It was billed as “the first film since Grizzly Man to show how nature can get revenge on man when pushed to its limits”—and it woke a lot of people up. The 2013 documentary Blackfish explored SeaWorld water parks’ alleged mistreatment of their killer whales and employees, as well as the 2010 drowning death of park trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Here’s something we didn’t learn in the film, though: Not long after Brancheau’s death, SeaWorld, which has continued to feature the now-infamous orca Tilikum in its shows, started a political action committee—perhaps unsurprising, considering the potential regulatory repercussions the tragedy could have on the fish-and-whale-captivity-for-kicks business. And the PAC’s been spending a bunch of money.
The campaign-finance website OpenSecrets.org puts the PAC’s spending at about $103,000—and that’s in addition to the $263,965 the company has directly given to political campaigns since 2009, plus $4,240,000 on political lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, the park’s profit, stock price and credit rating have all been suffering this year, and recently SeaWorld has, for the first time, publicly attributed those misfortunes to the impact of the documentary.
Many of the beneficiaries of SeaWorld’s PAC and other political giving are local to the company’s signature parks in San Diego and southern Florida, as explored in a recent investigation by the Voice of San Diego: California assemblypeople, Gov. Jerry Brown, the regional chamber of commerce and the California Restaurant Association. But there are odd recipients of SeaWorld’s soggy dollars, too—right here in our backyard.
U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) have all received donations from the theme park. But why would SeaWorld want to send money to Pennsylvania pols?
To answer that question, it helps to understand that each member of Congress—both senators and representatives—serves on committees and subcommittees that focus on individual areas of legislation. The committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, for instance, has a subcommittee on both tourism and ocean issues, which are exactly the sorts of things SeaWorld has interest in. And Sen. Barbara Boxer, for instance, doesn’t just represent California in the Senate—she’s also a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. So it makes sense to learn she’s a recipient of SeaWorld donations.
But what about Pennsylvania’s own Bob Casey? The Scranton Democrat received a $5,000 donation from SeaWorld’s PAC in 2011 and is the second-highest recipient of SeaWorld cash in Congress. Well, in 2011, Casey was gearing up for a re-election campaign. Democrats were projected to keep their majority and, as such, keep their committee chairmanships, and Casey’s the head of the subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety—which, as the Voice of San Diego’s investigation put it, “is of particular interest to SeaWorld given its long-running dispute over regulatory mandates following Brancheau’s death.”
That subcommittee’s been quite busy over the past three years. During Casey’s tenure as chair, for instance, it’s held hearings on emergency-response issues in the Marcellus Shale region, and it pressed the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration hard earlier this year after a Bucks County man was killed at the CSC Sugar plant in Fairless Hills.
When OSHA involved itself in a legal battle against SeaWorld, though, most elected members of the U.S. government stayed out of it—including the subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety—even as OSHA eventually demanded that SeaWorld stop interactions with animals characterized as “lethally dangerous.” (The U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. rejected SeaWorld’s appeal of that ruling last week.)
Casey’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Philadelphia Weekly.
It’s not all about wonky subcommittee politics. There are also the Muppets to consider.
Pennsylvania is not the sort of place that lends itself to hosting a whole lot of elaborate water parks, given the fact that we have, you know, winter. But just like any national corporation that’s been accused of having blood on its hands, SeaWorld lives by the model of diversification. In addition to the SeaWorld parks themselves, the company also owns resorts including Busch Gardens in Virginia, where politicians also received SeaWorld campaign donations—and Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pa., which it acquired in 2009, and where it licenses the right to use the beloved Sesame Street characters.
A half-hour drive from Center City, Sesame Place—one of two SeaWorld-owned locations in the U.S. without any animal inhabitants—brings about $75 million worth of business to Bucks County each year. Langhorne is in Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick’s district, and he’s a vocal supporter of Sesame Place.
(That said, the Republican is also a big animal welfare supporter, and received an honor from the Humane Society in 2013. He voted in favor of a recent amendment to an appropriations bill that would direct the USDA to update the Animal Welfare Regulations Act as it relates to captive orcas and other marine mammals—a bill SeaWorld spokespeople have specifically spoken out against.)
In September 2013, about a year after disclosing his financial support from SeaWorld Entertainment, Fitzpatrick penned a letter to the Obama administration arguing that the Affordable Care Act’s new health care regulations were killing business at Sesame Place. “This law is hurting real people in my district and around the country,” he wrote, after SeaWorld announced the Pennsylvania park would be cutting some weekly work hours for its part-time employees so as not to have to provide healthcare benefits.
As has been customary, anti-Obamacare conservatives have sought to lay the blame for docking hours to avoid offering basic benefits not with the corporations in question—like SeaWorld Entertainment, which brought in $1.5 billion in revenues in 2013—but, rather, with the healthcare law itself.
In this case, when Fitzpatrick pointed to Sesame Place itself as the real victim, Sen. Pat Toomey—who’s remained mostly mum on SeaWorld—shared Fitzpatrick’s concerns on social media, noting: “Bucks County’s Sesame Place theme park will be forced to cut hours for 1,300+ seasonal employees. #Obamacare?”
That same week, Toomey began a drive to defund Obamacare. Surely, Big Bird would be proud.