Month: August 2018

Questions for Merlin Entertainments, WDC, Zhonghong, and PETA

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I invite those I’m questioning in this post to respond. Answers will help direct future posts.

For Merlin Entertainments:

In your October, 25, 2112 letter to NOAA Fisheries objecting to the receipt of 18 wild-caught belugas by the Georgia Aquarium and its partners, Janine DiGioacchino wrote:

“. . . . cetaceans are not suited to captivity…no matter how spacious or well-designed
the facilities.

“They are wide-ranging, highly intelligent and social animals which suffer acute
sensory deprivation in any kind of unnatural confinement.”

If this is how the company feels about cetaceans, does it feel this way about other wide-ranging, highly intelligent and social animals? If so, why are you keeping and breeding just under a dozen gorillas at a theme park on the outskirts of London?

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For Zhonghong Zhuoye and Zhonghong Holding:
  1. Did your subsidiary Sun Wise UK default on paying its $150,000,000 loan issued by Pacific Alliance Group (PAG) and applied to purchasing Blackstone’s shares of SeaWorld stock? If so, is PAG taking ownership of those shares?
  2. Sources working within the attractions industry tell me that you announced the location of your first Chinese SeaWorld-branded park without first notifying SeaWorld that you had determined a location. Is this true?
  3. Why did you make an announcement on the 28th of this month that Jiaduobao Group and Yinyi Capital had agreed to invest equity in Zhonghong Holding, when the result was Jiaduobao announcing that it had never signed an agreement with you and Yinyi announcing that it was unaware of the contents of the agreement?
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For WDC:
  1. At the same time you were working on releasing Chinese belugas to a sanctuary, were you aware, as a member of the China Cetacean Alliance, that two wild-caught belugas had been transferred to Atlantis Sanya in October of last year, along with twelve (according to Ceta-base: 6 bottlenose, 4 Pacific White-sided, and 2 pantropical spotted) dolphins captured and transferred from Taiji earlier this year?
  2. Were you aware, as the adviser to Thomas Cook on cetacean welfare, that, regardless of the fact that the owner of this resort also has an ownership stake in Thomas Cook, the travel agency was planning to sell packages to Atlantis Sanya?
  3. Is there a reason, being that you are the adviser on cetacean welfare to Thomas Cook (per publicity issued both by yourself and Thomas Cook), that you did not ensure the company did an advance assessment of the facility prior to including it in its sales portfolio?

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For PETA:
  1. If it’s still called Barnum’s Animal Crackers, doesn’t it still pay homage to Barnum and his circus menagerie?
  2. Did you notice how the new art is reminiscent of classic circus art designed to deceptively pull in audiences by showing animals living together in the wild (see slideshow below)?

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  1. Was this a grassroots PETA campaign, or did you piggyback on another group’s work, as I’ve been told you’re prone to do?
  2. Did you forget about the statement you made regarding The Greatest Showman (accessible via this prior blog post of mine)?
  3. Considering you’re PETA, do you even care that your victory is incomplete?

The Other Side of the News marine life park edition part three: The secret deal between Marineland of Canada and the Chinese government

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At the beginning of July, a strange rumor started circulating on social media: In the shadow of the death and funeral of its owner, John Holer, Marineland of Canada, near Niagara Falls, had secretly shipped two of its beluga whales to China. Some of the posts and tweets stated that the sale and transfer was not a rumor, but a fact.

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The social media posts stemmed from a July 3 report in the Chinese government-controlled media. It reads, and this is a rough translation:

“A few days ago, Guiyang Customs escorted two beluga whales to the remote animal world isolation animal quarantine site in Longchuan, Hubei Province, and began a 45-day quarantine.

“It is reported that the beluga whales came from Canada, entered the Beijing Capital International Airport, and then transferred to Guiyang, and Guiyang Customs sent a staff to Beijing to carry out the whole process of quarantine supervision. Due to the long transportation time and the hot weather along the way, in order to ensure the safety of beluga whales, the customs officers responsible for quarantine quarantine and disinfect the contact personnel, quarantine sites and shipping vehicles, carry out full video surveillance of the unloading process, and package the whales. The objects and bedding are treated harmlessly. After 46 hours of long journey, after ensuring that the beluga whale is in good health and there is no trauma on the body surface, the beluga whale is safely placed in the isolation culture pond.

“In order to welcome the beluga whales, Guiyang Customs set up a working group for the quarantine supervision of the incoming beluga whales, organized professional and technical personnel to carry out quarantine supervision, arranged special personnel to follow up the disinfection vehicle pass, and implemented the site permit in advance, and went to the enterprise to isolate The quarantine-related system conducts policy announcements and prepares adequately.

“The white whale mammal is a national secondary protected animal because it likes to “sing” and is also called “sea canary”. The establishment of white whales in Guizhou will further enrich Guizhou’s species resources and add vitality to Guizhou’s tourism”

SCENARIO 1

The article clearly stated that “It is reported that the beluga whales came from Canada…” Since there’s only one facility in Canada that houses belugas – Marineland – there was no question where they could have come from. The easiest way to verify this would be to ask the park itself. After an email inquiry wasn’t responded to, I called the park directly, only to be thwarted by former Marineland trainer turned anti-Marineland activist Phil Demers.

Now, I’m not trying to be a dick, but this is what really happened. Demers has undertaken the practice of posting on social media everytime he hears about a possible injury, illness, or death of an animal at Marineland. As a result, his followers deluge Marineland with calls to inquire about the condition of that particular animal. And the park operator hangs up on them. You can actually find videos online of people filming themselves calling Marineland and being hung up on.

About 24 hours before I called Marineland, Demers hit twitter.

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So I called Marineland. I gave my name, gave the names of a few mainstream publications I write for, asked to speak to a media representative about the two belugas in China reported to be from Canada, and was promptly hung up on.

On my second call, I was told by the receptionist, “Tell your buddy Demers we record all his lies.” Then she hung up again.

And thus began an investigation involving eight attractions and tourism industry colleagues in the United States, Canada, Russia, and China.

The first thing we did was to contact Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada, the two agencies that would issue export permits for belugas. Neither had, which was confirmed by a conversation with an animal rights advocacy group conducting its own investigation. At that point, we knew it wasn’t Marineland.

SCENARIO 2

The line in the report that the beluga whales came from Canada was our only clue. We could rule out potential capture by First Nations or other parties due to the lack of export permit.

Taking a different approach, we kept in mind that when interpreting Chinese, words or groups of words can have different meanings.

Could this mean that the belugas originated in Canada, but were exported from a different country? This would include any belugas originating at either Marineland or Vancouver Aquarium and their offspring. We also looked into L’Oceanografic in Valencia, Spain, which is managed by the Vancouver Aqurium and houses a mating pair of beluga and their calf.

When we concluded our inquiries, all American and Spanish belugas were accounted for, so we ruled out this scenario.

SCENARIO 3

Then came a bombshell.

A government tourism analyst in Beijing told us that the photo op and article were staged. At his request, we are sharing his statements here strictly on grounds that we maintain his anonymity due to his position within the government.

Government staged propaganda is common in China to promote goodwill towards projects or opportunities. And a lot of it is fake. For example, even before Shanghai Disneyland opened, a number of provincial and municipal leaders staged press conferences surrounded by local teens wearing knockoff Disney costumes, where they announced that Disney had entered talks with them to open the next Disneyland in China. Far from the truth, but the ultimate goal was to build up corporate investment, particularly from overseas investors, in those regions.

So why stage a photo op of what appears to be a happy beluga whale flirting with customs officers? (It looks authentic. Not only are those actual customs outfits, but that’s an actual facility that we have photos of from a few years back, although this one was a photo we haven’t seen before).

According to the analyst, the news story was designed to counter two recent stories about belugas that the government deems negative.

The first involved a trainer applying lipstick to a beluga at a Dalian aquarium.

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The second involved the news that Merlin Entertainments would be moving its two belugas from Shanghai to a sanctuary in Iceland. According to the analyst, “The government is against this. The whales have become a vital part of economic development throughout the country. When a new aquarium opens, Chinese people expect to see the whales. The operation is often considered a disappointment if they are not there.”

One major factor that turned around government sentiments for Merlin’s export of the whales was a 2015 commitment by the company to increase development of attractions, such as Madame Tussauds and Sea Life, and build LEGOLAND theme parks throughout the country. However, although the sanctuary announcement was major news in Hong Kong and Taiwan, its coverage in Mainland China’s mainstream media was minimized.

Just how important are whales and dolphins to China’s economy?

My associate Michael Giskin, founder of China Orca News, has compiled this list, which is accurate as of the time of this post. Keep in mind while you’re reading this that we have estimated that on average, one new facility with marine mammals is opening in Mainland China every single month.

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SCENARIO 4:

This is the real story about the beluga whales that were shipped from Canada.

They were not from Canada.

They did not originate with Canadian owners.

They were not part of a publicity stunt.

On June 8, the two belugas departed Russia

From June 9 to about July 31, the belugas were at an unknown location or locations while the 45-day quarantine period began

Around July 1, the two belugas arrived at Colorful Guizhou City Polar Ocean World

On July 3, Chinese media reported on the arrival of the belugas, reporting erroneously that they were from Canada.

On July 23, the 45-day quarantine period was completed as one of the two belugas departed Colorful Guizhou City Polar Ocean World

On July 25, one of the two belugas arrived at Ganzhou Polar Ocean World

We know that  the transferred beluga is female with a given age of around eight years old. Often a year or two might be fudged on the age to make it appear younger. As the Russian government increases its crackdown on illegal captures, which is driven more by who’s a friend of Putin rather than actual animal welfare concerns, documentation and media reports within Russia on marine mammal export to China become harder and harder to find. A seven to nine year old beluga could have come from either a facility or a live capture – although much younger whales are generally preferred for capture.

We have suspicions that these two may have originated at the Utrish Marine Station, part of the collection of 18 belugas held for the Georgia Aquarium. There were two females, one each from the 2010 and 2011 captures, that would currently be in that age range. Keep in mind though, that right now,  my statement on the whales coming from the Georgia Aquarium collection is purely speculation and we will keep investigating. If you decide to pass it along as fact on social media, that’s all on you.

As for the whales being reported as having come from Canada, Michael has an interesting theory – someone told the reporter that wild belugas can be found in Russia and Canada and he got confused.

A simple mistake that set off a storm.

Special thanks to Michael Giskin, Annie Wong, and the entire research team.

The Other Side of the News marine life park edition part two: A PETA consultant shows he doesn’t care about animals

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Look, I don’t know Luke Steele. I’ve never met him, never heard of him before I wrote my blog post about Thomas Cook and Fosun.  I think I hurt his feelings, because after all those months of campaigning to get Thomas Cook to drop SeaWorld and Loro Parque, some smart ass California moron (that would be me) says “Yeah, but why aren’t you addressing this?”

I know a few animal rights activists and talk with them once in a while. Some of them, like Howard Garrett and Naomi Rose and Ingrid Visser – when they celebrate victories and someone asks “Yeah, but why aren’t you addressing this?”, they answer “We celebrate this now. We celebrate more victories in the future, like that one.”

Steele doesn’t appear to understand this concept, which is an inherent central attribute of activism of any kind. Instead, as mentioned before in this blog, he intentionally sought out anywhere my post was shared in social media and attempted to paint it as a false claim.  I wonder if Steele in his insecurity realizes that in telling activists that the Thomas Cook/Fosun relationship is untrue, he’s actually not only failing in his effort to vilify me, he’s also claiming that animal rights activists are complicit to a lie – a lie well founded in documentation.

But there’s one comment that just blew me away, though not directly tied in with my post:

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Glad somebody liked his comment. Now Steele is correct. Thomas Cook has no responsibility over what Fosun does…

…strictly from the standpoint of business law. (By the way, Mr. Steele, Fosun is not an investment bank. It’s an investment firm and there’s a HUGE difference).

From an animal rights activism standpoint, Steele has absolved Thomas Cook of the responsibility of meeting its stated animal welfare objective and has thrown hundreds of animal rights activists and their efforts under the bus. Bravo.

But Thomas Cook made a public commitment towards animal welfare which, although they are a for-profit company, places them in the public trust for this topic.

In December 2016, Thomas Cook CEO Peter Frankhauser wrote:

We know that for many people, animals in captivity of any form is unacceptable. However, it is a sad truth that many captive animals cannot be safely returned to the wild. Tourism has a big role to play in raising standards for those animals during the transition to ending the practice of capturing animals for entertainment, and ending practices that are known to harm animals.

The 2017 Thomas Cook sustainability report states:

Beyond our auditing efforts, it is key for us to create a step change in our industry
towards higher welfare attractions in our industry.

To that end, we are committed to promoting and developing sea sanctuaries as a financially sustainable, higher welfare attractions which can provide a long-term alternative to captive whales and dolphins.

So here’s a question: Why would Thomas Cook tell both SeaWorld and Loro Parque that if they passed their audits, they would continue to be sold, only to announce they were being dropped at the same time Thomas Cook started selling packages to a dolphin resort owned by a company that is both in a joint venture with Thomas Cook and owns a portion of the British travel company itself?

You might need to read that two or three times to take it all in.

Now understand, I’m not out to disparage Fosun. I have some issues with where they sourced their animals (Taiji, Russia), but I leave it to you as to how you feel about Atlantis Sanya.

As Steele pointed out, Thomas Cook is an independent company that sets its own policy.

And Steele is correct in that Thomas Cook does not finance marine life parks….

…at least directly.

So Thomas Cook should have no role in affecting the operation of a marine life park that it shares an owner with.

Except there’s precedent….

Remember when both Merlin Entertainments and SeaWorld Entertainment shared a common owner – investment firm Blackstone Group (which is kind of the American version of Fosun)?

Well, this happened:

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While Steele was busy scouring the internet to protect his manhood from the emasculating nature of my post (it must have been the profile of that white sided dolphin), Dolphin Freedom UK took the opposite approach. Using my post as a springboard, along with their own research, they reported about the potential conflict on their blog, which then went viral in its own right.

The result of their effort? Thomas Cook announced that it will audit Atlantis Sanya.

I have this fear that perhaps Thomas Cook isn’t being so honest about its commitment to animal welfare. Its stock is about half the value it was a year ago.  Part of me wonders if this is an attempt to bring in a new audience – the animal rights audience – to supplement losses in other markets. Part of me wonders if the sudden dropping of orca parks was an attempt reminiscent of SeaWorld, where Joel Manby suddenly ended orca breeding in a not-well-thought-out effort to quiet animal rights protesters.

If Thomas Cook is being sincere, I don’t know if just audits for certification are enough. The ABTA guidelines for cetaceans in captivity can be found here. I don’t think it’s enough for a company pledging to protect animal welfare to just make guidelines available and say whether a property has passed or failed its audit.

Even as a for-profit company, once you dedicate yourself to a public cause, you develop a public trust, and that trust requires transparency.

I urge everyone, no matter what your view on captivity, to contact or petition Thomas Cook to make those audits publicly available. If the company is to share whether a facility passes or not, it should also tell us why, help us know what’s wrong with it so that we can work as a community to improve the lives of the animals who live there, regardless of our feelings on captivity.

And while you’re at it, see if they have any checks that need to be delivered to Luke Steele.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why someone hired by PETA, an organization that preaches “Animals are Not Ours to Use for Entertainment,” would go to such lengths to deny Thomas Cook’s association with a dolphin park that it shares owners with.

PART THREE WILL RUN TOMORROW. HOW A SINGLE LINE IN A CHINESE NEWS REPORT PUT A CANADIAN THEME PARK ON THE DEFENSIVE

The Other Side of the News marine life park edition part one: SeaWorld’s new owners

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There are a lot of things I want to cover today that aren’t related to marine life parks, but I want to get these three stories out of the way while they’re still relevant. I’ll have a separate post towards the end of the month covering Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi, Two Bit Circus, California Trail at the Oakland Zoo, and new coaster experiences at Europa-Park and Liseberg. Today’s post will be split into three different ones posting throughout the day. And now, some breaking news.

SEAWORLD: INCREASING NUMBERS FROM THE OUTSIDE, FEWER NUMBERS ON THE INSIDE

For the first half of 2018, SeaWorld reported increased attendance and revenue (although there was actually a loss in revenue for the first quarter due to severance payments for a number of executives). The company has gone back to its roots and is operating its destination parks in Florida and California as if they were regional parks, pushing annual passes in the local market and building up events year round to pull those pass-holders back in, which increases both attendance and per cap spending in the parks.

The policy of adding a new attraction or show every year in each park is one that has proven successful for both Six Flags and Cedar Fair, again promoting return visits, which lead to increased annual pass sales. The increased regional attendance has filled the void created by a loss of tourism from foreign territories in the prior few years.

In the company’s filing with the SEC were a few juicy morsels. Here are a few of them:

On February 27, the day after he resigned, Joel Manby received a lump cash payment of $6.7 million. Yeah, that’s a lot of money for a company trying to cut costs. But I’m not surprised. The annual report’s exhibits include an amendment to the contract for Denise Godreau, who left the company after just over a year of employment as the Chief Marketing Officer. The amendment offered her up to $2 million to purchase a house.

These next two come straight from the 10Q. We’ll be addressing this later today, when I look at Thomas Cook, PETA, and the ethics of animal rights and welfare:

“Negative publicity can also impact our relationships with our business partners and ticket resellers. For example, in July we were informed that one of our ticket resellers in the United Kingdom will discontinue selling SeaWorld-branded tickets beginning in July 2019. Although we do not expect this decision to have a significant impact on our business nor do we currently consider this to be a material trend, we continue to monitor any such items that could impact attendance trends. As a reminder, historically, aggregate attendance from the United Kingdom represents approximately 5% of our total annual attendance.”

But first, I’m going to address this:

“We are exposed to the risk of loss in the event of non-performance by such strategic partners or other counterparties. Some of these counterparties may be highly leveraged and subject to their own operating, market and regulatory risks, and some are experiencing, or may experience in the future, severe financial problems that have had or may have a significant impact on their creditworthiness. For example, in April 2018, it was reported that an affiliate of ZHG Group was experiencing financial distress. The inability of affiliates of ZHG Group to pay amounts due to us or otherwise fulfill their obligations to us under their agreements with us, including the ECDA and/or the CDSA, could have an adverse impact on us. In addition, the sale or transfer of our common stock owned by affiliates of ZHG Group, or the perception that such sales or transfers could occur, could harm the prevailing market price of shares of our common stock.”

So there are two companies named Zhonghong.  One is Zhonghong Zhuoye Group (ZZG), a private investment firm. The other is Zhonghong Holdings Group (ZHG), a publicly traded real estate development and tourism company. Both are in China. ZHG has the license to develop SeaWorld parks in China. ZZG owns Blackstone’s former 21% stake of SeaWorld Entertainment.

Zhonghong Zhuoye holds a substantial amount of stock in ZHG and the financial woes of the latter greatly impact the stability of the former. On April 17, I reported the following on the ThemedReality/Final Days of Conventional Wisdom Facebook page.

Some news on Zhonghong Holdings, the company developing SeaWorld-branded parks in China. Zhonghong Holdings predicts an expected loss for its first quarter (Jan 1 – Mar 31, 2018) of 300 million yuan (US$47,731,500). This is in comparison to the same period last year, which saw a profit of 8.95 million yuan (US$1,424,437.25 based on today’s exchange rate). For those of you not adept at math, the ThemedReality Computronic Gizmo computes that to be a staggering decrease of 3451.96% for first quarter profits from 2017 to 2018.

Here’s more fun with numbers. Zhonghong Holdings also released an amended estimate for fiscal year 2017 (Jan 1 – Dec 31) of a loss of 248 million yuan (US$39,463,000), down from a 2016 profit of 157 million yuan (US$24,990,475). The ThemedReality Computronic Gizmo computes that to be a drop of 1679.13%.

So questions have arisen among some of the card-carrying members of the ThemedReality Universal Team of Helpers (TRUTH) as to whether or not Zhonghong Holdings will be able to pay off its loans, due within two years, for its 90.5% stake in British tour operator Abercrombie and Kent. The loans consist of a US$77.5 million loan from Zhonghong Zhouye group, a major Zhonghong Group shareholder (whose shares in the company keep getting frozen by Chinese courts) and the owner of a 21% stake in the US theme park company SeaWorld Entertainment, and another US$335 million in interest bearing loans from non-Chinese banks. The company’s lack of profit precludes it from using earned revenue to pay of the principal on the loans.

On the same day, April 17, I also reported:

According to the ThemedReality Computronical Gizmo, Hill Path Capital now owns just over 28% of SeaWorld Entertainment, which, according to the ThemedReality Computronical Gizmo, is also more than the 21% stake that Zhonghong Zhouye Group purchased from Blackstone. Hill Path Capital is the investment firm of SeaWorld board member Scott Ross (the investment banker, not the famed harpsicordist). At Apollo Global Management, Ross played key roles in the acquisition of both Chuck E Cheese and Great Wolf Resorts, both of which were turned profitable and then sold off by Apollo (a corporate version of house flipping). Then again, the ThemedReality Computronical Gizmo is an abacus held together by duct tape….so there’s that…

Although the proxy material sent out by SeaWorld to its shareholders eight days after my Facebook post stated that Hill Path owned 15.3% of common stock, a small footnote indicated that SeaWorld’s figure was based on a November 2017 filing. If my figures are correct, Hill Path is now the largest shareholder of SeaWorld Entertainment and the staff layoffs that took place the day after 2nd quarter earnings were announced is a strategy straight out of the Apollo playbook.

One thing that differentiated this staff cut from others is that it wasn’t simply a matter of eliminating one individual and consolidating their responsibilities into the duties of another just to save money.  This one was very well thought out (the advantage of having a Chief Strategy Officer onboard, it seems).  Quite a few middle managers were eliminated and the process of parlaying information and data between the top and bottom of the heirarchial personnel structure has been streamlined.

This is usually done in anticipation of a sale, as an efficient HR structure is more appetizing to potential suitors and minimizes issues with staff integration during an acquisition or merger.

A number of my contacts in Hong Kong and China have advised me to expect an announcement within the next week or two by Zhonghong of a sale to Hong Kong-based investment firm Pacific Alliance Group (PAG).  However, I’m hearing different details as to what that sale entails.

In one scenario, PAG purchases Zhonghong Zhyoue’s shares in Zhonghong Holdings. This is a risky move based on three factors:

  1. Chinese courts have frozen ZZG’s shares in ZHG from being traded.
  2. The shares are basically worthless.
  3. It was announced yesterday (August 14) that Chinese regulators were investigating ZHG for filing fake financial records.

More likely, PAG could purchase ZHG assets, which include the luxury tour company Abercrombie & Kent, some nice real estate, and the exclusive SeaWorld license for China.

Most likely is this scenario, which is based on the highly probable belief that ZZG may have missed one or more escrow payments to Blackstone and defaulted on their contract for the stock sale.  If this is the case, then the 21% stake of SeaWorld that ZZG owns is being transferred to PAG.  And if Hill Path sells its shares to PAG, then PAG will end up owning almost half of SeaWorld.

And there’s one other little surprise. CLICK HERE

That’s right. If it’s scenario three, we’re back at the beginning.

Still to come: Marineland smuggles a pair of belugas to China and PETA’s mouthpiece gives Thomas Cook immunity

An addendum to the Thomas Cook/Fosun post and meet PETA’s troll who’s not a troll

Trolls

This is gonna be a very long post, so grab your Starbucks, your Timmies, or your Shotter (for my British readers, Coffee Shotter is a vegan coffeehouse/cafe in Croydon that’s been highly recommended by friends).

THE THOMAS COOK/FOSUN POST

On July 29, I wrote a blog post about Thomas Cook’s relationship with the Chinese company Fosun. Within two days, it had been viewed 40,000 times. I wasn’t expecting that. I usually get double digit readership, on rare occasions, triple. Obviously, this post certainly hit a cord with a number of people. And to think – this blog is simply a place for me to share my thoughts and observations.

What happens after that is just humanity in motion.

HISTORY OF THEMEDREALITY

I am a journalist covering the attractions industry. That is my profession (click on the “disclaimer” tab above. Readers should understand that this is a personal blog and is independent from any professional work I do). For the past seven years, I have professionally written extensively about theme parks, waterparks, wax museums, haunts and Halloween mazes, giant screen theaters and planetariums, virtual and augmented reality, museums, zoos and aquariums, cruise ships, and casinos for trade publications read by attraction designers and operators.

In February 2013, I started this blog. It was a way for me to examine the industry and the aspects of it that interested me in a voice unique from that of the trades. Most of its earlier posts were written in a sarcastic and sardonic fashion, often with a wink at individuals working within the industry.

On November 3 of that year, Blackfish aired on CNN. I was following the comment stream on SeaWorld’s Facebook page as the entries became vulger with wave upon wave of obscene comments – to the point that SeaWorld shut down comments altogether on the page with a note about it being “family friendly.” I blogged about this. But I wanted to understand more about why this happened. Upon request, I was sent a press DVD of the film by the distributor and watched it over and over, and I bought a copy of David Kirby’s book “Death at SeaWorld.”

These led me to write the paper “Dissecting Blackfish,” where I examined how the editing and writing of the film and Kirby’s book were designed to meet narrative goals. I recently reexamined “Dissecting Blackfish” and found it to be a horrible piece of work – not in its content, but in the writing and context, which were both poorly executed by myself. If I were to write it now, it would come out a completely different document.

I HAVE A SECRET AGENDA – HERE IT IS

Following the release of “Dissecting Blackfish,,” I was contacted by a number of leading zoo and aquarium professionals, as well as a number of animal rights activists. Somewhere in this process, I realized that if I was going to understand the issue of captivity, I had to open up and listen to both sides.

Over the past five years, I have established strong friendships with quite a few animal rights activists and also with a large number of zoo and marine life park staff and supporters.

There are quite a few on both sides that remain skeptical about my intentions and, although we may not see eye to eye on most everything, they have proven to be courteous and respectful individuals who want to hear what I have to say while sharing their thoughts in a direct two-way dialogue (much appreciation on this front to FJ and HG for our lengthy and informative chats).

Then there are those who have opted to villianize me, which is fine.

To the park lovers who find me a traitor, I’m an agent of PETA (because many actually believe PETA runs the entire animal rights activism movement. I’ve been told by friends of mine active in the animal rights movement that this is because PETA allegedly takes credit for others accomplishments. I use the term “allegedly” because PETA has never taken credit for anything I’ve done).

To the animal rights activists who can’t stand me, I’m on SeaWorld’s payroll (which would be nice, because if SeaWorld payed me for the amount of personal blogging I’ve done on my own time and at my own expense about cetacean parks, including posts that aren’t quite complimentary to the company, I could probably afford to visit SeaWorld more than once every twenty years).

I am neither an animal rights activist nor an anti-cap.

I am also not a die hard zoo or marine life park fan who believes that such places can do no wrong.

I believe that zoos and aquariums can and do serve an important purpose, but I also acknowledge that many animal exhibitors should not be in operation and that quite a few facilities, even some reputable ones, practice antiquated husbandry techniques.

I believe that zoos and aquariums need to reevaluate their mission – how they exhibit and care for their animals, how they develop and implement educational programming, how they establish conservation programs to protect animals, plants, and ecosystems in the wild, and how they fund this all.

My agenda is simple on this blog – I share what I see on a variety of topics. Not just animals. Readers are welcome to do with that what they want or to discard it altogether.

That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

I sometimes quote individuals as sources – some I name, many ask for anonymity due to the nature of their work and the political situation of the country in which they reside. All numbers given in the blog come from publicly available documentation.

HAINAN

For the past seven years, I have been covering the attractions industries in China and Russia both professionally and as a blogger. As a result, I have gained some very strong connections in both countries.

This past June, I wrote an article about Chimelong Group expanding into Hainan. This is an important milestone, as to date, Chimelong has concentrated on its three resorts in Guangdong Province – Chimelong Guanzhou Resort, home to the company’s original park, Chimelong Safari; Chimelong Zhuhai Resort, home to Chimelong Ocean Kingdom; and Chimelong Qingyuan Forest Resort, the 13.5 square mile animal park and resort being built in the mountains.

Now, Chimelong, which in 2017 saw more people attend its five Guangdong parks than Six Flags saw in all of its 20 North American parks, is going to build a huge resort based around marine and terrestrial wildlife in Hainan. Word is that it will likely be in Ledong, a two hour drive from Sanya, home to two major marine life parks – Atlantis Sanya and R&F Ocean Paradise (set to open next year). How will these two resorts be impacted by Chimelong’s entrance into the market? I was researching this when, on July 16, Thomas Cook announced a strategic partnership with the Hainan government “to promote international tourism to Sanya.”

In short, a major shareholder of Thomas Cook owns a three-month old luxury marine life park in a market that Thomas Cook has just agreed to promote. Thomas Cook has a huge role in  Fosun’s larger long-term entertainment/tourism strategy. On July 4, Fosun applied with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange to spin off its Tourism and Culture Group into a separate publicly traded company, with assets including Atlantis Sanya, Club Med, Thomas Cook China, and the Chinese operations of Cirque du Soleil.

And then the SeaWorld decision came down from Thomas Cook and puzzle pieces started fitting together. I’ll explain in a moment, but first…

A SHORT DISCUSSION ON TROLLS…BROUGHT TO YOU BY PETA

I began two other blogs as offshoots of this one – “The Mid-Cap Chronicles” and “Final Days of Conventional Wisdom” – to focus primarily on the issue of animal captivity and exhibition. I also started a Facebook discussion group on cetacean exhibition that grew to over 2,000 members from both sides, created an hour long video examining the business situation at the five North American parks housing orcas, and maintained a Facebook page which proved a great platform for discussing issues with both park supporters and activists. It also became a page where I could share real time updates on natural disasters, something of concern to me, such as the week I spent monitoring and reporting on Florida’s zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries during and after Hurricane Irma, monitoring for more than 24 hours when the storm hit South Florida. Suffice to say, all this has taken its toll and I’ve been downsizing my blogging and social media posting this year.

While doing all this over the past few years, I’ve encountered plenty of internet trolls and haters. They’ve never angered me, just annoyed me. And it was easy to deal with them.

But a certain reaction to the Thomas Cook/Fosun blog post piqued my curiosity. When people started posting links to it on their Facebook accounts and in Facebook groups, I started receiving messages from them about what appeared to be a troll attempting to discredit my blog. Upon examination, it turned out neither to be a troll nor a hater. It turned out to be a man trying to defend his life’s work. And who it was fascinated me.

Luke Steele (and I am quite envious of the fantastic name) is a successful and well known animal rights activist in the UK. He is a consultant to PETA UK and played a key role in the group’s Thomas Cook campaign.

In one comment, Steele wrote:

This is a blog by somebody who says their objective is to stop any threat to the entertainment industry, including bans on orca breeding. Of course somebody of that mindset isn’t going to be applauding this decision.

In another, he attempted to discredit the entire blog post with a simple explanation:

This is untrue. Thomas Cook is ending involvement in all captive orca attractions across the globe, including SeaWorld and Loro Parque.

In all kindness, I won’t go so far as to call Mr. Steele a liar, but I will point out that his claims are both false and intentionally misleading.

“This is a blog by somebody who says their objective is to stop any threat to the entertainment industry…”

As somebody who has over twenty years experience in hospitality and attraction management, I’ll share a simple truth. If a company or park goes out of business, it’s either due to poor operations or because management is unable or unwilling to adjust to a changing market. I’m not in the business of saving entertainment companies. They go out of business all the time.

To be clear, my objective has never been to “stop any threat to the entertainment industry,” as Mr. Steele claims, and I’ve never stated as such. I have, however, opted to bring attention to some key threats to the industry. As we’ve seen with the #metoo movement, the biggest threats to the entertainment industry are internal. I’ve addressed that with a number of blog posts – on issues ranging from the wild capture of dolphins and whales for aquaria to the legal ramifications of pedophiles in waterparks, racism, and this one on homophobia, which I was excited to see one of my colleagues reference during an on-stage discussion with Greg Louganis at an entertainment industry summit (the video is on YouTube).

As for stopping “bans on orca breeding,” Mr. Steele undoubtedly missed the January 1, 2014 blog post which originally appeared here and was later moved to The Mid-Cap Chronicles, wherein I advocated for an end to orca breeding and choreographed shows, and the construction of bigger spaces for the whales. I also expressed my concerns with swim with dolphin programs in this post (which, like it or hate it, also included my opinion on why Blackfish was snubbed for an Oscar).

This was seven months before Blue World Project was announced, more than fifteen months before the hiring of Joel Manby, and more than two years before Manby and Wayne Pacelle announced an end to orca breeding. Just in case you doubt the date it was posted, you can also access the piece archived on the ThemedReality blog via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

As for the second comment, I’m not certain what Mr. Steele is saying “is untrue.” If it’s the Thomas Cook/Fosun blog post, then he’s alleging that publicly available information filed with a number of regulatory agencies has been fabricated as part of some big conspiracy by a number of governments in Asia and Europe with the cooperation of Canada.

However, I’m just being hypothetical, as I’m certain Mr. Steele, as accomplished and compassionate as he is, could never be as conspiratorial as someone like, say, Donald Trump, or Moby (it’s true – look it up).

The second part of his statement, “Thomas Cook is ending involvement in all captive orca attractions across the globe, including SeaWorld and Loro Parque” is absolutely true, and it wasn’t denied at all in the Thomas Cook/Fosun blog post.

I fully acknowledge that Mr. Steele and his team worked long and hard to achieve this goal.  But I’m left wondering, based on Mr. Steele’s fabrication of facts about my blog, my writing, and my intent, how honest that campaign was in its dealings with Thomas Cook and the thousands of animal rights supporters who signed petitions and donated money to PETA.

Frankly though, I’m not bothered. I’m just wondering.

TRUTH AND TRANSPARENCY

Both Thomas Cook and Steele have something in common – they both hid the truth in order to achieve their goals. How they did it was accomplished in different ways, for there are many different ways to hide the truth.

Steele created a fraudulent dialogue to protect his achievement, something which could be considered a blemish on PETA UK’s integrity.

Thomas Cook simply hid the truth through omission. Even if it never sells tickets or packages to Atlantis Sanya, two facts remain:

Thomas Cook announced a major promotion to the market where Atlantis Sanya is located just days before stripping two major marine life park companies who met the Thomas Cook guidelines at the time they were audited of their involvement in its programs.

At the same time, regardless of whether or not Thomas Cook ever sells any tickets or packages to Atlantis Sanya, every ticket or package it sells to anywhere results in a portion of Thomas Cook revenue going directly to Atlantis Sanya’s owners, as that company, Fosun, also owns a sizable stake of Thomas Cook.

THE THOMAS COOK TAIJI CONNECTION

Now, I will briefly discuss the dolphin captures and kills in Taiji, Japan. It has been pointed out by a number of people on the internet that Atlantis Sanya’s ten dolphins were captured at Taiji. This is true. And it is also true that over the past five years that SeaWorld, Loro Parque, and almost every major zoo and aquarium association globally have condemned the practices executed at Taiji, as have PETA and PETA UK.

Now here’s where it gets tricky – from a business standpoint, there is no requirement that Thomas Cook disclose its relationship with Fosun and Atlantis Sanya within its blogs, press material, social media, or websites. Moreover, Thomas Cook’s animal welfare policy is now founded on two principles – that there be no captive orcas and that facilities meet ABTA standards of animal welfare. And, as difficult as this may be to believe, the captures at Taiji actually meet ABTA standards for the wild capture of cetaceans.

But there’s something else – integrity, transparency, and honesty work hand-in-hand with truth when a company is marketing itself from a platform of taking the moral high ground. Sadly, in my opinion, these traits are lacking from Thomas Cook’s announcement of its dropping of SeaWorld and Loro Parque.

There’s a whole other part to the story, involving the relationship between Fosun and SeaWorld shareholder Zhonghong, but that’s for another post.

I’ll just end with a quote from one of my favorite authors, the great Geoffrey Chaucer:

Savour no more thanne thee behove schal;
Reule weel thiself, that other folk canst reede;
And trouthe schal delivere, it is no drede.