigger spaces for the whales. I also expressed my concerns with swim with dolphin programs in this post (which, like it or hate it, also included my opinion on why Blackfish was snubbed for an Oscar).

This was seven months before Blue World Project was announced, more than fifteen months before the hiring of Joel Manby, and more than two years before Manby and Wayne Pacelle announced an end to orca breeding. Just in case you doubt the date it was posted, you can also access the piece archived on the ThemedReality blog via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

As for the second comment, I’m not certain what Mr. Steele is saying “is untrue.” If it’s the Thomas Cook/Fosun blog post, then he’s alleging that publicly available information filed with a number of regulatory agencies has been fabricated as part of some big conspiracy by a number of governments in Asia and Europe with the cooperation of Canada.

However, I’m just being hypothetical, as I’m certain Mr. Steele, as accomplished and compassionate as he is, could never be as conspiratorial as someone like, say, Donald Trump, or Moby (it’s true – look it up).

The second part of his statement, “Thomas Cook is ending involvement in all captive orca attractions across the globe, including SeaWorld and Loro Parque” is absolutely true, and it wasn’t denied at all in the Thomas Cook/Fosun blog post.

I fully acknowledge that Mr. Steele and his team worked long and hard to achieve this goal.  But I’m left wondering, based on Mr. Steele’s fabrication of facts about my blog, my writing, and my intent, how honest that campaign was in its dealings with Thomas Cook and the thousands of animal rights supporters who signed petitions and donated money to PETA.

Frankly though, I’m not bothered. I’m just wondering.

TRUTH AND TRANSPARENCY

Both Thomas Cook and Steele have something in common – they both hid the truth in order to achieve their goals. How they did it was accomplished in different ways, for there are many different ways to hide the truth.

Steele created a fraudulent dialogue to protect his achievement, something which could be considered a blemish on PETA UK’s integrity.

Thomas Cook simply hid the truth through omission. Even if it never sells tickets or packages to Atlantis Sanya, two facts remain:

Thomas Cook announced a major promotion to the market where Atlantis Sanya is located just days before stripping two major marine life park companies who met the Thomas Cook guidelines at the time they were audited of their involvement in its programs.

At the same time, regardless of whether or not Thomas Cook ever sells any tickets or packages to Atlantis Sanya, every ticket or package it sells to anywhere results in a portion of Thomas Cook revenue going directly to Atlantis Sanya’s owners, as that company, Fosun, also owns a sizable stake of Thomas Cook.

THE THOMAS COOK TAIJI CONNECTION

Now, I will briefly discuss the dolphin captures and kills in Taiji, Japan. It has been pointed out by a number of people on the internet that Atlantis Sanya’s ten dolphins were captured at Taiji. This is true. And it is also true that over the past five years that SeaWorld, Loro Parque, and almost every major zoo and aquarium association globally have condemned the practices executed at Taiji, as have PETA and PETA UK.

Now here’s where it gets tricky – from a business standpoint, there is no requirement that Thomas Cook disclose its relationship with Fosun and Atlantis Sanya within its blogs, press material, social media, or websites. Moreover, Thomas Cook’s animal welfare policy is now founded on two principles – that there be no captive orcas and that facilities meet ABTA standards of animal welfare. And, as difficult as this may be to believe, the captures at Taiji actually meet ABTA standards for the wild capture of cetaceans.

But there’s something else – integrity, transparency, and honesty work hand-in-hand with truth when a company is marketing itself from a platform of taking the moral high ground. Sadly, in my opinion, these traits are lacking from Thomas Cook’s announcement of its dropping of SeaWorld and Loro Parque.

There’s a whole other part to the story, involving the relationship between Fosun and SeaWorld shareholder Zhonghong, but that’s for another post.

I’ll just end with a quote from one of my favorite authors, the great Geoffrey Chaucer:

Savour no more thanne thee behove schal;
Reule weel thiself, that other folk canst reede;
And trouthe schal delivere, it is no drede.

Duck Duck Death

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It had become evening and it had started to rain.

The group of tourists had traveled around town on board the duck. Now they wanted one last thing – to go in the water in this amphibious tour vehicle that was combination bus and boat.

The duck’s “Captain” told them over the loudspeaker, “we’re going to attempt to go in the water now. I don’t know how long we can stay there because a storm’s coming in and it’s starting to get dark.

“As a reminder,” he added, “there are life vests above your seats, but you won’t be needing them since the duck is very safe and sturdy. We just keep them there to meet government regulations.”

Once in the middle of the body of water, the storm hit. Passengers felt the strong gusts, pushing waves into the cabin. They saw lightening strikes only a few miles away and loud thunder echoing off the water. Then the engine flooded and stalled.

DuckTour

This was my experience riding the Discovery Channel Ducks in Baltimore in 2002, stranded in the Inner Harbor during a thunderstorm until another (non-duck) boat could come and rescue us. I’ve never been on a duck again.

When news came this past week of the deadly incident in Branson, it refreshed memories. It was only a matter of time.

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The company that operated both the Branson and Baltimore duck tours, Ride the Ducks, was established in 1977 by Bob McDowell in Branson, Missouri. He started off modifying World War II amphibious landing craft into tour vehicles, later building custom vehicles from start to finish in his plant, many of which were sold to other tour operators.

In 2002, McDowell began partnering with Herschend Family Entertainment, then based in Branson, which financed the duck tour expansion to Baltimore and other markets. Then in 2003, Herschend’s new CEO, Joel Manby, made his first major acquisition. Herschend became the new owner of Ride the Ducks.

For the most part, duck tours have operated safely over their 40 year history, but there have been some major accidents, including one that took place during Manby’s tenure at Herschend.

In July 2010, just two months after Manby appeared on the CBS television show Undercover Boss as a crew member of the Stone Mountain, Georgia Ride the Ducks, a Ride the Ducks vehicle in Philadephia suffered an engine fire and became stranded in the middle of the Delaware River, where it was hit by a barge, pulling it underwater and killing two passengers.

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In 2012, Herschend and the tugboat operator pushing the barge reached a $17 million settlement with the surviving passengers and the families of the deceased.

Deadly incidents involving ducks have not just been restricted to water. In another Philadelphia accident, this one in 2015, a duck hit and killed a 68-year old woman crossing the street.

Perhaps the most well known incident prior to last week involved Ride the Seattle Ducks, an independent operator using vehicles from the Branson plant. In 2015, the front axle of a duck sheared off and it veered into oncoming traffic on a bridge.

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The duck collided with a tour bus carrying foreign students, killing five of them. The vehicle’s manufacturer, Ride the Ducks (the company Herschend had purchased in 2003), was fined half a million dollars by the National Transportation Safety Board, with an additional half million in fines to be allotted if federal investigators found further violations of safety laws.

By the time of the fine over the Seattle incident, Ride the Ducks was no longer a Herschend subsidiary. In 2012, the year of the settlement over the Philadelphia collission, Herschend spun off Ride the Ducks as a separate company, maintaining a minority share and selling the majority to an undisclosed private investor.

Last year, the Branson tour operation was sold to the Jim Pattison Group of Vancouver, British Columbia, which has been operating it under its Ripley’s Believe It or Not! division. It was this location from which the duck that sank last week, killing seventeen, departed.

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As for the Baltimore location, it was shut down in 2009 by Herschend, amid local attempts to unionize the operation. According to a Sept 10 article that year in the Baltimore Sun, the union said employees’ “concerns primarily focus on safety, including scheduling breaks so operators weren’t taking back-to-back tours, as well as the safety of the vehicles themselves.”

Amphibious landing craft are fantastic for trained soldiers and marines to invade shores, but they’re just not designed for tourism. The shape of the front of the vehicle and the high elevation of the driver have resulted in numerous collisions. A number of duck operations don’t require seatbelts and, as for life vests, the ducks have traditionally operated within the minimum requirement of the local law. So, while we see Manby putting life vests on passengers at Stone Mountain in his Undercover Boss episode, he’s only applying them to children. At the time of filming, Georgia state law required ages 10 and under to wear life vests on waterborne moving vessels. In 2013, following a number of drownings the prior year (not duck related), the age was increased to 13.  As you can see in the following photo, adults are not required to and often are not seen wearing life vests on the Stone Mountain ducks. In most locations, such as Branson, they are made available, but never worn by passengers – both adults and children.

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What happened in Branson is just the latest in an ever-increasing chain of deadly accidents. In due time, a deadlier accident will take place. It’s just a waiting game.

There’s only one way to prevent it from happening – it just might be time for the duck boats to do what duck birds do – head off into the sunset.

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News out of the UK media today is that Thomas Cook is dropping SeaWorld and Spanish animal park Loro Parque from its ticket and package sales services.

And if you’re a touchy, feely, save the animals type, you must be giddy with joy that Thomas Cook recognizes what you know to be the pain and suffering of captive animals.

Which could only mean one thing….

….You don’t know Thomas Cook.

You see, Thomas Cook is 12% (up from an initial 5%) owned by Guo Guangchang, one of the wealthiest men in China, with a net worth of around US$7.6 billion.

He is the founder and Chairman of Fosun.

Fosun owns a 25% stake in Cirque du Soleil, which includes its recent acquisition Blue Man Group.

LA Premiere of Cirque du Soleil's "KURIOS - Cabinet of Curiositi

Fosun also owns an 85.6% stake in resort chain Club Med.

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In 2016, Fosun and Thomas Cook launched a joint venture – Thomas Cook China, to provide travel services to affluent Chinese tourists. Fosun owns 51% of the new company.

As I’m writing this on July 28, twelve days ago, the same Thomas Cook that’s, according to the British media, dropping SeaWorld and Loro Parque, announced a strategic partnership with the government of Hainan Provence to promote tourism to the emerging Sanya market.

And what’s in Sanya?

The recently opened US$1.74 billion Atlantis Sanya, owned by Fosun and managed by Kerzner International, a resort company controlled by the royal family of Dubai.

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And at Atlantis Sanya, you can find this fellow (the one on the left):

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And these guys. You can even swim with them for a fee.

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And this guy (the one swimming in the back, that is):

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And these guys too:

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So if you think Thomas Cook is sending a lesson to marine life parks, they really aren’t. They’re just dropping emphasis on one part of the world as they prepare to support the marine life industry in another through their partner Fosun. It’s the head on the other side of the dragon you’re not seeing.

As for Hainan, there are at least six major aquariums and theme parks with whales and dolphins that have either just opened, are under construction, or are under development for the island. Imagine six resorts the size of SeaWorld Orlando – or larger – in an area the size of the US state of Maryland.

That’s a lot of cetacean parks for Thomas Cook to sell tickets to.

 

 

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SeaWorld Gets the Deep Blues

Joel Manby’s out as SeaWorld’s CEO, replaced in the interim by long-term company executive John Reilly. The company’s Chief Creative Officer, Anthony Esparza, is also out. At the same time, Mike Denninger, another company veteran, has been promoted to Senior Vice President of Attractions. Is this a case of the old guard regaining control of the company and kicking out the new guard?

Yes and no.

Esparza is quite a talent – just look at his achivements for Herschend Family Entertainment. But his departure is indeed a byproduct of Manby’s resignation, as he was one of the highest profile Manby hires.

On the other hand, rather than replacing Esparza, Denninger’s promotion appears to be a consolidation of job duties within SeaWorld’s Deep Blue Creative design studio, picking up the slack created by the departure of Brian Morrow, who ran the US theme park design division in conjunction with Denninger.

Morrow’s departure to open his own design studio, b morrow productions, which had been months in the planning, had the unfortunate timing to coincide with the departures of Manby and Esparza, making it appear to some that the departures were all related – which they were not.

So, to summarize the current situation at SeaWorld’s Deep Blue Creative design studio:

  • Joel Manby out
  • Anthony Esparza out as a result of Manby’s departure
  • In a long-planned retirement, Brian Morrow leaves to establish own company
  • Mike Denninger promoted to consolidate his duties with Morrow’s.
  • To the best of my knowledge, John Linn, another veteran from the company’s Busch Entertainment Days, continues to run the Global Theme Park Development division.
  • Up in the air remains Steve Iandolo, Vice President of Resort Development, and another Manby hire from Herschend.
  • Nancy Hutson, Corporate Vice President of Events and Entertainment, left the company in December to become a Production Consultant for Norwegian Cruise Lines.
  • In October 2017, Crystal O’Hea, Senior Director of Expedition X, moved to SeaWorld’s marketing department, where as Senior Director, Brand Experiences & Innovation, she is responsible for, among other things, integrating the company’s Park to Planet marketing campaign. Expedition X was the part of Deep Blue Creative that sought to identify trends, innovative technology and unique partners who can boost SeaWorld’s creative firepower.

This leads to a few questions:

  • Has Deep Blue Creative been eliminated with its various divisions rerouted to other company departments?
  • Or has it been downsized to concentrating on attractions and resorts?
  • And with the departure of Esparza as CCO, who’s running the overall design studio?

Is the old guard taking control and the Manby folks parting ways a good thing? Depends on what you consider a good business plan. If you’re against captivity, then any business that holds animals has a bad business plan. If you’re a SeaWorld fan, then you can hope for the best and a return to what made you a fan to begin with. Ironically, one of the biggest questions I receive comes from both animal rights activists and SeaWorld fans: will the company resume the breeding of killer whales?

Stateside, that’s a bit of dilemma. Although breeding is now illegal in California, it is still permissible in Texas and Florida. The company would need to walk a fine line on the public relations front after having voluntarily committed itself to ending its killer whale breeding programs. However, resuming breeding would fill a gap caused by the 2017 transfer of six whales in its care to the Spanish zoo Loro Parque and the deaths of three whales stateside during the same year.

On the international front, if we are to believe, as I do, that SeaWorld’s library of killer whale genetic material was removed from California prior to the implementation of the state’s new law, the company would be able to artificially inseminate whales housed at Chinese facilities, with the offspring finding their way to Zhonghong’s SeaWorld branded parks in China without the whales having ever been on US soil. As I’ve mentioned before, the marine life park industry is booming in mainland China and killer whales are the next big thing (I expect between seven and ten killer whale show facilities in mainland China over the next decade). Since the majority of mainland Chinese who are familiar with the US SeaWorld parks associate the brand with killer whales, for Zhonghong to open its parks without killer whales means they lose a competitive edge in the market.

As profiled in the recent ThemedReality PowerPoint video (above), SeaWorld is undergoing an identity crisis and needs to determine the direction it wants to go – regional theme park company or operator of international destinations. Attendance is down year after year across the board due to a number of factors, including poor weather, increased media saturation by animal rights campaigns, new blockbuster attractions at higher profile competitors Disney and Universal, and increased competition from LEGOLAND and its associated Merlin brands.

One factor that has rarely been mentioned on earnings calls or reports is the negative impact that Manby’s decisions had on the company’s fan base, with SeaWorld finding itself offering substantially discounted tickets and season passes to offset losses caused by instituting the killer whale breeding ban, establishing its controversial partnership with the Humane Society of the United States, and the elimination of theatrical killer whale shows in California, all actions many of the park’s longest fans considered heretical and succumbing to the demands of animal rights activists.

When we look at the 2017 over 2016 revenue changes for the top seven publicly traded companies that operate theme parks in the United States, something is very obvious. All are up, except for one.

Merlin Entertainments up 11.6%

Universal Theme Parks up 10%

Disney Parks up 8%

Six Flags up 3%

Cedar Fair up 3%

Parques Reunidos’ fiscal year runs Oct 1 – Sept 30. Although fiscal year 2017 revenue was barely up 0.1% over 2016, the first quarter of the 2018 fiscal year, which ran from Oct 1 – Dec 31, 2017, was up 7.6% for the same quarter a year earlier.

On the other hand, 2017 revenue for SeaWorld was down 6% over the prior year.

Being the only major publicly traded operator with negative year over year results is a red flag. For the company to turn around, it will not only need to control costs and spending, but it will need to become enticing once again to the dedicated fan base it lost. At the same time, in order to pull in new clientele, it will need to become a value-based secondary park to Disney and Universal. Right now, the company’s competition isn’t the big two. It’s LEGOLAND.

Time will tell  if the old guard, in conjunction with the company’s new primary owners, can make that happen.

Now, there is one little gem hidden in SeaWorld’s annual report. In my 2015 article “SeaWorld’s Future Lies Not With FUR, But With FIR,” which appeared in English at InPark Magazine and in Italian on parksmania, I argued the need for SeaWorld to add hotels integrated with its parks in order to establish fully integrated resorts, a necessary step to successfully compete with other brands in its market, such as Disney, Universal, LEGOLAND, and Knott’s Berry Farm, which already have on-premises hotels and (with the exception of LEGOLAND) entertainment/dining/retail complexes. In January 2018, according to the annual report, SeaWorld Entertainment and Evans Hotels established a limited liability corporation in order to develop and build a hotel on the SeaWorld San Diego property (and contrary to media reports, the hotel location is on the far side of the property from the toxic dump, something I covered in an earlier piece on the now-canceled Blue World Project, and is unaffected by it – you can see the location for the hotel in the FIR article). If all goes according to plan, it could open within five years.

The Day Superman Become a Pedophile

On Sunday, January 6, 1991, CBS aired the television movie “Bump in the Night.” It starred Meredith Baxter-Birney as an alcoholic mother whose young son is abducted, as she reunites with her ex-husband, played by Wings Hauser, to locate him. The network advertised the film as “you’ll see Christopher Reeve as never before.” And they sure were right. Four years after his last foray as Superman, it was difficult for me to take in this role. Here was a childhood hero of mine, playing the abductor of Baxter-Birney’s eight year old son, an atrocious  man who was both a pedophile and a child pornographer.

I feel the same conflict with Gary Goddard, who spearheaded some of my favorite theme park projects from Monster Plantation to Star Trek: The Experience, and with John Lasseter, who helped turn Pixar into an animation powerhouse and later helped turn around Walt Disney Animation.  Plenty has been written about the accusations against both in the mainstream press, so I won’t discuss them here, other than to say that I refuse to take the Donald Trump route, where he considers those accused of sexual misconduct or physical abuse of a spouse to be innocent only because they say they’re innocent. Rather, I’ll simply state that I’ve heard enough stories from enough credible sources over the years to keep an open mind and accept that there just might be some credence to the current claims

Throughout the corporate world, there has been a continued practice of silence and shaming when it comes to workplace sexual harassment and sexual abuse. As the cases of Goddard and Lasseter show, the issue exists within the creative design community as much as anywhere else, and it’s much more extensive than just the allegations surrounding these two individuals. The problem is also very extensive on the operational end of attractions, theme parks, waterparks, and museums, where just within the past few months, a major waterpark executive was asked to resign over allegations, among other things, of an inappropriate sexual relationship with a subordinate.

Why the silence? Among many, there’s an idolization of the individual for his or her accomplishments. Some of us begin to doubt the accusations because they don’t coincide with how we envision the accused. Some of us don’t want to be “that guy” who speaks up and destroys a legendary career. Somewhere within, there is a fear that, by accepting the truth, we destroy the person’s legacy, and with it a major legacy within our industry. Many times for the victim, there is fear of retribution, of a smear on their reputation.

Sexual harassment is a crime. Sexual assault is a crime. It does not matter the sex (I speak here of biological sex rather than gender, which has many more more options than just A or B), both can be committed by anyone on anyone – male on female, female on male, or same-sex. One of the biggest problems with claims is that, unless there is physical evidence, it becomes a case of the accuser saying one thing and the accused another.

And sometimes there is valid doubt as to when a claim has merit or when it’s true intent is retribution or grandstanding. When allegations arose about possible sexual assault perpetrated by the comedian Aziz Ansari upon a young photographer, a very staunch feminist friend of mine, a victim of sexual assault herself, shared her thoughts. “This young girl’s trying to take advantage of the #metoo bandwagon and get herself some press. She wasn’t sexually assaulted. She had a REALLY bad date.”

The issue of proof is compounded by outdated laws in the United States. Since the 1986 Supreme Court Decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, federal sexual harassment policy has primarily fallen under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, Title VII limits federal complaints to companies with fifteen or more employers and it does not allow the victim to sue the alleged harasser, only the company. What this has resulted in is a corporate culture where sexual harassment policy is centered around the company’s liability, rather than the best interests of the staff. And worse yet, Title VII does not even address the criminal aspects of the act.

Workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault are part of a larger picture – they are tied in with religious rights, gender identification and preference rights, ethnic rights, skin tone rights, immigrant rights, you name it. Pretty much anything that’s not the traditional white male heterosexual (primarily Christian) stereotype of corporate America, where intimidation and subjugation are utilized to maintain the status quo. This is part of a bigger conversation on equality and inclusion in an America that’s becoming increasingly divisive and isolationist. The big picture includes issues ranging from wage disparity to hate killings.

The issue of workplace sexual harassment can be fixed, but it must be fixed in three distinct areas.

First, on the federal government level, Title VII must be strengthened. The fifteen or higher employee rule must be abolished, penalties must be strengthened, and additional penalties and jail time must be added in, especially to deal with those instances where sexual harassment develops into sexual assault.

Second, companies must redefine their policies not to protect themselves, but to support their employees’ needs.

Finally, there must be many discussions within the community between employers and employees on the issues surrounding workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault. Industry trade organizations need to take a leading role in fostering such discourse.

One such discussion will take place on April 5, when a session on gender inclusion takes place during the Themed Entertainment Association’s annual Summit at the Disneyland Hotel.

It’s a start. Eventually, we’ll get to the place where when someone’s accused of sexual misconduct, instead of the ones who know something staying silent to avoid being “that guy,” they’ll join others in raising their hands and say #metoo.

PHOTO FROM: “Arms and the Man: A Sampling from Among the 48 Hugs Administered by Pixar Chief John Lasseter During WSJ’s Daylong Adventure With Him.” Wall Street Journal. May 26, 2011.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A ThemedReality video!

A few months ago, I was asked to make a presentation on risks facing North America’s attractions industry. One topic I covered was new and proposed laws governing the holding of whales and dolphins. Because there’s a lot going on with the marine life park industry right now that will affect its future, I’ve expanded it to this video. It’s kind of long and might be boring to some, but a hot cup of Starbucks or Timmies should help get you through it.

https://youtu.be/io37VZd1xvk