California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Orca Protection and Safety Act into law on Tuesday, banning the breeding of killer whales in captivity, as well as the circus-like shows that have them performing for crowds.
Facing increasing criticism since the 2013 documentary Blackfish exposed concerns about orca welfare, SeaWorld had already agreed to discontinue breeding their orcas in all of their U.S. parks. The new law mirrors several changes that SeaWorld had already committed to making, but the bill’s sponsors say the legislation was still important to make sure that SeaWorld can’t change its mind, and that no other California park can breed or do non-educational orca shows in the future. (Read SeaWorld to End Controversial Orca Shows and Breeding.)
“This codifies this corporate policy in law, so they’re stuck now,” says Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute, which co-sponsored the legislation along with state assembly member Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica.). “And now we have more momentum to build on,” Rose says.
In practice, the bill will mean that the only orcas allowed to be kept in captivity in California will be the 11 already grandfathered in at SeaWorld San Diego. Orcas can still be rescued and rehabilitated if they are found stranded, but Rose says that’s unlikely.
“I can count on one hand the number of times an orca has been stranded alive, was rescued, and survived in captivity,” says Rose, referring not just to California, but the world.
While the act bans the use of orcas in entertainment, SeaWorld can continue orca shows if they are educational. The company has already decided that their theatrical killer whale shows will be replaced with what they call “educational orca encounters” starting in 2017. “Guests will feel like they are taking part in a live documentary,” wrote Dave Koontz in an e-mail to National Geographic, “with a modified habitat for a more natural looking setting.” (Read Former Trainer Slams SeaWorld for Cruel Treatment of Orcas)
Next, the Animal Welfare Institute hopes to retire animals to a marine sanctuary, making orcas in concrete tanks a thing of the past. However, SeaWorld does not plan to return its 11 orcas to the wild. Koontz wrote that “the best, and safest, future for these whales is to let them live out their lives at SeaWorld, receiving top care, in state-of-the-art habitats.”
While the orcas at SeaWorld San Diego aren’t likely to be released, it’s nearly certain that they will be the last in captivity there. “As more and more members in the public in this post-Blackfish era are deciding to turn away from entertainment, the future holds a more hopeful animal-friendly entertainment outcome,” says Carney Anne Nasser, senior counsel for wildlife and regulatory affairs at the Animal Legal Defense Fund. (Read SeaWorld Orca Was Trying to Save Itself, Not Kill Itself.)
Other states have passed similar legislation. South Carolina prohibits the public display of whales and dolphins—although the state doesn’t have any in captivity anyway. In states without marine animal parks, such laws prevent future developments. But the fact that California already has SeaWorld San Diego makes this bill a more powerful development. “This is real, this is a state that has them,” says Rose. “This is a real change in business as usual.”
The next states that animal activists hope will consider a similar bill are Texas and Florida, as they have marine parks with cetaceans in them as well. Nasser believes that there is hope for orca captivity to end. “It’s only a matter of when, not if, the use of animals in entertainment will become a relic of the past,” she says.
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