Theme park operator SeaWorld Entertainment said on Thursday it would stop breeding killer whales, and those currently at its parks would be the last.
Orlando, Fla.-based SeaWorld has faced sagging attendance and years of criticism over its treatment of the captive marine mammals as well as pressure from animal rights activists to end public exhibition of killer whales altogether.
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SeaWorld, which operates parks in San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio, Texas, said in November it would replace its signature "Shamu" killer whale shows in San Diego with displays focused on conservation.
California regulators had said earlier that they would bar SeaWorld San Diego from continuing to breed killer whales, or orcas, if it went ahead with a planned expansion of its artificial habitat.
SeaWorld has 29 killer whales under its care, including six on loan to third parties, according to its website.
Whales to continue being exhibited
Phil Demers, a former marine mammal trainer at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont., said SeaWorld's decision is only a partial victory, because the company will still exhibit the whales it already has.
"Certainly in the case of SeaWorld they've given [themselves] a shelf life of probably in excess of 40 years, but I believe that with continued pressure, that we'll see that evolution a lot quicker," said Demers.
One of SeaWorld's whales, named Corky, was born off the coast of British Columbia before being captured. Whale researcher Paul Spong is calling for Corky to be moved to an ocean pen where she could interact with her original pod.
"We're talking about creating a retirement home where she could meet her family and live out her days again," said Spong.
Backlash against captive whales
The first killer whale was born in a SeaWorld park in 1985. Since then, 30 have been born in the parks, including the first-ever births through artificial insemination.
The company also faced a backlash after the release of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which depicted the captivity and public exhibition of killer whales as inherently cruel.
The film, which SeaWorld has criticized as inaccurate and misleading, also explored the circumstances leading to the 2010 death of a top SeaWorld trainer, who was pulled underwater and drowned by an orca she had performed with in Florida.
The company has sought to counter negative publicity surrounding Blackfish with a public relations blitz aimed at
drawing attention to SeaWorld's role in marine mammal research and its rescue and rehabilitation of animals in the wild.
SeaWorld's shares, which have fallen about 11 per cent in the past year, closed at $17.12 US on Wednesday.