Seeking to turn the tables on animal-welfare groups, SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS) plans to phase out its controversial killer whale show at its San Diego park while touting its conservation and rescue efforts on behalf of orcas and other creatures.
"We are listening to our guests, we're evolving as a company, so in 2017 we will launch an all-new orca experience," Joel Manby, SeaWorld's president and CEO, said at an investor's day conference on Monday. "2016 will be the last year of our theatrical killer whale experience."
The theme-park operator in 2017 intends to replace its longstanding whale shows in San Diego with a different orca experience that would bring with it "a conservation message inspiring people to act," according to a company document posted on its website.
SeaWorld held its investor's day five days after reporting weaker-than-expected profit and sales for its third quarter.
Although SeaWorld is ending killer whale shows in California, it remains unclear if the productions will continue at the company's parks in Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio. The decision to phase out the shows in San Diego is the result of customer feedback, Manby said.
"In California, they want experiences that are more natural. The theatrical production of the show in that market is what they wanted to see less of," Manby told analysts. "It's not universal across all of our markets. We did it because we feel it's what our guests are asking us for."
"People love companies that have a purpose, even public companies -- I don't have to tell you what Whole Foods (WFM) stands for. I don't see any reason SeaWorld can't be one of those brands," Manby said during the conference. "We're not there today," added Manby, who joined SeaWorld seven months ago.
The Orlando, Florida-based company has been the target of animal-welfare activists since the documentary "Blackfish" came out in 2013. The film made the case that killer whales should not be held in captivity, arguing that confining orcas is cruel and makes them hostile.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals continued to make that case on Monday, with David Perle, PETA's senior media coordinator saying "it's captivity that denies these far-ranging orcas everything that is natural and important to them." He went on to liken SeaWorld's move as akin to "no longer beating dogs but never letting them out of crates."
The company in 2013 hired Jill Kermes, the former communications director for then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to help bolster its reputation and to dispute the film's claims.
The plan to gradually phase out the Shamu show in San Diego comes amid state and federal efforts to halt the captive breeding of orcas. SeaWorld has said it would appeal a ruling last month by the California Coastal Commission to ban the company from breeding its killer whales as part of an agreement to move ahead with a $100 million Blue World project to expand its killer whale tanks in San Diego.
Even if SeaWorld is successful at getting the commission's ruling overturned, the company is not certain that it will go ahead with the project, with Manby saying he was "not comfortable putting $100 million into a market when there is a regulatory question."
On Friday, a California congressman said he would introduce federal legislation to phase out the captivity of killer whales by banning breeding, importing and exporting the animals for public display.
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