The SeaWorld Deal to End Captive Breeding Is Just the Start

A profound shift is under way in corporate attitudes toward the treatment of animals.
(Photo: Philip James Corwin/Getty Images)
Jun 29, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of The Humane Society of the United States, is the author of the New York Times best seller The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals.

SeaWorld’s March announcement that it would immediately cease breeding orcas and adopt other substantial reforms for animal welfare created more than a splash in the global media. It was the latest in a series of major corporate announcements—within the realms of live animal entertainment, food and agriculture, animal testing and science, fashion and wildlife management, and the pet trade—revealing a tangible shift in how we treat animals.

Businesses on the wrong side of the animal welfare debate are switching sides and increasingly aligning their practices with consumer sensibilities. As I write in my new book, The Humane Economy, there’s still so much work to do and so many causes of cruelty, but this broad-based progress is invigorating and indicative of the larger trajectory of animal welfare in our society.

When I joined SeaWorld’s relatively new chief executive, Joel Manby, to announce its package of reforms—including advocacy campaigns to fight shark finning and commercial whaling and sealing, as well as efforts to protect our coral reefs—we both said this was the start of our relationship and not the end. We had been in discussions for months and agreed that SeaWorld needed to be an advocate for marine creatures and the oceans, because they are under siege from a range of direct and indirect human-caused threats.

Together we are now backing federal legislation—with Republicans and Democrats—to ban imports or interstate sales of shark fins in the United States. We plan to put our shoulders behind similar legislation in Florida and other key coastal states. Manby and I both see the day, in the not too distant future, when we can reduce the total number of dead sharks worldwide by tens of millions.

Those who remain skeptical of SeaWorld and other corporations making meaningful animal welfare commitments should remember that this kind of progress begets more of the same. Since the SeaWorld announcement, the National Aquarium has pledged to move its eight dolphins to seaside sanctuaries in the next five years. The Georgia Aquarium has agreed to end its quest to acquire wild-caught belugas or dolphins, something The Humane Society of the United States and others had insisted on.

This kind of viral change happens when a leader in a sector of industry embraces reform. After McDonald’s announced it would phase out its purchasing of pork from operators who confined pigs in small crates, dozens of other food retailers followed suit. When the fast-food giant, three years later, said it would only source eggs from cage-free facilities, more than 175 companies pledged the same. So, with a pair of pledges from McDonald’s, we are now on the cusp of ending extreme confinement of animals on factory farms in the United States—almost unthinkable progress just five years ago.

I believe SeaWorld’s business model will continue to evolve. At the parks, I think you’ll see fewer animal performances and more roller coaster rides, more computer-generated imagery, more emphasis on rescue and rehabilitation, and more messaging in the parks about how people can protect marine life and oceans. Customers will dine at concessions and food service operators that offer more plant-based foods, cage-free and crate-free animal products, and sustainable seafood options.

The debate about swim-with-dolphin programs, orca sea pens, and other topics will continue. One way that SeaWorld and animal advocates can find even more common ground is for the company to choose not to breed any more dolphins in captivity and to bring rescued animals that cannot be released back into the wild into its facilities for any exhibition needs. SeaWorld can morph into something of a sanctuary over time.

In March, when I called some of the leading campaigners and writers and documentary filmmakers to give them advance word about the SeaWorld reforms—especially the provision stipulating that the no-breeding policy would apply not just to SeaWorld in San Diego but to all of its facilities—there was surprise and elation. Most people who’d been campaigning against SeaWorld thought that the only realistic first step would be to acquiesce to a breeding ban in California, where there had been a bill and more debate and agitation. The new policies for its food service, its advocacy campaigns, and its commitment to putting millions into rescue and rehabilitation were not on the table in any of the public back and forth between SeaWorld and its critics.

While some people may not view SeaWorld’s pledges as embodying everything they desired, it was an extraordinary set of moves—and a stretch for the company, given its past battles with activists and its internal culture. Our movement must embrace and celebrate this kind of change and work with onetime adversaries to achieve continuing progress.