PETA vs. SeaWorld: The Creative Tactics and Tech that Drive PETA’s SeaWorld Campaign

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The chase scene in the documentary Blackfish felt like someone punched me in the stomach. A convoy of high-speed fishing boats races across the sea in pursuit of a baby orca while the adults in his pod try to intervene. In the end, an orca who will become known as Tilikum is netted and hauled aboard ship. The adult orcas cry. Even the human crew appears pained. Years later, one sailor tells Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite that trapping Tilikum was “the worst thing I have ever done.”

For PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Blackfish was a gift. Since 1998, it has been campaigning to free Tilikum and others like him. National Campaign Manager Katie Arth says, “Animals are not ours to use for entertainment.” Her organization mixes strategic opportunism and digital technology to promote this view. The Blackfish broadcasts on CNN injected new life into the SeaWorld campaign.

For 30+ years, Tilikum has lived in a chemically treated tank that in human terms is equivalent to a bathtub. He was previously the property of Sealand, but is now owned by SeaWorld. While Tilikum’s main role is to perform for human audiences, he has a track record for deadly behavior.

In 1991, Tilikum and two other orcas killed 20-year-old Keltie Byrne, a student that was a part-time trainer at Sealand. In 1999, at SeaWorld, he was allegedly responsible for the death of 27-year-old Daniel P. Dukes, who had entered the orca tank after closing hours. In 2010, Tilikum drowned 40-year-old veteran trainer, Dawn Brancheau. Following this fatal incident, OSHA banned trainers from close contact with orcas, a decision that SeaWorld is appealing.

PETA maintains that the orcas are driven mad by inhumane treatment. It advocates for a different theme park model—coastal sanctuaries—where people could see the orcas in their natural environment from a whale-watching ship. PETA’s initial communications activities generated empathy for Tilikum and other captive orcas, but the message didn’t resonate much beyond committed animal welfare activists.

Once PETA began calling attention to Blackfish, support soared, with thousands of people visiting the campaign website, According to Arth, PETA’s Twitter account set a new record for retweets—4,190. The hashtags #blackfish and #blackfishonCNN trended, largely the result of PETA’s active marketing team that was live tweeting while watching the broadcast and public discussions. A month later, PETA’s tweet marking the 30th anniversary of Tilikum’s capture from the wild was retweeted more than 4,500 times.

SeaWorld Campaign: 6 Actions Taken

There are at least six major threads to the SeaWorld campaign:

  1. A dedicated website (with rich content)
  2. Impact litigation (the court case)
  3. Direct action (street demonstrations, petitions)
  4. Social media marketing (Twitter)
  5. Corporate pressure (shareholder activism, business partner boycotts)
  6. Mainstream media attention (driven by cultivating controversy)

PETA has a tradition of creative opportunism. In 2012, for instance, they sued SeaWorld in federal court on behalf of captive orcas. Tilikum v. SeaWorld argued that five wild-caught orcas deserved protection under the Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery. They lost the case, but gained media coverage, visibility, and more supporters.

In 2013, when SeaWorld sponsored a float in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day, PETA volunteers stood along the route to protest. Over 100 were at the Rose Parade this year. At the last Macy’s parade, 12-year-old activist Rose McCoy received national media coverage when she jumped a barricade while holding a “Boycott SeaWorld” sign at both parades.

In April 2013, when SeaWorld’s stock went public, PETA became a shareholder, giving it the necessary standing to offer a resolution at SeaWorld’s annual meeting, calling on the company to create a coastal retirement sanctuary for its orcas. This got attention from serious media, including a major feature on Fox Business, an outlet not usually associated with progressive nonprofits.



Then, in February of this year, SeaWorld attempted to block PETA’s resolution by exploiting a loophole in securities law. It petitioned the Securities and Exchange Commission—successfully, it turns out—for permission to ignore the resolution. This sparked additional media attention from top media outlets, including Reuters.

According to a story in the Orlando Business Journal, SeaWorld has deployed tactics such as stuffing the newspaper’s online ballot box for an opinion poll about Blackfish.

PETA contends that SeaWorld also featured misleading copy in a paid advertising blitz designed to discredit the campaign. Never one to pass up an opportunity, PETA posted a video rebuttal on its website, using social media to drive traffic to it.

Another tactic PETA employs is to target companies that do business with SeaWorld. At the top of the list is Southwest Airlines, which paints its planes to resemble orcas. Activist Robin Merrit recently presented a petition at Southwest’s Dallas headquarters, to no avail. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly stated that the airline is not considering changing its relationship with SeaWorld, a response that deeply disappointed Merrit, who noted that many entertainers had cancelled gigs at SeaWorld in response to Blackfish and PETA. “I hope Southwest will stop cheerleading SeaWorld’s cruelty just like many artists including Willie Nelson, Martina McBride, and Heart have already done,” Merrit told Eric Nicholson, a blogger for the Dallas Observer. In turn, Nicholson ended his story with this: “That’s right, Southwest. Heart has more moral courage than you. Time to take a good look in the mirror.”

By using a wide array of tactics and technologies, PETA reaches different target audiences through the media each prefers. Some people respond to video, others are energized through live protests, others read their local newspapers. PETA identifies multiple pressure points where it can make its influence felt, then bombards its target audiences from every possible angle—and they are very tenacious about this. In the case of SeaWorld, PETA has been campaigning for 16 years. Blackfish provided a huge boost, that’s true, but part of the reason it had such an impact is because PETA knew how to leverage it.


First published in the NTEN: Change journal, March 2014, CC BY-SA 3.0

Bonnie McEwan is a member of the NTEN: Change Editorial Committee, a consultant, college professor and writer. She is profiled in the book, Thriving in 24/7: Six Strategies for Taming the New World of Work, by Sally Helgesen, and author of “501(c)(3) Nonprofits and Earned-Income Generation” in the textbook, Social Entrepreneurship, edited by Thomas Lyons. Earlier in her career Bonnie directed the national communications divisions of Girl Scouts USA and the Planned Parenthood Federation. Find her on Google+ and Twitter as @BonnieMcEwan.

  • Chris

    Great job pointing out all this stuff and showing how biased you are. Where is all the negative about peta? What about how peta kills 83% of animals in its care. its not pretty to look at but check this out too or how about how peta is classified as a terrioist group by the USDA.

    Does peta rescue 23,000 animals and more? Nope. On a given day a few weeks ago peta had bought shares in groupon so they could protest at the shareholder meeting all the while SeaWorld is out rescuing its 501st manatee off the coast of Florida and a young humpback whale off the coast of CA. Way to go peta and showing your true colors.

  • K Ventre

    Just for the sake of accuracy, the capture sequence shown in Blackfish is not the capture of Tilikum. Those are the captures of orcas in the Pacific Northwest (who also ended up at SeaWorld). Tilikum was captured in a similar way–with his family looking on.

  • Melanie

    Here is PETA’s stance on the animals they euthanize:

    Basically PETA is taking the animals that no other shelters will take, and in many case the animals are suffering with no hope of being healed or adopted, and the most humane thing to do for them in that case is to gently euthanize them.

    As far as them being classified as a terrorist group by the USDA, this is all politics and has nothing to do with them being an actual threat to the American public:

    Despite the fact that everything they do is legal, any group whose activities in any way “threaten” profits of the big players, even just by exposing the bad things that go on behind closed doors, can be classified as a “terrorist” group. This “classification” is meaningless, as even journalists can be classified as “terrorists” by the US government merely by reporting facts.

  • Teresa Wagner

    Thank you Peta and every other organization working hard to expose the cruelty to whales at SeaWorld and every captive facility. The cetaceans do not belong in captivity. As a colleague of mine recently said, the cetacean rights movement is the civil rights movement of the 21st century. And we who love the whales and dolphins will not stop until every one of them are freed to sea pen sanctuaries or the ocean.

  • Eric Mills

    Howsabout staying on subject, Chris? Your comments have NOTHING to do with the topic at hand.

  • Rachel

    What does PETA’s animal shelter and its euthanasia rates have to do with orca exploitation? Your points are irrelevant.

  • Eileigh Doineau

    Thanks for this engaging article, Bonnie!

  • Othmar Vohringer

    PeTA is a for profit organization that has no interest in animal welfare whatsoever. For them it is all about making money and for that they will not shy back from malicious slander frivolous lawsuits and even encouraging their followers via emotional tumulus to commit violent acts. It would be high time if the FBI steps their investigation against PeTA up and that we at least see that the tax exempt status for this for profit organization is removed, a charity they are not.

  • Hoss

    Yep as soon as Heart cancelled its appearance at SeaWorld the next week they played at a rodeo!