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Why SeaWorld’s Decision to Stop Breeding Orcas Is a Mixed Blessing


While there’s much cheering in parts of the animal protection world at SeaWorld’s announcement today that it will stop breeding killer whales, the decision is, at best, a mixed blessing.

In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby acknowledges that an “attitudinal change” is taking place in our culture:

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.

The company also reiterates its plan to begin phasing out its killer whale circus acts and to move the whales to larger pools where people can see them in a more naturalistic setting.

Coming just a year after Ringling Brothers decided to start phasing out their circus elephant acts, this is a hard-nosed business decision based on the reality that the company’s stock price and its audience attendance figure have been tanking since the release of the movie Blackfish in 2013.

The whales will still be kept in captivity and will still be on show.Only a few months ago, SeaWorld was adamant that it would not stop its captive breeding program. But the pressure has been relentless, and so today’s announcement is a serious concession. It’s being presented part of an agreement that the company has made with the Humane Society of the U.S. to “work against commercial whaling and seal hunts, shark finning and ocean pollution … [and] to raise awareness of animal welfare, offering humane food options and serving only sustainable seafood.”

The whales, however, will still be kept in captivity and will still be on show – albeit a more progressive show when their new tanks are built. And there’s more downside. Here’s how David Phillips, Executive Director of the Earth Island Institute, outlined it in an email this morning:

Because of the young orcas they already have at SeaWorld, this deal will allow orca captivity at SeaWorld to continue for at least 35-50 years, in inhumane conditions.

We have no guarantee that there won’t, in fact, be orca reproduction. Even with an end to artificial insemination, if female orcas are not kept entirely separate from males, there will likely be breeding that SeaWorld would account for as “accidental” and there would be nothing that anyone could do about it.

There is no retirement/release mandate whatsoever. In fact, the deal is predicated on SeaWorld keeping all orca whales for the rest of their lives. In this sense, the deal is far worse than the California bill that was introduced in 2014.

It has no coverage of dolphins (or belugas), so opens the door for an expansion of dolphin breeding, display, performance, and swim-with programs at SeaWorld;

Because of the stamp of approval from HSUS to SeaWorld keeping all orcas in captivity, it may significantly hurt the growing effort to bring about orca retirement to independent seaside sanctuaries.

So, while I do think it is important to support this step forward, it doesn’t mean that our work is done. We must keep up the pressure to end the capture, trade, breeding, circus performances, and holding of cetaceans captivity and for retirement of all captives.

The HSUS’s CEO, Wayne Pacelle, who has been working with Manby on their joint plan since January, argues that the agreement will benefit more animals than just orcas:

This announcement not only promises more help for manatees, sea lions, and other marine creatures in distress, but it also connects consumers to these issues through their diets. Starting soon, all SeaWorld food offerings will be cage-free for eggs and gestation-crate-free for pork, all seafood will be more sustainably sourced, and there will be more vegetarian and vegan options.

But as Phillips points out, the agreement will not benefit manatees, sea lions, dolphins, belugas or any other animals at SeaWorld. They will all continue to be exploited as usual.

David Kirby, author of the book Death at SeaWorld, writes that SeaWorld’s Manby was introduced to Pacelle by John Campbell, a conservative Republican from Orange County, California, who retired from the House of Representatives in 2014. Kirby offers some background into how the arrangement with SeaWorld came about:

Pacelle said he began negotiating with Manby in January after the two were introduced by John Campbell … Campbell and Manby knew each other from their years of working in the automobile dealership industry, Pacelle said.

“He called me and said Joel is a really good guy and I think you would really like him a lot,” Pacelle said. “And I think that company has to change, and you need to spend some time with him and see if you can get somewhere.”

While agreeing that there’s plenty of downside to the agreement, neurobiologist Dr. Lori Marino, executive director of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, sees the announcement as a potential step in the right direction. Having recently co-presented a symposium on what would be involved in creating a coastal sanctuary for captive whales and dolphins, she is among those who believe that bringing an end to the breeding orcas “is a step in the right direction.” However, she adds that ultimately “SeaWorld can only make good on its promise if it retires the orcas to coastal sanctuaries and follows suit with the other captive cetaceans.”

One thing is for sure: Today’s announcement is a clear admission from the captivity industry that holding these animals as prisoners-for-profit is no longer acceptable to the mainstream American public.