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Southwest Should End Its Partnership with SeaWorld

Welcome to Upright Position, SmarterTravel's weekly series in which Features Editor Caroline Costello discusses emotional and controversial travel topics. Join the debate by leaving a comment below!

Today, animal activists are gathering at Southwest's headquarters to protest the airline's partnership with SeaWorld. According to a press release from Change.org, protesters will meet at Southwest's corporate base in Dallas to deliver a petition that, as of this morning, has received more than 27,000 signatures.

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The petition calls for Southwest to end its 25-year affiliation with the nationwide chain of marine theme parks, which has faced an ocean of fallout since the release of the investigative documentary, "Blackfish." Bringing attention to SeaWorld's allegedly abusive practices, particularly the tragic history of bull orca Tilikum, "Blackfish" caused a firestorm for SeaWorld after its release last summer. The film has been shortlisted for an Oscar nomination. It ignited a wave of protests, and it motivated celebrities to cut ties with SeaWorld. 

The next step in the SeaWorld censure, according to some, is for Southwest to distance itself from the controversial theme park. Robin Merritt, the activist who started the petition, said, "I have flown on Southwest as recently as this year and was even considering getting one of those Southwest Airlines mileage credit cards, but no more—Southwest needs to understand that they are promoting animal cruelty seen in 'Blackfish' if they continue to partner with SeaWorld as they have done for the last 25 years."

I reached out to Southwest for comment, and a representative for the airline told me, "Southwest has a longstanding relationship with SeaWorld that is based on travel and bringing families together. We are currently in a multi-year contract with SeaWorld, and we are not contemplating changes to that at this time. We are engaged with Sea World related to the recent concerns being raised. We are in a listening and education mode with the goal of upholding our commitments as a good corporate citizen."

In December, SeaWorld published an open letter in response to the "Blackfish" backlash, which refutes some of the claims made in the documentary; read it here.

SeaWorld's fervent public denial of any mistreatment of animals and trainers doesn't take away the ethical dilemma with which consumers—and those who partner with the park—are presented. Loud allegations have been made. A single open letter is an inadequate response to the very public outcry against an entertainment brand built upon captive marine mammals performing circus routines in swimming pools. The brand is slimy, spoiled, steeped in chum. It's not an organization with which our country's third largest airline should be linked.  

Many travelers who would never dream of going to SeaWorld fly Southwest. The conundrum here is that it's easy for travelers to skirt SeaWorld, but it's not so easy to avoid flying on a major U.S. airline. The decisions that we make as responsible air-travel consumers should not get tangled with a theme park that much of the mainstream media and many wildlife advocacy groups have called into question.

I don't want to go to SeaWorld, ever. But I do want to fly Southwest. Please, Southwest: Don't continue your relationship with such an objectionable industry.

The airline's response indicates that it won't go through the trouble to breach its contract with SeaWorld. The average consumer isn't aware of the relationship between the SeaWorld and Southwest brands. So, in truth, it's not likely that this wave of trouble will have a perceptible impact on the airline's image. I'm not surprised Southwest is ignoring the outcry.

But I like Southwest. And I don't want our low-fare leader pulled into SeaWorld's ethically murky waters. I hope, at the very least, that the carrier fails to renew its contract with the theme park once the relationship runs its course. Until then, I'm liable to give preference to a competitor when booking domestic travel.  

What's your opinion?

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