SAN DIEGO (CBSLA.com/AP) — SeaWorld will phase out its signature killer whale show at its San Diego park starting next year in response to growing criticism from animal-rights activists.
CEO told investors Monday the park, where the iconic "Shamu" show featuring killer whales doing flips and other stunts debuted decades ago, will offer a different kind of "orca experience" focusing on the animal's natural setting and behaviors, starting in 2017. He cited customer feedback as a factor in the decision.
But Los Angeles-based public relations expert Eric Rose said he thinks the company's lower-than expected earnings triggered the changes. "Reassuring their investors that the company has a plan to rebrand itself at least in San Diego," Rose said SeaWolrd is being too vague about what its new shows will entail. "Unless they are quicker in describing their ultimate plans, they're going to have continual backlash."
SeaWorld has recently struggled with its public image in California after the release of "Blackfish," a 2013 CNN documentary that alleged the park's captive orcas are being made more aggressive due to the psychological pressure of performing on a daily basis.
SeaWorld management has since acknowledged a steep drop in profits after the release of "Blackfish."
Grey Stafford, the president-elect of the International Marine Animal Trainers' Association, told KNX 1070 NEWSRADIO the move is being embraced by trainers and other animal welfare professionals nationwide.
"From those of us who think SeaWorld contributes so greatly to conservation and animal welfare - not only in zoos but also in the wild - we want to see SeaWorld succeed," said Stafford. "So if this is a decision that takes them well into the future, we embrace it."
The move comes less than a week after Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, introduced federal legislation that would ban breeding, capturing, and importing or exporting orcas for the purposes of public display.
Animal-rights activists called the move a marketing gimmick and want the company to phase out holding any whales in captivity. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said the move does not go far enough and called for investing in whale sanctuaries.
"An end to SeaWorld's tawdry circus-style shows is inevitable and necessary, but it's captivity that denies these far-ranging orcas everything that is natural and important to them," PETA's Jared Goodman said. "This move is like no longer whipping lions in a circus act but keeping them locked inside cages for life."
The news came days after SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. reported that its third-quarter earnings missed Wall Street expectations.
SeaWorld earlier this year announced plans for a $100 million expansion of the San Diego park's killer whale tanks to boost attendance, but Manby indicated to investors it may shelve that project now.
The California Coastal Commission endorsed the plans last month on the condition SeaWorld agree to stop breeding orcas in captivity and not transfer or sell them.
The company has said it plans to challenge that decision in court. Manby said Monday that the company had no other choice because the ruling set a "bad precedent" for not only SeaWorld but all zoos, aquariums and other animal parks.
"We certainly know with the regulatory environment out there that happened with orcas, and some of what happened in California, with the reputation out there, I think we would be foolish if we didn't look at other options, in case that happens," Manby said.
He added that SeaWorld may be able to achieve its objective, which he did not specify, without proceeding with the tank expansion project, called "Blue World."
Manby also announced that the company is considering adding hotels at several of its locations to attract overnight visitors, starting with San Diego. SeaWorld has reached an agreement with a San Diego-based hotelier to look at building a theme resort on its park property, though they are just in the exploratory phase.
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