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April 7, 2014
Editorial: Orcas will pay the price if Sea World shows are banned


(April 7 - by The Editorial Board)

It would be a shame if there were no more Shamu shows - and not just for humans.

If the animal advocacy groups supporting proposed legislation to ban orcas in captivity have their way, orca shows at Sea World would be shut down permanently. But don't believe that it will be a "Free Willy" ending; a ban could do real harm to the very animals it seeks to protect.

Assembly Bill 2140 by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, would amend the California Fish and Game Code to prohibit orcas from being used for entertainment purposes and from breeding in captivity. Only one place in California has orca shows and breeds them - Sea World in San Diego.

This is bad legislation for a number or reasons, beginning with the fact that the state Legislature isn't the body that ought to be deciding if marine mammals should be held in captivity.

This proposed ban, more grounded in emotion than science, is based on the provocative film "Blackfish" about an orca, Tilikum, who was responsible for the death of a Sea World trainer in 2010. Bloom and the supporters of the bill, the Animal Welfare Institute, hosted a showing in Sacramento on Monday night in advance of the bill's first hearing today in the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee.

Sea World has called the film propaganda and challenges many of the facts used. The film suggests the highly intelligent orcas have been driven psychopathic by captivity and are intent on taking it out on human trainers.

That's quite a stretch considering that during the 50 years that Sea World has operated its 10 parks, there have been more than 2 million orca-trainer interactions and just a handful - fewer than a dozen - incidents that resulted in injuries to a human. That's a pretty good safety record for any industry.

In addition, since the death of the trainer, the park went through a serious review. After all, it's not good for publicity to have trainers getting killed.

"We've invested $70 million in killer-whale facilities in last three years," John Reilly, president of Sea World Parks, told The Bee's editorial board Monday. He's in town to testify along with zoo professionals and trainers against the bill.

If the ban passes - and it shouldn't - the San Diego park's 10 killer whales would pay the price. They wouldn't be set free in the Pacific. Seven of them have never lived in the wild and all are essentially tame animals who would suffer if dumped into the ocean.

Though they are often called killer whales, they are actually members of the dolphin family. Sea World's orcas would remain at the park but be deprived of both the exercise they get from training and performing and the social lives these creatures have now.

Reilly said a ban on breeding would mean the males and females would either have to be segregated forever to keep them from making orca babies, or the females put on contraception permanently. He said some research shows that could be harmful to their health.

But it would also mean that millions of people - 4.6 million visited Sea World San Diego last year - wouldn't make any connections with or learn about the marine mammals.

"We believe that people leave the park ... caring more about the environment and oceans and animals that live there than before they came," Reilly said. For people who care about about all orcas, not just the performers at Sea World, it shouldn't be a tough choice to let the show go on.