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SeaWorld Finally Moving the Needle on Animal Welfare

When Oren Lyons, traditional faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, addressed the United Nations in 1977, he highlighted the relationship between people and animals:

“As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it,” said Joel Manby, President and CEO of SeaWorld Entertainment, in a press release. “By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and reimagining how guests will encounter these beautiful animals, we are fulfilling our mission of providing visitors to our parks with experiences that matter.”

SeaWorld says it is moving away from theatrical shows featuring killer whales performing tricks to “focus on orca enrichment, exercise, and overall health.” The change will start in its San Diego park next year, followed by San Antonio and then Orlando in 2019. SeaWorld is also $50 million over the next five years “to be the world's leading marine animal rescue organization, to advocate for an end to the commercial killing of whales and seals and an end to shark finning."

A backlash against the way many zoos and aquaria house and treat animals gained traction from the 2013 release of the documentary, Blackfish — the story of Tilikum, the orca linked to the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. Tilikum is still at the park, suffering from a bacterial infection in his lungs as his health deteriorates.

After the news broke, Andrew O’Hehir noted in Salon: “We are beginning to think differently about the relationship between our species and other species, and to move beyond the longstanding assumption that we hold dominion over the natural world and are free to keep animals captive for our entertainment, or for any reason we like. Will future generations look back on zoos, circuses, racetracks and marine parks the way most of us now view bear-baiting and dogfights?”

A brief look at the history of man incarcerating animals goes back to the ancient civilizations of Ninevah, Egypt, Chinaand pre-Hispanic Mexico. Those zoos were essentially menageries for the amusement of the ruling classes. Assyrians transported lions as early as 2300 BC to royal palace parks planted with palm trees, vines and flowers, called Paradeisos by the Greeks. Ramses II tamed and kept a lion who accompanied him into battle.

Bears were equally in demand and were brought to Egyptby Sahure (5th dynasty) from Syria. Man’s inhumane treatment of animals, particularly dangerous ones, is referenced as early as 1,000 BC in stories such as ”The Lion in Search of Man.”

Modern zoos are often traced to London’s Regent's Park Zoo, founded in the 1820s with a scientific purpose - hence the word zoo, which comes from the term, “zoological garden.” In 1831, the Dublin Zoo was created to study animals both alive and dead, and in 1860 the Central Park Zoo was the first built in the United States, followed by the Philadelphia Zoo in 1874.

Fast-forward to the twentieth century, when animal welfare concerns began to inform contemporary zoo design in the 1950s.

Seven decades later, SeaWorld, the 10th most-visited park in the US (19th worldwide), is being forced to change its brand, which was built around killer whales performing tricks. Sadly, orcas — which are known for strong family bonds, hunting in cooperative pods in the wild and having a broad range of rich vocal expression — are easily trainable by humans. Wild orcas are not considered a threat to humans. The average male orca lives around 30 years, though they can live up to 60, while the average female’s life span is 50 years and they can live up to 100. According to the Animal Welfare Institute, however, both have a mortality rate 2.5 times higher in captivity.

“Where exactly is the dividing line between the animals we can imprison without guilt for our amusement and those we can’t?” O’Hehir asks. “Much bigger questions are at stake here, such as what it means to be human and what it means to be an animal, and how we understand the relationship between those categories.”

SeaWorld’s new direction includes a partnership with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

"SeaWorld's commitment to end breeding of orcas is a long-held goal of many animal advocacy organizations, and we commend the company for making this game-changing commitment," Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of HSUS, said at the announcement. “Today we turn a corner, working together to achieve solutions on a wide set of animal issues including sunsetting the use of orcas at existing facilities; maximizing SeaWorld’s focus on rescue, rehabilitation and advocacy for marine mammals in the wild; and sourcing food for animals and customers from humane and sustainable sources, including cage-free eggs and crate-free pork.”

Post-Blackfish initiatives, such as doubling the size of the killer whale environments at its three parks and a 2015 transparency campaign, seemed little more than desperate attempts to salvage SeaWorld’s reputation. And while further details on the theme park’s new approach and commitment to orca welfare have yet to emerge, here’s hoping it represents a true sea change in living conditions for the whales and all the other animals living at SeaWorld.

“What the SeaWorld case tells us is that we remain willing to ignore cruelty, and to accept all kinds of flimsy excuses for it, until it is laid bare before us,” O’Hehir asserts. “That moment of confrontation is coming for the entire captive-animal industry, and sooner than we think.”

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