On Thursday, March 17th, SeaWorld announced the end of its controversial captive orca breeding program with immediate effect. For those who have been campaigning against the corporation’s captive orca shows for many years, the news is being hailed as a major victory.
The announcement means that no new orcas will be introduced to the SeaWorld family, either via the now-terminated captive-breeding program, or via procurement from the wild (although it has been many years since the purchase of SeaWorld’s last wild-caught whale). However, it does not spell freedom for the 23 whales currently housed at SeaWorld parks in San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio, who will remain in captivity for the remainder of their lives.
What happens to the whales now?
Life will not be quite the same for these whales as it has been up until now. Last November, SeaWorld committed to phasing out its existing live orca shows, replacing them instead with what they called “new, inspiring natural orca encounters.” The announcement last Thursday was accompanied by the news that the corporation will also be entering into a new partnership with animal conservation group the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
The role of HSUS will be to guide SeaWorld in the development of its new orca encounters, which the company promises will focus more on education than entertainment. In theory, the encounters aim to promote whale and dolphin conservation through a series of education-based interpretive programs. HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle sees the new collaboration as “a chance to make progress for animal rights” and says that it will be a welcome change to being “endlessly mired in conflict.”
According to president and CEO of SeaWorld Entertainment Joel Manby, these changes are driven by a desire to keep up with the times. “As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it,” he says. He also hinted that public pressure was another major factor, admitting that people’s attitudes on the issue of orca captivity had changed as a result of “film, legislation [and] people’s comments on the Internet.” It is a shift that he acknowledges was no longer “worth fighting.” The company also pledged to donate a total of $50 million over the next five years to various conservation efforts, including ending illegal whaling, seal hunting and shark finning.
Despite this, there are many who see SeaWorld’s dramatic announcement as an attempt to take credit for changes that were already in motion. In 2013, the documentary Blackfish drew public attention to the plight of captive orcas, focusing particularly on the life of SeaWorld orca Tilikum and the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau.
The film’s backlash was responsible for an 84 percent fall in SeaWorld profits during the 2014/2015 financial year, as more and more people chose to boycott the parks’ live shows. The anti-captivity movement gained momentum, and in October 2015, California passed a law banning the breeding of captive orcas within the state. With SeaWorld San Diego out of action, breeding continued at the San Antonio and Orlando parks, but now Tilikum (Orlando’s most prolific breeding male) is rumored to be gravely ill.
In light of these facts, dolphin conservationist Ric O’Barry claims that the captive breeding program was already nearing a forced end. It is also worth noting that the ban does not include orcas kept at other aquaria around the world, or even those SeaWorld-owned whales currently on loan to Loro Parque in Spain.
Other conservation organizations have criticized the company’s decision to keep the orcas living at SeaWorld’s U.S. parks on public display, with some even suggesting that they be released into the wild, which is unfortunately an unrealistic demand. The majority of the SeaWorld orcas were born in captivity, and as such have never learned the skills that they would need to survive in the wild. Even those born in the wild would stand little chance of being able to reintegrate successfully into their original pods. The solution, according to Whale Dolphin Conservation, would be to release this last generation of captive orcas into enclosed sea-pens, thereby allowing the whales to experience some freedom while still receiving human care.
Concerns like these prove that SeaWorld’s recent announcement should not be accepted entirely without criticism. However, as Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite points out, the company’s decision to cease its breeding program is nevertheless a “truly meaningful change.” Ultimately, the motivation behind the decision is almost irrelevant, what matters most is that an end to orca captivity is finally in sight.