Bill To Ban Captive Orcas Put On Hold In California

Senate bill AB 2140 faced its first legislative hurdle today, when it was reviewed by the the Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee of the California Legislature in Sacramento. The bill was sent for interim study by the committee, who ordered that the bill be revised and returned to the committee in a year and a half. While the outcome was disappointing to some, the committee was not against the proposal -- in fact, two assembly members, including Chair Anthony Rendon, stated their support for the bill.

Introduced first by Assemblymember Richard Bloom, D–Santa Monica, the bill has provided a major rallying point for animal advocates, who cite the documentary "Blackfish" as the inspiration for the legislation.

In addition to Assemblymember Bloom, witnesses gave testimony at the hearing including Naomi Rose, a marine mammal expert with the Animal Welfare Institute, Deborah Giles, an orca expert at UC Davis and John Hargrove, a former orca trainer at SeaWorld. The Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Born Free USA and the Earth Island Institute were all in attendance to support the bill as well. During the bill's hearing, Assemblymember Bloom called SeaWorld's orca shows "glorified circus acts."

"California has long been a leader in animal welfare," Bloom said, noting that "a large and diverse group of scientists have proven that the negative consequences of keeping orcas in captivity" outweigh any benefits gained from keeping them.

Former SeaWorld employee John Hargrove echoed this, citing his 20 years as an orca trainer and witness to disturbing stereotypic and obsessive compulsive behavior among captive whales, as well as health problems faced by captive whales. "Make this the last generation of killer whales in captivity," Hargrove said.

Said Bloom in a statement when the bill was introduced:

There is no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment purposes. These beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete pens for their entire lives. It is time to end the practice of keeping orcas captive for human amusement.

Assembly chair Anthony Rendon expressed his support for the bill, saying, "Yes, I support this bill, for both ethical and philosophical reasons," Rendon added, "It's refreshing to hear a conversation focusing on what's best for orcas -- rather than hearing a conversation about the value of these whales in terms of entertainment or the value of a company's portfolio."

The bill is intended to ban captive orca shows in the state, orca breeding programs and importing orcas and their semen into California. Under the bill any orcas in California -- of which there are ten, at SeaWorld San Diego -- would be retired to sea pens where they may still be viewed by the public and studied by scientists. As Rose noted, there are already several sea pens in the U.S. -- but it remains uncertain exactly where and how these pens will be constructed, a point that many of the assembly members cited as a factor in requesting more time to review the details of the bill.

Many animal advocates see the outcome as a sign of the issue's growing importance. Louie Psihoyos, director of the documentary "The Cove" and executive director of the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS) said in a statement:

It's a huge victory that the Blackfish Bill got this far. The time has come for a conscious population to act on what we now know - that orcas are too intelligent and complex to be kept in concrete tanks for circus acts. OPS is not a wealthy organization but I'm confident that we could raise $1Million to donate toward creating sea pens and reintroducing orcas if we were guaranteed that California would lead the way to end orca captivity. The public will exists, it's time for the political will to follow.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of the film "Blackfish," added:

I see a delay as a good thing. This decision can't be the result of a knee jerk reaction to a film. I always hoped people would take the time to educate themselves. This is what the OSHA judge who ruled against SeaWorld did. This is what a movie studio did before reworking their storyline. This is what journalists, legislators and millions of former SeaWorld goers did - none of whom had a vested interest in either side winning. And all of us have since come to the same conclusion. The facts are on our side. Go Cali.

Ric O'Barry, former dolphin trainer and founder of the Dolphin Project said in an email:

The delay is troublesome. SeaWorld is tremendously powerful. And in America the lobbyists lead and the politicians follow. That's the bad news. The good news is that SeaWorld was finally dragged, kicking and screaming, to the table. And in the process the general public is becoming educated. An educated consumer is SeaWorld's worst enemy."

Former marine mammal trainer and animal activist Jeffrey Ventre pointed out that the bill's hearing brought a spotlight to several issues with captive orcas at SeaWorld, like "separations that occur between mothers and calves, as well as the brutal pulpotomy procedures that the captives must endure." He also noted that opponents of the bill who spoke at the hearing mainly represented the business sector:

It was interesting to note that most of the anti AB-2140 SeaWorld support came from the business community, like the Chamber of Commerce and tourism industry, whereas most of the bills supporters were concerned citizens and professionals.

Twitter reacted strongly to the news: