Newborn orca is the last for SeaWorld

Saturday, 22 April 2017, 01:36:24 AM. Mom Takara was expecting when theme park said it would no longer breed whales.

The last orca has been born in captivity at a SeaWorld park in San Antonio, Texas, just over a year after the theme park decided to stop breeding orcas following animal rights protests and declining ticket sales.

The orca — the last in a generation of whales bred in confinement — was born Wednesday afternoon to 25-year-old Takara. SeaWorld did not immediately name the calf because the park’s veterinarians had not yet determined whether it was male or female.

“Takara will continuously swim with her calf as it begins to nurse and learn,” said Julie Sigman, an assistant curator. “We take our lead from mom, Takara will let us know when she is ready for us to meet the calf and at that time we should be able to determine the gender.”

Takara was pregnant when SeaWorld announced in March 2016 that it would no longer breed its orcas. Orcas are pregnant for about 18 months.

Chris Dold, SeaWorld’s chief zoological officer, said that he expected the birth to be both happy and sad, the last such event at any of the parks. But hours after Wednesday’s birth, Dold said the staff felt only celebratory.

newborn-orca-is-the-last-for-seaworld photo 1 Trainers work with killer whales Trua, front, Kayla, center, and Nalani during a 2011 show at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. The SeaWorld parks are phasing out its world-famous killer whale performances by 2019. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

“These are extraordinary moments,” he said.

SeaWorld decided to stop breeding orcas and phase out its world-famous killer whale performances by 2019, after public opinion turned against keeping orcas, dolphins and other animals in captivity for entertainment.

The calf brings SeaWorld’s orca population in the United States to 23. All the orcas are expected to remain on display and be available for researchers in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego, California.

SeaWorld has said it will introduce new “natural orca encounters” in place of traditional shows.

Dold said veterinarians at the San Antonio park told him the calf was born normally — tail first — after about 1 1/2 hours of smooth labor. Both orcas were swimming calmly, and trainers were watching for the calf to begin nursing.

“Mom generally will rest but she can’t rest too much … mom’s not holding onto the calf, but it’s riding in her slipstream, and that’s how it gets around,” Dold said. “Our expectation is that all of this will go smoothly, but we take none of that for granted.”

Researchers have said they worry that SeaWorld’s decision to stop breeding orcas will slowly reduce their ability to study orca health, growth and behavior.

Heather Hill, a St. Mary’s University comparative psychologist who plans to monitor the sleeping habits of Takara and the calf, said it was frustrating to see research opportunities at SeaWorld decline.

“This will be one of the first times we’ll be able to see not just a mother with a newborn calf but also a newborn calf with siblings,” Hill said.

Tracy Reiman, executive vice president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said in a statement that the mother and her calf should be retired to a seaside sanctuary.

SeaWorld has no plans to move any of its orcas, Dold said.

Dold said in March that SeaWorld remains committed to orca research and conservation, calling the last orca birth in captivity “a solemn reminder of how things can change and how things can be lost.”

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