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In double win for activists, SeaWorld ends orca breeding, boosts animal rescues

As the American public loses its taste for animal performances, the theme park vowed Thursday to end its orca captive breeding program immediately and increase rescue operations.

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Orca whale Tilikum (r.) watches as SeaWorld Orlando trainers take a break during a training session at the theme park's Shamu Stadium in Orlando, Fla., March 7, 2011. SeaWorld is ending its practice of killer whale breeding following years of controversy over keeping orcas in captivity. The company announced Thursday, that the breeding program will end immediately.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP/File

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In partnership with the Humane Society of the United States, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment announced Thursday that it will end its breeding of orca whales and keeping them captive for public exhibition.

The current group of 29 orcas in SeaWorld facilities will be the theme park’s last generation. The change comes after several years of pressure from animal rights activists concerned about the treatment of the park's orca whales and a "sea change" among consumers growing wary of the use of animals as entertainment.

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“As one of the largest rescue organizations in the world, we will increase our focus on rescue operations – so that the thousands of stranded marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions that cannot be released back to the wild will have a place to go,” Joel Manby, SeaWorld's chief executive officer, said in a statement.

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The company, which operates parks in Orlando, San Diego, San Antonio, and Tenerife, Canary Islands, faced intense backlash after the 2013 release of “Blackfish,” a documentary that criticized SeaWorld’s treatment of its animals in captivity. The film focused heavily on the 2010 death of a top SeaWorld trainer, who was pulled underwater and drowned by an orca.

SeaWorld began moving away from it's captive breeding program in November, when the California Coastal Commission prohibited the San Diego park from adding any additional orcas caught in the wild or bred in captivity to its tanks.

Since the 1985 birth of Baby Shamu, the first orca born in a SeaWorld park, 30 have been raised completely in the parks. SeaWorld announced later that it would replace its signature Shamu shows in San Diego with an exhibit focused on conservation.

This is a defining moment. The fact that SeaWorld is doing away with orca breeding marks truly meaningful change,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of “Blackfish,” said a statement from the Humane Society.

SeaWorld’s pledge comes exactly a year after the circus company the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus promised to phase out its elephant acts by 2018, citing a “mood shift among our customers.”

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As the general public has grown more conscious of animal welfare in recent years, the entertainment industry is not alone in facing heightened scrutiny.

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There is a sea change going on in our culture about animals and we are coming to recognize the profound depth of animal emotion and thinking and suffering,” Barbara King, anthropology professor at William & Mary and author of “How Animals Grieve,” told The Christian Science Monitor last year.

This awakening, experts say, supported by the accessibility of information in the digital age, has ultimately affected consumer decisions in parks, grocery stores, and beyond. SeaWorld, for instance, saw a 11 percent decline in shares last year.

“Public pressure is now mounting to protect animals in a range of contexts,” Charles Camosy, professor of theology at Fordham University, told the Monitor.

“The future is definitely pro-animal.”