State Law or Not, Orca Shows Need to Go

Orca Ulises at SeaWorld San Diego | Photo: Sachin Nayak/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In the wake of the popular and upsetting documentary "Blackfish," which slammed the SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment corporation's handling of captive orcas, a California legislator has introduced a bill that would outlaw the performing orca industry in the state.

The bill, introduced by Assembly member Richard Bloom on March 6, would require that all captive orcas being used for entertainment purposes in California be either released to the wild or held in open sea pens, and forbid their transfer to other states for entertainment purposes.

The bill is likely to be intensely controversial, and may well endure extensive modification during the legislative process. But whether or not this individual piece of legislation turns out to be the appropriate way to address the captive performing orca issue, one thing is certain: it's long past time that someone in the state looked at banning these archaic, embarrassing, and arguably cruel spectacles.

Bloom's bill, AB 2140 a.k.a. the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, has been blasted by the San Diego business community as a threat to the city's tourism economy. That's no surprise: SeaWorld attracts a significant number of affluent tourists to San Diego, who spend an average of about $65 per person while in the park itself, and likely a considerable sum during the rest of their time in San Diego.

SeaWorld itself has reacted strongly to the bill, accusing Bloom of allying with "well known extreme animal rights activists" in introducing his proposed legislation.

Bloom's bill is likely to undergo significant revision as it makes its way through the legislative sausage-making process, if indeed it advances at all. But it's worth noting that in its present state, the bill wouldn't keep SeaWorld from charging admission to see the ten captive orcas it now holds. It would merely ban the circus-like performances that constitute the core of public criticism of SeaWorld -- and of the hazard to SeaWorld workers featured in "Blackfish."

A federal judge has already ordered SeaWorld to end close contact between its trainers and the parks' captive orcas, as part of a lawsuit by the Department of Labor in the wake of the 2010 death of veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau. (Brancheau was dragged into the water and drowned by the killer whale Tilikum, an incident that forms the focal point of "Blackfish.") SeaWorld is appealing the decision, but is by no means assured of victory.

If that order stands, Bloom's bill as now written would merely add additional restrictions to the industry. Orcas now kept in relatively small tanks would eventually be transferred to sea pens, which would provide the orcas with more humane, more enriched living quarters. Those sea pens could be open to the public, presumably subject to an admission charge. AB 2140 requires that orcas capable of surviving in the wild be released, but that's likely to cover only a very small proportion of orcas currently held captive. Wild orcas are highly social animals who spend their lives in family groups, making reintroduction of formerly captive orcas to the wild tricky, with ramifications for both the former captives and the wild orcas interacting with them.

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In other words, most of the orcas now held as captive animals by SeaWorld are unlikely to be candidates for release unless we learn a whole lot more about wild orca society than we know now. That means those orcas will live in sea pens, which means SeaWorld will still be able to exhibit them to paying customers.

The company just won't be able to entice those customers by persuading the orcas to do tricks for their amusement.

SeaWorld takes pride in its contributions to the welfare of individual animals. A member of the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the firm claims to have helped rehabilitate more than 20,000 ill or injured animals ranging from marine mammals to seabirds and sea turtles. Taken at face value, that's an impressive achievement. And it's hard to dismiss the argument that exposure to orcas and other marine animals at SeaWorld has inspired more than one young person to choose biology or ecology as lifelong pursuits.

In that respect, the issue of SeaWorld's orcas strongly resembles the long-term controversy over the role of zoos in our society. On the one hand, zoos (and their aquatic counterparts, aquaria) struggle to overcome a centuries-old legacy of being warehouses of animals displayed for public amusement. Some have overcome that legacy less effectively than others.

On the other hand, the best zoos now offer their animals more natural living spaces that are set up explicitly in an ecological context, with the boundaries between the enclosures and the world beyond the zoo blurry at best. (The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum outside Tucson, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium are likely the best examples.)

What's more, institutions such as the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos here in California, and the National Zoo in D.C. have done crucial work in study, rehabilitation, and recovery of endangered and threatened species such as the California condor and the desert tortoise.

Many of these institutions bring their animal charges into close contact with visitors, and those visitors often come away changed by the experience. But here's the thing that distinguishes such programs from SeaWorld's orca shows: the Monterey Bay Aquarium doesn't train its sea otters to play tunes on bicycle horns. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum doesn't lure visitors by having its Mexican wolves jump through hoops for treats. If Jane Goodall had claimed to have learned something about the behavior Gombe chimpanzees while training her subjects to smoke cigars and ride unicycles, she would have been laughed out of the lecture hall. SeaWorld claims kinship with zoos and aquaria, but it's actually nothing more than a glorified circus.

There are criticisms to be made of the "Blackfish" documentary, among them anthropomorphizing of orcas' emotions using human terms such as "grief" and "insanity." Those criticisms are beside the point when it comes to Bloom's bill. SeaWorld's orca shows may make their audiences come to feel they've learned something about orcas. But the orcas they've learned about have had their behavior massively altered by humans -- not only through training them to perform, but by breaking up family groups and keeping the whales in close confinement.

It's time for SeaWorld to make the leap to actual conservation study that its putative zoo and aquarium colleagues started making more than a half century ago. Whether by way of Bloom's bill or some other measure, orca shows must be relegated to the dustbin of embarrassing historical practices where they belong.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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