Good news for animal rights activists everywhere: SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. announced on Thursday that it will no longer breed killer whales or orcas in captivity.
Instead of training the remaining animals under its care, the theme park will showcase orcas in their natural setting.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) - the largest animal protection organization in the country - and SeaWorld will be working together against commercial seal hunts and whaling, ocean pollution, and shark finning.
Both organizations will raise awareness about the welfare of animals, and will offer sustainable and humane food options.
SeaWorld CEO and President Joel Manby said the company, together with HSUS, will increase focus on rescue operations so that thousands of marine mammals that cannot be released back to the wild will have a home.
SeaWorld has been in hot waters ever since the death of Dawn Brancheau, one of its trainers who was killed by an orca named Tilikum.
In 2013, a documentary called "Blackfish" sent shockwaves all over the world as it unraveled the events behind the news. By December 2013, the theme park's attendances plummeted 5 percent. A year later, company shares have dropped 51 percent since the release of the documentary.
In November 2015, California's Rep. Adam Schiff introduced a whale captivity ban called ORCA Act to end the breeding and training of killer whales. That same month, SeaWorld said it will put it an end to its orca theatrical shows. The company has made good with its promise.
"Blackfish" director Gabriela Cowperthwaite described the recent announcement as pivotal and a "truly meaningful change."
Schiff also supported SeaWorld's decision.
"These changes are something that advocates have been urging for years," he said. "I think SeaWorld will find that visitors will reward their actions with a renewed interest in the parks."
The Life Of Wild Animals
Several critics welcomed the announcement, but they are urging SeaWorld to allow the animals that are still in captivity access to the oceans.
"SeaWorld must 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," said Mimi Bekhechi, director of PETA.
The orcas, however, will stay under the care of SeaWorld's veterinary staff, the company said.
The majority of orcas in SeaWorld were bred in captivity and have never lived in the ocean. They could not survive in the wild, the company said, because oceans are affected by pollution and man-made threats.
"In this impending crisis, the real enemies of wildlife are poaching, pollution, unsustainable human development and man-made disasters such as oil spills - not zoos and aquariums," Manby wrote in an accompanying editorial published at the Los Angeles Times.
Manby said wild animals continue to disappear, and that some experts predict that within a century, 50 percent of large mammals will become extinct.
"Governments cannot address this crisis alone. We need concerned individuals to take action, as well as nongovernmental organizations," said Manby. "And, yes, the private sector also has to join in addressing this problem."
In the meantime, SeaWorld's new orca programs will focus on the enrichment, exercise and overall health of the animals, according to the company's website.
"Everything will reflect the natural world and will focus on the research, education, care and respect that align with our mission to advance the well-being and conservation of these beautiful creatures," the company said.
The new shows will begin in the San Diego Park in 2017, and will be adapted by Orlando and San Antonio in 2019.
Photo: Josh Hallet | Flickr