The Dolphin Dilemma 

Animal welfare activists have been pushing to ban amusement parks from exploiting orcas, and they say dolphins deserve the same protections.

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"Even the largest dolphin tank is less than 1/10,000th of a percent in size" of a ten-square-mile home range, Rose said.

But supporters of marine mammal show parks, including employees and patrons of Six Flags, contend that most dolphins do just fine in captivity. Amanda Meyer, a trainer intern at Six Flags, said the tank in the stadium where dolphin shows are currently being held is 25 feet deep, and wide enough for the four or five dolphins to swim in. "When you dive down there ... you look up and you say, 'Oh — this is huge.' Yeah, it's a fishbowl kind of concept," she said.

But O'Barry, Rose, and other animal welfare activists contend that no matter how nice the tanks are, cetaceans belong in the wild. "They're free-ranging, large-brained, self-aware, sonic creatures," O'Barry said of orcas and dolphins, adding that keeping them in captivity is "a failed experiment."

"It's like you being under house arrest," Rose added, referring to forcing dolphins to live in a tank for most of their lives. "Your house can be 30,000 square feet ... it can be a nice house, but you're still under house arrest. In fact, that's what we do as punishment."

AB 2140, introduced on March 7 by Assemblymember Bloom, was sparked in part by Blackfish, the 2013 documentary that centers on the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum in the Orlando, Florida park. The documentary alleges that Tilikum became deranged after being confined to a pool as small as a whale-sized "bathtub."

AB 2140 sought to retire all captive orcas and transfer them into "sea pens" — fenced off coves with ocean water and natural plants. The retired orcas would be on display, but would not be required to perform the way they are today. The amount of interaction between trainers and orcas would also be limited, according to Bloom's fact sheet on the bill.

"It is time that we embrace that the long-accepted practice of keeping orcas captive for human amusement must end," Bloom said at a press conference, where he was joined by Gabriella Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish, two former SeaWorld trainers, and an animal welfare activist.

SeaWorld officials have called the documentary biased and contend that it was the product of animal rights activists. They made some of the same arguments about AB 2140. "The premise behind the legislation is severely flawed on multiple levels, and its validity is highly questionable under the United States and California Constitutions," SeaWorld spokeswoman Becca Bides said in statement before the legislature tabled the bill.

SeaWorld representatives also asserted that the amusement park doesn't separate orca moms and calves as Blackfish implies, that the park spends millions of dollars to care for its orcas, and that SeaWorld is a leader in animal rescue. "SeaWorld does not capture killer whales in the wild," and hasn't for 35 years, stated an open letter produced by park officials.

"We object to Blackfish because its two central premises are wrong: (1) that life at SeaWorld is harmful for killer whales and for trainers working with these animals, and (2) that SeaWorld has attempted to cover up the facts surrounding the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010," the letter continued.

Park management also asserted in the letter that orcas at SeaWorld live as long as those in the wild — even though scientists who argue for orca freedom, including Rose, say this claim is completely false.

SeaWorld's website also features a series of short videos from employees who say the documentary and its message are biased and false. Many of the videos feature trainers at poolside, with a giant orcas sprawled out in the background. "There's nothing in the world that compares to having a rapport and a relationship with an animal like this," SeaWorld Orlando's Head Animal Trainer Kelly Flaherty-Clark says in one of the videos.

After Bloom introduced AB 2140, SeaWorld hired the influential energy lobbyist Pete Montgomery, according to a report by the newspaper U-T San Diego. About a month later, on April 8, the Assembly's Water Parks and Wildlife Committee decided to put AB 2140 on hold, pending further study. Animal welfare activists say they plan to keep pushing for the ban nonetheless.

"SeaWorld is effectively spinning what happened [April 8] as a victory for them, but I assure you, they wanted a 'no' vote," Rose wrote in an email, referring to the fact that the legislature stopped short of defeating the bill. "The interim study means a new bill will be introduced and in the meantime the discussion about what's happening with these animals in captivity is still ongoing, which is definitely not in SeaWorld's favor."

SeaWorld did suffer a clear defeat on April 11, when a US Court of Appeals panel in Washington, DC upheld a decision by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The court ruled that OSHA can limit contact between trainers and orcas unless they're protected by a barrier or other safety measures. Close contact was commonplace between orcas and trainers before Brancheau's death in 2010. After the court's ruling, SeaWorld officials said in a statement that the company has introduced new safety measures, including removing trainers from the water during shows, but "there will still be human interactions and performances with killer whales."

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