Animal Rights

In Stunning Move, SeaWorld Announces End to Captive Breeding of Orcas, Will Stop Making Them Do Tricks

The surprise move brokered by the Humane Society of the U.S. means SeaWorld's 28 orcas will be the last it holds in captivity.

SAN DIEGO, CA - JUNE 18, 2015: SeaWorld San Diego Killer Whale (orca) Exhibit.
Photo Credit: Tinseltown/Shutterstock

In a stunning move, SeaWorld has agreed to stop breeding captive killer whales, meaning its 28 orcas will be the last generation of the whales owned by the company. SeaWorld also said it would end orca shows at all its entertainment parks by 2019. 

SeaWorld made the announcement Thursday morning in a joint statement with the Humane Society of the United States, which negotiated with the company over the past few months to craft the new policy.

The company will phase out its iconic “Shamu” show at all three of its U.S. parks and replace them with presentations focused on the animals’ natural environment, and it will neither receive killer whales from foreign parks nor send whales to them, including parks it hopes to open in Asia and the Middle East.

Instead of breeding orcas, SeaWorld will now invest $50 million over five years to increase its focus on rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals in distress and bringing attention to rescued animals that cannot be released to raise awareness of their plight and educate the public about the growing threats to marine life.

Some of that money will also be dedicated to advocacy campaigns to end commercial whaling and seal hunting and to fighting against shark finning, working to protect coral reefs, and reducing the commercial collection of ornamental tropical fish from the wild. 

“As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it,” SeaWorld chief executive Joel Manby said in a statement. “By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and reimagining how guests will encounter these beautiful animals, we are fulfilling our mission of providing visitors to our parks with experiences that matter.”

Company representatives could not be immediately reached for further comment.

“It’s quite amazing,” Humane Society chief executive Wayne Pacelle said in a phone interview. “I really applaud Joel Manby for being an important new leader in taking these very big steps forward for the company.”

“To me, it’s just another big indicator of the power of the humane economy that businesses that are not putting animal welfare at the center of their thinking are at great risk,” he added. “Companies that make animal welfare a central tenet of their work have a great opportunity by doing the right thing.”

For decades, SeaWorld and the Humane Society have been engaged in a bitter war of words over killer whale captivity, making this new rapprochement all the more remarkable.

Pacelle said he began negotiating with Manby in January after the two were introduced by John Campbell, a conservative Republican from Orange County, California, who retired from the House of Representatives in 2014. Campbell and Manby knew each other from their years of working in the automobile dealership industry, Pacelle said.

“He called me and said Joel is a really good guy, and I think you would really like him a lot,” Pacelle said. “And I think that company has to change, and you need to spend some time with him and see if you can get somewhere.”

When they met, Manby, who took the reins of the company a year ago, told Pacelle that he was proud of the animal rescue work SeaWorld does, Pacelle said.

“I said that was fine, but all your orca activities are stepping on the rest of your work,” Pacelle said. “No one can see that because your company is so defined by the treatment of your orcas.”

As another part of the change in its business practices, SeaWorld will source only sustainably raised seafood, crate-free pork, and cage-free eggs and will offer more vegan and vegetarian options at its restaurants and food service operations.

The news astounded Naomi Rose, an orca expert and marine-mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, who has been fighting against orca captivity for 23 years.

“It’s as gobsmacking as it sounds,” Rose said. “I’m giving full credit to Joel Manby and SeaWorld because this is not a small thing for them. It’s pretty shocking, in a good way.”

Rose said that although SeaWorld did not agree to all demands made by anti-captivity activists, such as retiring its killer whales to coastal sea sanctuaries, “this is what they have agreed to, and I think it’s huge.”

“This is what the Blackfish effect was working toward,” she added, referring to the 2013 documentary that focused worldwide attention on the suffering of orcas in captivity. “That was the ask: End the breeding programs. And they’ve done that.”

Rose said SeaWorld’s ending of captive breeding accomplishes what a bill introduced in Congress last November sought to achieve and will make it easier to convince marine-mammal parks in other countries to follow suit.

The announcement came just one week after SeaWorld said its killer whale Tillikum was suffering from an incurable lung infection.

SeaWorld ruled out returing its captive orcas to the wild. 

“The current population of orcas at SeaWorld—including one orca, Takara, that became pregnant last year—will live out their lives at the company’s park habitats, where they will continue to receive the highest-quality care based on the latest advances in marine veterinary medicine, science, and zoological best practices,” the company said in a statement.

Both Rose and Pacelle said SeaWorld is becoming more transparent under Manby’s stewardship.

“These practices that went long unquestioned have now been questioned, and good people are taking action,” Pacelle said. “We can encourage people to change by writing critical books or filming devastating documentaries.”

That change, he said, will be good for SeaWorld’s sagging reputation: “You do away with lawsuits and legislation and kids writing angry letters to you when you do the right thing.”

This article originally appeared on TakePart.com. Reprinted with permission.

 

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

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