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SeaWorld’s orca decision is the first step on a long road

Dr. Naomi Rose is a marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute.

I have been campaigning to end the display of captive orcas and other cetaceans since 1993. Today, a tremendously important milestone in that fight has been reached. SeaWorld announced it would end its captive breeding program for the 28 orcas it holds. The company had already pledged to end sourcing animals from the wild. The whales in San Diego, San Antonio, Orlando, and Tenerife (in the Canary Islands, where five of SeaWorld's orcas are on loan) will be the last ones SeaWorld ever holds.

I am truly stunned. When you fight for so long, losing battles far more often than you win and with most successes fairly smallish and often only temporary, you forget that full-on victory is even possible. Then something like this happens and you realize – anything is possible.

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The deal between The Humane Society of the United States and SeaWorld is not perfect. It is an astounding step, but only the first in what I would hope progresses toward a more humane future for the company and even the entire industry of captive cetacean facilities. There are still many other cetaceans, of several different species, toiling away in circus-style shows at aquaria around the world.

There are still two dozen-plus more orcas, in fact, in small tanks in China, Japan, France, Russia, and Argentina. Canada is home to the 'world's loneliest orca' in Marineland, 39-year-old Kiska, who was captured in Iceland around the age of three. She swims alone in a pool at the Niagara park. One whale, Lolita, in the U.S., is in the smallest orca tank in the world, barely large enough to allow her to turn around.

Cetacean activists still have a great deal of work to do.

The fact that SeaWorld has agreed to ending the breeding program and the orca theatrical shows, while an astonishing move, does not change the current circumstances of the company's orcas. They are still in tanks too small and barren for their size and intelligence. We want to improve their welfare and we will continue to work for that – hopefully now with some common ground and spirit of cooperation from SeaWorld instead of the purely adversarial relationship of the past.

I do not want to undermine the important decision SeaWorld made today. Credit must be given where it is due and Joel Manby, SeaWorld's CEO, is due a great deal of credit indeed. For years, the company has struggled with negative publicity. It has made a few changes during that time that it clearly hoped would reverse its fortunes, but its stock price, at least, didn't respond.

The animal activist community must recognize that the only way to truly help the many animals in SeaWorld's care is to help SeaWorld move forward. We don't want to give the company a free ride, but now that it has finally started the car, slashing the tires won't help the whales or the dolphins or the seals or the fish we are committed to protecting.

I don't know exactly what tomorrow will bring now. For years I did – more fighting, more campaigning, more confrontations with SeaWorld and its allies. The paradigm just shifted, however, and now the way may be open for dialogue about cooperation on future options. I have never lived in a world where dialogue with SeaWorld was possible – not because I wasn't prepared to sit down and talk, but because SeaWorld wouldn't take my calls (understandably no doubt).

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But now? I am far more hopeful that at last the two sides of this debate can move forward into a more humane future together, for the well-being of captive orcas and all other captive marine life.

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