Changing Planet

The Dark Era of Orca Shows is Ending

a wild killer whale in the waters off California
A wild killer whale off Los Angeles, California. Photograph by Maddalena Bearzi/Ocean Conservation Society under NOAA permit.

By Maddalena Bearzi

There is light at the end of the tunnel. As Tilikum, the captive killer whale at the focus of the documentary Blackfish, is approaching death from an untreatable drug-resistant lung infection, SeaWorld just announced it will end all orca breeding.

No more orcas will be kept in any of their new parks around the world. The remaining captive killer whales will be the last generation enclosed in the tanks of SeaWorld facilities.

The entertainment enterprise is also phasing out its killer whale theatrical shows at its three U.S. theme parks in favor of other types of exhibits emphasizing these animals’ natural behavior. As the cherry on top, SeaWorld let the public know about “a new partnership with the Humane Society of the United States to protect our oceans and the animals that call them home”. The company stated that is “committing to educating its more than 20 million annual visitors on animal welfare and conservation issues through interpretative programs at the parks and expanded advocacy for wild whales, seals, and other marine creatures”.

This is not just good news; it’s a great step in the right direction for these complex, cognitive and wide-ranging wild animals that should have never been kept imprisoned in the first place (read here to know why). It is also a terrific example of how public pressure can induce real change when we truly care about an issue. This is something we all need to remember: we do have the power to change things if we decide to use it.

The horrific death of killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau back in 2010 and the documentary Blackfish, featuring testimonies about these animals’ poor conditions in captivity, opened the curtain on Seaworld’s real world. Tilikum was not only the company’s finest breeding machine. He was, and still is, a psychologically and physically tortured individual who’s deprived captive conditions turned him into a true “killer”. Let’s not forget that no orca has ever killed a human in the wild.

Killer whales are wild animals
Killer whales belong to their home in the ocean. Photograph by Kim Parsons/NOAA Fisheries

People around the world have finally realized that there is something deeply wrong and morally cruel about keeping these magnificent animals in tanks. Bombarded by hard-hitting critique for the last few years, SeaWorld had no choice than to change its course. And it finally did.

The end of orcas in captivity is nearing but our work, as an informed and compassionate citizenry, is not even close to done.

There are dolphins, and many other magnificent animals worldwide, that are still bred in captivity, and even those currently kept at SeaWorld and other facilities deserve a better existence. There are viable solutions for these dolphins: freedom in their ocean home for some, seapens for others who, because of their long-term dependence on humans in captivity, can’t just be released.

Killer whales, like many (if not all) species, do not belong in captivity. They never did. Let’s make this victory really count. Let’s use our power and empathy to help other animals to live where they belong. In the wild.

Maddalena Bearzi has studied the ecology and conservation of marine mammals for over twenty-five years. She is President and Co-founder of the Ocean Conservation Society, and Co-author of Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins (Harvard University Press, 2008). She also works as a photojournalist and blogger for several publications. Her most recent book is Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist (Chicago University Press, 2012).


  • Randy Janssen

    Another American corporation bullied by a bunch of vegans. Groups like PETA and the HSUS are vegan cults that want to stop the use of animals in society. To do this they pretend that animals have the same or similar emotions as humans. Yet if you follow this thinking to its logical end, we will have to start asking chickens if they want to be fried or steers if they want to be steak.

    In the case of Sea World, they use pseudo science, without any actual scientific evidence to make people believe that the Orcas are sad. I have horses that are every bit as talented as these mammals. They dance, they bow, they can do cala and cola. They do this because they are trained to do the tricks. Now does that mean my horses should be set free, because I keep them in stables at night and tied out during the day. Do you think they are abused.

    So Sea World needs to think about what it is doing. That is because you can’t deal with these crazies. Next it will be dolphins then turtles. These fanatics will not be happy until they shut Sea World down.

  • Robert Anderson

    The mammalian neuroanatomy dealing with emotions has been conserved across 90 million years of separate evolution. Human, orca, and horse all have similar emotions and are able to recognize each other’s emotions. When together they are able to synchronize emotional states. Been there, done that. I knew SeaWorld’s first “breeding machines”, Katina and Kasatka, and also have care taken horses on a horse farm.

    As measured by encephalization quotient, delphinids are the closest mammals to human intelligence. Horse EQ is way down there, nice as they are. Neither horses nor chickens can pass the “mirror test” of self awareness. Orcas and dolphins can.

    PETA, et al., make their case based on non-harm to sentients — any animal with awareness of pain. Orcas and dolphins are in their own unique case based on very significant intelligence (as well as the impracticality of building physical enclosures anything like their natural environment).

    As to them liking captivity, I refer to the 4 orcas I knew. Canuck 2 died of disease while still in training. Kotar died at age 17 when a pool gate crushed his head. Kotar, Katina, and Kasatka all turned aggressive after a few years at SeaWorld. Kasatka has been called, “the most dangerous whale in the corporation”. When I knew them, they were all friendly, gentle, mischievous, and affectionate. Something sure happened that didn’t agree with them!

  • henry franklin

    Janssen is right–animals don’t emote-they only react to what is positive stimuli–PETA and their ilk are a danger to us all if we fail to understand this–

  • joe

    Randy Janssen and henry franklin . .. . . . . .I feel so sorry for you . . . . . your ignorance is so profound one does not know where to begin your education . . . . I guess this is the terrible consequence when cousins marry.. . . . . I hear the twanging of dueling banjos when I read your drivel!

  • Mary Contrary

    Some people just miss the big picture. These are wild animals that should not be domesticated. Show horses are already domesticated. And yes, some of the training for dressage does constitute abuse, imho.

  • Mike Canino

    It’s a shame SW is being bullied by well intention-ed, yet ignorant activist. SW has done a great job of connecting people to the sea animals that no one ever sees and this is why we want to protect the animals in the wild. When SW goes bankrupt, who will provide the unparalleled animal health services to sick sea mammals. Who will personify the animals so we learn to treasure them instead of hunting to extinction. No good deed is enough to these thugs.

  • Eric Mills

    Be aware that RANDY JANSSEN (above commenter) is a charreada promoter and former “horse tripper” (and lawyer, if you can believe it), based in San Antonio, TX. He has long claimed that animals have neither “feelings” nor “emotions”–it’s all “instinct.”

    See his remarkable website, (I’m not making this up.)

  • Alyssa

    I know that it is quite late to post a comment but many of the comments to this article are negative and I would have to agree with Maddalena Bearzi. I don’t think that people think about the overall affect that captivity has on these creatures. To start things off, these magnificent mammals were ripped from their families and forced to live in a small tank with whales that they have no connection with. If you have seen the documentary Blackfish, then you would see that some whales don’t get along and harm one another. Secondly, Orca whales travel up to one hundred miles a day and dive to incredible depths when in the wild. When in captivity, the spend their days swimming in an endless circle in a small concrete tank. They have no room to perform behaviors that they would in the wild. If a person believes that it is morally right to keep these animals in captivity just to provide entertainment and for show, that is truly horrifying. Sea World claiming that they will no longer be breeding these animals in captivity is a big step towards setting these animals free. Only in certain instances do I believe that an animal should be kept in captivity.

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