Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Truth about the Orca Welfare and Safety Act

The Truth about AB 2140, the Orca Welfare and Safety Act

By Naomi Rose Ph.D.

A lot of media articles have been published on Asm Richard Bloom’s AB 2140, the bill that would have ended orca performances and captive breeding. While SeaWorld, its lobbyists and public relations team may want to claim the bill was defeated, the fact is the bill is anything but dead.

The legislation was referred for interim study – a common process in the California Assembly and one that several successful bills have undergone (e.g., the bobcat hunting bill). The conversation SeaWorld has never wanted will continue and a new bill incorporating the study’s results will be introduced.

To be clear, AB 2140 was not the “SeaWorld Bill.” Or even the “Blackfish Bill.” It was the Orca Welfare and Safety Act and that’s not just semantics. The bill was never about closing SeaWorld or promoting a documentary. It was about protecting the welfare of captive orcas and securing the safety of the trainers who care for them.

Here is the truth. In the wild, orcas have life spans similar to our own – as Dr. John Ford writes in the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, “Mean life expectancy for females…is estimated to be approximately 50 years, and maximum longevity is 80–90 years. Mean life expectancy for males…is estimated to be about 30 years, with maximum longevity of about 50–60 years.” In captivity, most orcas die in their teens and 20s.

One of the most tragic consequences of killer whale captivity is the teeth damage that comes with it 

In the wild, fish-eating orcas have pristine teeth, while mammal-eating orcas’ teeth are slightly worn. In captivity, most orcas have broken or completely worn teeth from chewing on concrete walls and metal gates. These teeth must be drilled out and flushed daily (wild orcas don’t need dental care).

In the wild, mothers and their offspring share life-long bonds – in several populations, sons live with their mothers for their entire lives. In captivity, offspring are routinely and traumatically taken from their mothers, simply for management purposes. And while sons stay close to their moms in the wild, they do not mate with them, whereas at least one captive son mated with his mother, producing an inbred daughter/sister. This abhorrent incest happened because the social mechanisms that keep inbreeding from occurring in nature break down in the abnormal environment of captivity.

Unlike their wild counterparts captive females often do not chose their mates & are sometimes artificially inseminated

As for human safety, aggression against trainers has occurred far more often than is reported in official records, which alone document approximately 100 aggressive or potentially aggressive incidents in a 22-year span. There have been dozens of injuries requiring medical attention, several permanent disabilities, and four deaths in the 50 years orcas have been on display. This is in comparison to one or two injuries and no deaths recorded during human encounters with wild orcas, over at least two millennia.

These four young people all lost their lives to captive killer whales owned by SeaWorld corporation

SeaWorld historically has always blamed its trainers when interactions go wrong. The company has never taken responsibility for the fact that the job of training killer whales is inherently dangerous, a reality consistently emphasized by the courts as SeaWorld continues to appeal the citation it received from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. Indeed, the US Court of Appeals has finally ruled in the latest appeal – against SeaWorld. The court noted that “SeaWorld…violated its duties as an employer by exposing trainers to recognized hazards when working with killer whales” and “Statements by SeaWorld managers do not indicate that SeaWorld's safety protocols and training made the killer whales safe; rather, they demonstrate SeaWorld's recognition that the killer whales interacting with trainers are dangerous.” Most damning, the 2-1 ruling stated that “SeaWorld acted irresponsibly.”

These incidents occur not because captive orcas are crazed killers, but because captivity puts trainers in unnatural proximity to the ocean’s top predator, in circumstances where these intelligent animals become frustrated and bored. Due to their massive size and formidable hunting tools (strong jaws and gripping teeth), orcas can injure and kill people even without intent. That’s the truth.

SeaWorld can end the orca show without losing business. Six Flags’ Discovery Kingdom did it – twice. In 1965, when SeaWorld opened the first Shamu exhibit in San Diego, we knew next to nothing about orcas. The first long-term study of this species in the wild didn’t start until 1973. Today enough is known to lead 40 respected whale and dolphin scientists to write to the California Assembly that the “science on the nature of killer whales and their compromised welfare in captivity – and common sense – has long since provided evidence that this species is inherently unsuited to confinement in concrete tanks.”

This bill will eventually pass, not because of a documentary but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s time for SeaWorld to accept the truth and end this inhumane and dangerous show.