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SeaWorld ends orca breeding: Rise of the 'humane economy'?

Shifts in thought

SeaWorld’s decision is the latest of a spate of recent shifts toward the more humane treatment of animals in the entertainment and food sectors as public compassion for animals grows.

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Visitors are greeted by an orca as they attend a show featuring the whales during a visit to the animal theme park SeaWorld in San Diego, Calif., in March 2014. Bowing to years of pressure from animal rights activists, US theme park operator SeaWorld said on Thursday it would stop breeding killer whales and that those currently at its parks would be the last.

Mike Blake/Reuters/File

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SeaWorld’s decision to end its orca breeding program shows that shifting public attitudes around animal welfare can and do influence how businesses treat animals, conservationists say.

The announcement on Thursday comes amid growing scrutiny of how animals in captivity are treated. Spurred by the release of such documentaries as 2013's “Blackfish,” advocates and the public alike have called on policymakers and industry leaders to take greater steps toward animal conservation and welfare.

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SeaWorld’s decision, conservationists say, demonstrates that companies are responding to that call.

“The announcement today is the humane economy at work, where businesses … realize that doing right by animals is going to eliminate risk and provide economic opportunity,” says Wayne Pacelle, executive director of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a former critic that has partnered with SeaWorld in the theme park’s new initiative.

“At the root of it is an emerging consciousness among consumers/voters,” he adds. “They’re demanding more from decisionmakers and wanting companies to do better on animal welfare.”

SeaWorld’s decision is the latest of a spate of recent shifts toward the more humane treatment of animals in the entertainment and food sectors as public compassion for animals grows. In March 2015 the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it would be retiring its elephant act by 2018.

Zoos also have begun closing exhibits that feature so-called charismatic species – large animals with popular appeal, such as elephants – in an acknowledgement that they can’t adequately provide for them. As of 2014, roughly one third of the 224 zoos accredited by the nonprofit Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) had elephant exhibits, compared with more than half of 147 facilities in 1989, according to The Wall Street Journal.

In the food sector, some states have begun outlawing the use of cramped cages for pigs and chickens, along with other husbandry practices considered inhumane, Fabien Tepper reported for the Monitor in 2014.

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SeaWorld’s first step to ending its breeding program came in October 2015. The California Coastal Commission granted its San Diego Park permission to expand its facilities on the condition that it would not populate its tanks with wild orcas or new ones bred in captivity.

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As part of its Thursday announcement, SeaWorld says it will stop collecting orcas from the wild, making this generation of whales the last to be housed in any of the theme parks.

The company will also be phasing out its live orca shows in San Diego by 2017, and in Orlando and San Antonio by 2019. The parks will instead focus on exhibits that highlight the whales’ natural behavior. SeaWorld also has pledged $50 million over five years on rescue and rehabilitation efforts for marine animals in crisis.

Even the food served at SeaWorld parks will be undergoing a change: eggs will be cage-free, pork will be gestation-crate-free, seafood will be sourced more sustainably, and there will be more vegetarian and vegan options.

“Customers visit our marine parks, in part, to watch orcas. But a growing number of people don't think orcas belong in human care,” writes Joel Manby, CEO for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.

“We are proud of contributing to the evolving understanding of one of the world's largest marine mammals,” he continues. “Now we need to respond to the attitudinal change that we helped to create.”

Animal advocacy groups and conservation experts tentatively welcomed the news of an end to SeaWorld’s breeding program, but the message was that now is not the time to release the pressure.

“In a way I think it’s really big. It really says that [SeaWorld is] paying close attention to public sentiment,” says Marc Bekoff, a fellow for the Animal Behavior Society and former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Dr. Bekoff says it is important to congratulate SeaWorld for its decision but to “still argue for more,” with the ultimate goal being for theme parks and zoos to become more like sanctuaries.

“There a lot of other ways to learn about these animals than seeing them in all sorts of cages,” he says.