SEAWORLD ENTERTAINMENT has announced it will phase out its controversial killer whale show at its San Diego park, replacing it with one that doesn’t rely on human-designed stunts but focuses on behaviors in the wild. Any improvement in the treatment of these magnificent marine animals must be welcomed. But it will take far more than a repackaging of the show to address the physical and psychological problems that orcas in captivity experience.
Last week’s announcement that next year will be last for SeaWorld’s signature “Shamu” show of flips and tricks was seen as an effort to counter the backlash that has hurt its brand and depressed attendance. The explosive 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” tracing the history of killer whales in captivity leading up to the 2010 killing of a SeaWorld trainer by a whale associated with the death of two other people, criticized the Orlando-based company’s treatment of these highly intelligent and far-ranging creatures. SeaWorld has called “Blackfish” inaccurate and mounted a public relations campaign emphasizing the company’s conservation efforts.
Pressure has been particularly intense in California, with state and federal officials pushing SeaWorld to end the captive breeding of orcas. The California Coastal Commission has made ending the captive breeding of orcas a condition — which SeaWorld says it will challenge — for proceeding with a tank expansion project. Maybe that’s why the move to drop the circuslike aspects of the show is limited to San Diego and wasn’t extended to the parks in Orlando or San Antonio.
Just as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had to come to grips with the reality that dressing up elephants and forcing them to stand on their heads was a callous holdover of another age, SeaWorld should recognize the need for new thinking and bold action. The whales now in captivity are unlikely to survive in the wild, but sanctuaries could be created that would better emulate conditions of their natural habitat. The existing tanks would be put to far better use accommodating the injured animals that are a part of SeaWorld’s admirable rescue efforts. Since breeding orcas only consigns future generations to captivity and its inherent cruelty, SeaWorld should voluntarily end the practice.