Since July of 2013, Blackfish has captured the hearts of thousands of viewers, so much so that it has successfully inspired a movement in California dedicated to the plight of orcas held in captivity for human amusement. Leading the fight against orcas held in captivity is California state assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica). Assemblymember Bloom has proposed legislation that would ban the use of orcas for performance purposes in California, in a move that would cost SeaWorld it’s main attraction. News of the legislation comes less than a year after the documentary Blackfish was released, which focussed on a controversial story of SeaWorld’s killer whale, Tilikum. Tili, as he is familiarly known, has spent nearly 31 years in captivity and has had an ominous history of aggressive behavior, which has led to the death of three people and injured many others.
The bill, known as the California Captive Orca Welfare and Safety Act, would render it illegal to hold orcas in captivity, or use, “wild-caught or captive-bred orcas for performance or entertainment purposes.” Assemblymember Bloom states that the legislation would offer the most comprehensive protection in the U.S. for orcas held in captivity. At a press conference in Santa Monica, held Friday morning, Assemblyman Bloom said that the time has come for the, “ long accepted practice of keeping orcas captive for human amusement,” to end, continuing to argue that there is no justification for their ongoing captivity.
The bill presents a compelling case to the reader, articulating that since the death of Dawn Brancheau, the public has questioned the ethical and moral grounds for keeping orcas captive. The act encourages our sympathy as it describes orcas as the most socially and ecologically complex species, outside of humans.
Their status as a top predator and their highly advanced communication techniques demonstrate just how highly evolved orcas are. The bill explains that orcas are more complex than most animals kept in confinement, and require significantly more space and broader social structures to sustain their health and wellbeing.
Much of the inspiration for the bill to ban orca captivity in California came from the film Blackfish. As a documentary, Blackfish has had a global impact as it is one of the highest grossing documentaries of all time. In an Q&A with Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish, she explains that it is not possible to take the predator out of a magnificent animal, which is the lesson that should be taken away from this.
Cowperthwaite’s words ring true when one looks into the troubling history that surrounds Tilikum. Back in 2010 Dawn Brancheau, SeaWorld’s most charismatic and well-known trainer, was killed during a routine performance. When reports of the tragedy were released, SeaWorld painted a picture that placed the responsibility of the death on Brancheau’s own shoulders, saying that she made herself vulnerable to Tilikum by wearing her hair in a pony-tail that day. The case of Ms. Brancheau’s death led to congress held hearings on marine mammals at animal parks, which resulted in a full-fledged investigation of the issue by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The body of knowledge pertaining to orcas is growing. As the OSHA investigation took place, the dangers of keeping killer whales in captivity became increasingly clear. Orcas, being the largest of the dolphin family are among the worlds most powerful predators. Orcas are massive animals, with lengths ranging between 16 to 32 feet long and weigh about six tons. SeaWorld’s bull orca, Tilikum, measures about 22.5 feet long and weighs about 12,000 pounds. His size alone is enough to make him incredibly dangerous to work with and coupled with his temperamental personality, it is no surprising that he posed a threat to the lives of the trainers who worked with him.
Killer whales are also highly social animals, living in communities of up to 40 individuals in the wild. Living in a matriarchal society, orcas are immensely cooperative and family oriented. The bond between mothers and their calves is incredible strong, and when calves are removed from their mothers, as they are in captivity, it is a severely painful experience for them both.
In captivity, orcas have cultivated seemingly meaningful bonds with their trainers. Tilikum was particularly social and friendly with the trainers he worked with, though occasionally he was known to show brief bouts of aggression. His trainers remarked during interviews that were featured in Blackfish, that they felt a special connection to Tili, and had no idea of the dangers involved in working with such highly evolved predatory animal.
As it stands there are 45 orcas held in captivity world wide. SeaWorld currently owns about 28 orcas and over the years more than 130 have died while living in captivity. Tilikum, SeaWorld Orlando’s most successful asset, has produced 21 offspring, of which 11 are still alive. Considering that SeaWorld has only been in business for 50 years, and the typical lifespan of orcas in the wild is about 60 years, their rate of mortality in captivity is astounding. The Orca Welfare and Safety Act states that California has lost, “14 orcas in its 50-year history.” This is because female orcas are expected to give birth too young or too often which leads to high mortality rates among both mother orcas and their calves.
The proposed legislation states that there are currently no existing laws, “prohibiting the captive display of orcas.” The only laws that exists regarding orcas are specific to the care, maintenance, capture and research involving these marine mammals. Under the terms of the act, SeaWorld San Diego will have to release the 10 orcas held in their facilities, and will be expected to be rehabilitated and returned to the wild if possible. If not, whales will be cared for in a sea pen large enough to ensure comfort and health, that will be open to the public and not used for performing or entertainment.
Blackfish served to inspire California’s legislation banning orca captivity by calling attention to the fact that orcas are highly intelligent, social, and emotional animals. While they exist as one of the top predators in the world, there is no evidence to suggest that orcas have shown any form of aggression to humans in the wild. Their perpetual confinement, however, in aquariums which could not possibly accommodate their basic needs, let alone their massive size, would be enough to frustrate any living creature. There are various sites on the internet that serve as excellent resources for information on orcas and the details of their captivity, most of which has been echoed in the Orca Welfare and Safety Act. The preface of the act ends on a powerful note, stating that, “orcas simply do not belong in captivity.” The outcry against orca captivity has spread world wide, having been outlawed in at least five countries already. If passed, California will lead the way for the rest of the country in banning the use of orcas for entertainment or performance purposes.
By Natalia Sanchez