SeaWorld, benevolent protector of all wildlife, has some big news: The theme park will be ending its theatrical orca shows for good, as well as its captive orca breeding program. “SeaWorld has been listening and we’re changing,” the company wrote on its blog on Thursday. “The whales currently in our care will be the last generation of orcas at SeaWorld.”
Cue inspiring theme music.
Starting Thursday, SeaWorld will end captive breeding in all its parks.* The theme park worked with former foe the Humane Society of the United States to develop its new policies and will be partnering with them in the future. “By ending captive breeding, SeaWorld is moving toward a future that eventually will no longer include orcas,” reports NPR.
Also big news: SeaWorld was the good guy all along, according to SeaWorld president and CEO Joel Manby. Think about it: Before SeaWorld, no one even liked orcas. “We’ve helped make orcas among the most beloved marine mammals on the planet,” Manby said in a company statement.
“We are proud of contributing to the evolving understanding of one of the world’s largest marine mammals,” writes Manby in an op-ed Thursday in the Los Angeles Times. “Now we need to respond to the attitudinal change that we helped to create,” he says, attributing that change to enlightenment that arose as “people came to Sea World and learned about orcas up close.”
In other words: It’s thanks to SeaWorld that animal rights groups started paying attention to orca welfare in the first place—which, in turn, caused them to realize that SeaWorld was a rather poor steward of its orcas and protest the park. Pat yourself on the back, SeaWorld!
So, how to make sense of this decision? In short, SeaWorld is ending its orca program because it has to. In the past three years, the park has seen shrinking crowds, plummeting profits, and lawsuits leveled against their business practices. Much of this response was catalyzed by the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which argued that the park’s poor treatment of Tilikum, a killer whale, led to the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. That movie, in the words of its director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, “sucker punched a beloved cultural icon.”
Three years later, and SeaWorld is not so beloved. It’s become the favorite target of animal rights groups like PETA, which has waged a steady online campaign against it, and has drawn criticism for the early deaths of its whales and other sea animals. Last month, the park finally admitted to planting decoy protesters in animal rights demonstrations to incite violence. In 2014, it had its plans to expand its San Diego park thwarted by the California Coastal Commission, which told SeaWorld it could only expand if it stopped breeding orcas.
Last year, SeaWorld caved and agreed to phase out its theatrical orca shows in San Diego. But with Thursday’s decision, SeaWorld agrees to end theatrical shows at all parks and put an end to an era of orca captivity, marking a major shift in the company’s direction and “a defining moment” according to Cowperthwaite. Its theatrical shows at San Diego will end in 2017; its parks in San Antonio and Orlando, Florida, will follow suit in 2019.
Still, not everyone is satisfied. PETA wants SeaWorld to release its 29 remaining captive orcas, for instance. But to do so would endanger those whales, who are no longer fit for life in the wild, says SeaWorld. Instead, the remaining orcas—including Tilikum, who is sick and near the end of his life after spending 23 years at SeaWorld—will live out the rest of their lives under the “love and care” of the park’s specialists.
So what will those orcas be doing all day—and what will be replacing SeaWorld’s theatrical shows? Get ready for “the introduction of new, inspiring, natural orca encounters” featuring the park’s remaining orcas, as Jordan Weissmann reported in Slate last November. In these shows, whales will no longer be performing tricks for human entertainment. According to SeaWorld’s blog:
No longer a theatrical show, this live presentation will have the feel of an engaging documentary centered on the orca’s natural behaviors, physical attributes, intelligence, social structures and unique relationship with mankind … Everything will reflect the natural world and will focus on the research, education, care and respect that aligns with our mission to advance the well-being and conservation of these beautiful creatures.
Translation: Please, please, please come back to SeaWorld.
*Correction, March 28, 2016: This post originally stated that SeaWorld was ending orca breeding immediately in its San Diego park, while its other parks would follow suit in 2019. Actually, SeaWorld has ceased breeding in all parks.