Can SeaWorld Really Send Our Killer Whales to China? Will They?

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“Ocean Kingdom is the first phase of transforming the last of the undeveloped Pearl River Delta islands into what Mr. Su describes as the “Orlando of China” which “will become the new benchmark for the theme park industry.”  The Chimelong Group.
The short answer is yes, they can send the orcas to a foreign country. It is a viable option, and there are no regulations to prevent it.
The recent shake-ups at SeaWorld show that this corporate business means business – they are replacing the CEO, restructuring the company’s Board of Directors, and in a Grinchy move they laid off over 300 employees in the middle of the holidays. They added some impressive independent consultants with marketing and business backgrounds to take the reins and reboot SeaWorld’s tired business model.
They are showing themselves to be competent, brilliant, and somewhat ruthless in their makeover – but what it means for the animals, and what anyone can do about it is a big question.

The whales can't speak, they are relying on you to see past the hype and recognize their plight.
The whales can’t speak, they are relying on you to see past the hype and recognize their plight.

Unfortunately for the iconic orcas, SeaWorld doesn’t have a lot of options.  They can continue as they have for the past 50 years and hope that they can drown out the animal rights community by launching a savvy advertising campaign (doomed to fail given the power of social networks), they can follow through on their present expansion plans to increase pool size (doomed to fail given given that it doesn’t address the fundamental needs of the whales), they can open their doors to scientists and researchers from around the world, while exploring alternatives such as sea pens (the best option, it will bring in money and restore public opinion, but expensive initially), or they can decide to keep a few orcas and sell/loan the rest overseas to China and other countries (quick, dirty, and cheap).
The former CEO will now serve on the board as adviser on conservation and on their plans for “international expansion”:

[The] current CEO and President, Jim Atchison, will become Vice Chairman of the Board.
In addition, Mr. Atchison will serve as a consultant to the Company with respect to international expansion and the Company’s conservation initiatives. The Company will also nominate Mr. Atchison to serve as the chairman of the board of the not-for-profit, independent SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. (See press release).

Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, the "Orlando of China". (Leszoosdelemonde)
Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, the “Orlando of China”. (Leszoosdelemonde)

China’s new “Orlando Project” lends credence to the rumors that have been circulating that is helping China to develop theme parks along the lines of what no longer works in the US. According to Macao Magazine:

The Orlando project represents a major gamble for Chimelong, the private company based in Guangzhou, which is building the resort. Founded in 1989, the company has invested in environmental tourism, hotels and holiday resorts, with its major project a safari park, circus and tourist centre in Panyu, a southern district of Guangzhou.
Orlando, in central Florida, is the model for the Hengqin development. The city has turned sugar cane fields and citrus plantations into one of the most visited cities in the United States. This is because of Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando and Walt Disney World, which is 34 kilometres to the south. In addition, it hosts the second largest convention complex in the country.
Chimelong wants to follow the example of Orlando. It has hired major U.S. design firms  PGAV and WATG  for two major parts of the project, the Ocean World and the Ocean Hotel. Based in Honolulu, Hawaii, WATG has designed hotels and resorts in more than 100 countries across the world.

SeaWorld has already moved four orcas to Loro Parque in the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa, where they produced two calves. SeaWorld, while claiming that they do not take orcas from the wild has also absorbed the wild caught orca Morgan into their stables there.
The Spanish trainer Alexis Martinez was killed at Loro Parque a few months before Dawn Brancheau was killed in SeaWorld Orlando, and now one of the Loro Parque trainers, Julien Forestier,  is head trainer for Chimelong, the “Orlando of China” project:

Julien Forestier:
Manager of Animal Training Guangzhou Chimelong Group Zhuhai Project April 2012 – Present (2 years 9 months)Hengqin Island, China Previously:
Senior Animal Trainer Loro Parque July 2010 – March 2012 (1 year 9 months)Tenerife, Canary Islands
Supervisor of Animal Training Dolfinarium February 2001 – June 2010 (9 years 5 months)Harderwijk, Netherlands
Marine Mammal Trainer Connyland February 2000 – November 2000 (10 months)Lipperswil, Switzerland

Also from Orlando, Florida and working for the Orlando in China project is Alan Stein, Executive Producer, Entertainment at Guangzhou Chimelong Group Zhuhai Project, previously at Busch Gardens Entertainment Corporation.

At least two orcas caught in Russia last year are headed for China. (Tumblr).
At least two orcas caught in Russia last year are headed for China. (Tumblr).

In a park that wants to be the biggest marine themed amusement facility in the world, the lack of orca superstars has left Chimelong missing the jewels in their crown. Because orcas are somewhat protected in the wild through international agreement it is hard to get them, although the Russians obtained permits to capture two (2) to be imported to China.

 Erich Hoyt, co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project and research fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, says his group discovered the orcas came from Nakhodka, near Vladivostok, and were captured as part of two operations targeting killer whales in August and October last year, in the Okhotsk Sea.On December 21, [2013] Hoyt says, his group learnt the two orcas had been transported to China via Vladivostok.
Sources told them the whales were bound for Ocean Kingdom, he adds. If that is the case, they are likely to become the first killer whales to go on show in the mainland of China.

But two orcas (there are now rumored to be three who may wind up there) is hardly enough for a country that hopes to have the most, the biggest, the most entertaining marine parks in the world, and with wild captures difficult to come by the orcas now “owned”  by SeaWorld (before 1994 the whales could not be owned by theme parks, but after lobbying Congress the amusement parks changed this) would be welcome to their pools.
SeaWorld, for their part, would finally be able to infuse the inbred population of killer whales with wild genes from the orcas caught by Russia.
They can also take their dog and pony show to foreign countries where the presence of animal rights hovers between none and very little. From Wikipedia:
images china

  • The 2010 documentary San Hua by Guo Ke is the first to depict China’s cat-meat industry. In one scene, Guo and fellow activists stop a transport truck and find “more than 300 cats crammed into cramped wooden cages, unable to move”—some missing tails and others “crushed into unconsciousness.” In another scene at Fa’s Cat Restaurant, Guo used a hidden camera to film cooks beating cats with a wooden stick, dumping them into a fur-removal machine, and then boiling them.
  • Pictures have also circulated featuring two dogs in boiling water in China. It’s claimed this is because some Chinese prefer the taste of adrenaline-soaked meat. In some areas, dogs are beaten to death in order to release blood into the meat.
  • Yin Yang fish involves deep-frying fish while it’s still alive. The practice has been condemned by animal-rights activists. Many chefs in Taiwan are no longer willing to prepare it, but it’s popular in mainland China.
  • Some chefs cook a carp’s body while keeping its head wrapped in a cloth so that it can keep breathing. In 2009, a video of Chinese diners prodding and eating alive a fried fish went viral on YouTube and provoked an outcry from PETA.
  • On streets in China, live scorpions are “scooped up alive and wriggling, skewered on a kebab, and deep-fried in oil.”
  •  China is the biggest fur-producing nation. Some fur animals are skinned alive, and others may be beaten to death with sticks.
  • Live-animal key rings. In Beijing, vendors sell fish, turtles, and amphibians as key rings and mobile-phone decorations. Animal-rights activists condemn the practice because the animals may run out of air and die quickly, and they may also pose hazards to human health. An Avaaz petition against these keychains had 980,000 signatures as of July 2014
  • According to Prof. Peter J. Li, a few Chinese zoos are improving their welfare practices, but many remain “outdated”, have poor conditions, use live feeding, and employ animals for performances. Safari parks may feed live sheep and poultry to lions as a spectacle for crowds.

SeaWorld also will not have to be bothered by pesky reporters and bloggers keeping an eye on them, since China has been rated the second highest nation for imprisoning reporters (Iran is first) – so verifiable claims of poor treatment of the animals will not be known.

 China’s use of anti-state charges and Iran’s revolving door policy in imprisoning reporters, bloggers, editors, and photographers earned the two countries the dubious distinction of being the world’s worst and second worst jailers of journalists, respectively. Together, China and Iran are holding a third of journalists jailed globally—despite speculation that new leaders who took the reins in each country in 2013 might implement liberal reforms.

Because the “Orlando in China” is located on the mainland, visas are required in order for foreigners to visit Chimelong.  That means China can keep out any individuals active in animal rights that they choose.
How can SeaWorld just move the orcas to China or other foreign countries?
Those same revisions that gave them ownership of the whales (previously the theme parks were only allowed to display the orcas in trust) gave them blanket permission to ship the orcas anywhere without a permit and just 15 days notice* as long as the destination meets the feeble standards provided by the Animal Welfare Act*, standards that were set in part by the amusement parks themselves.  (*The items marked with an asterisk are corrections from the original).
Here is the relevant part in the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), as amended:

B) A permit under this paragraph shall grant to the person to which it is issued the right, without obtaining any additional permit or authorization under this Act, to—
(i) take, import, purchase, offer to purchase, possess, or transport the marine mammal that is the subject of the permit; and
(ii) sell, export, or otherwise transfer possession of the marine mammal, or offer to sell, export, or otherwise transfer possession of the marine mammal—
(I) for the purpose of public display, to a person that meets the requirements of clauses (i), (ii), and (iii) of subparagraph (A);
(II) for the purpose of scientific research, to a person that meets the requirements of paragraph (3); or
(III) for the purpose of enhancing the survival or recovery of a species or stock, to a person that meets the requirements of paragraph (4).
(C) Any progeny of a marine mammal born in captivity before the date of the enactment of the Marine Mammal Protection Act Amendments of 1994 [April 30, 1994] and held in captivity for the purpose of public display shall be treated as though born after that date of enactment.

How likely is SeaWorld to chose this course of action? It is impossible to say at this point, but they will do what it takes to stop the financial hemorrhaging before a hostile takeover by another company can happen. They may dump the brand, dump the animals, lick their wounds and become something else entirely, if that is the only course that they see.
It is up to you to let them know that you would again love SeaWorld and what it stands for if they re-invent themselves as a company that wants to preserve the oceans and marine life for future generations. Contact them at SeaWorld Cares.
What else you can do:
Contact your Congress representatives and ask them to put stricter controls on the captive industry.
Sign petitions that come your way, it just takes a few seconds.
*Review MMPA – Introduce/Enforce Ban on Dolphin/Whale Exportation
Free Morgan
End the Captive Breeding Program
Release Tilikum
Force SeaWorld to Pay for Decimating the Southern Resident Orca Population

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