Calif. Measure Would Ban Killer Whale Shows At SeaWorld

SeaWorld won a short-term victory on Tuesday. A committee in the state assembly decided a bill banning SeaWorld from holding killer whales captive and using them in shows needs further study.

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In California yesterday a victory for SeaWorld - at least for now. There's a bill that would ban SeaWorld from holding killer whales captive and using them in shows. A committee in a state assembly decided the proposal needs more study. Here's NPR's Greg Allen.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: SeaWorld has had killer whales or orcas at its park in San Diego since shortly after it opened in 1964. For more than 20 years though, scientists and advocates have raised questions about the practice of holding them captive. The questions became more insistent after a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, Dawn Brancheau, was killed by an orca in 2010.

And then last year Brancheau's death and the treatment of killer whales drew more attention with the release of the documentary "Blackfish." The film relies on former trainers like Samantha Berg to build a case that it's inhumane to hold the world's largest predators captive.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BLACKFISH")

SAMANTHA BERG: It's time to stop the shows. It's time to stop forcing these animals to perform in basically a circus environment. And they should release the animals that are young enough and healthy enough to be released.

ALLEN: It's a message California Assemblyman Richard Bloom took to heart. Last month he introduced a bill that would make it illegal to hold killer whales in captivity and to use them for performance or entertainment purposes. At a hearing yesterday in Sacramento, Bloom said because they've been held captive so long, most of SeaWorld's orcas could not be released into the wild.

Under the bill, they would have to be moved to large sea pens. But he said that would be an improvement over current conditions.

ASSEMBLYMAN RICHARD BLOOM: Shortened life spans and stress-related behaviors demonstrate that these beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small concrete pools for their entire lives.

ALLEN: Bloom said more than 1.2 million people have signed an online petition in support of his bill since it was just filed a few weeks ago. Dozens jammed into a hearing room in Sacramento yesterday. One of those testifying in favor of the bill was John Hargrove. He's one of the former SeaWorld trainers featured in "Blackfish." He said despite the best care trainers could provide, in his 14 years working at SeaWorld, it was clear the killer whales weren't thriving.

JOHN HARGROVE: We witnessed stereotypic and obsessive compulsive behavior, such as banging their faces and heads against the pool walls and floor, obsessively picking at and peeling the paint on the pools, ultimately ingesting it. Often these behaviors were so obsessive they resulted in physical injury to the whale, but they still would not stop.

ALLEN: SeaWorld brought its own panel of experts to the hearing, including its vice-president for veterinary services, Christopher Dold.

CHISTOPHER DOLD: To be clear, the whales at SeaWorld are thriving.

ALLEN: The president of SeaWorld San Diego, John Reilly, reminded committee members that the park is an important part of the regional economy. SeaWorld attracted 4.6 million visitors last year and made $14 million in lease payments to the city of San Diego. Reilly had harsh words for the bill and for "Blackfish," the documentary that inspired it.

JOHN REILLY: AB 2140 embraces animal rights rhetoric crusaded in a movie dominated by falsehoods and questionable film-making techniques, putting all SeaWorld's good work at risk.

ALLEN: SeaWorld's lobbyist, Scott Wetch, said if the bill passes, SeaWorld would just move the 10 killer whales it has in San Diego to other parks in the U.S. and around the world. He also had a warning for lawmakers. If they pass a law that bans using orcas in shows, it would cost the park hundreds of millions of dollars. SeaWorld, he said, would expect the state to make restitution.

SCOTT WETCH: If you ban them, you buy them. And that's something that you should take very seriously.

ALLEN: Some on the committee, including the chairman, said they supported the bill. But ultimately the committee decided there were enough questions still to be answered that further study is needed. That means there will be at least another year and more hearings before California makes a decision on the future of killer whale shows in the state. Greg Allen, NPR News.

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