SeaWorld announced Thursday that it is ending its orca breeding program, making the 29 orcas currently in captivity the park's last generation.
"SeaWorld has been listening and we're changing," the company said in a statement. "Society is changing and we're changing with it. "
The news was hailed as a major victory in the fight to rescue animals living in captivity by animal rights activists, especially since SeaWorld has staunchly defended its treatment of whales.
"It is a pretty astounding announcement," said Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute said.
Orcas, also known as killer whales, have been a main attraction at theme parks run by the company. In an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, chief executive officer, Joel Manby, said the decision was made in response to growing public opposition to keeping the majestic whales in captivity.
Since the release of a 2013 documentary film Blackfish, the company has faced a rising tide of public anger and pressure from animal rights groups to end orca captivity. Testimonies from former SeaWorld trainers in the film, and a book by one of the trainers, alleging poor treatment of the whales, proved especially damaging to the company. SeaWorld has called its portrayal in the film "shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate."
But the negative publicity has hit the company's bottom line, with attendance rates and stock price falling.
The company's share price rose slightly following the announcement.
"Stopping the breeding program in particular was central to SeaWorld's business model," Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of Blackfish, said. "The fact that they are doing that, and promising a $50 million investment into wildlife rehabilitation definitely marks truly meaningful change."
The push in recent years towards rebranding itself as a more responsible company has included a collaboration with the the Humane Society of the United States, which advocates for animal welfare and has had an antagonistic relationship with SeaWorld in the past.
Wayne Pacelle, who heads the Humane Society, praised the step as a signal of a larger shift in the company's strategy. The advocacy group is working with SeaWorld to tackle other global threats to marine mammals like ocean pollution and commercial whaling. Manby described these as bigger dangers to marine species than zoos and aquariums.
Nicole Paquette, vice president of wildlife protection at the Human Society, attributed the bold step, in part to more responsive leadership at SeaWorld in the form of CEO Manby, who took over the reins only last year.
Manby took over an embattled company that was under pressure not just from the public but lawmakers over its treatment of captive animals. Last year Congressman Adam Schiff and Jared Huffman, both California Democrats, introduced legislation that would phase out SeaWorld's orca program. The California Coastal Commission also took steps to ban orca breeding at SeaWorld's San Diego facility.
Countries like China and Russia have seen a growing demand for killer whales as attractions at theme parks and aquariums.
The deal is not perfect, Rose pointed out, ending captive breeding is the first task but much more remains to be done. The fate of the orcas currently at SeaWorld establishments continues to be a bone of contention. PETA has pushed aggressively for releasing them into the sea, free from what it calls "prison tanks." One suggestion is to release them into sea sanctuaries, which are envisioned as large enclosed expanses in the ocean, like a bay or a cove, which allows the whales return to their natural habitat, yet remain protected by humans.
SeaWorld has so far resisted the idea, arguing that the majority of their whales were born in captivity and are therefore unprepared for life in the wild.
David Phillips at the Earth Island Institute countered SeaWorld's claims that captive orcas cannot survive in the wild.
"SeaWorld intends to keep all 24 orcas [in the United States], including young ones, in their concrete tank facilities for the rest of their lives," he said in a statement, "This would mean orca captivity will continue for decades. This is unacceptable."
Phillips is concerned that because captive orcas can live for two or three decades an end to SeaWorld's program could be a long way off. He added that female orcas are not kept separate from males, which could lead to "accidental" pregnancies in captivity.
The park's Orlando facility hosts seven orcas, San Antonio has five, San Diego has eleven, and SeaWorld's facility in Loro Parque, in Spain has six. All but six of the 29 were born in captivity.
The company also announced the phasing out of theatrical shows, with a move towards educational interactions that will showcase the natural behavior of the whales. The changes will be rolled out at the San Diego park in 2017, San Antonio and Orlando will implement the changes in 2019.
Activists hope the measures will open the door to other improvements for marine mammals in captivity across the country — and beyond. Even as captive whale shows have fallen out of favor in the United States, countries like China and Russia have seen a growing demand for killer whales as attractions at theme parks and aquariums.
"This announcement is going to help us," Rose said. "It will show jurisdictions like China that what they are doing is the past, this is the future."
Follow Malavika Vyawahare on Twitter: @MalavikaVy