The past few weeks have seen several tourism companies climb aboard the bandwagon of those opposed to keeping marine mammals in aquariums and zoos. The reason cited is familiar rhetoric frequently espoused by animal rights groups, but lacking in credible evidence to substantiate the claims.
Rhetoric shapes public perception, and perception becomes reality. By continually sowing the seeds of doubt in peoples’ minds, and bolstering those doubts with well-spun, half-truth tales that pull on heartstrings, the public begins to accept opinion as truth and accusation as evidence. The tactics of anti-zoo groups are manipulative and disingenuous to be sure, but as a communications professional, we must acknowledge the shrewdness of their strategy. Their singular focus and multi-pronged approach to achieve the end goal is a frustrating and potentially daunting challenge for zoos and aquariums. But it is not unsurmountable with a strategic communications plan.
The target audience of the Empty the Tanks propaganda campaign is empathetic people who care about animals. This is, of course, the same audience of current or prospective visitors and supporters of aquariums and zoos. This audience is exposed to propaganda from many different directions – not only from animal rights groups (which this audience may or may not find trustworthy or credible), but also from friends and influencers in their social networks, celebrities and companies like Trip Advisor and Airbnb. That pervasive rhetoric makes it difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. The tactic being deployed is a law of propaganda as used by Nazi Joseph Goebbels: “Repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes the truth.”
No one is certain of the total number of orcas (otherwise known as "killer whales") that exist in the wild. However, estimates are now around 100,000, and populations are dwindling. In Washington State's Puget Sound and San Juan Islands, the once-large population of orcas has declined to around 80 whales, and the Puget Sound orcas are on the US government's endangered species list.