California legislator wants to ban orca captivity

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SANTA MONICA, Calif. — A California state legislator is proposing to ban the captivity of killer whales for entertainment at Sea World in the wake of the controversial documentary “Blackfish.”

“It is time that we embrace that the long-accepted practice of keeping orcas captive for human amusement must end,” state Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, said at a news conference Friday at the city’s oceanfront pier.

Bloom was joined by “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, two former Sea World orca trainers and an animal welfare activist.

“This is about greed and this is about corporate exploitation, both of the whales and the trainers, but most importantly the whales,” said John Hargrove, a former Sea World orca trainer who resigned in August 2012.

A Bloom statement described the proposal as “landmark legislation calling for comprehensive improvement to orca protection laws in California.”

Currently, there are no laws prohibiting the captive display of orcas, but there are federal laws governing the care, capture and research use of the killer whales, Bloom said.

The documentary recounts the 2010 death of longtime Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau by a killer whale named Tilikum, a 12,000-pound bull, in Orlando, Fla.

Sea World also offers orca shows at a third site, in San Antonio, but the California legislation would apply only to Sea World’s San Diego facility.

The film challenges the concept of keeping killer whales for entertainment and implies Tilikum had been driven to madness by captivity.

Since then, a fiery controversy has erupted.

Sea World strongly disputes the allegations that “Blackfish” makes and called the film grossly one-sided and the product of animal activists.

In advance of the lawmaker’s news conference, San Diego-based Sea World had yet to see the proposed legislation but described the participants scheduled to join Bloom as well-known “extreme animal rights activists, many of whom regularly campaign against Sea World and other accredited marine mammal parks and institutions,” spokeswoman Becca Bides said.

“Included in the group are some of the same activists that partnered with PETA in bringing the meritless claim that animals in human care should be considered slaves under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — a clear publicity stunt. This legislation appears to reflect the same sort of out-of-the-mainstream thinking,” Bides said in a statement. “We engage in business practices that are responsible, sustainable and reflective of the balanced values all Americans share.”

The proposed law would end performance-based entertainment for all killer whales in California, captive breeding programs and the export and import of genetic material, and the import and export of orcas within the state.

Also, the proposal would retire all captive killer whales to sea pens if available and would allow retired orcas to be on display, but not perform. The bill would limit the amount of human interaction for trainer safety, according to Bloom’s fact sheet.

“Like the elephant — the largest land mammal in captivity — we have realized that orcas are more complex than most other marine mammals and require more space, have a more complex social structure and most importantly need their family network (pod) for a happy and healthy life,” said a fact sheet by Bloom.

Currently, California has 10 captive killer whales, and seven of them were captive-born, according to Bloom.

In the past 50 years, California has lost 14 orcas, 12 of which were caught in the wild, Bloom said.

“After the tragic death of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau, the public has begun to question the moral justification of keeping orcas in captivity for our general entertainment,” Bloom’s fact sheet said. “As a state we should lead the way in ending captivity for entertainment purposes and should be ensuring our current captive population general welfare needs are taken care of, and that we end any future captivity whether it be by capture or captive breeding programs here in California.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said the proposed legislation “has the potential to end the deep injustice of exhibitions of captive marine life,” spokesman David W. Perle said.

“PETA and kind people around the world have called on SeaWorld to retire these deprived orcas to a seaside sanctuary, but the park continues to defend its overt cruelty,” Perle said in a statement.

One animal trainer, Grey Stafford of Arizona’s Wildlife World Zoo & Aquarium, criticized the proposed law, which he said “collapses under its own weight of inconsistencies, particularly with respect to animal welfare and future breeding.”

“We still have a lot to learn about the killer whales,” said Stafford, who used to train orcas.

The killer whale shows ensure the animal and its ocean habitat remain in the public consciousness.

“I am more concerned about the welfare of all species,” Stafford said. “Out of sight means out of mind.”

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