National Geographic Daily News
Photo of Seaworld's A Sea of Surprises float during a preview of new Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade floats.

PETA is asking Macy's to cancel the parade's SeaWorld float, which the group is calling "an endorsement of animal suffering."

PHOTOGRAPH BY MEL EVANS, AP

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published November 21, 2013

In today's polarized political era, even a holiday parade meant for kids can become a heated battleground of opposing views.

This week, activists from two animal-rights camps objected to Macy's upcoming Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. (See also: "Free to See: 10 U.S. Parades.")

Since 1924, Macy's has presented a big, bold, festive parade through the heart of Manhattan on Thanksgiving morning. Broadcast nationwide, the event is a signature event of the holiday for U.S. viewers at home with their families.

What could be more wholesome? The parade's highlights include colorful floats and giant inflatable balloons, the latter bobbing and weaving down the skyscraper-lined streets, guided by hundreds of volunteer handlers holding ropes. The floats and balloons regularly feature cartoon characters ranging from Snoopy to Spiderman, celebrities, and other images from pop culture.

But Macy's has come under fire this week from activists with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which plans a protest of the parade in response to news that the event will feature a SeaWorld-themed float, including imagery of Shamu, the orca made famous through long-running shows at the parks.

Baldwins Speak Out

In a letter to Macy's CEO Terry J. Lundgren, PETA supporters and celebrities Alec and Hilaria Baldwin urged the store to cancel the SeaWorld float. "Please don't be a part of SeaWorld's crisis-management plan," the famous New York City residents wrote.

In a statement, PETA added that "allowing SeaWorld to participate in the parade is undeniably an endorsement of animal suffering." The group argued, "The float, which depicts free orcas frolicking in the ocean, is in stark contrast to the 35 orcas who have died in SeaWorld's cramped tanks. The parade has always been about enjoyment and awe, so Macy's shouldn't be celebrating the lives and deaths of the animals imprisoned at SeaWorld."

PETA also noted that, as of November 18, more than 50,000 people joined the Baldwins in e-mailing Macy's about their desire to see the float canceled.

In response, Macy's said the mission of the parade is "entertainment" and that the float would stay in its 87th annual parade. SeaWorld has called PETA's accusations "unfounded."

According to Macy's, all of its parade elements "are designed and created by the artisans at Macy's Parade Studio. We have numerous guidelines that allow us to provide unique entertainment and best serve our performing talent."

Blackfish Connection

The controversy comes on the heels of the recent documentary film Blackfish, which, in the words of PETA, "paints a devastating portrait of the miserable lives of orcas at SeaWorld."

In August, Kenneth Brower wrote an opinion piece for National Geographic that was critical of SeaWorld's track record with orcas. Brower called Blackfish "an indictment of SeaWorld, its safety practices, its animal husbandry, its mendacity, and its whole reason for being."

Brower praised SeaWorld for its conservation and rehab work with some wild whales and for its assistance of Keiko, the animal used in the Free Willy films.

But he criticized SeaWorld for what he described as the breaking up of orca families in the wild during collections of animals for its parks, for teaching the cetaceans to do "unnatural" tricks, and for failing to react enough to warning signs shown by Tilikum, the whale that "crushed, dismembered, and partially swallowed" SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

"These are not bad whales. They just come with all the instincts of predators," Brower concluded, as he argued that orcas are best left in the wild, instead of being kept in enclosures and forced to perform for audience amusement.

The article struck a chord with our readers, who made 158 comments on Brower's story. Judy Davis wrote, "These orcas are nothing more than SeaWorlds slaves.  I always wanted to see these animals perform, however, no, I will never go see them perform."

Taking a different view, John Barr wrote, "I'm opposed to cruel treatment of animals as anyone should be, however, to those opposed to animals in captivity, I do have a question. Does this also extend to our pets as well?"

Joan Jett vs. Cattle Ranchers

Meanwhile, a group of ranchers have apparently succeeded where PETA has not so far: They have successfully brought about a change in Macy's planned parade lineup.

Photo of Joan Jett
Photograph by Gail Burton, AP
Some South Dakota ranchers say Joan Jett was a poor choice for their state's tourism float because she is a vegetarian and PETA supporter.

As media have reported, "South Dakota ranchers have succeeded in getting [rocker Joan] Jett pulled off the South Dakota tourism float after they questioned why the vegetarian and animal-rights ally was representing their beef-loving state."

In a statement, PETA Senior Vice President Dan Mathews responded, "Thanks to South Dakota's reactionary ranchers, people across the country have learned why Joan Jett supports PETA. The meat trade can't stand any scrutiny of its cruelty."

For her part, Jett, who has been a vegetarian for 20 years, said in a statement that the parade change was her decision. "I've decided to switch from South Dakota to another float because people's political agendas were getting in the way of what should be a purely entertainment driven event," Jett said Saturday. "I will remain focused on entertaining the millions of people watching, who will be celebrating a great American tradition."

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

17 comments
C. Dufour
C. Dufour

People really need to calm down, its just a parade! Whats next are we going to ban the barney float because some creationists dont believe in dinosaurs?

Even joan Jett isnt making a big deal about this so why are we?

Christine Smith
Christine Smith

What the hell are we teaching our children, to being blind to what is really happening here? When will we allow ourselves to really see the truth and really be conscious so that we can live in true self honesty. Cirques are just as bad if not worse. To me using animals in entertainment for money, including zoos is not the way it's suppose to be. We have a choice.

C. Harms
C. Harms

The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.

Joy Saldanha
Joy Saldanha

I for one (tho' just a drop in the ocean) would never go to 'Seaworld' to watch those beautiful enslaved God given animals doing what is not natural to them. Maybe we should try to exchange places with them, and see just how we feel being gawked at.Joy Saldanha

Judy Simons
Judy Simons

Some of you posters should take a look at the situation, and the actual treatment of these intelligent mammals. Try watching the movie Blackfish. Don't be so judgmental on something that you obviously know nothing about. Also, discounting something because PETA backs it is ridiculous. You may not agree with everything they do, but how about looking into the situation on your own. You may just find that it is valid. These whales do not belong in captivity. Ever.

Russ Nash
Russ Nash

Seaworld should be banned from having any cetaceans. It's a depressing example of what some humans find entertaining. It's the last thing we should be taking our kids to see.

Gordon Burns
Gordon Burns

Beautiful float. I look forward to seeing it.

Jeanie McCully
Jeanie McCully

To answer the reader question, PETA does, in fact oppose pet ownership as "cruelty." I hope that Macy's and others recognize that PETA and its celebrity endorsers are in the minority in their radical opinions about animal rights (as opposed to animal welfare).

Fred Habacht
Fred Habacht

If Alec Baldwin is for something...then I certainly might consider choosing the "other" side. He and his wife represent "crazy" rather than logical.

Matt Dean
Matt Dean

While I agree in some way with the theory of not supporting Sea world and them keeping whales in captivity. I cant take PETA seriously. An organisation more interested in creating controversy and media exposure than trying to help the animals they supposedly support.

They are more interested in appealing to horny teenage boys with provokotive ads and recruiting celebritys to appear in campaign ad's that will later wear a fur coat to a premier or endorse cosmetics that test on animals.

Why not use that money to actually do something positive and directly contribute to a conservation effort or  do something to create awarness about a specific issue rather than recruiting a bunch of young women to fellate vegetables in some tacky ad about vegetarianism.

Mary Waterton
Mary Waterton

Radical homosexuals, radical feminists, radical environmentalists, radical animal rights nuts, radical Hollywood actors, etc. These are constituents of the democrat party. They rule the democrat party and the democrat party rules us. These freaks are never happy unless everyone is as miserable as they are.

Abby Gerrish
Abby Gerrish

@Russ Nash  

I agree. And if there must be captive cetaceans, parts of the ocean should be roped off. A childhood zoo game that I have played (Zoo Tycoon) let you design animal enclosures. The Orca and Dolphin "exhibits" designable were better than Sea World's. That says something, and makes you think. Is Sea World really doing it all for the animals? I think not.

Judy Simons
Judy Simons

@Jeanie McCully After reading your post, I went to the PETA site and looked up their thoughts on pet ownership. It looks like you are incorrect. Take a look here and read the page yourself. http://www.peta.org/about-peta/why-peta/pets/ Here's a paragraph:  Contrary to myth, PETA does not want to confiscate animals who are well cared for and “set them free.” What we want is for the population of dogs and cats to be reduced through spaying and neutering and for people to adopt animals (preferably two so that they can keep each other company when their human companions aren’t home) from pounds or animal shelters—never from pet shops or breeders—thereby reducing suffering in the world.

If you ask me, that part of PETA doesn't sound radical at all.

Charles Cecil
Charles Cecil

@Mary Waterton After watching the debacle of the Republican primaries in 2012, especially the ilk of Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachman, I believe it's pretty apparent to the majority of the people in this country who has the more radical and dangerous views on how to make our society miserable. 

Judy Simons
Judy Simons

@Mary Waterton And you consider the Tea Party "normal", I'm guessing? I'll take Democrats any day if having to choose between those two. Anyway, this is about Orca in captivity, not politics.

Gordon Burns
Gordon Burns

@Mary Waterton It is very disturbing how some people ALWAYS turn EVERYTHING into democrat versus republican. The world is a whole lot more than those two parties.

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