Commentary

Catching Up With Reality, SeaWorld Ends Orca Breeding And Shows

Admittedly bowing to public pressure and cognizant of Millennial-driven changes in expectations, SeaWorld Entertainment announced yesterday that it would no longer breed orca whales in captivity and would end the theatrical shows featuring the so-called “killer whales” performing tricks for treats. 

“As society's understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it,” SeaWorld president and CEO Joel Manby says in a statement. “By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and reimagining how guests will encounter these beautiful animals, we are fulfilling our mission of providing visitors to our parks with experiences that matter.” 

Brought in as CEO a year ago, “after running Dollywood and other musically themed parks,” Manby says he “brought a ‘fresh perspective’ to the killer whale quandary, and soon realized that ‘society is shifting here,’” write the AP’s Jennifer Kay and Mike Schneider in the Washington Post.

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SeaWorld is “[joining] a growing list of industries dropping live animal tricks. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is retiring all of its touring elephants in May. Once-popular animal shows in Las Vegas have virtually disappeared,” Kay and Schneider point out.

“There’s been a ton of pressure,” Manby admitted during a call with analysts, Austen Hufford reports for the Wall Street Journal. “People today and Millennials and moms and dads want vacations with meaning, and they are willing to support organizations that have it.”

USA Todayapplauded the announcement: “It worked. Three years after we watched Blackfish in horror, SeaWorld announced it’s ending its controversial orca breeding program.” 

But, it point outs, the “‘new, inspiring, natural orca encounters’ with educational programs emphasizing enrichment, exercise and health” that Manby talks about on the conference call covered by reporter Nathan Bomey, is controversial, too. “Some animal rights activists say they should be moved to sea pen sanctuaries (like land sanctuaries for elephants),” the “editors” write.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentaryBlackfish, which has been seen by more than 60 million people, is credited with greatly raising awareness of the suffering of orcas in captivity.

“Huge respect to @blackfishmovie for putting orca captivity at @SeaWorld on the agenda,” Greenpeace UK Oceans tweeted yesterday, Reuters’ Jill Serjeant reports

Cowperthwaite was “a mom who took her twin sons to SeaWorld” before the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 prompted her to interview “former SeaWorld trainers and whale experts to paint a moving portrait of a SeaWorld Orlando's orca, Tilikum, who was 2 when he was captured in the wild,” Serjeant writes.

SeaWorld said last week that the whale, who is “affectionately called ‘Tili’ [or ‘Tilly’ in other accounts]” and is believed to be about 35 years old, is battling life-threatening chronic health issues as well as a bacterial infection in his lungs, Yanan Wang reported for the Washington Post. “Male orcas in the wild have an average life span of 50 to 60 years, but the expectancy for killer whales in captivity is much shorter,” Wang wrote. In fact, they have a median survival rate of 12 years.

“While SeaWorld has denounced Blackfish as inaccurate and exploitative, since the documentary debuted the company has seen a dramatic drop in visitors to its flagship theme parks and watched as its value on the stock exchange was halved, BBC News reports,” writes Danny Lewis for Smithsonian.com. “At one point, SeaWorld launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to try and save its image, but eventually decided that phasing out its orca programs would be the best path.”

SeaWorld (SEAS) was up 9.35% on the New York Stock Exchange after yesterday’s news broke.

“We may pat ourselves on the back that popular, and righteous, opinion has helped stop the cetacean circus that is SeaWorld,” Philip Hoare, author of Leviathan or, The Whale and The Sea Inside, writes in The Guardian. “But even far away from SeaWorld, they face risks from humans in the open seas too,” he says.

“Dr. Conor Ryan, of the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, noted: ‘The prospects for the [Northern Atlantic] population were never good but now they’re worse.’" He and his colleagues aren’t sure whether weakened females, reduced food resources (a concomitant of climate change) or pollution may be to blame. Their fate is a microcosm of the threats facing orca, and other whales, everywhere.

As far as other theatrics at Sea World go — such as leaping dolphins — “stay tuned,” Manby tells the AP. “A lot of people don’t understand how hard it is internally to make these kinds of decisions. We need to execute this well. We need to make sure we have the organization in the same direction. Then we will apply those learnings elsewhere.”

Sounds like the sort of woes faced by any leader, no?

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