SeaWorld & The Humane Society of the United States: Betrayal of the Zoological Community?

In bed with the enemy? Joel Manby the president and chief executive officer of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment with Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States on Fox News.

It is not unreasonable to question whether or not the zoological community would feel comfortable in working with an organisation such as SeaWorld when they have decided to affiliate themselves with a known animal-rights group.

On Thursday, March 17, 2016, the SeaWorld group of marine parks announced that they have decided to discontinue its successful breeding programme with their killer whales from immediate effect.  This was announced on their website and in a letter to the Los Angeles Times from Joel Manby the president and chief executive officer of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment.  Moreover, in a further revelation it was announced that SeaWorld had also decided to go into collaboration with the animal-rights group the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

This news of the cessation of the breeding programme and the collaboration between SeaWorld and the Humane Society of the United States came as a shock to many supporters of SeaWorld and members of the zoological community across the world.  Although, it is quite clear that this was undertaken as a business decision by Manby and specifically to reassure company stockholders and Wall Street.  This is after all why Manby was placed in the position of CEO less than a year ago with a remit to turn the business around.

Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States stated after the official announcement that:

 The fact that Pacelle uses the words “animal-rights” in his statement rather than “animal welfare” should be a huge concern to anyone who is disturbed about the motivation of this partnership.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is a controversial organisation and was heavily involved in the promotion of the film “Blackfish”.  This organisation has regularly attacked SeaWorld and is opposed to keeping of all marine mammals in captivity with little ambiguity to this fact stated on their website:
“...Life for captive whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals is nothing like a life in the ocean. It is almost impossible to maintain a family group in captivity, a tragedy for whales and dolphins. When you see marine mammals in tanks or pools, consider what they have lost in order to entertain us...”

HSUS is also not a friend to zoos and aquariums around the world.  It recently has been lobbying to stop the export from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in the United States which is going to donate a group of retired chimpanzees to a Wingham Wildlife Park in the United Kingdom. HSUS claim that the receiving zoo is not accredited.  However, this is completely misleading.  Since 1981 all British zoos must comply with the Zoo Licensing Act which lays down a comprehensive, stringent and evolving set of standards for zoos to operate – the Secretary of State Standards of Modern Zoo Practice – which subject zoos to periodic inspection and licensing.  This legislation goes far beyond accreditation by a trade body such as The American Association of Zoos.

SeaWorld holds the biggest genetic pool of captive bred killer whales and has been leaders in the world regarding the reproduction of this species.  However, it is not the only facility to hold or breed killer whales with countries such as France and Japan exhibiting breeding groups of killer whales.  Moreover, China announced in early 2017 that it is commencing a killer whale breeding programme.  With the removal of the breeding programme at SeaWorld and the effective discontinuation of reproductive cooperation between zoological collections around the world (which would include the supply of semen for Artificial Insemination), many aquariums and parks that wish to continue to breed killer whales are going to have to reassess their positions.

Further, one of the major repercussions of this decision from SeaWorld is that inevitably this will mean that more killer whales will now be caught from the wild to satisfy the growing aquarium and theme park business particularly its growth market in Asia and specifically China.  It is likely that Russian animal dealers will be considerably pleased that they now have a very lucrative market in supplying animals to these areas of the world as well as their own home market.  One projection suggests that within the next decade China may well be displaying at least 50 killer whales in their aquariums and theme parks.

Finally, one of the issues that has not really been addressed regarding this situation is a question of trust.  The zoological community are subject to continuing campaigns regarding their operations from the animal-rights lobby.  It is not unreasonable to question whether or not the zoological community would feel comfortable in working with an organisation such as SeaWorld when they have decided to affiliate themselves with a known animal-rights group.  Whilst SeaWorld might try and offer assurance that confidential discussions between zoological facilities would not be revealed to their associates at the Humane Society for United States, after what has happened would anyone blame them for not believing such reassurances.

In conclusion, it is clear that Joel Manby believed his first priority was to the shareholders and investors in SeaWorld.  Unfortunately, he may come to reflect that his decision has created a number of problems and repercussions that possibly did not first occur to him when running what was a world-class zoological collection specialising in marine mammals. 

Further Reading and Comment

The Facebook page and website The Final Days of Conventional Wisdom have produced a very useful overview of the current situation regarding the developments at SeaWorld and their association with The Humane Society of the United States.  It also gives insight into the current status of other facilities that hold killer whales and future plans that are currently known.


I've been receiving a number of questions over the past few days here at Final Days, so I'll try to answer a few of them here.

"Is it true that SeaWorld is giving $50 million to HSUS?

The $50 million will go towards rescue and rehabilitation efforts, but will not be given to HSUS. A good portion of it will go to SeaWorld Rescue, which, as outlined in the November 9 Investor Day presentation, will be given increased visibility both inside and outside the parks. I suspect that a portion of the funds will also go to non-SeaWorld rescue organizations, such as the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network and the NOAA-authorized rescue groups along the California coast that have been dealing with a deluge of pinniped issues.

"How did this happen?"

Things were set in motion in December last year when Joel Manby and John Reilly, President of the San Diego park, were contacted by California Assemblyman Richard Bloom asking the company to reconsider its stance on orcas. A few weeks later, through a mutual friend, Manby was talking with HSUS President Wayne Pacelle. The decision to ban orcas and the text of the new California orca bill is the result of conversations between these three parties.

"Is the new bill the same as AB-2140?"

No. The new bill, which will likely be introduced in the next couple of weeks, only has two provisions - a ban on breeding and a prohibition on the import or export of NEW orcas to or from the state. I emphasize NEW because this wording was not in AB-2140.

"Now that SeaWorld is ending shows, what will happen to the trainers?"

SeaWorld is not ending shows and it's not getting rid of its trainers. They are still very much needed. It is changing the type of show it presents. This is a bit reminiscent of 1980, when the very corny "Shamu Goes to College" gave way to the slightly more serious and educational "This is Shamu" show. However, the new Orca Encounter (and I find it fascinating that under the Manby administration they are now being called orcas rather than the corporate insistence on calling them killer whales), from what I've heard, will carry a much stronger educational message, especially about orcas in the wild, than any prior show has.

"What is SeaWorld's relationship with HSUS?"

SeaWorld will promote HSUS's campaigns, especially those centered around cetacean culls and whaling, sealing, and shark finning, both inside the parks and online. Expect HSUS to have an extensive presence within the SeaWorld parks. For example, the organization's campaign against shark finning will likely play an important role with the new Mako coaster and Shark Realm in Orlando.

I should also note that sometimes you have to give something up in order to get something in return and it's my understanding that HSUS will downplay its anti-SeaWorld rhetoric - although non-SeaWorld parks will certainly be fair game. It will be interesting how this plays out with the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums over the coming months and years.

"Why do they have to let the orcas die off?"

The legislative, judicial, and media climates surrounding SeaWorld's holding of orcas have become, for lack of a better word, somewhat hostile. When Joel Manby was hired, his task was to turn the company around and make it profitable again. Like it or not, orcas are the ball and chain that has been holding the company back. In the past four years, practically every lawsuit and legislative act and (and I'm estimating off the top of my head here, so don't take this as an exact figure) a good 80-90% of negative publicity, social media posts, films, books, and newspaper and broadcast reports have been centered around SeaWorld's orcas. By ending breeding and phasing them out, Manby and his team can concentrate on bringing new and innovative animal-based attractions to the parks, which over the years will create new flagship attractions eventually replacing the orcas. The upside of this is if you're a SeaWorld orca fan, they're still going to be there for you for a few more decades.

"Is Manby not aware that activists will continue protesting his company's holding of other animals like dolphins and belugas?"

I'm pretty certain he's aware.

"I'm going to miss the orcas when they all die. Can't they just move them to China and keep breeding there?"

Then you'd be missing the orcas because they'd be in China.

"I love the SeaWorld animals so much but I can't believe that they partnered with a group so vile as HSUS. Wouldn't it make such a huge statement if all the animal care staff and trainers just quit?"

Yes it would. It would also jeopardize the lives of all those animals you claim to love so much.

"Is Manby a secret animal rights activist?"

Yes. Which is why towards the end of his role as CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment he purchased a private zoo and two aquariums and then ran them as.....a private zoo and two aquariums.

"Why isn't Orlando's orca show being converted to the educational one until 2019?"

San Diego will be the test bed. They'll figure out what works best there, then Texas a year later, and finally Orlando. Orlando is the flagship park for the chain, so they want the most refined product when it opens there.

"Was this announcement made because of Tilikum's health?"

No. The timing was based on the introduction of Bloom's bill. We were originally told it was to be AB-2305. However, this has turned out to be a bill on steelhead trout.

"Is SeaWorld going to drop its case against the Coastal Commission now that Blue World Project is canceled?"

It is my understanding that the case will continue since it is not about the decision itself but rather about the Commission's authority in issuing such decisions, which could impact the park and other species in its collection in the future.

"What about sea pens?"

They may be considered in the future, but for the time being, the option is not on the table. In addition, Bloom's office announced that after "exhaustive research," the determination was made that current science did not make sea pens a viable option for the new bill.

"Why didn't we hear about Takara being pregnant before this?"

Tilikum's health had reached the point of concern where the announcement of his failing health was made. I have been told that his health has improved since then, but I'm really not in a position to comment on his current state. The Tilikum announcement pushed back the pregnancy announcement.

"Is Morgan pregnant?"

No. She's just a big girl.

"What about other killer whales?"

Lolita's future is held up in a legal action taken by PETA, Orca Network, and ALDF against the Miami Seaquarium for alleged violations (I'm using the term alleged as this is a continuing court case) of the Endangered Species Act.

Marineland Antibes reopens next week with what is being called a "more educational approach." I'm not so certain they will continue breeding operations. One of the park's orcas, Shouka, is on a current breeding loan in San Diego.

Loro Parque has agreed to honor SeaWorld's wishes and end breeding, although they protest that such a move violates Spanish law. (scroll down this page and you'll see their statement)

At MarineLand of Canada, new provincial regulations prevent the import of any orcas. Kiska has remained alone in the park's "Friendship Cove" since SeaWorld's removal of Ikaika in 2011. New provicial regulations are being explored that will improve her habitat and provide for more engaging activities.

Kshamenk continues to learn Spanish while living by himself at Argentina's Mundo Marino. His sperm is currently on ice at a number of locations around the world.

At least one Japanese facility with orcas is in talks with a Russian marine mammal procurement company.

Russia can likely only sustain 4-5 mega-aquariums/dolphinariums. The one in Moscow, the Moskvarium, is already open. Primorsky Aquarium in Vladivostok will open this year and there are plans for it to house one or two orcas. A third mega-aquarium is under construction in St. Petersburg.

Currently, the highly successful Chimelong Zhuhai Resort has nine Russian-caught orcas in a secret training facility. When the resort's second theme park, the indoor Chimelong Ocean World opens in a couple of years, those orcas will be the highlight of a huge multimedia spectacle.

Because the current theme park at the resort, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, has performed so well (I expect it to be in the top 10 worldwide when the 2015 TEA/AECOM Theme Index is released next month, surpassing at least one Disney or Universal park in attendance), the company has been granted special privileges by the government, which itself has a significant ownership stake in Chimelong. One of these is being the first company to display orcas in China.

But after the new park opens, the exclusivity will be removed and others will purchase and display orcas, including Haichang Ocean Park (a marine animal research and breeding partner with Hong Kong's Ocean Park, but not operationally related), with its flagship parks under construction in Shanghai and Sanya. Since the big trend in China is to be bigger and better than the competition, and Chimelong has nine orcas, someone's going to want ten. Once this Pandora's Box has been opened, experts in Chinese tourism that I've spoken with expect there to be as many as fifty orcas in Chinese parks and aquariums by 2025.

Page updated 11 May 20