California bans orca breeding and entertainment, SeaWorld feels the bite of public opinion

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

Orca off Davenport, California. Credit: Carl Safina
Orcas off Davenport, California. Credit: Carl Safina

When Governor Jerry Brown signed new legislation last week banning orca breeding and theatrical performances in California, effective June 2017, he did something huge: he put an official beginning to the end of using captive killer whales for entertainment in his state.

And wildlife advocates say he’s possibly done something even bigger. He may have sparked the end to the practice of holding orcas and other cetaceans in captivity across the country.

California Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) wrote the bill, which was co-sponsored by the Animal Welfare Institute, Samantha Berg, Carol Ray and John Hargrove. Besides outlawing orca breeding and theatrical performances, the so-called Orca Protection Act also bans the transportation of orcas to entertainment facilities in other states and foreign countries.

Shamu performing at SeaWorld San Diego, 2009. Credit: Yathin S. Krishnappa (Wikimedia Commons)
Shamu performing at SeaWorld San Diego, 2009. Credit: Yathin S. Krishnappa (Wikimedia Commons)

As a result of the law, only the 11 orcas now kept at SeaWorld in San Diego will remain in captivity. SeaWorld will no longer be able to use the orcas at their San Diego facility for entertainment purposes, but will be permitted to continue orca shows if they are educational in nature. This comes on top of SeaWorld’s announcement earlier this year that it would end its captive orca-breeding program, declaring the generation of orcas currently in its facilities across the U.S. its last.

Nonprofits the Whale Sanctuary Project and Animal Welfare Institute are now currently pushing to move captive orcas and other cetaceans to seaside sanctuaries where they could live in a more natural habitat and have more autonomy to live out lives as the wild animals they are. These sanctuaries would be closed-off coves and inlets where the formerly captive creatures can live out their lives without being exposed to potential dangers—such as boats and other wild animals—to which they have not ever been exposed.

“An important feature of [the Orca Protection Act] is that it does permit the transport of orcas to other facilities in North America,” said Dr. Lori Marino, President of the Whale Sanctuary Project, an organization working to place now-captive orcas in seaside sanctuaries. “This will facilitate ongoing efforts to develop seaside sanctuaries for these animals as an alternative to living in tanks.”

Trua, an orca at SeaWorld Orlando, in his tank. Credit: Gordon2448 (Wikimedia Commons)

Currently the Whale Sanctuary Project is evaluating potential orca sanctuary sites in Nova Scotia, Maine, Washington and British Columbia. According to Carl Safina, an ecologist and author of Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel, a book about animal sentience and emotion, support for these sanctuaries and legislation aimed at protecting orcas currently in captivity—and preventing future generations from becoming captive—reflects a major shift in public opinion about animal welfare.

“SeaWorld is certainly feeling the bite of public opinion,” says Safina. “Though they could carry on elsewhere with breeding and trans-shipping, they’d be wise to emphasize other aspects of their entertainment. In the U.S and most of the West, we’ve learned from 40 years of captive whales why there should be no whale captives. I am concerned about places like China and Russia, for whom animals are just commodities like they were in the U.S in the 1960s, ‘70s. But we will work on that awareness, too. Persistence is important now.”

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Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.