SeaWorld's orcas will be theme park's last

Posted at 6:55 AM, Mar 17, 2016

SeaWorld Entertainment says the killer whales currently in the company’s care will be the last generation of orcas at SeaWorld. Orca breeding ends as of March 17.

In a press release issued early Thursday morning, the company said:

"This announcement reaffirms our commitment to not collect marine mammals from the wild. After all, we haven’t collected an orca from the wild in almost 40 years, and the orcas at SeaWorld were either born there or have spent almost their entire lives in human care."

What will happen to the orcas?

SeaWorld says it will not release the killer whales into the ocean or confine them sea cages.

"They could not survive in oceans to compete for food, be exposed to unfamiliar diseases or to have to deal with environmental concerns – including pollution and other man-made threats," the press release said.

The current population of orcas at SeaWorld – including one orca, Takara, that became pregnant last year – will live out their lives at the company’s park habitats. Guests will be able to observe these orcas through the new educational encounters and in viewing areas within the existing habitats.

Why the changes?

SeaWorld, which has drawn scrutiny for practices related to its orcas, says the new day for the killer whales is a response to how people feel about wildlife. 

“As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it," said said Joel Manby, President and Chief Executive Officer of SeaWorld. "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's troubles

In February 2010, SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was interacting with a killer whale called Tilikum before a live audience at SeaWorld Orlando when it pulled her from a platform by her arm and held her under the water. While an autopsy report said Brancheau drowned, she suffered severe trauma, including multiple fractures and a severed spinal cord.

The 2013 documentary "Blackfish" chronicled Tilikum's life and argued that killer whales become more aggressive to humans and each other when in captivity. The film fueled criticism of SeaWorld by animal rights' activists.

What's next?

SeaWorld also announced a new conservation partnership with the Humane Society of the United States(HSUS) "to protect our oceans and the animals that call them home." 

Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of HSUS, said:

“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.”

RELATED: Tilikum, SeaWorld’s Killer Orca, is Dying