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SeaWorld ending orca breeding program; current killer whales will be its last

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Three years of pounding bad publicity about its orca programs have led SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Wednesday morning to announce the end of the theme park company’s iconic but controversial killer whale breeding program.

The company announced early Wednesday that it would end the program and that the whales it has in captivity now would be its last. That means the shows and images of orcas will change radically at the parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego and eventually phase out as the current generation ages.

The announcement is a stunning blow to the Orlando-based theme park company if for no other reason than the orcas have been the symbol of the company from its start 50 years ago in San Diego. The orca character Shamu has been as associated with SeaWorld as Mickey Mouse is to Walt Disney theme parks.

“We’re making historic announcements at SeaWorld, including ending orca breeding, introducing new, inspiring and natural orca encounters, and launching new partnerships to protect oceans and marine animals,” SeaWorld announced Wednesday. “We’re creating a new vision for SeaWorld that will help us deliver on our mission that every guest who walks through our doors will be inspired to take action to help protect wild animals and wild places.”

The sea-change decision comes three years after the release of the documentary movie “Blackfish, which told the story of Tilikum, one of SeaWorld’s Orlando whales, using footage and interviews to illustrate what the producers called the species’ “cruel treatment in captivity.” The movie ignited an anti-SeaWorld movement that has hammered the company’s bottom line as well as its image.

SeaWorld has been on the defensive ever since, imploring the public to recognize that its care of its orcas and other animals set the industry standards for humane treatment, and that its marine animal rescue programs have saved countless whales, dolphins, manatees and other animals. But the Orlando-based company could never regain the upper hand in the publicity battle. Its parks attendance and earnings have fallen significantly each of the past two years and its image has flipped, in the minds of many, from the company’s preference of caring to one of cruelty.

With Wednesday’s announcement, SeaWorld tries again to reset its image as an industry leader in caring for animals. Indeed, the company’s statement takes credit for saving killer whales worldwide.

“When SeaWorld opened its doors more than 50 years ago, killer whales were feared and even hunted. Now, they are among the most beloved marine mammals on the planet thanks, in part, to the inspirational encounters we’ve provided to more than 400 million guests,” the announcement declared. “The new vision for SeaWorld reflects changes in society and SeaWorld’s evolution with those changes, including ending killer whale breeding, new inspiring natural orca encounters, and new partnerships to protect oceans and marine animals.”

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected]

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