The Beginning of the End of Orcas in Captivity? California Braces for SeaWorld Showdown

This week Sacramento is ground zero for the anti-captivity movement.

(Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)

Apr 7, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

More than 50 animal activists, scientists, and lobbyists are scheduled to fan out Monday across Sacramento, Calif., to plead the case for Assembly Bill 2140, the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, which will receive its first hearing and committee vote on Tuesday. SeaWorld has also amassed a vigorous lobbying effort, setting the stage for a high-profile showdown in the state capital.

The contentious bill, introduced March 6 by state Assemblymember Richard Bloom and sponsored by the Animal Welfare Institute, would make it illegal to “hold in captivity, or use, a wild-caught or captive-bred orca for performance or entertainment purposes.” It would also ban artificial insemination of captive killer whales in California and block the import of orcas or orca semen from other states.

The Assembly Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee will consider and vote on A.B. 2140 at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the State Capitol.

California has 10 captive orcas, all of them at SeaWorld San Diego, which has been fighting the bill since its inception. If it passes, SeaWorld would not only have to shutter the Shamu shows but also be required to retire the whales to sea pens. At least one orca, Corky, might be eligible for release into the sea.

No wonder SeaWorld staffers and consultants have been spending time in Sacramento. The company recently hired chief lobbyist Pete Montgomery, who also represents top energy corporations and was government affairs chief for BP North America.

Company staff and lobbyists made the rounds last week, The Sacramento Bee reported, adding that SeaWorld’s “capitol message” was, simply, “Our orcas are fine, thanks.” SeaWorld made the usual arguments that killer whale shows are safe for human trainers and the ideal venue for orca health and happiness.

“They’d rather be in the show than out of the show,” Lindy Donahue, the park’s supervisor of animal training, told the Bee. “They are so stimulated every day,” she said, “they want to interact with us, and the level of care is so high it’s almost hard to describe.”

SeaWorld representatives gave committee members information packets calling the law “extremist” and the documentary Blackfish, which inspired Bloom’s bill, “propaganda,” according to the Bee.

Opponents disagree. The hearing will be an enormous day in the history of orca captivity, and they are ready for a full-court press. “Given that California has 10 orcas in captivity, it will be a game-changer; it will reset the paradigm on the acceptability of this practice if it passes,” says Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at AWI.

If their efforts fail? “I don’t think it’s the end of progress, but it will slow things down,” Rose says. “We’re doing everything we can today and tomorrow to make sure it at least gets out of committee. This is just the first step.”

If the committee kills the bill, it will be dead for the rest of this legislative session. If the measure passes, it heads to another Assembly committee for a hearing on April 22.

The San Diego Union Tribune has predicted a tough time for SeaWorld, noting that the committee is “dominated by Democrats with a track record of siding with animal rights and who generally receive poor grades from business interests in the Capitol.”

The panel has 10 Democrats and five Republicans. Rendon and six other Democrats earned a 100 percent rating from the Humane Society of the U.S., while two others were graded at 67 percent.

For its efforts, AWI hired the lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs, which organized teams of citizen activists to visit lawmakers in Sacramento on Monday. Another group of scientists and lobbyists was to meet separately with committee members.

“We’re focusing on the fence-sitting Democrats,” Rose says. “We don’t yet have a certain majority. We need eight and have five or six.” She is hopeful the needed votes can be culled from the six or seven undecided committee members scheduled to meet with bill supporters.

Anti-captivity activists are hopeful, while SeaWorld executives are likely nervous. “If the bill passes,” Rose boldly predicts, “I think other states and even the federal government will follow.”