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A decade later, SeaWorld launches an orca-free park in the UAE, its first venture outside the U.S.

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People enjoy a roller coaster ride at Sea World on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, May 26, 2023. It’s the first time the theme park chain, which has been embroiled in controversy in recent years, has done business outside of the United States over its treatment of captive orcas. The $1.2 billion Abu Dhabi joint venture with state-owned developer Miral boasts the world’s largest aquarium with cylindrical LED screens and state-of-the-art facilities for dolphins, seals and other animals. (AP Photo/Nick ElHajj)

A decade later, SeaWorld launches an orca-free park in the UAE, its first venture outside the U.S.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — SeaWorld, the U.S. theme park chain embroiled in controversy in recent years over its handling of killer whales and other marine mammals, has opened a huge new aquatic park in the United Arab Emirates, which is Its first outside the US.

The $1.2 billion joint venture with state-owned developer Miral features the world’s largest aquarium and a cylindrical LED screen. There are no orcas here, but animals such as dolphins and seals are kept in the park, and animal rights advocacy groups have often criticized captivity and training for profit and entertainment as immoral.

The new facility opened to visitors last month, giving the Orlando, Fla.-based company a foothold in the fast-growing international tourist destination and a chance to continue reinventing itself after years of criticism and animal cruelty allegations. brand.

SeaWorld and Miral declined multiple interview requests from The Associated Press. They also did not answer written questions or allow Associated Press reporters into the park.

Scrutiny of SeaWorld came to a head when the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” was released. The documentary focuses on the life of Tilikum, the 12,000-pound orca that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 when he dragged him into SeaWorld Orlando’s pool. The video suggests that orcas become more aggressive in captivity.

The movie caused attendance at SeaWorld’s three U.S. parks to plummet. SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. later agreed to pay $65 million to settle a lawsuit it accused of misleading investors about the documentary’s impact on its profits.

Faced with mounting criticism, SeaWorld halted its orca breeding program and live shows featuring the whales in 2016. That same year, it announced plans to create a killer whale-free park in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

The company’s promotional materials say it is committed to rescuing and rehabilitating animals, with full-time veterinarians making sure they are well cared for. Last year, its Orlando theme park opened a facility to care for Florida manatees dying of starvation in their natural habitat. The company says it has raised $17 million to support hundreds of research and conservation projects around the world.

“By utilizing SeaWorld’s fundamental design principles, with animal well-being and care at its core, SeaWorld Abu Dhabi will redefine the standard of excellence for marine life theme parks around the world,” said Scott Ross, chairman of the company. ), said in a statement.

The park is certified by the international brand American Humane, the ultimate credit certification that no animals were harmed during film production. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, widely regarded as the gold standard for humane certification, has certified SeaWorld’s U.S. facilities, but Abu Dhabi Parks has yet to submit an application for certification, according to AZA accreditation director Jennifer DiNenna.

The steps taken since the “Blackfish” controversy have yet to silence some of SeaWorld’s critics.

“SeaWorld is part of an industry built on the suffering of intelligent social beings who have been deprived of everything that is natural and important to them,” said Jia, senior vice president of international campaigns at PETA. Senbeck said.

“In nature, dolphins live in large and complex social groups and swim great distances every day. In captivity, they can only swim endlessly in a tank, which for them is a It’s like a bathtub.”

During a regular inspection of SeaWorld Orlando in December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged the company with violations after finding a dolphin “actively bleeding” from “many deep rake marks” and excessive chlorine levels in the dolphin’s tank. animal welfare.

There have been no reports of dolphin abuse at the newly opened Abu Dhabi park, which did not answer questions about its treatment of dolphins.

“In the wild, if there’s an aggression between two animals, they can swim out into the open ocean,” said John Jeter, a former killer whale trainer at SeaWorld Orlando who has spoken out against such behavior on “Blackfish.” “But in captivity, where these animals are trapped, you see dolphin-on-dolphin aggression, which often manifests as broken teeth and sweeping their bodies up and down.”

At the same time, he said, the animals are less suitable for release into the wild because most are born in captivity and depend on humans for survival. Lolita, an orca that has been held in captivity for more than half a century at the Miami Seaquarium, plans to release it, leaving some of her former caregivers concerned that she may not survive.

The arrival of Sea World adds another major tourist attraction to the United Arab Emirates, home to the futuristic city of Dubai, the world’s tallest skyscraper, and the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.

The partnership with Miral adds to SeaWorld’s larger plan to transform Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island into a theme park hub to rival Orlando. The island already has a Formula 1 circuit, a water park and a Warner Bros. theme park, and celebrities such as Kevin Hart and Jason Momoa have been brought in to promote it.

“It’s a form of non-oil diversification and soft power,” said Christopher Davidson, a former professor of Middle East politics at Durham University in the United Kingdom. “A partnership with a big brand like this can serve as a ready import to the UAE and will automatically translate into increased visitor numbers.”

SeaWorld’s ‘Kingdom’, featuring traditional houses and sailboats, pays homage to Abu Dhabi’s cultural heritage, evoking a simpler time before the discovery of oil, when the sparsely populated emirate relied primarily on fishing and pearl diving for its livelihood.

An in-house research facility will study aquatic life in the Persian Gulf and support the conservation of local species, including the endangered manatee-like dugong.

Jeter, a former orca trainer, acknowledged that companies like SeaWorld have a role to play in conservation, saying they do a “fantastic job” in animal rescue and rehabilitation.

“I wish they would spend more of their energy, expertise and money on leading global policy and helping wildlife, rather than trying to keep them alive in captivity,” he said.



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