SeaWorld's decision this week to stop breeding killer whales at all its marine parks is a smart, humane change. So is its move to stop forcing them to perform in shows, doing tricks in response to cues from poolside trainers. The company had already announced that it would end the shows at its San Diego Park, home to 11 of SeaWorld's 29 whales. Now, the shows will be phased out over the next three years at its parks in Orlando and San Antonio.
While all this represents a monumental shift in the institution's philosophy and business model, it was also an inevitable step for SeaWorld after years of criticism over its confinement of orcas, a devastatingly critical 2013 documentary ("Blackfish") and attempts by the California Coastal Commission, the state legislature and the U.S. Congress to ban captive breeding of the whales. These enormous animals do not belong in a marine circus, even one with gigantic water tanks. Highly intelligent, orcas form familial pods and travel great distances in the ocean, communicating by echo-location. SeaWorld long ago stopped capturing whales from the oceans, but it had continued breeding them.
The parks' remaining orcas — most of which were born in captivity — range in age from one to 51 (a female, Corky, in San Diego) and include a pregnant whale in Texas. They will all live out their days at SeaWorld parks. That's for the best: It's not prudent to release them into a wild ocean that they didn't grow up in and are, most likely, unequipped to handle. As long as they live, these creatures will still be on exhibit, preferably in a more naturalistic setting along the lines of a contemporary aquarium.
Beyond that, SeaWorld also announced a wide-ranging partnership with the Humane Society of the U.S. — long a critic of SeaWorld and other parks for confining orcas and dolphins — to develop conservation and education programs and advocacy campaigns to end the commercial slaughter of marine mammals. SeaWorld will also expand its work caring for rescued and ailing marine mammals. Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle suggests that some of those animals who can't be returned to the wild could be exhibited at the park.
It's dazzling to watch an orca up close, and SeaWorld is due some credit for increasing the public's appreciation for and wonderment at the fearsome predator. But, as SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment CEO Joel Manby acknowledged in an op-ed in this paper and in a news conference, society's attitudes have changed dramatically. People are now deeply aware that it is inhumane to confine these animals. SeaWorld has made the right change for whales and for the public.