Seaworld Ends Breeding in Captivity: Saving Face or Saving the Orcas?

Jade Morgan, KLJ Staff Editor[1]

At the end of March, Seaworld CEO Joel Manby announced that the controversial park would stop breeding killer whales.[2] According to Manby, the choice to halt breeding was clear, given the decline of park visitation since 2014.[3] During a webcast, Manby explained that “it was either a Seaworld without whales or a world without Seaworld.”[4] The 29 whales currently in Seaworld’s care will not be released back into the wild, but instead will remain in the parks for the remainder of their lives.[5]

While animal rights activists and consumers may rejoice at the decision to end breeding in captivity, it is important to remember the criticisms and legal struggles that motivated Seaworld to make this change. Since 1968, there have been at least thirty media-reported interactions between killer whales and their trainers that led to injury.[6] Many critics of the aquatic park point to poor nutrition, social isolation, inadequate facilities, and overcrowding to explain the aggressive behaviors being exhibited by these otherwise peaceful animals.[7]

One of the most well known attacks on a trainer was that of Dawn Brancheau on February 24, 2010.[8] During a live performance, a whale named Tilikum grabbed Dawn and pulled her underwater.[9] Due to the attack, Dawn suffered traumatic injuries and eventually drowned.[10] As a result of Dawn’s death, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission found that Seaworld had violated the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 by exposing the trainers to recognized hazards when working with killer whales.[11] Under this Act, an employer is to keep his place of employment free from recognized hazards “that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”[12]

In October of 2011, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a complaint seeking a declaration that the orcas captured in the wild were being held in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment.[13] PETA claimed that by keeping the orcas in captivity, they were being held as slaves.[14] According to the complaint, the orcas were being held physically and psychologically captive, separated from their homes and families, unable to engage in natural behaviors, confined under stressful conditions, and subject to artificial insemination or sperm collection for involuntary breeding.[15] Though the court noted that animals do enjoy some legal rights, they ultimately ruled that the Thirteenth Amendment applies only to humans, not orcas.[16]

Perhaps the biggest catalyst that led Seaworld to end all breeding in captivity was a 2015 California Ban. The California Coastal Commission approved Seaworld’s plan to double the size of its killer whale exhibits, but banned the breeding of any orcas at the facility.[17] In response, Seaworld sued the California authorities.[18] The lawsuit argued that the Coastal Commission overstepped its authority with the breeding restriction.[19] Seaworld argued that since the captive whales were not actually part of the marine or coastal environment, they were governed by federal law and not subject to the Commission’s jurisdiction.[20]

Perhaps trying to save face with consumers, Seaworld decided to end captive breeding in all of its parks instead of pursuing more legal action.[21] CEO Manby explained that “the orca issue is a barrier between our story and a growing audience.”[22] Seeking to spread their new mission, to protect animals and act as a rescue organization, the company has begun to work more closely with the Humane Society.[23] Regardless of Seaworld’s motives for these changes, animal rights activist, park trainers, and consumers should celebrate the decision to move away from captive breeding. Whales like Tilikum are not meant to be confined in small tanks.

[1] J.D. Expected May 2017.
[2] Lori Weisberg, Seaworld CEO: Breeding Ban was Difficult Decision, The San Diego Union-Tribune (Mar. 30, 2016), http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2016/mar/30/seaworld-ceo-defends-orca-breeding-ban-park/.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Seaworld to End Orca Breeding Progam, ABC News (Mar. 17, 2016, 11:41 AM), http://abcnews.go.com/US/seaworld-end-orca-breeding-program/story?id=37712730.
[6] Meghan J. Rechberg, Dying to Entertain Us or Living to Educate Us? A Comprehensive Investigation of Captive Killer Whales, Their Trainers, and How the Law Must Evolve to Meet Their Needs, 31 J. Nat’l Ass’n L. Jud. 720, 738 (2011).
[7] Id. at 735.
[8] See Seaworld of Fla., LLC v. Perez, 748 F.3d 1202, 1204 (D.C. Cir. 2014).
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1) (2010).
[13] Tilikum v. Seaworld Parks & Entm’t, Inc., 842 F. Supp. 2d 1259, 1260 (S.D. Cal. 2012).
[14] Id. at 1261.
[15] Id.
[16] Id. at 1264.
[17] Dominique Mosbergen, California Agency Votes to Ban Captive Orca Breeding at Seaworld, The Huffington Post (Oct. 10, 2015, 4:22 AM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/seaworld-orca-breeding-ban_us_56175283e4b0082030a1effe.
[18] Seaworld Sues California Authorities Over Orca Breeding Ban, The Huffington Post (Dec. 30, 2015, 2:36 AM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/seaworld-lawsuit_us_56838565e4b014efe0d99b5d.
[19] Id.
[20] Samantha Tatro, Seaworld Continues Orca Legal Fight, Sues Coastal Commission Over Breeding, NBC News (Dec. 29, 2015, 5:50 PM), http://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/local/SeaWorld-Continues-Orca-Legal-Fight-Sues-Coastal-Commission-Over-Breeding-363782301.html.
[21] See Weisburg, supra note 2.
[22] Id.
[23] Id.

*Featured image by Ed Schipul, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.