American aquatic theme-park empire, SeaWorld, has just announced that it will stop breeding orcas in captivity with immediate effect, and will begin phasing out its killer whale theatrical shows.
The move comes after several years of very high-profile negative coverage and controversy, including claims of mistreatment of orcas, which began in earnest following the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by a bull orca called Tilikum in 2010.
Tilikum, who was caught wild off the coast of Iceland in 1983, and had also been involved in two other human deaths during his time in captivity, was the focus of an extremely influential documentary film, Blackfish by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, which premiered at Sundance in 2013. The film was distributed across the world by CNN and generated widespread condemnation of SeaWorld’s orca show and the conditions in which they keep the whales.
SeaWorld mounted a robust defence of their ethics and practises, but the year after the film came out they announced a $15.9 million loss and the negative fallout kept coming, with several high profile entertainers cancelling shows and commercial partners such as Southwest Airlines distancing themselves. By the end of 2014, the company’s share price had dropped by 44% and the CEO had been forced to resign. Today, after the announcement that it would stop its orca breeding program, the company experienced the biggest one-day percentage gain in its history, with stocking gaining 9.4%.
Orcas, also known as killer whales, are the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family. They are formidable predators in the wild and were once greatly misunderstood and feared by humans, but their high intelligence, striking appearance, and ability to learn tricks and form relationships with people made them popular with the public when they first began to be live-captured and exhibited at theme parks and aquariums in the 1960s. For a very intelligent and extremely sociable animal, however, being ripped from the open ocean and their family units, to be placed in confined and lonely spaces, had catastrophic consequences and invited much criticism even prior to Blackfish. Opponents have claimed that the life expectancy of a captive orca is far lower than for a similar whale in the wild, where females can live up to 90 years, and that the psychological damage being done to the animals is immense.
SeaWorld has not directly sourced orcas from the wild for several decades, but up until today it has operated a breeding program. At present the company has 29 orcas at 11 parks spread across the US, with the biggest being in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio. Today’s announcement effectively means the present population of animals will be the last to live in pools instead of oceans. The decision appears to have been made after SeaWorld began working with The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which said the announcement signalled ‘that the era of captive display of orcas will end’.
Critics will argue that SeaWorld had its hand forced, with the company facing up to simple political and economic realities, rather than experiencing a genuine change of heart. In 2014, SeaWorld managed to delay the Orca Welfare and Safety Act introduced to the California State Legislature by Congressman Richard Bloom, which was aimed at ending killer whale performances and phasing out the practise of keeping the mammals in captivity, but last year the state did ban captive breeding of orcas. Legislation has also been proposed in New York, and amendments were made to the Animal Welfare Act in regards to cetacean captivity during the post Blackfish backlash. Captive breeding of orcas has already been outlawed in Canada, and the writing was on the wall for the American theme park operator.
Today, in an op-ed in the L.A. Times, SeaWorld’s CEO Joel Manby openly conceded that the public and political attitude towards keeping orcas had flipped, and it was unlikely to change back. ‘We are proud of contributing to the evolving understanding of one of the world’s largest marine mammals,’ he wrote. ‘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.’
SeaWorld has also said they will phase out their theatrical orca whale shows, staging ‘natural orca encounters’ instead. Animal rights groups including Peta have welcomed the announcement, but have led demands for the company to go even further, saying they should release all its orcas into sea pens or coastal sanctuaries.
Manby has rejected this call, pointing out that the majority of the animals would probably die if that course of action was taken. ‘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,’ he said. ‘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. They’ll continue to receive the highest-quality care, based on the latest advances in marine veterinary medicine, science and zoological best practices.’
At the end of 2015, there were 58 live orcas being kept in captivity across North and South America, Europe and Asia. Half were in SeaWorld’s 11 US-based venues, with the rest being kept at theme parks such as Loro Parque in Tenerife (Spain), Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium and Kamogawa Sea World in Japan, Marineland of Antibes in France, Marineland in Canada, Mundo Marino in Argentina and Moskvarium in Russia. What impact SeaWorld’s decision will have on the policy direction of these parks and aquariums—plus the venues holding an estimated 2000 dolphins and other cetacea—remains to be seen, but for now, animal welfare supporters and anyone who believes wildlife belongs in the wild are celebrating one big win.