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PETA claims a victory over SeaWorld amid 'Blackfish' backlash

Virgin America ends points program affiliation with SeaWorld

Animal rights activists claimed a victory Tuesday after Virgin America airline announced that it had cut ties with SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment amid criticism over the treatment of killer whales at aquatic parks.

But the latest development raises many questions.

Although Burlingame, Calif.-based Virgin America confirmed that members of the airline's frequent flier program would no longer be able to earn points to visit SeaWorld parks, the carrier wouldn't publicly say why.

SeaWorld has faced harsh criticism over its treatment of killer whales since the release last year of the documentary film "Blackfish," which accuses the parks of mistreating the animals.

SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment conceded in August that controversy over the film had hurt attendance numbers. In response, the park announced plans to expand the pools that hold its orcas to give them more space and make other improvements.

In the wake of the controversy, Virgin Unite, the philanthropic arm of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, asked its business partners to take a pledge never to accept marine mammals that were taken from the sea after Feb. 14, 2014. Virgin Group is a major investor in Virgin America.

When asked why Virgin America was cutting SeaWorld from its loyalty program, the carrier pointed to the pledge. "We continue to think the pledge is a positive step for both cetaceans and the industry," the airline said in a statement.

But among those who have also signed the pledge are SeaWorld San Diego, SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio.

Virgin Holidays, the British-based online travel agency, continues to sell tickets to SeaWorld parks. 

A SeaWorld spokesman said the vast majority of mammals at the parks were bred in captivity, and others that were rescued "were deemed unreleasable by the federal government because of age, injury or illness."

Meanwhile, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is calling the move by Virgin America a victory in its efforts to stop the mistreatment and captivity of marine mammals.

"With people around the world speaking out against the insanity of keeping huge ocean animals inside tiny concrete tanks at SeaWorld, Virgin America's decision to put the theme park on its 'no-fly' list was the right call," said PETA Foundation deputy general counsel Delcianna Winders. "PETA is encouraging companies to refuse to partner with SeaWorld until it releases the orcas it holds captive into marine sanctuaries."

To read more about travel, tourism and the airline industry, follow me on Twitter at @hugomartin.

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