[Editor's note: Assembly member Richard Bloom, who authored the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, presented this testimony to the Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee of the California Legislature. Former orca trainer John Hargrove also spoke in favor of the bill, which was deferred for further study.]
I would like to begin by accepting the amendments and thanking all of your staff for their patience and will to work with my staff.
Killer whales, or orcas, are one of the most socially and ecologically complex species on the planet. For decades, scientists studying orcas in the wild have documented the close social bonds that these animals share. Orcas stay with their mothers for life and each related pod has its own dialect. And once in a while, these pods come together and form "superpods" where up to a hundred whales interact, often separating by age or sex to mate or just talk amongst themselves as if it were one large social gathering.
In addition to their unique vocalizations, their cooperative hunting techniques demonstrate a highly evolved learned behavior that is carried on from generation to generation, yet sometimes unique to that pod. Orcas create waves in the ocean to knock seals off of icebergs and they have learned to calculate low and high tides to more easily steal prey from beaches.
At over thirty feet in length and more than 20,000 pounds with the ability to travel up to 100 miles a day and with a range of over 1,000 miles, orcas are the oceans top predators, able to take down a Great White Shark or even a Blue Whale, the largest mammal on the planet.
The orca's size and intelligence makes them unique. It is these traits that have led a growing number of scientists to disapprove of their captivity. Their swimming pool sized habitats are just a fraction of what they need, by some estimates one ten-thousandth. They must undergo extensive, stressful training and performance regimens on a strict clockwork schedule. And they are separated from their offspring and live in pods of unrelated individuals. These unnatural circumstances have led to stress that dramatically reduce lifespan, aggressive behaviors towards other orcas, trainers and handlers.
I introduced AB 2140 in the California State Assembly to end captive breeding and prohibit the import or export of orcas in California. While the bill seeks to end "performance" as we commonly understand it, the bill would still permit the existing stock of orcas to be on public display -- which due to age of some of SeaWorld's orcas, would mean they will have orcas on display for at least another two decades.
This is but one of many misconceptions about AB 2140.
For example, the bill does not mandate the release of SeaWorld's orcas back into the wild. In fact, I am in complete agreement with SeaWorld that their orcas cannot be released into the wild. Regrettably, they do not possess the skills necessary for survival.
The bill does not prevent trainers from interacting with the orcas. Nor does the bill require the permanent separation of male and female orcas.
The bill does not force SeaWorld to simply put their whales out to pasture, rather, it prevents them from continuing what many consider glorified circus acts. This may well be the most controversial aspect of my bill, for it must be acknowledged, these performances also attract audiences who are entranced by the orcas' trained behaviors.
But, there are alternative models out there such as the National Aquarium in Baltimore has done. They abandoned their dolphin shows for a more hands on and intimate program where visitors interact with the trainers and are able to get up close and personal to the dolphins. It is my understanding that this is also similar to a program at the Orlando SeaWorld -- the Shamu Up Close program.
The bill does not violate federal law. The Marine Mammal Protection act regulates the taking of marine mammals, population management; research practices in the wild, protection of endangered species and regulates fishery practices. AB 2140 does nothing to run afoul of the MMPA, with the amendments just taken it makes it that much more clear. Moreover, the federal Animal Welfare Act sets minimum standards on how an animal can be housed, the facilities and care. But, it allows for a state to go beyond what is required.
As you are no doubt aware, this issue has garnered immense and intense public interest and scrutiny. But, I think it is important to note that openly supporting AB 2130 are 34 scientists some of which have worked with SeaWorld, several found in our University of California system; seven former SeaWorld trainers and the legendary Cousteau family. More than 1.2 million people have signed an online petition since the bill was announced and there are at least two others that have gathered over 25,000 signatures. In the March edition of Scientific American, the editors supported nearly every point raised by the bill. Last month, a Republican State Senator from New York introduced similar legislation. The LA Times has come out supporting the end of captivity and captive breeding, but, in this morning's edition, suggests a more incremental approach. In San Diego, a publication called "The Voice of San Diego" recently took what I believe is a balanced look at the business side of this issue and provides perspectives demonstrating that SeaWorld can and should change its business model.
Now, let's talk about SeaWorld for a moment. SeaWorld is a leader in rehabilitating injured sea life and returning them to the wild. They provide invaluable research on animal and habitat preservation and restoration. They have a dedicated, knowledgeable, and well-respected team of veterinarians, scientists, and trainers.
SeaWorld is also a valuable asset and job center for San Diego. To be sure, my bill would require some adjustment of their business model. SeaWorld marketing, dependent on "Shamu" in decades past, is, today, far more diverse. SeaWorld has the chance to change it is current model. In the Voice of San Diego article, Disney executive Ron Logan states that SeaWorld needs to come up with a new star and scale back their killer whale shows.
Changes have already come to the world of the orcas. Right here in Vallejo, California the former Marine World Africa USA, now Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, moved away from their killer whale shows, and the park is doing just fine and weathered the recession without killer whales. Their doors are still open today.
South Carolina already bans the display of cetaceans (orcas and dolphins). Six countries have banned captive orca displays, as does the county of Maui in Hawaii. Only last year, the Indian government declared it is unacceptable to keep cetaceans in captivity.
California has long been a leader in animal welfare and we must continue to lead the way. A large and diverse group of scientists and advocates have proven that the negative consequences for orcas far outweigh any justification for breeding and keeping them in captivity programs. Shortened life spans and stress -related behaviors demonstrate that these beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete pools for their entire lives.