SeaWorld Responds to Public Pressure on Captive Killer Whales—But It’s Just a Baby Step

SeaWorld made global headlines on November 9 when company officials announced they will phase out the “Shamu Show” at their San Diego park in 2016 and replace it the following year with “an all-new orca experience focused on natural environment,” as Joel Manby, CEO of SeaWorld Entertainment, said during a company presentation to investors.

“We are listening to our guests, evolving as a company. We are always changing,” Manby added.

Opponents to killer whale captivity were roundly unimpressed. Why? Because, as they rightly point out, a small tank is still a small tank—no matter what the whales are doing in it. Likewise, SeaWorld will not end its controversial orca breeding program, mostly because every new whale brings greater assets to the company: Its orcas are valued at about $10 million to $15 million each.

It is not clear what, exactly, the new “orca experience” in San Diego will look like, but at least the animals will no longer be forced to perform unnatural tricks (SeaWorld prefers to call them “behaviors”) in exchange for a fistful of dead fish.

Clearly, SeaWorld is deeply worried about its once shiny reputation, and its bottom line. Ever since the 2010 death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was brutally killed by the six-ton whale Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando, the company has found itself on the defensive—in the media, in the court of public opinion, among American lawmakers and in the financial markets.

This new move—which many critics have labeled a sleight-of-hand, bait-and-switch tactic—is part of SeaWorld’s ongoing efforts to resuscitate its flagging reputation by focusing more on killer whale education and conservation than entertainment. Since the release of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which criticized SeaWorld’s treatment of its orcas, the company has lost half its market value. Meanwhile, attendance at SeaWorld’s 11 parks fell by 4.2 percent during 2014, though it only declined by 0.4 percent in the latest quarter.

SeaWorld is also facing a battery of legal and legislative challenges, including class-action lawsuits by former visitors who claim that the park misrepresented how they treat their killer whales and what life is truly like for them in captivity.

There is also a bill about to be reintroduced in the California Assembly that would ban orca captivity in that state. Last year, the bill was blocked by the Assembly Speaker, who represents San Diego. But it will soon be introduced again by chief sponsor Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) and my sources tell me the new Assembly Speaker is sympathetic toward the legislation.

That could be a key reason why SeaWorld is ending the “theatrical” performances in San Diego but not, apparently, at its other parks in Orlando and San Antonio.

And, on November 6, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., introduced federal legislation to phase out orca shows in the United States. That bill may not make much progress in the bitterly divided Congress, but it does bring more national attention to the fight against killer whale captivity.

“The decision by SeaWorld to phase out killer whale shows in San Diego is a welcome step along the path toward ending the captivity of these magnificent creatures,” Schiff said in a statement. “Much more needs to be done, however, and I would urge the company to curtail the breeding of their orcas and partner in the creation of ocean sanctuaries. The fact still remains that as long as SeaWorld holds orcas in captivity, the physical and psychological problems associated with their captivity will persist.”

Meanwhile, in October the California Coastal Commission approved SeaWorld’s proposal for a $100 million new orca habitat, but with a major caveat: that the company stop breeding killer whales and not add any more orcas caught in captivity.

SeaWorld has vowed to challenge that decision in court.

It’s important to remember that forcing orcas to perform tricks for tourists is only one of a laundry list of critiques launched by opponents. Killer whales at SeaWorld tend to die a far younger ages than those in the wild, and it takes a battery of medications (including antibiotics and even, at times antidepressants) to keep them alive. Captive whales are removed from their natural born families and often moved around the country, and even overseas, like so many chess pieces. Calves are often removed from their mothers at very young ages, even though wild killer whales stay with their families for life: Male orcas spend 75 percent of their time within one body length of their mothers.

Captive whales also act out aggressively against each other, and against humans (four people have died in orca tanks and many others have been injured, some of them quite seriously), they break their teeth on concrete walls and metal gates, requiring the pulp to be removed with a hand-held power drill without anesthetic, and 100 percent of captive adult males have collapsed dorsal fins, compared with just one percent of wild killer whales.

None of that will change with this new baby step announced by SeaWorld.

The way I see it, ending the orca shows as they currently exist in San Diego may actually contribute to SeaWorld’s steady decline in attendance. Obviously, those opposed to orca captivity will not be lured to the park because of this announcement, and those who do like the shows may stay away, spending their limited entertainment dollars at other venues.

So what should happen next? I agree with animal-rights activists that these magnificent, intelligent, highly social animals should be retired to seaside sanctuaries, where they could live out their lives in the natural ocean while still receiving human care when needed. SeaWorld could even charge admission for people to see its killer whales in a far more suitable habitat.

SeaWorld is in big trouble, and this latest Band-Aid on its gaping wounds will do little to stop the hemorrhaging.

David Kirby, who spoke at HLS last semester, is author of the book Death at SeaWorld and a regular contributor to

David Kirby

Best-selling author David Kirby spoke at Harvard Law School last semester about his recent book, Death at SeaWorld.
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