SeaWorld To Announce Major Overhaul Of Its Treatment Of Orcas

SeaWorld, together with the Humane Society of the United States, is expected to announce a landmark agreement Thursday drastically altering practices at its theme parks, which have come under increased scrutiny for their treatment of animals.

The company is expected to announce that it will end orca breeding, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. The animals currently in captivity at the parks will live out the remainder of their lives there.

SeaWorld is also expected to announce an end to theatrical shows at its parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando, Florida, instead focusing on educational programs as well as animal rescue and restoration work.

The agreement, which SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby and Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle are expected to announce Thursday, would fundamentally change SeaWorld’s business model. 

Orcas, while often called “killer whales,” are actually a species of dolphin. They are powerful and intelligent mammals, and can live for up to 50 or even 100 years in the wild.

SeaWorld has been under growing pressure to change its business model in recent years. In 2010, an orca named Tilikum fatally injured a trainer at the company’s Orlando park while visitors looked on. That incident was explored in Death at SeaWorld, a 2012 book by Huffington Post blogger David Kirby that attributed the aggression of Tilikum and other orcas to their captivity. The 2013 documentary “Blackfish” also cast a critical eye on SeaWorld, reporting on Tilikum’s treatment and raising the question of whether orcas should be confined in marine parks.

Animal rights groups have called on SeaWorld to free the orcas currently in captivity. While Thursday’s agreement isn’t expected to go that far, it would nevertheless represent a major shift for the 57-year-old company.

The company has made some previous attempts to change its practices. In November, SeaWorld committed to ending theatrical orca shows at its San Diego park by 2016 and said it will focus instead on educational presentations.

But the company has also shown a reluctance to change, suing the state of California last year over its restriction on breeding orcas in captivity. The company also admitted last month that it had sent employees to infiltrate animal rights groups critical of SeaWorld’s practices.

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