After years of backlash over its treatment of orcas, Sea World has announced a huge shift in operations. CEO Joel Manby explained the decision in an op/ed in the Los Angeles Times: "This year we will end all orca breeding programs — and because Sea World hasn't collected an orca from the wild in almost four decades, this will be the last generation of orcas in Sea World's care. We are also phasing out our theatrical orca whale shows."
The move comes after increasing pressure in the wake of documentary "Blackfish" and efforts from animal welfare groups like the Humane Society and PETA, which have highlighted the poor treatment of the captive mammals.
It also makes business sense. As awareness of the intelligence of our animal friends grows, it has become unsavory to hold them in captivity and teach them tricks to be displayed for human entertainment. That hurts the theme park's reputation and ticket sales. Sea World's move comes just months after Ringling Bros eliminated elephant acts. Sea World's stock was up almost 10 percent the day after the announcement, after three years of declining numbers, showing once again that doing the right thing can be good for the bottom line.
Manby's op/ed acknowledges the shifting tide: "Americans' attitudes about orcas have changed dramatically." It turns out that when you offer visitors an up-close encounter with a wild animal, folks start to question the very existence of the captivity in the first place.
That doesn't mean that these sorts of educational opportunities have to go away. There will always be injured animals and others in need of sanctuary. And, in a world where humans continue to encroach on nearly every habitat in earth, wind and sea, zoos and animal sanctuaries may be one of the only safe place left for some species to proverbially hang their hats.
Sea World's theme park neighbor, the San Diego Zoo, is a leader in a new kind of live animal engagements. Rather than simply poke and stare, zoo visitors are invited to witness animals in an environment similar to one they'd find on the outside, and they are also treated to a heavy dose of education about the species' natural lives and native habitats. The zoo, a nonprofit, invests heavily in conservation and uses the animal exhibits to show visitors why it is important. The animals are honored throughout.
Sea World worked with the Humane Society on its new commitment and policy. “These two organizations have been long-time adversaries, but we’re excited now to see the company transforming its operations for the better on animal welfare,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the U.S. “Today’s announcement signals that the era of captive display of orcas will end and that Sea World will redouble its work around rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals in crisis and partner with us to tackle global threats to marine creatures.”
Sea World has a lot of room for improvement. On a recent visit to Sea World San Diego, I saw half a dozen dolphins performing in a waterway smaller than the pool at a Motel 6 and a sea lion "acting" in a show cheesier than a high school rendition of "Grease." Better treatment of the animals in captivity would only improve the educational nature of these theme parks and increase empathy among the guests, which is badly needed.
While captivity is an unfortunate fact of animal theme parks, it doesn't have to be abusive. After witnessing a shark feeding at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's three-story Open Sea exhibit, I asked a volunteer why the sharks chose not to eat the smaller fish in the exhibit. She replied: "Would you rather eat a hamburger or go through the effort of hunting and killing a cow for your dinner?" Touché. Maybe all the world is "The Truman Show" after all.
Image credit: Flickr/Ted Chi
Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.