Amidst heated criticism over its care of captive orcas, SeaWorld announced in March of last year that it would end its controversial breeding program. At the time, however, one of its female orcas, Takara, was pregnant. Now, Jennifer Kay reports for the Associated Press, Takara has given birth to a healthy calf, which is expected to be the last orca bred at the theme park.
The orca was born at a SeaWorld park in San Antonio, Texas, after an 18-month gestation period. It is Takara’s fifth calf; two of her other offspring live at the San Antonio location, one is kept at SeaWorld Orlando, and one is on loan at a marine park in Spain. The birth of Takara’s new calf brings the number of SeaWorld’s orcas in the U.S. up to 23.
Both Takara and her newborn are doing well, according to SeaWorld. “Takara is 100 percent focused on [the calf’s] care and well-being,” Julie Sigman, an assistant curator at SeaWorld San Antonio said in a press release. “She knows exactly what to do. It is amazing.”
SeaWorld veterinarians have yet to determine whether the calf is male or female, and it has not been named. Visitors will be able to view the newborn in both the park’s stadium pool and two adjacent enclosures. Trainers plan to share their observations of Takara and her calf with researchers hoping to learn more about the animals, Kay writes.
“With this being the last killer whale birth at a SeaWorld park, this is the last opportunity for researchers to study orca development in ways that cannot be done in the wild, helping to conserve this amazing species,” the park said in its press release.
As part of an intensive rebranding strategy, SeaWorld has recently tried to market itself as a conservation hub, rather than an entertainment facility. In addition to cancelling its breeding program, the park will replace its signature theatrical shows with “natural orca encounters,” according to SeaWorld’s website.
The park has been flailing in recent years, in large part due to the documentary Blackfish, reports Helen O’Hara of The Telegraph. The film centers on an orca named Tilikum, who killed his trainer in 2010, and argues that SeaWorld’s killer whales are effectively driven to madness by a life in captivity and isolation. The film sparked outrage among the general public, which led to a decline in SeaWorld’s attendance and profits.
Despite SeaWorld’s efforts to court the changing tide of public opinion, controversy continues to dog the park. Szenja, the only polar bear at SeaWorld’s San Diego location, died suddenly on Tuesday. Because Szenja had recently been separated from her long-time partner Snowflake, who was relocated to a breeding program in Pittsburgh, PETA has claimed that the bear died of a broken heart. A necropsy will be performed to determine the exact reason behind her death.