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SeaWorld to end killer whale shows in wake of mounting protests

The Guardian logo The Guardian 11/9/2015 Rupert Neate in New York

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SeaWorld will end orca shows at its theme park in San Diego as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the company in the wake of mounting protests over its treatment of animals.

Related: SeaWorld fights to restore its image as shares sink in the wake of Blackfish

The company, which has lost half of its market value since the 2013 release of Blackfish, a film cataloguing alleged mistreatment of killer whales at its parks, said on Monday that it would phase out killer whale shows at its California park by 2017.

“We are listening to our guests, evolving as a company, we are always changing,” said chief executive Joel Manby. “In 2017 we will launch an all new orca experience focused on natural environment [of whales]. 2016 will be the last year of our theatrical killer whale experience in San Diego.”

The San Diego Union Tribune reported that SeaWorld’s Shamu stadium would be replaced by an “informative” experience designed to take place in a more natural setting that would carry a “conservation message inspiring people to act”.

“People love companies that have a purpose, even for-profit companies,” Manby told investors.“Just look at WholeFoods … I don’t see any reason why SeaWorld can’t be one of those brands.”

Young children get a close-up view of an Orca whale during a visit to the animal theme park SeaWorld in San Diego, Calif. © Mike Blake/Reuters Young children get a close-up view of an Orca whale during a visit to the animal theme park SeaWorld in San Diego, Calif. SeaWorld’s announcement comes just days after Congressman Adam Schiff said he would introduce legislation forcing SeaWorld to end the captivity of orcas. “The evidence is very strong that the psychological and physical harm done to these magnificent animals far outweighs any benefits reaped from their display,”Schiff said. “We cannot be responsible stewards of our natural environment and propagate messages about the importance of animal welfare when our behaviors do not reflect our principles. The Orca Act ensures that this will be the last generation of orcas who live in captivity, and we will appreciate these incredible creatures where they belong – in the wild.”

Manby told investors that the company was going to refocus on conservation of animals rather than using them as entertainment.

SeaWorld’s change in direction comes as the company battles against a mounting public backlash after Blackfish, which focuses on the death of a trainer who was dragged into the water and drowned by an aggressive bull whale, helped turn what was a fringe animal rights issue into a national and international debate. Celebrities including Harry Styles, Matt Damon and Jackass’s Steve-O have waded in, pushing the anti-SeaWorld message to the company’s target youth market across the world.

The backlash has hit the company, and its investors, where it hurts. SeaWorld’s shares have halved since the film came out in July 2013. The shares treaded water at $18.21 on Monday.

Watch a clip from Blackfish, the 2013 documentary about killer whales in captivity

SeaWorld has dismissed Blackfish as “propaganda” and “emotionally manipulative” and spent $15m on a TV and social media campaign to counter negative sentiment and promote the work it does to protect and care for whales and other animals.

“All of the falsehoods and misleading techniques in Blackfish are employed in the service of the film’s obvious bias, one that is best revealed near the end of Blackfish by a neuroscientist with no known expertise in killer whales. She claims that all killer whales in captivity are ‘emotionally destroyed’ and ‘ticking time bombs’,” SeaWorld said. “These are not the words of science, and indeed, there is not a shred of scientific support for them. Rather, they are the words of animal rights activists whose agenda the film’s many falsehoods were designed to advance. They reveal Blackfish not as an objective documentary, but as propaganda.”

SeaWorld has concentrated on telling customers the “69 reasons you shouldn’t believe Blackfish”, it was revealed this summer to have sent an employee undercover to infiltrate Peta, the main animal rights activist group campaigning for the release of the whales from the tanks and into coastal sanctuaries.

Manby has admitted that the company, whose attractions include making whales perform tricks in front of hundreds packed into Shamu stadium and charging guests an extra $215 for 20 minutes playing with dolphins, has so far failed to “evolve the SeaWorld brand to match the changing expectations of our guests”.

SeaWorld had hoped for a good public relations bounce from its plan to nearly double the size of its San Diego whale tank complex to 9.6m gallons. The biggest of the new tanks would be 255ft long, compared to 125ft currently. The average adult male orca is 28ft long, meaning the pool is 4.5 body lengths long.

But the plan backfired last month when the California coastal commission ruled that the company could only expand the tanks if it put an end to breeding orcas at the park. SeaWorld – which had said the $100m Blue World Project expansion of the tanks, which date back to the 1960s, was essential for the health of the animals – had vowed to fight the ban through the courts.

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