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SeaWorld ends orca breeding program, will phase out theatrical shows

Killer whale Tilikum, right, watches SeaWorld trainers at Shamu Stadium in Orlando in this photo from 2011. SeaWorld is ending its practice of killer whale breeding following years of controversy over keeping orcas in captivity.
Killer whale Tilikum, right, watches SeaWorld trainers at Shamu Stadium in Orlando in this photo from 2011. SeaWorld is ending its practice of killer whale breeding following years of controversy over keeping orcas in captivity. AP file 2011

As SeaWorld ends the controversial breeding of orcas and phases out killer whale shows at its three parks, the changes will come last to the Orlando park, where the death of a trainer started the debate almost six years ago, and the aging whale that killed her may be dying.

Bowing to public pressure, SeaWorld Entertainment announced Thursday that it had stopped its orca breeding program, effective immediately, and would replace the theatrical shows with natural orca encounters and programs that will focus on orca enrichment, exercise, and overall health.

SeaWorld has been under fire since a trainer at the Orlando park, Dawn Brancheau, was killed by an orca named Tilikum in 2010. The 2013 documentary Blackfish, which focused on Tilikum’s behavior and how its captivity may have contributed to Brancheau’s death, ratcheted up public protests and accusations that SeaWorld mistreated its killer whales.

Park attendance dropped after the release of Blackfish in 2013 and SeaWorld reported a fourth-quarter loss of $11 million in February.

Attendance at SeaWorld’s parks dropped. The company reported a fourth-quarter loss of $11 million in February. Some entertainers canceled their concerts at the Orlando park. In California a state regulatory agency approved a $100 million expansion of SeaWorld’s tanks for its orcas in San Diego but also banned breeding of the captive animals. The company’s CEO resigned in December 2014.

Pressured by animal-rights activists and the public, some entertainers canceled their concerts at the Orlando park. Instead of publicly releasing the entire line-up before a concert series starts, SeaWorld Orlando now announces performers one concert at a time, each about a week before the event.

SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby, who came to the company less than a year ago, said he realized, “society is shifting here.”

“Society’s attitude toward these very, very large, majestic animals under human care has shifted for a variety of reasons, whether it’s a film, legislation, people’s comments on the Internet,” Manby said. “We needed to move where society was moving.”

SeaWorld has introduced more than 400 million guests to orcas, and we are proud of our part in contributing to the human understanding of these animals.

Joel Manby, president and CEO, SeaWorld Entertainment

The change will start at the San Diego park, which was the original home of Shamu, SeaWorld’s first orca, then at the San Antonio park. SeaWorld Orlando, home to seven of SeaWorld’s 29 killer whales, will transition from the theatrical shows to the encounters by 2019.

In addition, SeaWorld Orlando probably will scrap its plans, announced in 2014, to build an entirely new whale habitat that would be twice as large as the current living space and would have a whale “treadmill” of constantly moving water and underwater views of the creatures.

“Since this is the last generation of orcas in our parks, it makes more sense for us to enhance their existing habitats. … Our existing habitat already is one of the largest orca facilities in the world and has served us well. It will be redesigned so that it is a more natural looking habitat, in line with our more natural killer whale experiences,” a statement from SeaWorld Orlando said.

We are saddened to report that over the past few weeks, Tilikum’s behavior has become increasingly lethargic, and the SeaWorld veterinary and animal care teams are concerned that his health is beginning to deteriorate.

SeaWorld blog post

Tilikum, now about 35 and near the end of a normal life expectancy, is very ill with what trainers believe is a bacterial infection in his lungs that has so far resisted treatment.

“We are saddened to report that over the past few weeks, Tilikum’s behavior has become increasingly lethargic, and the SeaWorld veterinary and animal care teams are concerned that his health is beginning to deteriorate,” a report recently posted on the park’s blog said.

SeaWorld’s current population of orcas will remain at the parks where guests will be able to observe them through the new educational encounters and in viewing areas within the existing habitats, the company said in a statement.

In addition, the company said it will partner with the Humane Society to help educate guests about animal welfare and conservation through interpretive programs and expanded advocacy for wild whales, seals and other marine creatures.

Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle called SeaWorld’s about-face a “monumental announcement.”

“We don’t come to this discussion with any naivete about the operations at SeaWorld,” Pacelle said. “We didn’t want to be endlessly mired in conflict with SeaWorld. The goal was to make progress for animal rights.”

Asked if SeaWorld may eventually decide to end shows involving dolphins and other marine mammals, Manby said, “Stay tuned on that.”

Blackfish director Gabriella Cowperthwaite applauded SeaWorld’s decision. Breeding orcas and exporting them to international parks has been an important part of SeaWorld’s business model, she said.

“But mostly I applaud the public for recalibrating how they feel ethically about orcas in captivity,” Cowperthwaite said. “I didn’t imagine necessarily that the documentary would spark so much change. I just sort of went about telling the story.”

This report was supplemented with information from the Associated Press.

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