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SeaWorld to Free Willy, End Captive Orca Breeding Program

In response to growing public concern over the treatment of orcas in captivity, today SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Inc. has announced that the current generation of orcas will be its last.

“Today’s announcement signals that the era of captive display of orcas will end,” said Humane Society of the United States president and CEO Wayne Pacelle in a statement.

For animal rights advocates, the announcement is a huge win. SeaWorld hasn’t taken orcas from the wild in 40 years, and this agreement means that both orcas in captivity and theatrical orca shows will definitively end at the parks.

Last year, SeaWorld announced that it would begin phasing out the theatrical orca shows. The company was planning a major expansion to its San Diego park, one that would provide a larger enclosure for the orcas, but that expansion was halted by the California Coastal Commission. The commission said that it would agree to expansion only if the company ended captive breeding. The disagreement went to court, and with mounting pressure from the public, it looks like that disagreement is over with today’s statement.

“We are proud of contributing to the evolving understanding of one of the world’s largest marine mammals,” said SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby in a LA Times op-ed. “Now we need to respond to the attitudinal change that we helped to create.”

But the announcement doesn’t exactly mean Free Willy. “Some critics want us to go even further; they want us to ‘set free’ the orcas currently in our care,” explains Manby, “But that’s not a wise option.”

Because almost all of the orcas at SeaWorld parks were born in captivity, and have spent much of their lives there, the animals aren’t prepared for re-wilding. Manby points out that no orca or dolphin in human care has ever survived reintroduction to the wild. Not even Keiko, the orca of Free Willy fame.

There have always been arguments that the extremely intelligent orca — a species of dolphin closer to Flipper than a blue whale is — shouldn’t be kept in captivity, but that simmering dissatisfaction came to a head with the release of the documentary Blackfish three years ago. The film highlights the troubles with Tilikum, an orca involved in the deaths of three people (two trainers and one enclosure trespasser) as the direct result captivity. SeaWorld itself claims the film is partly to blame for the company’s falling stock, which has fallen by half since the film was released. (Tilikum is reportedly in failing health due to a drug-resistant bacterial infection of the lungs.)

“SeaWorld and The HSUS still have some disagreements,” said Pacelle in a blog post. “But we’ve found an important set of issues to agree upon.”

“The sunsetting of orcas in captivity is a game changer for our movement, one that’s been a long time coming.”

IMAGE: Michael Lowin

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