SeaWorld artist boycott quickens as Heart cancels

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SAN FRANCISCO — SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. is starting to feel the impact of a campaign to persuade musical acts to boycott the company's marine parks because of the use of killer whales as performers.

Willie Nelson, Heart and Barenaked Ladies have pulled out of shows at the company's Orlando, Florida, park scheduled for February and early March, citing a campaign by animal-rights activists and issues raised in the critical documentary "Blackfish," released in July. Heart was the latest to cancel, on Dec. 7, citing fan opposition after a petition on Change.org.

"The Sea World show was planned long ago," Heart said on its official Twitter page. "Had we known, we'd have said no then. We said no today. Love you all."

The company, which calls "Blackfish" "a dishonest movie," said in August that attendance has been unaffected by the controversy. That hasn't changed, Fred Jacobs, a spokesman, said yesterday. He declined to discuss specifics, citing a pending secondary offering of as much as $543 million in stock by Blackstone Group and its affiliates, which holds 63 percent.

"While we're disappointed a small group of misinformed individuals was able to deny fans what would have been great concerts at SeaWorld by Heart, Barenaked Ladies and Willie Nelson, we respect the bands' decisions," Nick Gollattscheck, a spokesman for SeaWorld Orlando, said in an emailed statement.

Rocker Joan Jett has asked the company not to use her "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" in one of its shows, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said Monday. Her music isn't currently part of any show, SeaWorld's Gollattscheck said.

"Blackfish" argues that killer whales shouldn't be held in captivity, and that SeaWorld ignored warning signs of the danger to handlers. The company rejects its conclusions.

PETA, which says it has petitioned SeaWorld for years to stop exhibiting animals, has written to all the artists scheduled to perform at the water parks, asking them to withdraw, said Lindsay Rajt, associate director of campaigns.

"Millions of people have changed their tune about SeaWorld and really understand the bleak and lonely life there is for those animals," Rajt said by telephone. "When you see your favorite bands or your favorite stars performing there, it's horrible."

The group is also pressuring the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena, Calif., to eject SeaWorld's float from the annual Rose Parade.

Country singer Nelson, 80, pulled out last week, citing fan entreaties to him and poor treatment of the park's animals.

"I don't agree with the way they treat their animals, so it wasn't that hard a deal for me to cancel," he said in a Dec. 6 interview on CNN.

SeaWorld Orlando has no plans to discontinue the Bands, Brew & Barbecue weekend events that Nelson, Heart and Barenaked Ladies were scheduled to perform at, Jacobs said.

Performers who are the subject of active Change.org petitions seeking show cancellations at SeaWorld include Cheap Trick, REO Speedwagon and Trisha Yearwood. Representatives for those artists didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

The company, based in Orlando, said it had issued an invitation to the bands and artists to visit any of its parks or to speak to animal experts to learn about its treatment of its attractions.

The visits would show "how little truth there is to the allegations made by animal extremist groups opposed to the zoological display of marine mammals," Gollattscheck said in the statement.

Blackstone, the world's largest private-equity firm, bought SeaWorld from Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2009.

SeaWorld is offering 15 million shares in the stock sale, which would bring Blackstone's stake down to 46 percent. If underwriters, led by Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, were to exercise their overallotment options, the offering would increase to 17.3 million shares and Blackstone's stake would drop to 44 percent.

SeaWorld has also agreed to repurchase 1.5 million shares of its stock directly from the selling stockholders in a private, non-underwritten transaction, according to company filings.