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No more Shamu — SeaWorld to end breeding of killer whales

March 17, 2016 at 7:29 PM EST
SeaWorld has made headlines several times in the past decade: trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by a captive orca during a live show in 2010, and a 2013 documentary focused intense scrutiny on the family-oriented theme park over the use of killer whales as show animals. On Thursday, SeaWorld announced that it would no longer breed or keep orcas. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The popular theme park SeaWorld has been under ever-growing criticism for the way it breeds and shows its popular orca whales.

Now SeaWorld is bowing to pressure and making a big change.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Orca whales have been entertaining audiences at SeaWorld parks since 1964. Once feared — they’re commonly known as killer whales — they have become hugely popular and even beloved.

Today’s announcement, made with the Humane Society, means the era of public exhibition is, gradually at least, coming to an end.

JOEL MANBY, CEO, SeaWorld: Current orcas under our care will be the last generation at SeaWorld. We’re going to phase out our theatrical shows.

JEFFREY BROWN: SeaWorld is ending its breeding program for the animals, though it’s keeping the whales it already has.

And the Orlando-based company says the shows will give way to what it calls inspiring natural orca encounters. Animal rights activists have long criticized keeping the animals in captivity.

WOMAN: Any of us would be miserable if we had to spend out life living in a bathtub. And orcas at SeaWorld are just as miserable. They spend their lives confined to tiny tanks, where they go mad from confinement and boredom.

JEFFREY BROWN: The parks came under new scrutiny in 2010 after one of the whales drowned a trainer. That attack later became the peg for 2013’s “Blackfish,” a documentary examining the effects of captivity on killer whales.

The company also faced regulatory and legislative efforts to ban orca captivity. And ticket sales to the parks have dropped significantly.

And we’re joined now by the man who made today’s announcement, SeaWorld CEO and president Joel Manby, and by Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, a longtime critic of SeaWorld that worked with it on the new reform measures.

Welcome to both of you.

Joel Manby, let me start with you.

Is this an acknowledgment that raising and using the whales for public exhibition has been wrong?

JOEL MANBY: Jeffrey, what’s really clear to me — I have been CEO for about 11 months now — is that society has shifted.

And people’s view of having these majestic, very large animals under human care has changed over time. And more and more people are becoming uncomfortable with it.

And I had to make some difficult decisions to move the company forward, and I felt that the right thing to do for the company and all things considered is to end our breeding program.

JEFFREY BROWN: The right thing to do for the company, so should it be seen mostly as a business decision?

JOEL MANBY: You know what? I think any business in today’s world has to be connected to a core set of values.

And our core set of values is to help animals in the wild. And a lot of people don’t maybe realize that about SeaWorld, but we have the best zoological organization, I think, in the world. We’re passionate about animals. We’re passionate about animals in the wild.

And I felt that the orca issue was an overhang for us that was stopping our incredible story from being told to a country that’s changing. And I think it’s great that the millennials, the younger folks care about conservation, they care about animals. We do, too, and I wanted them to hear our story more and more.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so Wayne Pacelle, as I said, a longtime critic of SeaWorld, now working with them, what do you see as the importance of this move, and what would a move towards a more educational or more natural approach be? What do you want to see happen now?

WAYNE PACELLE, CEO, Humane Society of the United States: Well, we celebrate the end of breeding of orcas in activity. This has been a long-held aspiration for the Humane Society of the U.S. and so many other groups in our field.

Obviously, the atmospherics on this issue changed dramatically after the airing of “Blackfish.” In terms of these animals, they are obviously long-lived animals. They are going to be around if they are not released into the wild. And there are obviously a whole set of challenges if that were to be contemplated.

We obviously are very focused on the idea of an orca-centric experience, that the trainers are allowing them to exhibit their natural behaviors, that they’re exercised, that within the captive setting, there’s enrichment.

It’s a great challenge, with these highly intelligent, complex, sociable animals who live in pods in the wild. We think there’s a ceiling in terms of how much can be done for them, but obviously SeaWorld and its staff need to do their best to accommodate their needs.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about, Mr. Pacelle, staying with you, going — I wonder if you would go further, because your organization has also been critical of keeping dolphins in captivity.

Are you pushing SeaWorld to go there? Do you expect this to continue to something like that any time soon?

WAYNE PACELLE: Well, we think there’s actually a very artful solution, which is, if SeaWorld has continuing needs for animals to populate its expeditions, if they can get animals who are beached or otherwise in distress from the wild and those animals can be brought in, rehabilitated and in some cases, if they cannot be re-released, then they can meet those needs.

And that is a de facto sanctuary. That’s what big cat sanctuaries and chimp sanctuaries and lots of other animal-based sanctuaries do. Some animals simply can’t be released into the wild again. And a lot of very progressive zoos and others are relying on rescues to populate their exhibits.

So, we hope that’s the direction of SeaWorld in the years ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what about that, Mr. Manby, because…

JOEL MANBY: If I could….

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, go ahead. I want to get your response on where you see this going, and why not, if there’s cultural shifts, move to other animals like dolphins?

JOEL MANBY: Well, a point that Wayne made that is very important — a lot of people don’t realize it — is that there is a tremendous need for rescue operations, and the capacity is much lower than the demand.

And one of the things I announced today was, SeaWorld is committing $50 million over the next five years, with a goal of being the largest rescue organization in the world. And just in the last year, we rescue seven animals a day, 1,000 dolphins stranded last year alone. There’s hundreds and hundreds of sea lions in California that we save.

This good work can’t continue unless SeaWorld has the expertise and the facilities.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there, Mr. Manby — with the orcas, you have said you — it would be dangerous to release the ones you have.

What about, though, on a case-by-case basis or moving them, transferring them to some kind of transitional area?

JOEL MANBY: Yes.

You know, this is something that actually Wayne and I have talked a lot about. We don’t always agree on everything, and we won’t, but we’re trying to look for common ground. And the truth is, any research you read, any peer-reviewed research, a whale that’s born into human care is not a good candidate for release.

In fact, in the history of mankind, no whale or dolphin born under human care has been released successfully. The only time it has been done successfully, if they’re wild, they’re brought in for a short period of time and released.

We have four whales that were taken from the wild over 35 years ago. They’re quite old now. They have been under human care for a long, long time. We don’t think it’s worth the risk for those four whales.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Pacelle, just in our last minute, I want to ask you about the largest context here. Do you see this as part of a movement, in the way that zoos and aquariums and all look at the treatment of animals, movies, and so a much larger cultural shift here?

WAYNE PACELLE: No question.

I have got a book coming out next month called “The Humane Economy,” and my argument is that business and commerce must marry itself with these emergent values about animals and their well-being.

It was March last year we saw Ringling Brothers give up its traveling elephant acts. We have seen movies migrate away from live animals to computer-generated imagery. We’re seeing changes in the food sector, where companies like Wal-Mart or Kroger or McDonald’s are now buying their products that come from more humane farms.

This is a cultural-wide shift. And this happens to be one manifestation, with a live entertainment company like SeaWorld getting on board. We’re happy about that, but we’re very happy about the broader trends in society.

JOEL MANBY: You think about, for 20 years, we have been adversaries, really monologuing against each other. Now we’re dialoguing.

And I think the winner is animals in the wild and in their habitats. And let’s focus there, because the crisis is bigger than any organization can handle. And we can do more together than if we fight all the time. So, I think it’s a good move.

JEFFREY BROWN: Joel Manby and Wayne Pacelle, thank you both very much.

JOEL MANBY: Thank you.

WAYNE PACELLE: Thank you, Jeffrey.

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