Saturday May 31, 2014
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Visitors greeted by an orca killer whale at SeaWorld. — Reuters file picVisitors greeted by an orca killer whale at SeaWorld. — Reuters file picLOS ANGELES, May — SeaWorld Entertainment Inc, taking on critics of its killer-whale shows, will send a senior member of its zoological staff to a conference on animal-related tourism organised by billionaire Richard Branson.

The Virgin Group Ltd founder drew complaints this year from animal rights activists because his travel agency was selling tour packages with trips to SeaWorld and other parks where whales and dolphins perform. In February, Branson said his company wouldn’t work with any organisation that took animals from the sea and promised to lead a six-month “engagement process” on the issue.

SeaWorld, based in Orlando, was invited to the conference in Miami, scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, and will send the zoological representative, according spokesman Fred Jacobs.

Christine Choi, a spokeswoman for London-based Virgin Group, said in an email that media would not be allowed to attend the event. She said “progress will be shared afterwards”.

SeaWorld president and chief executive officer Jim Atchison has told Branson that the only wild whales and dolphins coming to the company’s parks in the past three decades were beached, orphaned or injured animals the US government deemed unreleasable, according to Jacobs. More than 80 per cent of the marine mammals living at SeaWorld were born there or in zoological institutions, he said.

“As we have informed Virgin, a long-standing travel trade partner of SeaWorld, we have always been willing to lend our expertise to any objective, science-based process that seeks to assure the health and welfare of animals living in zoological environments,” Jacobs said in an email.

SeaWorld shares fell 1.6 per cent to US$30.76 at the close in New York on Thursday. The stock is up 6.9 per cent in the year. — Bloomberg

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