SeaWorld ends orca breeding, partners with Humane Society

The theme park has been facing growing criticism over the captivity and treatment of its marine animals, especially its killer whales. Today, it announced historic changes.

SeaWorld’s captive killer whales will be the last generation to live in the theme park’s tanks.

Thursday morning, the theme park announced an end to its orca-breeding program and said it would also phase out its theatrical shows involving the killer whales. SeaWorld has been under growing scrutiny and bad press in the wake of documentary “Blackfish” and other marine-animal activism.

SeaWorld’s social media team shared the announcement on Facebook and Twitter:

Have you seen the big news? SeaWorld has helped make orcas among the world’s most beloved animals. By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and reimagining how guests will experience these beautiful animals, we are fulfilling our ongoing mission of providing visitors with experiences that matter. Learn more about this announcement and how we’re changing here:

Posted by SeaWorld on Thursday, March 17, 2016

Social media users and animal activist groups rejoiced on Twitter:

Stopping orca breeding programs isn’t the only action SeaWorld has agreed to take. The Humane Society of the United States issued a press release and outlined the company’s plan in partnership with HSUS, which includes focusing on the rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals; advocating to end commercial whaling, sealing and shark finning; and protecting coral reefs.

SeaWorld has also agreed to change its food procurement policies to source only sustainably raised seafood, along with eggs from cage-free chickens and meat from crate-free pigs, and offer more vegetarian and vegan options in the theme park’s restaurants.

HSUS called SeaWorld’s reforms “a major step toward a humane economy.”

“These two organizations have been long-time adversaries, but we’re excited now to see the company transforming its operations for the better on animal welfare,” Wayne Pacelle, HSUS’s president chief exec, said in the press release. “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.”

Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of “Blackfish,” agreed. “This is a defining moment,” Cowperthwaite said in HSUS’ press release. “The fact that SeaWorld is doing away with orca breeding marks truly meaningful change.”

“SeaWorld takes seriously its responsibility to preserve marine wildlife,” the company’s president and CEO, Joel Manby, wrote in The Los Angeles Times. He explained that consumers’ attitudes about killer whales have changed throughout the years, bringing the theme park to change its policies:

Americans’ attitudes about orcas have changed dramatically. When the first SeaWorld Park opened in 1964, orcas, or killer whales, were not universally loved, to put it mildly. Instead, they were feared, hated and even hunted. Half a century later, orcas are among the most popular marine mammals on the planet. One reason: People came to SeaWorld and learned about orcas up close.

For some time, SeaWorld has faced a paradox. Customers visit our marine parks, in part, to watch orcas. But a growing number of people don’t think orcas belong in human care. Lawmakers in Sacramento and even in the U.S. House of Representatives have proposed legislation to phase out orca captivity. Even the California Coastal Commission—a state agency with oversight over land use and public access—moved last year to ban orca breeding at SeaWorld San Diego.

“We are proud of contributing to the evolving understanding of one of the world’s largest marine mammals,” Manby said. “Now we need to respond to the attitudinal change that we helped to create.”

Though much of the response to SeaWorld’s announcement has been positive, some say the theme park can do more—such as releasing its killer whales and dolphins—and a handful pointed out the move was timed to stave off another bout of bad PR.

Last week, SeaWorld reported that Tilikum—the orca featured in “Blackfish”—is dying from chronic health problems.

“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 wrote in its blog, “SeaWorld Cares.” The company said the cause is a bacterial infection:

Our teams are treating him with care and medication for what we believe is a bacterial infection in his lungs. However, the suspected bacteria is very resistant to treatment and a cure for his illness has not been found.

“It has been our duty and passion to make sure we give him the utmost care we possibly can,” said Daniel Richardville, Animal Training Supervisor.

SeaWorld said Tilikum is estimated to be 35 years old, “which is near the high end of the average life expectancy for male killer whales.”

However, Mic reported that SeaWorld has been wrong about orcas’ life expectancy in the past, and that a similar situation occurred with another killer whale in 2015:

While SeaWorld notes the male orca is on the high end of the life span spectrum for male whales, The Dodo suggest the organization has inaccurately reported life expectancy of whales held in captivity on its website before, citing a parallel study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Tilikum’s condition sounds all too similar to Unna’s, an orca also living in captivity at SeaWorld when she died in December 2015 after suffering “from a resistant strain of a fungus called Candida. … While there were some indications that the treatment was having a positive effect, Unna had remained in serious condition and under 24/7 care,” SeaWorld then wrote on its blog, as Mic previously reported.

Whether SeaWorld’s announcement can proactively help calm a potential crisis for the company when Tilikum dies, the move was also probably made in an attempt to boost both the brand’s image and attendance numbers.

Pacelle also wrote on his executive blog, “A Humane Nation,” that Manby is hoping consumers will embrace SeaWorld’s actions in corporate social responsibility:

The humane economy can move at lightning speed, and hit with full force. The world is waking up to the needs of all animals, and the smartest CEOs don’t resist the change. They hitch a ride on it and harness the momentum.

Joel Manby, SeaWorld’s CEO, is banking on the premise that the American public will come to SeaWorld’s parks in larger numbers if he joins our cause instead of resisting it, and if SeaWorld is a change agent for the good of animals. He’s exactly right, and I give him tremendous credit for his foresight.

What do you think of SeaWorld’s move, PR Daily readers? How do you think this announcement will play out for the company in the next weeks and months?

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Topics: PR

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