SeaWorld announces the end of breeding orcas in human care

By: Ashley Gustafson

It has been almost a month since SeaWorld released their plans to end all orca breeding and inevitably house the last generation of orcas in human care.  This new direction is not as simple as just the end of breeding orcas at SeaWorld parks; it sparks a new partnership between SeaWorld and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) which notably has been a notorious critic of animals in human care and zoological facilities as a whole. The announcement of the last generation of killer whales in human care may have seemed rather sudden, but the process of ending their existence at SeaWorld parks will be much slower as the animals will not be released nor moved to sea pens but will live out the entirety of their lives in their current home according the SeaWorld Executives.


While there is no doubt that SeaWorld has seen its fair share of controversies in the last decade, this announcement took the zoological community by storm.  False accusations and propaganda films have put tremendous pressure on SeaWorld. Activists use social media and other modern media outlets to spread faulty, skeptic information to the masses which has unfortunately impacted public opinion of animals in human care. While easy, the immediacy of information on the internet does not allow it credibility. There is a lot more to this decision than you can read in a headline and further more a lot more consequence than meets the eye.  That’s why it’s important to actually read, study, and learn about “controversial” topics before forming an opinion as strong as ending the existence of killer whales in human care. It may seem like ending animals in human care is the best for that animal but I promise you it is not. While I admit I do have an opinion and it may not be the same as yours, I’ve done my research and I am here to share what I have collected on the matter over the last month.


Orcas in human care: A brief walk through SeaWorld’s history and care

It is no doubt that killer whales have been the trademark of SeaWorld parks. Shamu skyrocketed to fame and brought millions and millions of visitors to marvel at his beauty and strength in theatrical shows that made you want to be a whale trainer. My family and I were among those countless millions that went to SeaWorld to see the wonderful world of killer whales. It is without a doubt that SeaWorld has changed as time has progressed. Flashy shows have turned into educational experiences. Vet care and overall species understanding have increased which has changed the way we care for animals and conversely improved animal care and well-being tremendously. SeaWorld is much more than their past, but here is a brief synopsis of how SeaWorld came to be and how they care for the animals they house.


SeaWorld was founded in 1964 by George Milay, Milt Shedd, Ken Norris, and David DeMott. While originally the plan was to build an underwater restaurant, the vision grew into a 21 acre zoological park along the shoreline of Mission Bay in San Diego, California. Its opening year it featured dolphins and sea lions, a tiny comparison to the many species it currently houses and rehabilitates. In the first year alone they attracted 400,000 guests from all over. Thanks to booming success they were able to grow and expand a great deal in the last 50 + years. SeaWorld currently cares for collectively one of the largest and most extensive animal collections in human care in North America. Overall, they care for about 8,000 marine and terrestrial animals and about 81,000 fish. Some of these are some of the rarest or most critically endangered species in the world such as the Bengal tiger, black rhinoceros, polar bear, West Indian manatee, and Cheetah. All of these animals, as well many other animals in human care, are a part of a Species Survival Plan (SSP) which allows SeaWorld and other accredited zoological institutions the ability to facilitate the best possible breeding plans for the species as a whole as well as manage population genetics and animal collections around the world.


SeaWorld has the largest population of orcas in a zoological facility found anywhere in the world. Killer whales were introduced to the facility in San Diego not long after its opening. Overtime the populations have changed and grown thanks to a successful breeding program (SSP) and SeaWorld is proud to say more than 80% of their marine mammals housed in their parks were born in human care.  SeaWorld plays a large and pivotal role in marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation and has done so for many years. They work very hard to rehabilitate rescued animals in need all round the world but they are also able to provide excellent homes to animals deemed un-releasable, not only at their parks but also at many other zoological facilities they work closely with.  This makes them a leader in marine species conservation and is so important if we want to protect and learn about all of the animals that call the ocean home.


A fact, that has be negated by many who believe otherwise, is that on average SeaWorld’s orca populations live as long as studied populations in their natural habitat. Like Orcas in the ocean, SeaWorld has had orcas that get sick or a have calves with congenital issues. All of these are events that occur in human care as well as in their natural environment; however the great and important thing about these whales in human care is that we can study them and find ways to make them better which hopefully could be applied to whales in the ocean and overall benefit species conservation. As we look at trends for current and future populations, science supports that the next decade of SeaWorld’s orcas will live longer than their counterparts in the ocean. This is due to many different reasons but the largest impact is all thanks to humans. Pollution, overfishing, warming water temperatures, and hunting are all problems orcas face in their natural habitat thanks to humans. SeaWorld works diligently to educate and combat negative implications of human existence for orcas and other species in the ocean.


Partnership with HSUS

As I mentioned, there is a lot more to the announcement to end orca breeding at SeaWorld parks than it would seem and their partnership with HSUS is a big one. The Human Society of the United States (HSUS) and SeaWorld have a joint interest in preserving and protecting wild animals and the places they live. The problem is that HSUS is an organization that is fundamentally opposed to all zoological efforts and facilities. Based on my previous sentence stating the joint interest, I could see how this gets confusing. HSUS does not take direct actions against zoological facilities however they financially support organizations that do.  HSUS is notorious for using donated funds in ways other than what they were donated for. It is a troubling partnership and appears to be a misstep in SeaWorld leadership. The HSUS is not the same as local animal shelters and is not affiliated with any actual animal shelters where you would adopt a dog or cat, they are an animal advocacy organization that gets individuals to donate money to help kittens and puppies and then use it for their own agenda. In fact only .45% of donated funds to HSUS actually end up at animal shelters. If you do donate to HSUS, I advise you to pull your money out and directly donate to local shelters or zoos and aquariums that will use your money as intended.


This is a prime example of doing one’s research. I admit I wasn’t aware of the sociopathic nature of the HSUS. They appear very much to be one thing, but underneath it all are very different. This partnership made me dig deeper into what HSUS really does and I am discouraged and overall confused by the partnership with SeaWorld. Most importantly, I support SeaWorld and there countless efforts in animal conservation and research. I was inspired by the team that takes such amazing care of their animals and because of them I do what I love every day and get to live out my dream of contributing to species preservation, education, and the well-being of extraordinary animals.



The future of SeaWorld and what all of this means for the orcas

While SeaWorld has announced the end of orca breeding at their facilities, it does not mean orcas will disappear from their parks in the near future. The plan is for all of the orcas currently in human care to live out their lives in their current homes. This sounds really nice and all but there are some major consequences for current orcas and future orcas.


By taking away breeding and thus a species survival plan (SSP) we are taking away all species preservation of orcas in human care. Sure, they are a protected species so they legally can’t be hunted or collected or even touched in their natural habitat but the bigger problem is preserving where they live: the ocean. Pollution is real, and it is a problem, and it is a big deal. While going green has become “hip” and ecofriendly options are becoming more and more available, I’m sad to say it is not enough. Not only orcas, but all animals that call the ocean home, are in trouble if humans don’t drastically change how they treat the planet.  By eliminating a species survival plan and thus ending breeding of these amazing animals in human care we are losing our failsafe; the ability to preserve in human care and repopulate killer whales if they ever went extinct in their natural habitat. This really is one of the main goals of the SSP: to maintain diverse genetics in populations that if it ever was necessary, they could be repopulated in their natural environment.


Unfortunately, many people only see the “cash cow” when they think of orca breeding and sadly that is just not the case. The worst part about all of it is that it really is the whales that will suffer the most through this decision. While I can vaguely understand the fairy tale dream of wanting to release orcas in human care into the ocean (even though the ocean is really a not so great place to live right now) that is not what is happening or going to happen to these animals. Instead, they will lose one of the most natural, innate experiences a killer whale has: reproduction and motherhood.  All animals have a sex drive; it is what allows a species to continue existence. The current orcas at SeaWorld parks will be denied this. Despite common belief not all animals in human care are artificially inseminated (AI) so sometimes the natural thing happens, and I’m sure it is quite enriching for the animals. On the other hand, one of the most beautiful, natural, and innate behaviors in orcas is motherhood. These whales will never be enriched by a calf or become experienced mothers. These social animals develop pod and family structures. By ending breeding we are taking this away from them.


Bottom line, the take away is that SeaWorld will end orca breeding and the orcas currently in their care will live out their lives where they are despite talk of sea pens or sanctuaries (click here to read about the truth behind sea pens). SeaWorld has also chosen to partner with the Human Society of the United States (HSUS) and will continue their efforts in education, research, and conservation. This means that SeaWorld has partnered with an organization that is governed by extremists that fundamentally don’t support animals in human care at any capacity. It also means that any sort of species survival plan for orcas in human care will cease to exist and within the next half a century it is very possible that we will have to say goodbye to orcas in human care in the United States.


Like I mentioned at the beginning, I have my opinions, and they may be different than yours and that’s okay. The important thing to me is that everyone do their research (and it looks like you read this article so your part of the way there!). There are a lot of things you read on the internet and only a margin of them are true. It is important to be able to weed out fact from fiction and avoid easy, fast bandwagons that promote less than the truth. I encourage anyone who wants to read more and find out more about SeaWorld, their orcas, the HSUS, animals in human care or whatever to check out my references.


As a member of the zoological community, I feel strongly that what zoos and aquariums do is so important and overall a great thing for all animals and conservation. Zoos and aquariums are so much more than animals on display. I am very proud to do what I do and I feel privileged to do so every day. I have witnessed the care, compassion, and true love that the SeaWorld team has for not only their orcas but all the animals in their care. It is without a doubt in my mind that animal well-being comes first to them in every aspect of their care.  While the announcement of the end of orca breeding greatly saddens me, I support SeaWorld and the conservation efforts they support as well as the people that work so hard to make a difference. They are the true voices of the animals they love and care for every day.