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SeaWorld as a conservation donor?

The first SeaWorld park opened in 1964 but it was another 15 years before they introduced the concept of education, when they were legally mandated to do so – the park’s founder even admits that the park was created “strictly as entertainment”. A further 15 years passed before SeaWorld made the decision to put something back into conservation and so the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund (SWBGCF) was born. Although technically (and legally), the fund is a separate entity from SeaWorld itself, it’s hard not to see the connection between the two!

Interestingly, on the SWBGCF’s website they state that “The Fund provides an outlet for park visitors to help protect wildlife and, because SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment provides all administrative and development costs as well as staffing and infrastructure, commits 100 percent of donations to on-the-ground wildlife conservation efforts.” – so, in theory, it’s the park visitors who fund this fund? If you were a park visitor, you would I’m sure like to think that it’s not just you and other paying members of the public who are contributing to conservation in the wild but unfortunately it seems that the public are in fact contributing more than SeaWorld themselves.

In 10 years of operation the SWBGCF claim to have allocated grants of over US$10 million – we thought it was time to delve a little deeper and see exactly what we could find out.

Given the 503 (c)(3) charity status of the fund we were able to take a very close look at their 990’s – otherwise known as their tax returns – where we analysed their spends against the headings “contributions, gifts and grants” from 2004 to 2012.  (Unfortunately they have not yet filed their returns from 2013 and therefore we were unable to use them in our analysis). The fund’s recipients are diverse and there appear to be a number of very worthy projects however it was our intention to try figure out what proportion of the “public’s donations” were actually going to the conservation of wild whales, dolphins and porpoises. Unfortunately it was impossible to attribute every individual grant payment to a specific species and in some cases even to a specific organisation and therefore there may be a few omissions when it comes to tallying up the funded cetacean work. However, from our in-depth analysis, we can guarantee you that any omissions certainly do not add up to a substantial amount of money. In fact if anything we may have erred on the side of caution and attributed funds to whale and dolphin conservation that should not “technically” be categorised as such.

For example, some of the largest grants have been given to the University of Florida (up to 2012 this amounted to a total of US$320,000). However given that the University works on a variety of species both in captivity and the wild, we were unable to attribute the funds to any specific species either in captivity or the wild. We do however know that several members of the veterinary department (otherwise known as “aquatic animals health experts”) at the University have published several scientific papers that feature on the SeaWorld website – one of the most recent ones described how dolphins are an ideal model on which to study human cervical cancer – and so we gave them the benefit of the doubt and added their grants to the “whale and dolphin” pile. Interestingly, there is an additional link to SeaWorld as it would appears that the associate director of animal health at the College of Veterinary Medicine is himself an ex-SeaWorld employee.

So what did we find out?

In a nutshell, the amount of funds dedicated to whale and dolphin research and conservation is pitiful. A mere 6% of the US$9million plus granted by SWBGCF between 2004 and 2012 (remember we don’t yet have the tax returns from 2013 and therefore have to work with the figures from only nine years worth of grant-giving) has been spent on whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Even then, that 6% includes contributions to research focused on captive individuals held in SeaWorld facilities and undertaken by Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute. So how much really went to fund research on wild populations of whales and dolphins?

What we do know is that from the 6% spent on cetaceans – which works out at approximately US$542,588 – US$320,000 went to the University of Florida (noted above) and US$146,000 went to Hubbs Research Institute (who in addition to studying the captive dolphins at SeaWorld, undertake work on a wild population of bottlenose dolphins in a Florida lagoon although some of the grants were noted as being for work on polar bears and manatees). This therefore leaves only US$76,588 directly attributable to monies spent focusing on “wild” whales and dolphins. And that works out at 14% of the total spent on whales and dolphins and a mere 0.88% of the total spent on ALL their projects. 

So in answer to the question of SeaWorld being a conservation donor? It would appear not when it comes to the conservation of wild whales and dolphins.

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