SeaWorld and the Performer Metaphor

November 18, 2015 Tema Milstein

SeaWorld and the Performer Metaphor first appeared here. Republished with author’s permission.


News of SeaWorld ceasing its killer whale show at first seemed positively transformational. But details followed: only the San Diego location will cease, and, in fact, the location will not end but instead repackage its “theatrical” Shamu show as a new “very marketable attraction” by 2017. SeaWorld gave few details, but described the “new orca experience” as meeting customer desires for a “more natural setting” with orcas doing actions perceived as “natural.” Meanwhile, SeaWorld has no plans to free its captive orcas, including the 11 at its San Diego location, and is fighting a California ruling that it must cease breeding orcas in exchange for approval of its planned expansion of its captivity tank.

SeaWorld’s announcement comes in the face of declining attendance, stock prices, and profits that followed the 2013 release of “Blackfish,” the extremely popular documentary which took a critical look at SeaWorld’s orca captivity and the associated dangers for employee trainers in its highly profitable shows. However superficial and misleading, SeaWorld’s announcement accompanies recent actual substantive moves around the world to stop putting other animals in roles of entertainers for humans.

In 2013, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests banned dolphin captivity, stating dolphins are “nonhuman persons” and it is “morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purposes.” Also in 2013, Costa Rica’s Environment Minister tried, unsuccessfully, to close the country’s two urban zoos and said he had a long-term plan to free all animals in captivity in the country. This year, in the United States, after years of elephant abuse allegations and after more than 100 U.S. cities passed ordinances restricting elephant use, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus announced it will take captive elephants out of its show by 2018 (the 145-year-old circus will continue to showcase tigers and other animals as performers). Meanwhile, California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff announced this week he will introduce federal legislation to phase out U.S. captivity of orcas by prohibiting breeding, as well as import and export for public display.

How do these both superficial and substantive ecocultural shifts relate to our communication? My recent article in Environmental Communication, “The performer metaphor: ‘Mother nature never gives us the same show twice,’” identifies an entertainment metaphor at the core of Western talk about the more than human world. For some time, environmental communication – and other transdisciplinary – scholars have been illustrating ways we symbolically and materially produce a core Western perception of humans as separate from, different from, and superior to nature. This study points to ways the binary takes the shape of humans as audience and other-than-humans as entertainer.

The performer metaphor is so prevalent that it has become part of our common sense. So, when we say things like, “that whale was really putting on a show” or “those manatees enjoy performing for us,” we may actually believe it.

My study illustrates how we use this core nature-as-performer metaphor not only in places one would expect – such as marine parks, zoos, and circuses – but also in our everyday experiences and, perhaps most surprisingly, in wild settings. Based on ethnographic research in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand, I argue the performer metaphor is so predominant in Western settings that at times we have a difficult time speaking, and perhaps even perceiving, differently. The performer metaphor is so prevalent, in other words, that it has become part of our common sense. So, when we say things like, “that whale was really putting on a show” or “those manatees enjoy performing for us,” we may actually believe it.

In a cyclical fashion, the performer metaphor also influences our processes of ecological involvement. In regard to SeaWorld, much of my research looks at whale watch tourism around the three matriarchal orca pods from which humans captured and collaterally killed many individuals to supply the first captive “Shamus.” In part due to resultant population decimation, these Southern Resident orcas are the first in the world to be declared endangered. And, as we are entertained by their captive counterparts, these orcas are further endangered by our actions, including our vast overfishing of the oceans (they are salmon eaters), our point and nonpoint pollution (which bioaccumulates in their blubber as top ocean predators), and our increased marine vessel traffic of all types.

There is no doubt that SeaWorld, and other nature entertainer genres, mediate our experience of the wild. My research reveals we tend to expect both a predictable and spectacular wild. For instance, whale watch tourists in North America often assume they will see whales (and seldom presume they might not) and often expect spectacular acts familiar from marine parks, such as frequent breaching or tail-lobbing. In turn, the pressure to produce a predictable and spectacular wild is felt by tour operators, many of whom upgrade to faster boats to go farther to see whales, vie for best position as they pursue whales, and reproduce the economy of predictability by providing whale sighting “guarantees.” Cetaceans, as the star performer, also feel the pressure of these expectations, with an increasing body of studies suggesting orcas and other cetaceans behave differently with boats present.

Conversely, best practice tour companies at times resist the performer metaphor. For instance, one North American company web site stated they do not offer guarantees because “only an amusement park can truly guarantee whale sightings.” And, in New Zealand, tour company communication that frames tourist experience of wild dolphin swims in the open ocean actively flips the performer metaphor. For instance, one pre-tour video prepares swimmers by telling them “this encounter is more about you entertaining the dolphins than the other way around.”

It remains to be seen whether the superficial changes by SeaWorld, the more substantive changes by circuses and nations, or the best practices of wild cetacean tour companies coincide with deeper, more systemic changes in ways we talk about, understand, and do our environmental relations. In reproducing the shallow binary notion of nature as performer and humans as audience, not only do wild animals suffer, we humans do, as well. We experience partial and skewed relations and miss out on opportunities to perceive holistically, as participants, watchful witnesses, and integrated and impactful parts of ecosystems.

My article discusses an alternative to the performer metaphor. “Experience” (e.g., “That was an amazing experience!”) is in the category of what Goatly describes as grammatical metaphors, in that it closely resembles culturally accepted lexicon and can serve a crucial role in denaturalizing and reconstructing common sense. As one of the few alternatives to the performer metaphor observed in my long-term study, “experience” provides a sort of blank slate to describe one’s co-participation with and as nature. However, in SeaWorld’s announcement of its upcoming 2017 “new orca experience,” one can also see how such a metaphor can be coopted in a marketing makeover.

In my study, one North American whale watch naturalist highlighted differences between children and adults, and their active enculturation. “The kids tend to not interpret, they just experience. The grownups are saying, ‘Isn’t is a great show,’ to the kids.” At the same time, it is often children who point to the metaphoric emperor and state the obvious, in the face of collective denial or social hypocrisy. I heard the same from my clear-eyed 7-year-old son, Theo, who, today, upon hearing the SeaWorld announcement, deftly redirected the performer metaphor by saying: “SeaWorld should make their new show releasing the orcas. Then everyone can see how they really act in the wild.”

Photo by lolilujah.