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  • Rich Pedroncelli / The Associated Press

    Ava Kotler, 12, left, her sister Kirra, 10, right, and Lizzie Gordon, 11, on Monday help deliver petitions for AB 2140, which would ban captive orca breeding and shows involving the whales in California. Actor Eric Balfour, background second from left, and his fiancée, Erin Chiamulon, were at the Capitol to support the measure, which was deferred Tuesday by an Assembly committee.

  • Rich Pedroncelli / The Associated Press

    Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, seated second from right, meets with supporters of his measure that would ban holding killer whales for performance and entertainment purposes.

Bill to ban California SeaWorld orca shows sidetracked

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 8, 2014 - 11:19 pm
Last Modified: Wednesday, Apr. 9, 2014 - 8:28 am

In the months since its release, the documentary “Blackfish” has provoked unsettling questions about SeaWorld’s popular live orca shows.

On Tuesday, California lawmakers punted an opportunity to answer, ensuring a bill to ban the performances won’t surface this session.

Avoiding a vote, a state Assembly committee deferred until at least next year legislation by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, that would ban captive orca breeding and shows involving the whales.

Testimony preceding the decision to delay showed how SeaWorld’s orcas have become a focal point of fierce debate, raising questions about basic animal management practices and spotlighting SeaWorld’s clout in San Diego.

The theme park remains a broadly recognized emblem of San Diego, described on Tuesday by park President John Reilly as a prime tourist magnet and an “important economic engine in Southern California” that employs thousands and undertakes large-scale marine conservation projects.

Reilly dismissed “Blackfish,” which explores the deaths of SeaWorld trainers and concludes they stemmed in part from the park’s orca management practices, as a piece of propaganda.

“AB 2140 embraces animal rights rhetoric (presented) in a movie dominated by falsehoods and questionable filmmaking techniques, putting all of SeaWorld’s good work at risk,” Reilly testified.

Lawmakers also knew that the incoming Assembly speaker, current Majority Floor Leader Toni Atkins, hails from San Diego. Atkins is poised to ascend to the Assembly’s top post in mid-May, before the deadline to advance Assembly bills out of that house. While Atkins did not take a formal position on the bill, she was recently among the luminaries speaking at SeaWorld San Diego’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Atkins described SeaWorld as “an incredible community asset” before presenting a resolution honoring the park, according to media reports.

To opponents of the bill and other skeptics, a move to restrict orca captivity also raised broader questions about putting animals on display. If we ban orca shows today, they argued, what’s next?

“I do believe this effort to ban orcas is just a step along the way, and some of the organizations that are very vocal about not wanting any animals in captivity, I think this is one of the paths they are taking,” Mary Healy, director of the Sacramento Zoo, said in an interview following the hearing. “When I see this type of movement coming, it’s so frustrating when it’s just really fueled by emotion.”

But backers of the legislation argued that SeaWorld must halt orca shows and confinement practices that are fundamentally unhealthy for the whales. Bloom resisted the notion that his bill would reverberate through the world of animal management, saying it was narrowly tailored to the particular needs of orcas, and argued that the orca shows are not integral to SeaWorld’s bottom line.

“To be sure, my bill would require some adjustment of their business model,” Bloom said. “SeaWorld marketing, dependent on the branding of Shamu in decades past, is today a far more diverse organization.”

Noting the massive interest AB 2140 attracted and conceding that committee members seemed “unprepared” to take firm positions and cast fully informed votes, Bloom agreed to hold the bill for an interim study. That process could take more than a year.

Advocates of the bill wearing “Sea a New World” stickers filled the committee room to overflowing, spilling out into the hallway and cheering raucously throughout the proceeding.

Many came from across California. One said she traveled from Rome for the occasion.

“This is major,” said Daniela Boer, 46, who flew from Italy to register her position. “We need to do this.”

Bloom described orcas as unique among mammals given their keen intelligence and their nuanced social structures. He said prolonged captivity can spur aggressive orca behavior and cause the creatures to have shorter lives than their wild counterparts. Marine mammal specialists supported his point.

“Science now knows it is not in the best interest of orcas to be held in captivity. They do not thrive, and, indeed, they suffer,” said Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute, the bill’s sponsor.

A former SeaWorld orca trainer supporting the bill detailed what he called abnormal physical and behavioral consequences of captivity, from sagging dorsal fins among adult males to orcas exhibiting “obsessive” behavior like injuring themselves by repeatedly banging their heads against their tanks. He described unusually aggressive whales and rued the “deeply unsettling experience” of separating young whales from their mothers.

“Make this the last generation of killer whales in captivity,” John Hargrove, the former trainer, urged the committee.

The bill would not require SeaWorld to release orcas into the wild, Bloom stressed. Given the youth of some of the park’s whales, he added, visitors could likely see orcas for decades – just not performing tricks in elaborate shows.

SeaWorld officials defended their orca care as humane and state-of-the-art, arguing that orca shows keep the whales stimulated and ensure they are getting the highest level of attention from a range of professionals.

“To be clear, the whales at SeaWorld are thriving,” said Dr. Chris Dold, vice president of veterinary services for SeaWorld San Diego, pointing to steadily increasing survival rates for captive whales and arguing that “every part of the bill, individually and collectively, will increase their health risks” by disrupting their current environment and routines.

Dold and other critics of the bill also called the SeaWorld orcas an uplifting educational experience for visitors, promoting conservation by exposing people to the animals, and an invaluable research resource.

“Certain types of data are not possibly collected on wild animals,” said Dr. Shawn Noren, a whale researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “There is so much more we need to know about these animals that the argument that we know everything is incorrect.”

The sole San Diego lawmaker who sits on the committee, Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, expressed support for the bill and sharply questioned SeaWorld, noting the park’s resistance in labor fights to proposals like a ‘living wage’ initiative to require city contractors to pay workers more. She chastised SeaWorld for suggesting that, should the bill become law, they would be forced to move the orcas to different SeaWorld parks.

“Being the only person who actually resides in San Diego on this committee, I’m a little disturbed about spending another year and a half talking about this issue,” Gonzalez said, adding that “not all San Diego has benefited from the work of SeaWorld.”

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

Read more articles by Jeremy B. White

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