The face of American entertainment is changing. Well, the nonhuman face, that is.
By the end of next year, there will be no orcas executing acrobatic tricks at SeaWorld’s San Diego Park. By 2018, the last of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus elephants will have shed their costumes and retired to a facility in Florida.
It’s all part of a trend that both entertainment industry experts and animal rights advocates say has emerged in recent years: People are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the animal-as-performer paradigm. They really want Willy to be free.
SeaWorld can see the writing on the tank walls. Chief executive Joel Manby said that his company’s Monday announcement that it will phase out the orca shows at its San Diego location was not a concession to critics, but a reflection of changing public interest.
“We start everything by listening to our guests and evolving our shows to what we’re hearing, and so far that’s what we’ve been hearing in California, they want experiences that are more natural and experiences that look more natural in the environment,” Manby told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
The new show, a SeaWorld spokesman said, “will include conservation messaging and tips guests can take home with them to make a difference for orcas in the wild.”
SeaWorld has suffered from declining revenue and mounting public criticism since the 2013 film “Blackfish,” a documentary that offered a detailed and decidedly negative look at the company’s treatment of captive orcas.
And thanks to the hyper-connected world of social media, films such as “Blackfish” — or PETA’s undercover videos of circus elephants — have found a vast and sympathetic audience, animal rights advocates say.
“People know more about all of this now,” said Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, a Florida-based civil rights organization that fights for legal rights for animal species. “Things rocket around the world in a day — things that used to take years to communicate to the public.”
The pattern goes beyond SeaWorld or the circus. The use of apes and chimpanzees in television and movies is also “dramatically dropping,” Wise said.
That’s partly because film technology has made the use of real animals redundant. Why wrangle actual animals when CGI can create a frighteningly convincing swarm of apes storming the Golden Gate Bridge?
But beyond technological advancements, Wise said, more moviegoers simply aren’t into the idea of animals being exploited for Hollywood’s sake. People are taking animals’ lives more seriously, he said — pointing to a recent Gallup poll that showed that nearly a third of all Americans (up from 25 percent in 2008) believe that animals should be accorded the same rights as people. Sixty-two percent said that animals deserve some legal protection from harm and exploitation, even if not equal standing with humans.
Ronald Logan, a former executive vice president of Walt Disney Entertainment and a professor with the University of Central Florida’s department of tourism, events and attractions, said he’s seen the public’s perspective on animals evolve over his lengthy career. For companies like SeaWorld, he said, success will hinge on the ability to adapt — times have changed, so entertainment companies have to change, too.
“SeaWorld should just get on with it and become an adventure park, because they’re never going to win this game,” said Logan, who thinks that the park could consider parades and other sorts of activities for visitors. “I’m glad to see they’re doing what they’re doing, and using the sea part as more of an educational thing . . . you know, go be more the hero of the animals than the user of the animals.”
But animal rights advocates aren’t quite as satisfied with Monday’s announcement. Despite plans to abandon the theatrical shows, the orcas are still there, held captive in tanks, Wise said. The shows will continue at SeaWorld’s other parks, where the impact of public criticism hasn’t been quite as acute as in California. And SeaWorld said that it plans to fight back against recent captive orca breeding restrictions imposed by the California Coastal Commission.
“Too many believe that something really substantial has occurred, and that’s not the case,” Wise said. “But something has occurred, and it’s in the right direction.”