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Blackfish won: SeaWorld will stop holding killer whales captive

Guests watch an orca display near the exit of SeaWorld February 24, 2010, in Orlando, Florida.
Guests watch an orca display near the exit of SeaWorld February 24, 2010, in Orlando, Florida.
Matt Stroshane/Getty Images

Sea World is going to stop breeding killer whales in captivity, NPR reports.

The announcement comes after years of public scrutiny, especially since the release of the  documentary film Blackfish.

In a joint announcement with the Humane Society, the theme park owner has succumbed to the pressure. But why is captive breeding so bad, and what does this mean for SeaWorld going forward?

Blackfish used an extreme case to illustrate a larger problem

Blackfish, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, focuses mainly on the captivity of the orca Tilikum, who was involved in the deaths of three people. The movie is bookended with footage from the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, Tilikum’s trainer, though the clip cuts off moments before Tilikum attacks and drags her underwater.

The film makes the case that Tilikum’s aggression stems directly from his life in captivity. It includes details from his capture — off the coast of Iceland — and focuses on several incidents where several other captive orcas ganged up on him, when the animals were being held together in a 20-by-30-foot pool.

SeaWorld — which has long made theatrical orca shows a central attraction in its water parks — depicts orcas as peaceful animals that have only hurt humans in attempts to be playful with them. The filmmakers disagree. They make the case that in the wild, orcas don’t exhibit particularly harmful behavior, but in captivity they become "hyper aggressive."

In the case of Brancheau’s death, SeaWorld officials argued that Tilikum targeted the trainer because she was wearing a ponytail, an explanation for the attack that the film clearly finds unsatisfying.

Of course, the evidence Blackfish puts forward — including both environmental and genetic explanations for orca aggression — should be treated skeptically. It is a documentary with a clear agenda, after all, and numerous scientists and other experts have disputed evidence used in the movie. But the important thing to note is that, whether accurate or not, the movie planted the idea that keeping orcas captive makes them hyper aggressive, and thus captivity is both cruel to the animals and unsafe for humans around them.

There seems to be no real conservation benefit to breeding orcas

SeaWorld has argued for years that in continuing its program of holding orcas in captivity, it was helping to conserve the species and care for individual orcas who are injured or otherwise unfit to live in the wild.

The problem with this claim is that there seems to be little conservation benefit to capturing so many orcas and not releasing them or their offspring.

For one thing, orcas are not an endangered species. Holding them captive for long periods of time may actually prevent them from developing natural instincts, a harmful disadvantage were they to be released back into the wild.

For that reason, studies performed on captive whales probably can’t be extrapolated to apply to all whales, given their highly controlled environment.

There is also no evidence that captive orcas live any longer than wild ones. Both can be expected to live an average of 30 years for males and 50 years for females.

So the benefits of keeping orcas in enclosed pools is quite limited, other than their potential for commercial profit. In SeaWorld’s announcement, the company emphasized its commitment to animal welfare — essentially conceding this point.

What will this change mean for SeaWorld’s current crop of orcas?

SeaWorld currently has 29 orcas in its care. It does not plan to release them back into the wild, arguing that they would not have the skills to compete for food or the immune systems to deal with new diseases or man-made pollutants.

But the company has promised that it will discontinue breeding its orcas and stop obtaining new ones, meaning that its current set is the last generation to be housed at SeaWorld. In a sad coda to their orca program, Tilikum is now ill with an incurable lung disease.

SeaWorld has also promised that it will phase out its theatrical orca shows, in favor of displays that will introduce future visitors to more "natural" orca behavior. Those shows are expected to begin in 2017.

While the announcement means the water parks won’t see immediate changes, it does signal a real pivot in strategy.

"Society is changing and we’re changing with it," the park’s statement read. "SeaWorld is finding new ways to continue to deliver on our purpose to inspire all our guest to take action to protect wild animals and wild places."

A previous version of this post contained passages that were not properly credited to a source. It's been updated to correct the error.