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