SeaWorld says it is ending its “theatrical” orca shows at its San Diego facility next year, but no one from the company is yet saying what will happen to the orcas. And there’s no announcement about similar changes at sister theme parks in San Antonio and in Orlando, the facility made infamous when SeaWorld’s largest whale, Tilikum, killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in front of a packed house at Shamu Stadium.
The marine park has held out the possibility of a new show featuring the orcas in a “natural setting,” but no one is quite sure what that means. We urge SeaWorld to make its pledge more explicit and to phase out orca acts at all of its facilities, to end its breeding program, and to work with us on a plan to put the orcas in suitable environments. This announcement is not nearly as straightforward as the Ringling Bros. announcement eight months ago to phase out its traveling elephant acts within three years.
The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration has already barred SeaWorld trainers from getting into the pools with the orcas, and that action came in the wake of the Orlando incident that claimed Brancheau’s life and also triggered the publication of David’ Kirby’s Death at SeaWorld and the production of Blackfish, the documentary that has upended SeaWorld’s business model in a dramatic way after serial showings on CNN.
Last month, the California Coastal Commission approved a permit to expand the size of the tanks at SeaWorld’s San Diego facility, but stipulated that SeaWorld had to stop breeding and could not import other whales to perform – effectively sunsetting the orca acts (SeaWorld vowed to appeal). Last week, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-CA, announced he will introduce legislation to phase out the use of orcas in aquarium acts.
All of these actions, along with SeaWorld’s defensive maneuvers to preserve its brand, are indicators that society is taking intentional steps toward ending the era of using the most highly intelligent animals in silly and dangerous performances. SeaWorld has a chance to give today’s announcement real teeth and we hope the company does so.