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.
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.