SeaWorld: The Captivity Debate

On March 17, 2016, SeaWorld made the shocking announcement that it will end its controversial practice of breeding killer whales. The 29 orcas in SeaWorld’s care will be the last generation of killer whales enclosed at the company’s theme parks. The killer whales will not be released into the wild. They will live in SeaWorld’s parks for the remainder of their lives, but they won’t be replaced. SeaWorld’s theatrical killer whale shows are also being phased out nationwide. The shows will be replaced by exhibits that highlight the natural behaviors of killer whales. The company’s plan to end its killer whale shows was announced in November 2015 and initially only applied to SeaWorld San Diego, but now applies to all three locations, including SeaWorld San Antonio and SeaWorld Orlando. The shows will end in San Diego in 2017 and in San Antonio and Orlando in 2019.

Shamu Show with Orcas at SeaWorld San Diego

Shamu Show with Orcas at SeaWorld San Diego
By Yathin S Krishnappa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

SeaWorld’s decision to envision a future without its iconic Shamu attraction comes amid mounting criticism by animal rights activists over the company’s treatment of captive marine mammals. SeaWorld has faced increased scrutiny for keeping killer whales in captivity since the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. A killer whale named Tilikum battered and drowned the 40-year-old animal trainer on Feb. 24, 2010, at SeaWorld’s Shamu Stadium in Orlando, Florida. The growing backlash against SeaWorld intensified with the 2013 documentary, “Blackfish,” which scrutinized the company’s practice of keeping killer whales in captivity and focused extensively on Tilikum, the killer whale involved in the deaths of three people, including Dawn Brancheau. The film attributed Tilikum’s aggressive behavior to his life in captivity and accused SeaWorld of mistreating its killer whales.

“Blackfish” was largely responsible for shifting public opinion about the use of captive wild animals for entertainment purposes. The documentary incited widespread outrage after airing repeatedly on CNN and changed Americans’ perception of SeaWorld. Since the release of the documentary, SeaWorld has suffered a decline in attendance, revenue, and stock value. In October 2015, SeaWorld was dealt another blow when the California Coastal Commission moved to ban the breeding of killer whales in captivity as a condition of its approval of SeaWorld’s proposed plan to expand its killer whale habitat in San Diego.

Orcas at SeaWorld San Diego Show

Orcas at SeaWorld San Diego Show
By Leon7 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

SeaWorld tried to repair its tarnished image by launching an advertising campaign aimed at refuting the claims made in “Blackfish,” defending its treatment of killer whales, and promoting the company’s rescue and conservation efforts. SeaWorld also committed to donating $1.5 million to a partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through the Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program as part of the company’s pledge to contribute $10 million to fund conservation and research of killer whales in the wild. But eventually Americans’ growing discomfort with companies using animals as entertainers forced SeaWorld to relent and change its policies for killer whales.

SeaWorld’s ground-breaking conservation and animal welfare reforms won praise from a long-time foe, the Humane Society of the United States. The two organizations announced a new partnership focused on protecting marine wildlife and ocean preservation. They will work together to advocate for animal welfare and ocean conservation. In addition to the partnership, SeaWorld has committed to spending $50 million over the next five years to rescue and rehabilitate marine animals.

However, not everyone is satisfied with SeaWorld’s historic changes. Some critics want SeaWorld to release the killer whales currently in captivity to sea pens. SeaWorld’s most vocal detractor, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, released a statement saying that “SeaWorld must do more and ‘open its tanks to the oceans to allow the orcas it now holds captive to have some semblance of a life outside these prison tanks.'” In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, Joel Manby, the president and chief executive officer of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, wrote that releasing the killer whales back into the wild is “not a wise option.”

“Most of our orcas were born at SeaWorld,” Manby wrote, and “those that were born in the wild have been in our parks for the majority of their lives. If we release them into the ocean, they will likely die. In fact, no orca or dolphin born under human care has ever survived release into the wild. Even the attempt to return the whale from ‘Free Willy,’ Keiko, who was born in the wild, was a failure.”

Keiko was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1979. He was trained to perform at a marine park in Mexico City. The star of “Free Willy” became famous after the movie was released in 1993. In the movie, a young boy helps return the captive killer whale back to the ocean. Inspired by the film, a real-life campaign began to return Keiko to the wild. In 1998, Keiko was moved to a sea pen in Iceland, where his handlers tried to teach him how to survive in the wild. Millions of dollars were spent to coax Keiko back to the open ocean. He was released in July 2002, but never fully adapted to life in the wild, remaining dependent on humans. Keiko died of pneumonia on Dec. 12, 2003.

What do your students think about the controversial debate over keeping killer whales in captivity? They can learn more about both sides of the debate in our Animal Cruelty Leading Issue.

SIRS Leading Issue: Animal Welfare

SIRS Leading Issue: Animal Welfare by ProQuest LLC via ProQuest SIRS Issue Researcher

Students can find more information about killer whales, SeaWorld, and the captivity debate through resources available in ProQuest eLibrary and SIRS WebSelect:

A Whale of a Business

Killer Controversy: Why Orcas Should No Longer Be Kept in Captivity

Killer Whales Research Topic

SeaWorld Cares

SeaWorld Research Topic

Whales in Aquariums

What are your thoughts on SeaWorld’s recent announcements? Do you support or oppose keeping killer whales in captivity? Do you think SeaWorld’s killer whales should remain in captivity or be released to sea pens?

Comment below or tweet us using #ProQuest.

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