Years of pressure in the wake of the documentary “Blackfish” result in new concession from the theme park.
By Vicki Croke
After mounting pressure from conservationists, lawmakers, and citizens—much of it ignited by the documentary “Blackfish”—SeaWorld announced today that it will stop breeding killer whales this year.
“SeaWorld has been listening and we’re changing,” the company said on its website. “Society is changing and we’re changing with it.”
The Humane Society of the United States has been working on this change with the company, and Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The HSUS, said in a statement, “Today’s announcement signals that the era of captive display of orcas will end and that SeaWorld will redouble its work around rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals in crisis and partner with us to tackle global threats to marine creatures.”
SeaWorld runs 12 parks across the country, with killer whale shows in three of their parks in San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio. The announcement comes after three years of intense attention and criticism of the way SeaWorld keeps and trains its killer whales.
According to The New York Times:
SeaWorld has been under heavy scrutiny after a 2012 book, “Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity” by David Kirby and a 2013 documentary, “Blackfish,” which assailed the treatment of killer whales by the theme park. The company also has locations in San Antonio and Orlando, Fla. (Tilikum, the whale featured in the documentary, is in poor health at the Orlando park.)
In October, the California Coastal Commission banned the breeding of orcas in captivity, a decision that SeaWorld said was an overreach of the agency’s authority. The commission attached the ban to its approval of a proposed expansion of SeaWorld’s whale habitat in San Diego, but SeaWorld had challenged the decision.
In a lengthy Op-Ed article for today’s Los Angeles Times, Joel Manby, President and CEO of SeaWorld, writes:
We are proud of contributing to the evolving understanding of one of the world’s largest marine mammals. Now we need to respond to the attitudinal change that we helped to create — which is why SeaWorld is announcing several historic changes. This year we will end all orca breeding programs — and because SeaWorld hasn’t collected an orca from the wild in almost four decades, this will be the last generation of orcas in SeaWorld’s care. We are also phasing out our theatrical orca whale shows.
Manby says the animals currently in the company’s care will not, and cannot be returned to the wild:
Most of our orcas were born at SeaWorld, and those that were born in the wild have been in our parks for the majority of their lives. If we release them into the ocean, they will likely die. In fact, no orca or dolphin born under human care has ever survived release into the wild. Even the attempt to return the whale from “Free Willy,” Keiko, who was born in the wild, was a failure.
For as long as they live, the orcas at SeaWorld will stay in our parks.
Conservationists who have long campaigned for this change are praising the decision, while still pushing for more reforms.
“This is a first, massive step forward toward a more humane future for SeaWorld,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute said in a statement from HSUS. “I welcome these commitments from Joel Manby. He has given SeaWorld a new lease on life.”
Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of “Blackfish,” and arguably the person who most advanced the issue, said through HSUS, “This is a defining moment. The fact that SeaWorld is doing away with orca breeding marks truly meaningful change.”
As the New York Times wrote:
The news media scrutiny has harmed SeaWorld’s image, attendance and stock price. But in its most recent earnings report, it said that total attendance was 22.47 million in 2015, an increase of 70,000 from 2014. Total revenues dropped slightly, to $1.37 billion in 2015, from $1.38 billion a year earlier. Net income fell to $49.1 million in 2015, from $49.9 million a year earlier.