SeaWorld will end killer whale breeding, the company announced today, after years of controversy over keeping its orcas in captivity.
The sweeping change to the business model for Seaworld Entertainment, which also owns Busch Gardens Williamsburg, will also include ending theatrical shows and replacing them with natural exhibits that highlight the whales' natural behaviors. That change will start in the San Diego park next year, followed by San Antonio and then Orlando in 2019.
"I've struggled with this decision more than any other decision I've made in business," Chief Executive Officer Joel Manby told analysts Thursday morning.
"We needed to remove that cloud....I feel relieved .I think the company now can double down on growing the business and focus on positive, energetic, inspirational and creative things again."
SeaWorld has previously agreed not to bring in any more wild cetaceans, meaning this will be its last generation of killer whales. The current population of orcas– including one, Takara, that became pregnant last year – will live out their lives at SeaWorld. That means that SeaWorld would likely still have killer whales for decades to come. The company has 29, seven of them in Orlando.
The decision was hailed by animal advocates and theme-park industry leaders alike. The company's stock was up more than 4 percent Thursday morning.
Orlando-based SeaWorld Entertainment has struggled with declining attendance, lost corporate sponsorships, and a weakened stock price. It has endured round after round of bad publicity, with the latest being that the orca Tilikum, which battered and drowned trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, has an incurable bacterial infection that could kill him. The company has never fully recovered from the 2013 documentary "Blackfish," which painted a damning portrait of SeaWorld.
Through it all, SeaWorld had previously stood firm about breeding orcas.
The company on Thursday announced a partnership with its longtime adversary, the Humane Society of the United States. "I think this is a major turning point for the better for the country and it's a great move forward for SeaWorld," Humane Society Chief Executive Officer Wayne Pacelle said in a joint press conference with Manby on Thursday morning.
Not everyone was satisfied by SeaWorld's announcement. The company's most vocal critic, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said in a brief statement it had seen a payoff after its intense campaign, but "SeaWorld must open its tanks to the oceans to allow the orcas it now holds captive to have some semblance of a life outside these prison tanks."
Manby told reporters SeaWorld does not currently think releasing whales to sea pens is the answer – but he didn't completely rule it out in the long-term future either.
"It sounds nice but we are very concerned for the animals' health. We're the ones responsible for them if we did that and it failed....it would be on us and then we would be criticized for that," he said.
"I'm clearly showing I can change, I can listen, I can move with society. Nothing is forever. As the science stands today, and the examples we have, I don't think its worth the risk to these animals. We'll just keep talking every year about this."
Manby said he expects that SeaWorld will still continue to display other animals such as dolphins and beluga whales.
After Manby became CEO of SeaWorld last year, he began moving the company in a direction toward emphasizing its conservation and rescue work. Last year SeaWorld announced it would end theatrical orca shows in San Diego. Its California park has taken the biggest hit from controversy over its captive orcas.
Manby says SeaWorld's decision reflects society's changing views about animals in performances and captivity.
Last year, Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus announced it would retire its elephants – then in January announced it would move up the date by two years, ending their performances in May. Universal Studios stopped using orangutans in its Animal Actors shows, and other aquariums have eliminated or scaled back on dolphin shows.
While it won't placate PETA, the announcement "should satisfy a very large portion of SeaWorld's audience," Pacific Asset Management leisure analyst Bob Boyd said in an email. "From a business standpoint, this was not an easy decision and there are certainly risks in giving up your biggest draw. But by being proactive, management should be able to control the transition of the parks to a somewhat less animal dominated to more of a classic theme park experience. Management should also have many years to promote their killer whales in a 'see them before they go away forever' program that should help fund their transition. It's a gutsy move by SeaWorld and a good one."