SeaWorld will soon be minus some black-and-white, multi-ton, and highly controversial mascots. The company announced Thursday that it will be ending its captive breeding program for orca whales — meaning that the orca whales currently living at the theme park’s three U.S. locations will be the last group to live at SeaWorld.
The park’s announcement comes about three years after the documentary Blackfish shone a light on the lives of captive orca whales. The documentary focused on Tilikum, a SeaWorld orca who killed trainer Dawn Brancheau and was involved in the deaths of two other people. But it also looked broadly at how being kept captive in tanks affects orcas, a species that in the wild can travel up to 100 miles per day. SeaWorld called the film “propaganda, not a documentary,” but Blackfish led to heavy public pressure on the park to end its practice of keeping orcas in captivity.
This week, the park responded. “SeaWorld has been listening and we’re changing. Society is changing and we’re changing with it,” the theme park said in a blog post. “SeaWorld is finding new ways to continue to deliver on our purpose to inspire all our guest to take action to protect wild animals and wild places.”
The 30 or so orcas at the park now — all of which were born at the park, rather than collected from the wild — will live out their lives there, SeaWorld said. One of those whales — Tilikum, the orca spotlighted by Blackfish — is actually dying of an infection, the park announced last week.
About four months ago, the park pledged to end killer whale shows at its San Diego park, instead planning on creating a “new orca experience” that will be based more around education. However, when the theme park applied for permits for a new, improved orca habitat for its San Diego park, the California Coastal Commission said it would only grant approval for the plans if SeaWorld ended captive orca breeding. SeaWorld attempted to challenge that decision in court, but with Thursday’s announcement the park is agreeing to the commission’s requirement.
Animal rights organizations, many of which been urging SeaWorld for years to end its killer whale program, praised the park’s decision. In a press release, the Humane Society of the U.S. said it worked with SeaWorld to develop its new policies for orcas.
“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,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the HSUS, 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’s attendance and popularity took a hit since Blackfish: its stock price has been halved in the last three years, and a 2015 Consumerist poll ranked the company third — behind Monsanto and Comcast — in a list of most-hated businesses in America. The park was also hit with multiple lawsuits over “false advertising” about the company’s care of its orcas.
Now, with this week’s announcement, SeaWorld hopes to shift the tide of public opinion. The company highlighted its role as “one of the largest rescue organizations in the world” and said it “will increase our focus on rescue operations — so that the thousands of stranded marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions that cannot be released back to the wild will have a place to go.” Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of Blackfish, was pleased by the company’s decision.
“This is a defining moment. The fact that SeaWorld is doing away with orca breeding marks truly meaningful change,” she said.