SeaWorld CEO slams activists who criticized the company for breeding killer whales in captivity

Orcas perform in a show at SeaWorld San Diego in March 2014.

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Orcas perform in a show at SeaWorld San Diego in March 2014.
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Mike Blake/Reuters

  • SeaWorld ended its killer-whale-breeding program in 2016, after facing backlash over its treatment of animals.
  • The company’s CEO, Joel Manby, said on Monday that its current pool of whales, which can live up to age 50, would stay in its parks for years.
  • “I get frustrated with the small-minded arguments from activists that really don’t know what they’re talking about,” Manby said.

ORLANDO – In 2016, SeaWorld announced it would end its killer-whale-breeding program after years of scrutiny about the theme-park company’s treatment of animals. The decision was seen as a necessary refocusing away from SeaWorld’s iconic live killer-whale show.

However, according to the CEO, the theme park has the whales necessary to continue a version of what was for decades its most famous attraction. While SeaWorld began phasing it out at some parks in 2016, its “signature killer-whale show” and animal viewings continue at others.

“We will still have the whales for 50 years,” CEO Joel Manby said on Monday at the ICR Conference. “They live a long time. This is a decision that is for the immediate. But we get to keep the whales and have the experience yet have some relief from a legislative standpoint.”

Tilikum at SeaWorld

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Magnolia Pictures

SeaWorld says the average life expectancy of killer whales, also called orcas, is 46 to 50 years for females and 30 to 38 years for males.

The whales’ lifespan was a focus of the breeding-program backlash, which reached a fever pitch after the release of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish.”

After activists petitioned for a ban on killer-whale breeding, arguing that orcas die younger in captivity, SeaWorld launched an ad campaign saying the whales live as long in its theme parks as they do in the wild. Experts told PolitiFact that SeaWorld’s claim was backed by some research but that it ignored issues such as the animals’ quality of life.

Manby said SeaWorld reallocated the $300 million it had before April 2016 planned to spend on expanding its pool of killer whales through breeding toward building more attractions.

The company’s strategy more generally has shifted toward education and animal conservation and away from its live animal shows.

Shamu Sea World Florida

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Senia L/Flickr

“When you thought of SeaWorld five years ago, you thought of it as Shamu the killer whale,” Manby said. “When Shamu became a liability, it created somewhat of a confusion around the opportunity for us.”

Manby clarified that SeaWorld was committed to its decision not to breed and that it would not restart its breeding program, at least in his “human lifetime.”

The CEO says that he believes in SeaWorld’s mission but that many people misunderstand the company. Backlash against SeaWorld has been driven by “lies” and people lacking in “critical thinking,” he said.

“One hundred years from now, people are going to be begging for zoos and aquariums to take the animals from the wild because the extinction rate is so high,” Manby said.

People are wrong to focus on SeaWorld while fishing kills numerous sharks, dolphins, and whales every year, Manby argued.

“Those are the issues we should be talking about, not 29 whales at SeaWorld that have been born at SeaWorld and have lived there their entire life and cannot be released to the wild because they would die,” Manby said. “So I get frustrated with the small-minded arguments from activists that really don’t know what they’re talking about.”