A bill introduced today by Richard Bloom, a California lawmaker, would ban killer whale shows at SeaWorld in San Diego. The Orca Welfare and Safety Act was inspired by last year’s documentary “Blackfish,” which related the killing in 2010 of Dawn Brancheau, an animal trainer, by a killer whale named Tilikum during a live performance at a SeaWorld in Florida. Among the factors that led to her death, the film cited SeaWorld’s refusal to acknowledge danger signs in the form of other violent incidents, including previous fatalities caused by the same killer whale. The movie also shows the oppressive conditions under which the whales are kept, and the enormous monetary value of this particular whale as a sperm donor for captive breeding programs; perhaps the park’s primary motivation for fighting to keep him. SeaWorld is the only California amusement park that keeps killer whales; it currently holds up to 10 orcas in tanks. SeaWorld is dismissive of the bill, and characterizes the documentary as “propaganda,” and “exploitative.” Bloom will discuss the bill in a news conference today in Santa Monica, along with the people who made the documentary.
In addition to banning the killer whale shows, the proposed California bill would end captive breeding and prohibit the export and import of the whales. The proposed ban would permit the display of killer whales in aquariums, but would forbid the use of the whales in entertainment shows. It would also require SeaWorld to rehabilitate and return their killer whales back to the ocean. Violation of the proposed law would carry a maximum $100,000 fine, and a six month jail term.
To be fair, there is some controversy surrounding the documentary’s depiction of the Orca program. SeaWorld alleges that the film is biased and emotionally manipulative, and that it leaves out SeaWorld’s role in the rescue, rehabilitation, and return of hundreds of wild animals to the wild every year. Also, SeaWorld claims to have instituted some changes after the trainer’s death; for one thing, trainers no longer go in the water with the whales. Despite this, the movie’s depiction of the horrific conditions of the captive whales is hard to argue with. Animals that are accustomed to swimming up to 100 miles per day are kept in concrete pens too small to turn around in. Because of female dominance in whale social behavior, Tilikum, the whale featured in “Blackfish” who has now been in captivity for almost 30 years, was often found with scars called “rakings” caused by the female whales he was kept with, inflicted by slashing him with their teeth.
Killer whales are popularly seen as highly intelligent animals, and by means of this fact, make for good public entertainment. To counter SeaWorld’s accusations that the issue was presented a slanted fashion, one might argue that in order to accomplish a praiseworthy action – specifically improving the conditions of these whales and preventing further human fatalities – it may be necessary to stir up the emotions of the public. The proposed California bill banning killer whale shows is intuitively progressive and humane. SeaWorld’s main argument for keeping the whales is entirely financial. Might one forgive the makers of the “Blackfish” documentary for deliberately arousing the passions if the intended result – humane treatment of the whales – is ultimately achieved?
By Laura Prendergast