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March 17, 2016 06:04 PM

It’s the end of an era.

“SeaWorld has been listening and we’re changing,” the company said in a statement Thursday, announcing that it would end its orca breeding program.

The company said that the 24 “killer whales” that currently comprise its roster across three parks would be its last generation.

“Society is changing and we’re changing with it,” the statement continued. “SeaWorld is finding new ways to continue to deliver on our purpose to inspire all our guests to take action to protect wild animals and wild places.”

The company’s existing whales will, however, remain in captivity. Joel Manby, president and CEO of SeaWorld, said freeing them would “not be a wise option.”

“Most of our orcas were born at SeaWorld, and those that were born in the wild have been in our parks for the majority of their lives,” he explained in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “If we release them into the ocean, they will likely die.”

He added that the company has not collected an orca from the wild in nearly 40 years. The 24 orcas the company currently has are located in parks in California, Texas and Florida.

Since the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which suggested that captive orcas are more violent, neurotic and shorter-lived than their wild counterparts, SeaWorld has been under increasing pressure to end its “killer whale” program. Last year, it announced that it was ending shows starring the animals.

The company’s expansion was tied to the orcas’ welfare as well: California’s Coastal Commission approved a $100 million expansion at the company’s San Diego location last year — with the provision it stop the orca breeding program, a move that Manby described at the time as “inhumane.”

The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) naturally weighed in on Thursday’s announcement, calling it a “payoff” from its own campaigns against SeaWorld.

But it also called for the freeing of the remaining orcas, saying “SeaWorld must open its tanks to the oceans to allow the orcas it now holds captive to have some semblance of a life outside these prison tanks.”

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