More Reflections on the SeaWorld Agreement

By on April 1, 2016 with 16 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

Today, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby and I sent a letter to President Obama urging him to use a wide range of diplomatic tools to pressure Japan to end its commercial whaling activities and to stop contravening international law by slaughtering hundreds of innocent whales. Manby has assured me that this is just a first indicator of SeaWorld’s new commitment to advocacy on marine animal protection efforts, and that the company will join with anti-whaling advocates to finish off the era of commercial whaling on our planet.

I’ve also been speaking with Manby about revving up campaigns to finish off Canada’s commercial seal hunt and to fortify global efforts against shark finning. These have been protracted and difficult battles, and the animals need all of the allies they can get. The addition of a major corporate actor, with more than 20 million visitors who pass through its gates, to our side of the issue is an exciting and potentially transformative development.

I know and have heard from marine mammal advocates who don’t trust SeaWorld.  I get their concerns, and I, too, was hesitant even to enter into the discussions (just as SeaWorld distrusted The HSUS and hesitated to open itself up to possible recriminations about entering a dialogue with a long-time critic). But you typically don’t make progress without committing to explore ideas and solutions with sincerity. I decided to take a risk and to engage, albeit with limited expectations, perhaps because I had just turned in my manuscript for The Humane Economy which included a long bill of particulars against the company. But after extensive deliberations and give-and-take, SeaWorld made a series of pretty remarkable commitments:

  • to end orca breeding (leading to the phase-out of orca exhibitions entirely some years down the line) and to ease out of theatrical orca performances in the short run. SeaWorld has also pledged not to have orcas at any news parks, whether in the United States or abroad.
  • to maximize its focus on rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals in distress and highlighting the plight of unreleasable animals to foster a stronger bond between humans and animals, and to educate people about ongoing threats to them.
  • to participate in advocacy campaigns to end the commercial slaughter of marine mammals and sharks, along the lines of today’s public communications on Japan’s rogue behavior.
  • to revamp its food policies by changing its procurement practices to source only sustainably sourced seafood, crate-free pork and cage-free eggs, and to offer plant-based options at all of its restaurants and other food service operations, which serve more than 20 million people annually. This policy alone offers the very certain prospect of alleviating suffering for tens of thousands of animals and saving tens of thousands of others.
  • to protect coral reefs and reduce the commercial collection of wild-caught ornamental fish.
While The HSUS is committed to looking at the options that exist for captive animals, I want to encourage animal advocates to celebrate the major progress that SeaWorld has made.

While The HSUS is committed to looking at the options that exist for captive animals, I want to encourage animal advocates to celebrate the major progress that SeaWorld has made. Above, captive orcas. Photo by iStockphoto

I understand the impulse among so many advocates to call upon SeaWorld to remove orcas from their enclosures and allow them to live in sea pens.  I’ve long talked about that idea, too. We have quite a history with that issue, given that The HSUS was centrally involved in the Keiko project more than 15 years ago and put a million dollars into his release into sea pens and eventually into the wild. Keiko lived in those environments for five years. In terms of improving his individual welfare, I believe the project was a success. Many others, especially the folks at SeaWorld and others from the zoo and aquarium worlds, consider it a failure because Keiko never achieved full independence. But I think everyone – on both sides of this divide — agrees it’s an issue that comes with tremendous challenges and costs and risks and warrants more careful study. It’s probably further complicated by the biographies of the whales at SeaWorld, since all but four of the nearly 30 whales are captive-born, and the few that were wild-born have been in captivity for decades.

While The HSUS is committed to looking at the options that exist for captive animals, I want to encourage animal advocates to celebrate the major progress that SeaWorld has made, as we’ve done, and to inspire the company to take additional positive action across a broad swath of animal protection concerns. What the company has committed to is quite extraordinary, and I urge every advocate to take stock of the unprecedented set of pledges SeaWorld has made – many of them unimaginable even among the core group of advocates and organizations who have been demanding reform for so long.

It was almost exactly a year ago that Ringling Bros. pledged it would phase out its use of elephants in traveling acts – a game-changing announcement for the use of wild animals in circuses. The March 17th announcement from SeaWorld is also tremendously significant and marks a turning point in the movement to phase out the use of orcas for captive display. The effect of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish” was potent and enduring, and, as I argued in my book, the company had to embrace reforms as it confronted a customer base with evolving views on the treatment of marine animals.

SeaWorld’s decision to immediately end all orca breeding, and to phase out the theatrical shows at all of its facilities, goes far beyond the terms that had been in play in the active debates going on in states and at the federal level. The California Coastal Commission had pushed the company to end orca breeding in California, and there was a state bill to that effect. But there was nothing like that going on in either Florida or Texas. Federal legislation from Reps. Adam Schiff and Jared Huffman to end orca breeding almost assuredly was not going to be acted upon in this Congress, and wouldn’t have been viable in the foreseeable future without a very big shake-up in the November elections. It was not likely that SeaWorld would stop all breeding and end all theatrical shows, and commit to not having orcas at any future facility in the United States or around the world, without years of struggle and expenditures on all sides. SeaWorld moved a long way on these issues, and deserves credit for these dramatic changes.

I have always believed that we not only should be open to change, but that we have to invite it and, when it happens, celebrate it.  We want the company to do better, just as we want every company whose conduct falls short of the standards we expect to do better. The purpose of criticisms and protests and lawsuits is to effect reform – not to be on a never-ending treadmill requiring confrontation, opportunity costs, and stalemate. These reforms grew in size and scope because of the negotiations and because we were willing to sit down and start to map out a different future with SeaWorld. The new leader at SeaWorld was the right person on the other side of the table.

When a company commits to reform, it’s got to be meaningful, and if it is, it should be embraced. What incentive is there for companies to change when internal voices advocate for the status quo and reformers say “it’s not enough”?

By any objective measure, these are substantial moves from SeaWorld – actions that upend its core business and brand, carry the potential to save thousands of other marine mammals at risk, and change the fortunes of countless land and marine animals caught in the conventional food supply chain at SeaWorld and elsewhere. Bravo. That’s the sort of change we want to see replicated throughout society.

Read our letter to President Obama »

Humane Society International, Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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  1. Dawn Williamson says:

    If there is no money in it, SeaWorld will not do it. Is your deal with their for profit entity or their grossly under funded non-profit?

  2. Annette Holladay says:

    Do the right thing – end the captivity – follow your heart and not the $$

  3. Nancy Yates says:

    Thanks to both parties for agreeing to work together for animal welfare and conservation, in spite of your differences. This is a huge step and I look forward to seeing the progress you make together. Kudos!

  4. James Duff says:

    Please ask President Obama to Rescue The Whales and Dolphins at Sea World Parks and Entertainment. Please ask SeaWorld For Mercy and Sea Pens to be built faster than the new Dolphin Stadiums.

  5. Jeff Matthews says:

    What you are proposing is already status quo in Vancouver. But it is far from a humane solution for these animals. At Vancouver Aquarium, rescue is simply a means of keeping performers in their tanks, to keeping donations coming in. Their ‘educational trainer interactions’ are nothing but dumbed down shows that teach little of consequence. The research they perform on these captive animals — 50 years of it — has not aided a single wild animal to this point. Seaworld has sold you the same line Vancouver Aquarium has been selling to the local public for years, yet the whales and dolphins are still suffering, still swimming circles in undersized tanks, still doing tricks for dead fish, still poked with needles and ultrasound, shipped from park to park in tiny containers, living in artificial, unnatural groupings, forced to breed and watch their babies die young…. Like Van Aquarium, Seaworld will now focus their business model on their growing captive beluga population. What you call reform, we in Vancouver see as a bait and switch – we have seen these kinds of ‘reforms’ here already. Your support of Seaworld has done nothing but make our fight to protect ALL captive cetaceans much more difficult and represents a clear betrayal of both the values HSUS claims to hold and of the community of animal rights activists who have put their trust in you.

  6. Charlene Inglis says:

    I just hope that SeaWorld “lives up to their agreement” much better than Ringling plans on doing! Keeping those poor elephants, who’ve been through unspeakable “training” atrocities, in Ringling’s private prison and subjecting them to invasive experiments is only something that the goons at Ringling are capable of coming up with. It is hideously unacceptable and I will militate against Ringling until it closes its “house of horrors” down permanently. Will I live to see that? Of course not!

  7. Michael says:

    Please do not forget about the yearly slaughter of Dolphins in Taji Japan. Japan has been operating like a lawless thug and thumbing their nose at the entire world. We need to focus on all the Asiatic countries that continue to torture and eat among some things….dogs and cats. A lot of people believe this to be a stereotype but believe me I see videos all the time and most recently a group of Vietnamese torturing a young dog before they cook and eat him…..HORRENDOUS!. ( I am vegetarian )

  8. Sally Palmer says:

    Coming together and finding constructive compromises is what created this country and made it great, and the only thing that will keep it great. Wayne and others have worked hard to bring SeaWorld to the table to talk, and they’ve made a lot of progress advancing a number of ideas to help SeaWorld find ways to recreate itself in a potentially amazing way. Yes, it’s hard to trust someone who has held a viewpoint for a long time that has often been harmful to others, but for whatever the reason they change, the important thing is that perhaps they will eventually really see the need for change. Equally important, all those people who learned to love marine life through SeaWorld will see them trying to make changes and will we hope support those changes. It takes the kind of leadership shown by Wayne to show the value of meeting with others to look for mutually beneficial ways to work together that will get us over some of the most difficult hurdles in achieving compromises that can lead to real differences in how animal beings are regarded and treated.

  9. Laurie Seligman says:

    What about the rest of the dolphins, the beluga whales and the rest of the captive animals? I realize that the Orca’s are the one’s that the big stink is all about. Now because the HSUS is standing behind SeaWorld, their stock is starting to creep up, now they can sit back and say wow look what we did aren’t we special and the rest of the animals will continue to suffer. I’m disappointed in the HSUS and the fact that you let them get off so easy. They aren’t doing enough and unless they end all of their breeding programs they aren’t even coming close.

  10. ANTHONY A says:


  11. Haze M Sommer says:

    I get it, Seaworld did something good, yay. Here’s the thing Wayne, If seaworld wants to be taken seriously and receive gratitude and platitudes they must first be honest. Their ad destroyed ALL the good will I felt.

    And this ‘save the whales from Japan’ is utterly galling while taiji ( which they started ) and the Southern Residents who still feel the impacts of seaworld’s past actions.

    If Seaworld wants to be taken seriously they must go back in the past and fix what they broke. If seaworld wants our gratitude and good will they MUST STOP LYING TO THE PUBLIC.

    If you cannot see that disconnect then no one will take you seriously either Wayne.

  12. says:

    hey HSUS, tell SeaWorld first thing they should do is stop wasting money on those stupid, inane commercials as if the American viewer has the intellectual capacity of a 3 year old.

  13. Compassion For ALL Animals says:

    While Seaworld is making baby steps toward improving their horrible record, they still profit from the imprisonment of wild animals and further instill the belief among their customers that it’s OK to use/abuse/kill animals for our entertainment, food, and clothing. Unless/until Seaworld completely changes their business model to eliminate captive animals they will remain part of the problem and not the solution. HSUS is obviously free to partner with whomever they choose, but HSUS is overlooking the consequences of losing the higher moral ground. Because of the many good works HSUS does my spouse and I have previously included the HSUS as part of our annual charitable giving. That ended today and will not resume as long as HSUS prioritizes corporate $ over their principles. There are many other deserving organizations who don’t sacrifice their principles.

  14. Debbie Spear says:

    It is wonderful that Seaworld is finally doing the right thing regarding no more breeding. But I think your position on the captive orcas is a sellout.
    Agreed — the orcas cannot be turned loose — but continuing to be incarcerated for 30 years is unacceptable. We owe it to those captive creatures to do better.

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