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California Bans Breeding, Captivity of Killer Whales

— September 14, 2016

On Tuesday, September 13, 2016, California became the first state in the country to ban the breeding of killer whales and orca entertainment shows after Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will also make it illegal to keep them in captivity. The law will go into effect in June of 2017. The legislation stipulates the whales already held in captivity will remain, but will only be allowed to be used in educational presentations, thus effectively eliminating the once-popular orca productions at SeaWorld and other aquatic-themed amusement parks in the state. Such shows have long been the subject of criticism from animal rights activists who claim the conditions in which the mammals are held captive and bred are inhumane. The bill, which was written by California Assembly member Richard Bloom, suggests killer whales may be rescued for the purposes of research and rehabilitation for potential release back into the wild. Anyone found to be in violation of the law by illegally breeding orcas may face up to a $100,000 fine.

In March, SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. announced their plans to stop using orcas for entertainment purposes by halting all further theatrical productions in addition to ceasing their breeding program. In response to the 11 killer whales that will remain in captivity at their San Diego park, SeaWorld released a statement at the end of August which read, “Most of SeaWorld’s orcas were born in human care and the environmental threats in our oceans, like oil spills and pollution, are huge dangers for these animals. The best, and safest, future for these whales is to let them live out their lives at SeaWorld in state-of-the-art habitats, and continue to receive the highest-quality care based on the latest advances in marine veterinary medicine, science and zoological best practices.”

SeaWorld faced intense scrutiny after the 2013 documentary film “Blackfish” exposed not only the cruelty of keeping orcas in captivity, but also the dangers. The film followed the 1983 capture (at the age of three) and subsequent harassment of a whale named “Tilikum.” The orca was taunted by other killer whales being held at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada, which researchers believe led to his unbridled aggression that culminated in the death of three people. Tilikum was the largest orca in captivity, weighing in at 12,000 pounds. Before being sold to SeaWorld after the first death at Sealand, Tilikum was confined to a 100-foot by 50-foot pool that was only 35-feet deep. Trainers also withheld food from him if he did not perform a trick correctly, leaving the mammal to display anxious and OCD-like behaviors. After learning the giant whale was for sale, SeaWorld purchased the orca as part of their breeding program, where he lived in a tank that contained 0.0001 percent of the amount of water he would normally navigate during one day in the wild. He was also responsible for the deaths of two more trainers, though SeaWorld claimed they were “accidental” and “unintentional.”

Captive orca with collapsed dorsal fin; image courtesy of
Captive orca with collapsed dorsal fin; image courtesy of

Tilikum, like most orcas held in captivity, had a collapsed dorsal fin, which experts assert is the result of a lack of adequate space to swim, poor nutrition (they are fed frozen instead of fresh fish) and depression. When an orca’s dorsal fin collapses in the wild, which is rare, experts agree it is a sign the whale is either sick or injured.

Though long overdue, it is refreshing to know lawmakers are beginning to take animal rights issues more seriously by putting their needs, health and well-being before profit. Hopefully, other states and countries will begin to follow suit and stop the exploitation of wild animals for the purpose of “entertainment.”


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