by Susan G. Davis
University of California Press (Berkeley, CA 94720), 1997. 313 pages, paperback; $18.95.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Spectacular Nature author Susan G. Davis spent eight years studying SeaWorld San Diego, 1987-1995. I spent under eight hours at SeaWorld San Diego, on May 7, 1999 but it was time enough to confirm her impressions.
An associate professor of communications at the University of California in San Diego, Davis approached her project as an investigation of the interface between social values and corporate-created public space. In so doing, she applied the late media critic Marshall McLuhan’s pronouncement that “the medium is the message” to studying SeaWorld not only as a vehicle for providing information and entertainment, but also as a statement in itself.
Davis asked first, “What story does this medium tell?” Second, she inquired into the relationship between the SeaWorld story––an often-changing discussion of how humans interact with nature––and the facts. Of particular value, Davis traced how both the story and the facts have evolved since SeaWorld opened in 1964.
As Davis describes with a wealth of historical and contextual detail, the Sea World story has been personified since 1965 by “Shamu,” to the extent that if the park had not been founded with a different name and theme, it might be called “Shamu World.”
The initial SeaWorld theme, however, was “Pan-Pacific,” chosen to emphasize San Diego as a gateway to Hawaii, Japan, and Polynesia, and as a destination which in itself offered comparable touristic attractions. Civic leaders and investors hoped SeaWorld would help San Diego to build an image as a wholesome place for families, countering a history of serving and servicing soldiers and sailors on leave.
Got out of Vietnam
But the Pan-Pacific theme ran into trouble within less than a year. The escalating Vietnam War brought more soldiers and sailors than ever through the local Navy bases and the Marine Corps base at nearby Camp Pendleton. Artificial South Pacific foliage reminded visitors too much of Southeast Asia.
Shamu was originally just the name of one of the first captive orcas. Arriving in 1965 and installed in the tank now occupied by sea lions and harbor seals, his presence not only proved popular, but also permitted the first of many “re-themings,” as Davis calls the ongoing process of amendments to the SeaWorld story to make it more popular and profitable. Shamu became a dramatic personna, played by a succession of other orcas, as well as by human narrators who speak for “Shamu” in the accompanying screen show.
Davis traces the evolution of SeaWorld through three phases, mirroring recent American corporate history.
First came the partnership of private investment with public subsidy, a combination characterizing most major development in the U.S. during the latter half of the 20th century.
The second phase, after SeaWorld was acquired by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1977, was corporate raiding to create quick profits. HBJ bought SeaWorld along with two other formerly independent marine theme parks, trying to create an empire which never quite came together; repeatedly downsized staff and investment; bought out and liquidated Marineland of the Pacific in 1987, thereby disposing of SeaWorld’s closest thematic rival; and finally sold the whole SeaWorld chain to Anheuser-Busch in 1989, as part of reconfiguring holdings to stave off an attempted hostile takeover by British financier Robert Maxwell.
The third phase, under Anheuser-Busch, is the era of the multi-national conglomerate, within which theming creates a marketable culture.
Culture, traditionally, is both a process of self-definition and of exclusion and as such, is too often the rationale for cruelty and exploitation. Multinational conglomerates offer the hope and possibility of undercutting cruel and exploitive national and regional cultures by inducing all the world to buy humane, ecological, and egalitarian values instead. But for this hope to flower, such values must be what the theme-oriented multinationals sell.
The Walt Disney entertainment empire, after which SeaWorld was loosely modeled, has emphasized positive values from the beginning. “Be kind, be honest, be brave, be hopeful, be true to yourself, and especially be kind to animals” form the moral focus of virtually every Disney production, of any kind. The message may at times be inconsistent, yet much less so than the dissonance within any national or ethnic culture between how one treats “us” versus how one treats “them.”
SeaWorld, on the other hand, began without an inherent moral theme, and has struggled ever since to convincingly develop one.
“As the reader will have no trouble telling,” Davis writes, “Spectacular Nature has a political reference point. A basic premise of this work is that theme parks and tourist attractions are never mere entertainment and recreation…Selectively interpreting reality to and for their customers, the park s producers try to discover and respond to what they think their customers want. In the case of SeaWorld, the reality to be interpreted is named marine nature…The popular environmental politics of the 1980s and early 1990s increasingly forced the theme park s managers to perceive their customers as caring about nature, animals, and the environment, and it encouraged them to align the park s entertainments the same caring way.
But the transition from an early emphasis on hula dancers to the decades of Shamu-as-tamed-killer to the present eco theming did not come easily, willingly, or because SeaWorld management had evident interest in moral leadership.
Walt Disney taught “Be kind to animals” because he believed in the message. His confidence in his ability to sell the public on kindness toward animals was certainly reinforced by the financial success of Snow White, Bambi, Dumbo, and 101 Dalmatians, but challenging sport hunting, circus cruelty, and the fur industry in the 1940s and 1950s were nothing that marketing experts would have encouraged him to do.
“As to SeaWorld,” Davis explains, “A series of deaths and serious accidents involving the orcas and their trainers in the late 1980s forced” the park “to adopt a very aggressive strategy of portraying itself as a rational, educational institution …Changes in both dimensions responded to public pressure.”
Today, Davis notes, “SeaWorld’s managers talk explicitly about their whale shows as a close-to-home, affordably priced nature tourism opportunity; they speak of their entertainments as not only informative but a useful form of conservation action.”
But SeaWorld does not provoke much deep thought about either nature or conservation––at least not on purpose.
“In the SeaWorld view,” Davis continues, “the major threat to the environment is from careless individuals who litter, or just don’t care. And although Anheuser-Busch presents itself as a solidly pro-conservation corporation, what forms even conservation––a very limited, protective strategy takes are unclear. Does the biosphere need to be protected from human exploitation for the short or long term? Who is conservation for, and what is it for? Are the world s natural resources fairly distributed? These matters trouble American public opinion, but Sea World is quiet about them. At the same time, however, displays that stress the research activities of the sponsors imply that particular companies and business in general are prudent stewards…Here the work of SeaWorld becomes almost circular: the theme park is a way for corporate America to make public its own free market environmental views…SeaWorld is not so much a substitute for nature,” a notion Davis explores several times from different angles, “as it is an opinion about it, an attempt to convince a broad public that nature is going to be all right. Even when its exhibits say nothing about benevolent corporations, they are literal models of stewardship proposing a version of nature that is at once a reassurance and promise. The dioramas, aquariums, and whole environments provide a model of what nature should be: remote, pure, balanced, and teeming with life, in manufactured perfection.”
Hit the road, jack
SeaWorld at San Diego recently added videotaped remarks by television personality Jack Hanna to the Shamu show––the same Jack Hanna who as director of the Columbus Zoo, 1978-1992, was suspended from the American Zoo Association for flouting conservation rules, obliging the zoo to make him director emeritus parallel to regaining accreditation. This is also the same Jack Hanna who endorsed dove hunting in October 1998, helping to defeat an initiative effort to reinstate an Ohio ban on shooting doves that had stood (with one brief interruption) for 75 years.
Other examples of questionable corporate sincerity about professed concern for animals and nature are many, despite the strong Sea World record in rehabilitating and releasing stranded marine mammals, including J.J. the grey whale, and literally hundreds of manatees. Some manatees whose injuries from power boats were so severe that they could not be released are exhibited at Sea World San Diego; many others are at Sea World Orlando.
SeaWorld must be credited with many positive accomplishments, especially in stranding rescue.
Yet the dearth of vegetarian food on the San Diego concessionaires menus, for instance in a city and state where vegetarian burgers are standard items seems calculated to exclude people who care deeply about animals and nature.
And the SeaWorld San Diego animal exhibits, except for the capacious orca tanks, are no better and often not even as good as those for the same species at much smaller institutions such as the Tacoma-Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, the Vancouver Aquarium, and Marine World.
Right there in San Diego, a visit to the San Diego Zoo or Wild Animal Park would cost most families far less.
A paradox of SeaWorld, as Davis notes in passing, is that while the resident orcas are always called killer whales, to emphasize their ability to deal death, the scientific staff are not allowed to exhibit skeletons, lest the public be reminded that the original Shamu and many others are dead.
An important inaccuracy of the Shamu shows, overlooked by Davis, is the implication that the performing orcas are of the pods who beach themselves deliberately in order to ambush seals and sea lions. Those orcas actually live in the southern hemisphere; those at Sea World are all from fish-eating northern hemisphere pods. Not mentioned is that there are other orca pods who specialize in eating sharks, and still others who may prey chiefly on other whales. Orca feeding habits are in fact learned behavior, just as much as the tricks that the staff carefully calls behaviors to avoid reminding viewers that whether or not anything they are seeing is cruel to the animals (who seem to enjoy performing), it most certainly isn t nature.
But Davis did pick up the most telling paradox of corporate-created culture: the major criticism thereof may also be manufactured.
“Time-Warner, ” Davis explains, “owner of the Six Flags parks, has done well with action/adventure films starring a killer whale named Keiko, helping invent a Free Keiko/Free Willy rehabilitation campaign that not surprisingly also promotes the film products while attacking a rival.”
Small wonder that spokespersons for Pepsi-Cola, the exclusive SeaWorld soft drink concessionaire, have incorrectly intimated in correspondence that Coca-Cola may be behind Steve Hindi’s boycott of Pepsi in protest of Pepsi advertising in Mexican and Spanish bullrings.
Cultures have rarely understood or accepted individual dissent from prescribed values. But unlike national and ethnic cultures, which may lethally repress dissent, corporate cultures do respond however grudgingly to slumping sales.
Big as it is, SeaWorld San Diego reportedly draws just a fraction as many visitors as Disneyland; Sea World Orlando, with 4.9 million visitors in 1998, almost got to a third as many as Walt Disney World s Magic Kingdom, which drew 15.6 million.
I suspect SeaWorld has much retheming yet to do before any theme there but making money holds resonance. The current ambiance is that of the Club Med of roadside petting zoos. At SeaWorld San Diego, for instance, a visibly obese dolphin haunts the end of a pool shared with many more active dolphins to claim frequent handouts from visitors, who buy fish from a concession stand. The plants in carefully tended ornamental gardens are clearly identified in signs, as part of the permanent theming of well-tamed nature, but two turacos caged beside a restroom are not identified at all, as if to say they are not theme, not an advertised species, and therefore do not matter.
The SeaWorld management, however, appears to be moving even more in the Club Med of roadside zoos direction. Petting pools, trainer-for-a-day, and swim-with-dolphins programs are to be emphasized at Discovery Cove, a 30-acre Sea World spin-off under construction just south of SeaWorld Orlando. Admission will be by reservation, at $150-$250 per person per day. Attendance will be limited to 1,200-1,500 visitors daily, or half a million a year.
Competition from SeaWorld and other upscale marine mammal exhibition venues long since combined with growing concern for animal welfare to close the old feed-a-dolphin roadside pools and lagoons that 30 years ago lined the Florida coast. The Discovery Cove publicity materials, however, hint that they didn t so much vanish as metamorphize, from mom-and-pop initiative into big business, better able to invest in the eyewash to convince the public that exploiting captive wildlife is really okay.
Indeed, the conditions for marine mammals at any SeaWorld facility are now far better than at any of the mom-and-pop dolphin sites, and SeaWorld pool sizes even make most other major oceanariums look miniscule. But, claiming to set higher standards, SeaWorld can also expect ongoing criticism for failures.
Years ago, no one noticed when a captive marine mammal died. It was easy to call every orca Shamu and never be questioned. These days, any orca death is an event like the May 5, 1999 demise from an as-yet-unknown cause of Katerina, age 10, at SeaWorld San Antonio. Born in Orlando, she was the first death among the 12 SeaWorld-bred orcas who have reached adulthood.
Said SeaWorld vice president for training David Force, responding to questions from Tom Bower of the San Antonio Express-News, “Before SeaWorld opened, people were indiscriminately killing killer whales and dolphins. Zoological facilities are providing an educational opportunity, and as a result, people want to protect the environment for these animals. This stems from an understanding on their part that was learned at SeaWorld.”
So long as SeaWorld success coincides with success in protecting wild marine mammals, SeaWorld has a strong self-justification, no matter what the ambiance and how soft the conservation message.
As global protection of marine mammals unravels, however, SeaWorld and other exhibitors must either speak against the killing, or continue to be targeted by frustrated activists as not only a perceived part of the problem, but also the part closest to hand, most vulnerable to protest.
No one realistically expects SeaWorld to screen the gore of the Japanese and Norwegian whale hunts, nor of the Canadian seal hunt, nor even to show the footage of the Makah spearing a female gray whale just a little older than J.J., which most Americans may already have seen on news broadcasts.
Yet instead of mouthing platitudes about the alleged spiritual importance of killer whales to northwestern Native Americans, Jack Hanna could succinctly explain how the Makah kicked the door open to renewed cultural whaling worldwide. He could explain how the Makah whale-killing marked another triumph of the blueprint for reviving sustainable whaling that Vice President Albert Gore brought to the White House and first demonstrated in 1993-1994, as Gore in effect brokered silence on Norwegian whaling for the successful completion of a $261 million missile sale to Norway. (I described the Gore deal, role, and strategy at length, quoting the transcript of a White House meeting between Gore and then-Norwegian prime minister Gro Brundtland, but mass media never did pick up the story. )
If Hanna and SeaWorld had adequate sincerity and fortitude on behalf of whales, they could tell the American people just how the hope and promise of 35 years of Shamu exhibitions has been politically betrayed. A few well-chosen sentences, integrated into the existing script, could reach a broader audience than all the advocacy group mailings on marine mammal topics combined.
But Hanna comes from Tennessee too. Sustainable use is also part of his philosophy. And Anheuser-Busch didn t hire him to alarm the public.
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