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Debate Heats Up Over Proposal to Ban Orcas in Captivity

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An orca at Seaworld in Orlando, FL jumps out of the water

An orca at SeaWorld’s park in Orlando, Florida, jumps out of the water. There are currently 10 orcas living in captivity in California, according to Assemblyman Richard Bloom’s office.
(Milan Boers/Flickr)

State Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) is determined to end the use of orcas for water shows in California, where the whales jump through hoops, for example, or carry trainers on their backs.

Bloom has just introduced legislation that would ban people from keeping orcas in captivity for entertainment purposes, while still allowing research with the animals. The bill also bans the breeding of the whales in captivity and requires that orcas currently held for entertainment purposes be returned to the wild if possible, or to a sea pen when not.

SeaWorld, a major player in the marine animal park industry with parks in San Diego and Orlando, Florida, is readying for a battle over the proposal. The water park recently hired a lobbyist and issued a written statement decrying Bloom’s bill. The statement argues the bill is being pushed by “extreme animal activists” some of whom “partnered with PETA in bringing the meritless claim that animals in human care should be considered slaves under the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — a clear publicity stunt.”

The statement asserted that SeaWorld engages in “business practices that are responsible, sustainable and reflective of the balanced values all Americans share.”

KQED’s morning talk show Forum recently provided a preview of the debate, in a program featuring Dave Phillips, executive director of the Earth Island Institute and Billy Hurley, past president of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums.

Phillips and Hurley disagreed both about the treatment whales receive in parks like SeaWorld, and about the scientific benefits of having orcas in captivity.

Both guests acknowledged that observing the animals in the wild is necessary for scientific research, and Hurley went on to say that interacting with the whales in captivity allows for a deeper understanding of the animals.

“What we learn in the wild is how [orcas] do what they do,” Hurley said. “What we do with the animals in our care is find out the actual ways they do what they do — things like hearing, nutrition, thermoregulation.”

Assembly Bill 2140 does allow orcas to be “held for rehabilitation after a rescue or stranding, or for research purposes” with the provision that the whales shall be “returned to the wild whenever possible.”

One of the central questions in the debate is whether it’s necessary to use orcas in performance in order to educate people about the whales and bring in adequate funding to provide for their care.

Phillips pointed to the Monterey Bay Aquarium as proof that parks and aquariums can be successful without having orcas in captivity.

“The evolution of these parks and the evolution of zoos and aquariums is in the direction of non-performance,” he said. “[The Monterey Bay Aquarium] had to confront the paradigm that said ‘You can’t make this successful without having orcas and without having dolphins.’ And they said, ‘That’s not correct.’ They actually have no performances, no cetaceans, and there are people lined up out the door. They’re making huge amounts of revenue from a non-captive environment.”

Bloom’s legislation would also require that orcas previously held for entertainment purposes be “rehabilitated and returned to the wild where possible” and moved to a sea pen when release is not an option. Though some may interpret this as an eventual death knell for parks like SeaWorld, the Earth Island Institute’s Phillips said that doesn’t have to be the case. He cited the millions of people who visited the Oregon Coast Aquarium to witness the rehabilitation efforts of Keiko, the whale who played Willy in “Free Willy.”

Marine Mammal Parks past president Hurley, however, said the sea pen is a false promise.

“It’s very easy for some of the extremists to say things like, ‘Oh, if we had a sanctuary, if we had a sea pen, it would just be so much different.’ And the reality is that if you had a sea pen, you would still need veterinary care, you would still need qualified people to take care of the animals, you would still need to be careful about those types of environmental changes that could occur while the animals were in those conditions. The list goes on and on. And when you end up describing, most importantly, the need to fund such an endeavor, you end up describing a SeaWorld.”

The bill will likely be introduced into the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife committee next month.

You can listen to the complete Forum discussion here:

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Category: Biology, News

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About the Author ()

Amanda Stupi is the Engagement Producer for KQED’s daily public affairs program Forum. In that role she turns the information shared during the hour-long call-in show into web-friendly content. Her writing has been featured throughout KQED.org, including on KQED Arts and News Fix as well as on MLB.com, Hyphen Magazine and the San Francisco Examiner. Her radio work has aired on The California Report and Talk of the Nation. Stupi runs the @KQEDForum Twitter account and Forum Facebook account. Her personal Twitter account is @FiftyCentHotdog. She believes that Hostess products get a bad rap and that cereal can save the world.
  • patty elkus

    Great format, thank you for this post. Keep up the great work!

  • Meg

    I think that although SeaWorld is going to fight very hard against this bill, it is the best option. Whatever the effects on SeaWorld as a business, it would be worth it to end the exploitation of these beautiful, intelligent, emotional creatures for our own entertainment. Furthermore, the close contact that trainers have with the whales just isn’t safe, as they are still wild animals and are unpredictable. I think this bill would not only help the whales but also prevent any further accidents involving trainers.

  • Teresa Wagner

    Of course Hurley is against this bill. He used to head up an organization whose members make their living from the suffering of cetaceans in captivity. Whales in sea pens would not need to perform circus tricks in order to eat. They could catch live fish on their own. What a concept. It’s here to stay!

  • Terranite

    ” “It’s very easy for some of the extremists to say things like, ‘Oh, if
    we had a sanctuary, if we had a sea pen, it would just be so much
    different.’…”

    No, it would be very similar in terms of costs to Seaworld. So whats the problem?
    The only thing that would be different is a slightly less intollerable confinement, real ocean waves, and perhaps the possibility to speak with their own kind. But even these concessions mean fcuk all to Seaworld, perhaps the only message that would get across is to lock the whole lot of them up in a cage and give them prison food until their natural death, then the full consequenses might just become abundantly apparent.

  • Kerry

    Agree that this needs to be done. Killer whales should be free not stuck In a small confined goldfish bowl! It’s disgusting the poor things need to be free. I feel very strong about these animals and would love to know no more killer whales would be stuck in captivity

  • ericmills

    As usual, it’s all about the money.

    Assemblymember Richard Bloom’s long-overdue legislation, AB 2140, will be assigned to the ASSEMBLY WATER, PARKS & WILDLIFE COMMITTEE for its first hearing, reportedly on April 22. Support letters are needed NOW.

    Chair of that 15-member committee is Assemblymember Anthony Rendon. Other members are Frank Bigelow, Travis Allen, Raul Bocanegra, Brian Dahle, Paul Fong, Jim Frazier, Beth Gaines, Mike Gatto, Jimmy Gomez, Lorena Gonzalez, Adam Gray, Jim Patterson, Freddie Rodriguez and Mariko Yamada. (10 Democrats and 5 Republicans. Environmental and animal protection SHOULD be a bi-partisan issue, yes? It seldom is in Sacramento.)

    ALL LEGISLATORS MAY BE WRITTEN C/O THE STATE CAPITOL, SACRAMENTO, CA 95814. The committee consultant is Diane Colborn (email – diane.colborn@asm.ca.gov)

    • ericmills

      P.S. – I just got an email from the the committee consultant. AB 2140 has NOT been assigned to a committee yet, nor has any hearing date been set at this time (3/18). Still, the bill is likely to be assigned to Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife for a hearing sometime in April.

      TO KEEP UPDATED: See the website, http://www.leginfo.ca.gov

  • tiddas

    Someone needs to get sandiego.org to remove the beluga kissing the child from their ad, 15 seconds in: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UlHNmye0Bk

  • liz

    I hope this bill is passed. I think its absolutely terrible that these beautiful, amazing animals are kept in caprivity human entertainment. This should have been done a long time ago.

  • Trishina Emilly Owens

    I think they should put them back in their natural habitat. They have unique ways of living together in the ocean having them enclosed is ridiculous and inhumane it’s like the concentration camps for the jews they were just humans who never deserved that because of how one person felt and corrupted the minds of millions to go along they are just animals and after what happened to the girl in the show black fish there needs to be an end to SeaWorld using them to make money. I’ve been to SeaWorld several times while I was a kid in Florida. I loved SeaWorld and still do but SeaWorld is in the wrong for treating orcas this way. If you have all that money for there shows then release them back into the wild and do research there no one and I mean no one has ever been attacked or killed by an orca in the wild there have been many accounts of attacks and deaths in those exhibits and it’s needs to stop

  • Jean

    I think that if they don’t longer use orcas for entertainment, the orcas could possibly get a bit better living conditions than if they had to entertain. For example the orcas used for entertainmetn are often given drugs to controll their behavior, and these drugs have some very bad side effects.

    Also the animals would not be exposed for so much noises from an audience. And I believe those noises are litterary painfull to the animal, they have a very good hearing. And we all know whery loud noises can hurt.

    Normally I am against animal testing because many of the experiments are pure torture to the animals, but with the research on orcas I dont think thats the cause. So I actually can support some research on them, if it has a practical purpose.

  • Ryan Heglin

    Orcas were originally seen as docile creatures that enjoyed human interaction. What we know today is that orcas become extremely dangerous in captivity. When a killer whale is born he stays with his mother throughout his entire life, in fact, the mother is the matriarch and will shepherd many generations. Orcas are extremely family oriented and when an orca is captured from the wild it has physical and psychological effects. Additionally, the aquariums like Sea World are not adequately equipped to house a mammal this large. A killer whale in the wild will travel up to 100 miles per day. The pins and tanks they are housed in barely provided enough room for the killer whale to exercise daily. The killer whales in captivity slowly grow agitated and eventually inflict harm upon humans. The Federal and local governments should ban the use of orcas in captivity for entertainment or research purposes because it is inhumane.