Can SeaWorld Redeem Itself?

As it moves to stop captive breeding, there’s a future for SeaWorld that might actually benefit animals, instead of harm them.  

dolphin seaworld.
Sadie, a 13-year-old bottlenose dolphin at SeaWorld San Diego, swims with her newborn calf in October 2014.

Mike Aguilera/SeaWorld San Diego

Things just keep getting worse for SeaWorld: In the wake of the damning 2013 documentary Blackfish, the once-beloved marine park has been beset by public outrage, declining ticket sales, and lawsuits. Last month it made a historic announcement: It will stop breeding orcas of its own volition. That decision may soon be reified with the passage of the Orca Protection Act, a bill inspired by Blackfish and first introduced by California lawmakers two years ago, which passed in a state committee on Tuesday. If it makes it through further committees, the bill will permanently outlaw breeding and display of orcas for entertainment, effectively ensuring that the park could never go back on its word—in California, at least.*

The bill only applies to orcas, and SeaWorld has only agreed to end orca breeding—it’s made no promises about its hundreds of other dolphins, sea lions, and whales.* But if public opinion continues on this trajectory, it’s possible SeaWorld may soon be pressured to end captive breeding of all its marine mammals in all three of its parks (in addition to the San Diego location, there are parks in Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio). And at that point, animal activists the world over could finally stand up, throw caution to the wind, and cheer in victory, right? Not so fast. The problem is, breeding isn’t the only way SeaWorld gets its animals.

To be fair, the vast majority of SeaWorld’s animals come from captive breeding. But some also come from the wild. Out of all captive cetaceans in North America, about 7 percent have been rescued and rehabilitated from the wild, according to the nonprofit captive cetacean tracking website Ceta-Base. The park says it considers rehabilitation to be a core mandate: “SeaWorld takes seriously its responsibility to preserve marine wildlife,” wrote SeaWorld president Joel Manby in a Los Angeles Times op-ed in March.

How does SeaWorld find these animals? All injured marine mammals are processed through designated stranding centers—places that have been deemed part of the Marine Mammal Stranding Networks by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Services. A center’s veterinarian makes a call of whether that animal could feasibly be returned to the wild after being treated for whatever injury landed it there in the first place. If not, the center issues a “recommendation of non-releasability,” and the Fisheries Services strives to find the animal a permanent home. That home might be center itself: If the center is equipped for long-term care of marine mammals, it gets first dibs on keeping that animal. And SeaWorld San Diego and SeaWorld Orlando are just such stranding centers.

That in itself isn’t necessarily a problem. If an animal is truly unfit to return to life in the wild, then it should be kept in permanent captivity under appropriate conditions, according to the Fisheries Services. (In the case of an orca, that means a place with knowledgeable staff, on-site veterinary care, and, ideally, a pod of other orcas with which the rescued animal can form social bonds.) And, given its resources and expertise, SeaWorld may be just the place. “Our goal is to successfully rehabilitate animals for return to the wild,” SeaWorld writes on its website, adding that it has rehabbed more than 26,000 animals since it opened in 1963. “The small percentage of animals whose injuries are too debilitating to permit release are given lifelong care.”

The problem is that there can be an inherent conflict of interest between SeaWorld’s rescue objectives and its profit model. SeaWorld makes its money by displaying captive animals in shows, while most animal rehabilitation centers run on city or state funding. If it were deprived of its main method of getting these—which is what’s about to happen in California with orcas, at least—it would be financially incentivized to seek other ways of recruiting them. The most obvious route would be for SeaWorld to deem any useful animal that comes its way unreleasable and then claim it for its own purposes. (Capturing wild animals, without a permit, for scientific or educational use was outlawed in 1972 with the Marine Mammal Protection Act.)*

Some animal activists claim this already happens. John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld orca trainer who starred in Blackfish and testified this week on behalf of the Orca Protection Act, argues that SeaWorld can be overzealous in declaring animals “unreleasable.” He says that during his time at SeaWorld, it was common knowledge among staff that the park often kept releasable animals for its own benefit:

It’s very hush-hush. But it’s understood what is happening. It’s always like: We’ve got this sea lion, we’ve got this dolphin, they’re sick or they’re injured or whatever, and the next thing you know it’s like, they’re ours now. And then what we would hear—because all of us talk and it’s a close-knit community—was that they intentionally did that.

“They have carte blanche to do whatever they want because they are the stranding network,” adds Ric O’Barry, who once trained the dolphins who collectively played “Flipper” and is now a self-labeled dolphin “abolitionist” and founder of the nonprofit Dolphin Project. “If there’s another stranding, somehow it will end up in the captivity industry.” O’Barry, like many animal welfare advocates, believes that even animals who are not releasable into the wild deserve to live out the remainder of their days in a open-ocean sea pens. It’s unlikely this will happen for SeaWorld’s remaining 29 orcas: “These orcas could not survive in oceans that include environmental concerns such as pollution and other man-made threats,” SeaWorld wrote on its website in March.

It’s not just stranding centers that could deliver new animals. One unexpected avenue for getting new animals? The U.S. Navy’s marine mammal program, which today comprises 80 dolphins and 55 sea lions in sea pens off the coast of San Diego. (For an explanation of what the heck the Navy is doing with all those dolphins, read a brief history of the program here.) Currently, two Navy dolphins, named Cascade and Kolohe, currently reside at SeaWorld San Diego on breeding loan.

Some animals that don’t make the cut in the naval forces end up at SeaWorld: In his book Beneath the Surface, Hargrove chronicles the story of a sea lion who “refused” to dive at the depth required to flag underwater mines—a core duty of marine mammals in the Navy program. The sea lion, who came to be called Hercules, was subsequently declared useless for military purposes and ultimately transferred to SeaWorld. Plus, SeaWorld dolphins with military promise might be recruited in the other direction: Six dolphins that were once owned by SeaWorld have entered the military, according to Ceta-Base.

I asked Ed Budzyna, a Navy spokesman, whether the Navy had any concerns regarding sending animals to a place that had been making headlines for the past year for its allegedly poor treatment of marine mammals. Did the Navy check in regularly on Kolohe and Cascade? “SeaWorld provides the highest quality of care and treatment for all of their animals,” Budzyna told me, noting that the Navy has complete access to the animals and receives regular updates on their health.

At any rate, it’s clear that ending captive breeding isn’t necessarily also the end of captive animals at SeaWorld. But it’s possible there’s a better way forward, and one SeaWorld may already realize: Manby’s own op-ed in the Los Angeles Times makes clear that he knows how unpopular the company’s practices are: “We need to respond to the attitudinal change.” In response, he announced plans to focus more on animal rescue and rehabilitation.            

If Manby is sincere about SeaWorld’s change of focus, he needs to put real money and resources behind the shift. Right now, SeaWorld spends just .0006 percent of its profits on rescue and rehabilitation, according to Blackfish producer Tim Zimmermann. But that number could grow. In the op-ed, Manby announced a partnership with the Humane Society of the United States to protect fish, whales, and coral reefs from commercial fishing and ocean pollution. He added: “SeaWorld will increase its 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.”

Of course, SeaWorld has a long way to go before its parks actually provide healthy homes for marine mammals. And making this change would have enormous implications for their financial strategy—even while people rage against the captive animals, there’s no telling whether they would actually pay the same kind of money to see rehabbed, nonperforming animals. But given the state of public sentiment, that might be SeaWorld’s best bet if it wants to stick around.  

Correction, April 15, 2016: An earlier version of this article misstated that the Orca Protection Act would outlaw orca display. The bill will permanently outlaw the display of orcas for entertainment. (Return.) The article also misstated that capturing wild animals for display was outlawed in 1972 by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It outlawed the capture of wild animals, without a permit, for scientific or educational use. (Return.)

Correction, April 18, 2016: Due to an editing error, an earlier of this article also misstated that SeaWorld was ending its orca breeding only in California. The decision was companywide. (Return.)