We Still Aren't Doing Enough to Protect Orcas

FILE - In this Monday, March 7, 2011, file photo, killer whale Tilikum, right, watches as SeaWorld Orlando trainers take a br
FILE - In this Monday, March 7, 2011, file photo, killer whale Tilikum, right, watches as SeaWorld Orlando trainers take a break during a training session at the theme park's Shamu Stadium in Orlando, Fla. SeaWorld is ending its practice of killer whale breeding following years of controversy over keeping orcas in captivity. The company announced Thursday, March 17, 2016, that the breeding program will end immediately. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

Is SeaWorld fun? Many of us, especially those of us who grew up on the West Coast, have formative memories of seeing the whales at SeaWorld. The animals leap and twirl to aahs and oohs from the audience. People are splashed by the massive waves; families watch the trainers hold out fish for the whales to jump for; and generally, the company conveys a vision of happy, beautiful and immense mammals cohabiting entertainingly with what seem like their human protectors.

This bucolic scene could not be further from the truth. While anti-orca exploitation has been around for some years, it has generally been seen as a fringe movement. In fact there's a Portlandia segment making gentle fun of orca enthusiasts who seek to set them free. But more and more awareness is breaking into the mainstream: that lovely, leaping orca is actually being held in downright abusive conditions.

Indeed, orca confinement, even at such well-branded locations as SeaWorld, is abusive in the extreme. To start with, orcas are under threat: the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the entity that determines an animal's conservation status, warns that we need more study of orca vulnerability; our own government is now concerned enough about the status of the orcas in the Salish Sea near Washington State's San Juan Islands that it has listed that population as endangered.

Seeing these animals in the wild is unforgettable. Ms. Wolf watched the orcas swim when she visited the San Juan Islands; Ms. Anderson also remembers them in the wild with appreciation. While her family could never afford to go to Sea World, or to similar Marine parks, she was raised to respect nature and watched orcas at play from the beach near her home. It was not until she did a Baywatch episode at Sea World that she saw the prison camps in which these magnificent creatures were kept. "It broke my heart," she recounts.

Imprisoning orcas in this way leads them to actually live shorter lives: Orcas forced to live in captivity live less than half as long as do orcas left in the wild. In addition to killing orcas at a younger age, captivity is rife with unnatural experiences that damage them in many ways: for example, these animals typically swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild, but in captivity they can only float listlessly or swim in circles, denied meaningful enrichment or any semblance of natural movement. This lack of proper exercise causes the animals' bodies to become deformed; indeed this inactivity collapses their dorsal fins.

In addition, orcas in captivity often break and grind down their teeth by chomping on the steel gates and concrete sides of their tanks to attempt to cope with their stress.

In fact, the anxiety that afflicts these whales is so high that SeaWorld's own records actually show that they drug their orcas with diazepam, the generic name for Valium. Obviously, any animal that needs anxiety medication in order to behave "normally" in captivity should not be held captive in the first place.

All of this stress adds up, and has caused some of the whales in captivity to lash out. Several people around the world have been either killed or seriously injured by orcas held captive for performance purposes. The documentary Blackfish highlights the story of a whale named Tilikum, who killed a trainer during his captivity in Canada, at a park called Sealand. This was before Tilikum was purchased by SeaWorld. Unsurprisingly but tragically, the whale killed two more people subsequently.

Who is to blame for a tragedy like this? After all, this is not natural orca behavior; an orca has never killed a human in the wild. It is the result of intense stress, caused by greedily confining apex predators for entertainment. The public knows that there's no benefit to SeaWorld physically and psychologically harming orcas by isolating them in tiny spaces for their entire lives.

Blackfish, released in 2013, exposed other examples of orca mistreatment in captivity. Upon the film's release, the value of SeaWorld's stock dropped 33%, ticket sales to its theme parks plummeted, and corporate partners and educational institutions severed their ties with the company. Ultimately, SeaWorld was forced to announce that it would discontinue its orca-breeding program, effectively phasing out its orca captivity.

That is good, but it is not enough to protect orcas at SeaWorld in the future, or orcas that are or might later be held in other locations. Some legislators then sought to address this terrible crisis. Last month, for instance, a California committee voted to send Assemblymember Richard Bloom's (D) bill, "The California Orca Protection Act" to the full assembly for a vote. This bill, if passed, would make it illegal to breed and confine any additional orcas in the state. This bill's passage is fantastic news for many, as the public has been more and more adamant in fighting against the mistreatment of these innocent captives.

The introduction of Bloom's bill clearly has had an outstanding impact on perceptions of whale captivity in SeaWorld. Even before the bill had passed the assembly, Sea World had cut its own program. As Joel Manby, the CEO of SeaWorld explained on March 30, 2016:

We understand some customers are upset and you may feel betrayed but in a simple way, the data and trends showed it was either a SeaWorld without whales or a world without SeaWorld... Once something is illegal and moved east, it would be very difficult to change that trend so we decided we needed to get ahead of this because as you know, SeaWorld has an incredible tale to tell, but the orca issue is a barrier between our story and a growing audience.

But this change in perception, and even this legislation to date, are still not enough. Right now it is only a single bill in only one state, California, but orcas are in danger in many places. After all, this is a voluntary move on SeaWorld's part, and even if Bloom's bill passes, could easily be reversed in Florida and Texas as soon as public discourse against orca captivity dies down. Changing the federal law, however, would force SeaWorld to stay true to its promise, saving orcas from an unfulfilled life of detrimental enslavement, and protecting workers from the dangerous neurosis which inevitably inflicts whales who are treated so poorly.

Fortunately, Congressman Adam Schiff (D) introduced a bill called the "Orca Responsibility and Care Act of 2015", or "ORCA Act," last November. The ORCA Act, if passed, would expand the efforts of California's anti-orca captivity bill and prohibit orca breeding, captures, and captivity for entertainment purposes nationwide.

So why do we continue to tolerate the injurious maltreatment of these animals? The ORCA Act will once and for all put an end the malicious mistreatment of these large, intelligent, social, and complex animals. It is not enough for us to trust the word of a company like SeaWorld; we need real legal restrictions that will hold them accountable for their promise to end the capture and breeding of orcas for their parks and the use of orcas for entertainment. It's not healthy for the whales, and it's dangerous for the workers. Use the BillCam above to vote "yes" on this bill and tell your representatives to make sure it passes; or, of course, you can vote no if you think we should to continue to allow corporations to abuse these poor creatures for entertainment.