by John Ayers-Mann
Rebuttal by Joshua Marxen
Animal rights activists strive to ultimately create a world where animals can enjoy the freedom that their species would naturally have been born into if not for human existence. The latest manifestation of these activists has formed in California’s state assembly where Richard Bloom, a Democrat from Santa Monica, has proposed a bill (AB 2140) aimed at imposing a ban on holding orcas captive for any purpose except for research or rehabilitation.
Although phrased generally the California bill is clearly a reaction to the recent documentary “Blackfish” which weaves a series of half-truths to support an anti-captivity narrative targeted specifically towards SeaWorld. One claim presented in Blackfish by Howard Garrett, an orca researcher, states that orcas have life spans that are “very similar to human life spans”. This claim is then contrasted with the life-spans of orcas in captivity and the viewer is left with a sense that orca mortality in captivity is in the same position that it has been for the past 54 years. While killer whales that are kept in captivity historically have had shorter life spans than those recorded in the wild, the notable exceptions include many whales currently residing at SeaWorld. Indeed, even a few of the orca’s at SeaWorld exceed the average life expectancy of their wild counterparts; Tilikum and Ulisses aged 32 and 34 years respectively exceed the average male orca lifespan of 29 years. Furthermore, the data that is currently being used to show how high orca mortality rates are implies that the standard of treatment under which that data originated is still the standard being used today. One would reasonably assume that SeaWorld and other marine mammal parks have attained a greater understanding of the ideal captive environment for orcas considering the amount of research that has been funded by these institutions regarding ideal capture environments. The incorporation of this data into these groups ongoing practices may lead to increased life expectancies though whether or not this information is capable of generating effective change has yet to be proven given how relatively recent orcas have begun being kept in captivity and how small the of a sample size is available of captive killer whales.
While Sea World would be directly affected by the bill, San Diego’s economy would feel a similar financial strain. Even though Sea World has other attractions including various rides and animal encounters, the classic “Shamu” show has remained the parks primary exhibition since the late 1960s. With 4.4 million guests in attendance annually and over 4,500 employees drawn from the local area, the economy of San Diego relies critically upon the park for its tourism industry and the park in turn relies upon the continued practice of using orcas for entertainment purposes. In addition to providing jobs regionally, the company provides funds for conservation and research, assists in education and helps with animal rescue programs. If the state government were to force the park to stop their trademark shows there is a significant possibility that attendance could be dramatically affected. And while animal rights activists may cheer this type of state action on the behalf of animal well-being, ultimately it would be animals who would be negatively affected as hurting SeaWorld’s profit margins would also result in hurting their several philanthropic programs. Granted that this kind of potentially damaging reaction may be warranted in the case where Sea World has been found to be undoubtedly mistreating its animals, this is far from the situation at hand. The reasons cited by the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee for disregarding the bill indicated that its proponents not only had not analyzed the impact on San Diego’s regional economy well enough to warrant the action, but also failed to provide serious evidence regarding the treatment of the orcas at Sea World San Diego.
Moving beyond biological and fiscal considerations, one must examine whether passing this bill would create a useful precedent. The law applies specifically to marine mammals but remains consistent with the logic of a legal code that affords the same rights to all animals. The law offers no explanation regarding the reasoning on limiting the law to marine mammal captivity which seems to imply a moral obligation to free animals from captivity in general. When creating laws they should be aimed at creating a general framework under which we seek to have society operate. This framework should have a capacity for directing its citizens towards what society believes is morally right and morally wrong. Although AB 2140 specifically limits its aims at the captivity of orcas, the law is obviously a sensational reaction to recent political tides and those emotional overreactions are not sound grounds for the creation of policy. The captivity of animals is a long-lived tradition that fulfills many important roles in modern society such as companionship, protection and even assisting disabled citizens. This bill would create a moral precedent for our legal system that would be fundamentally incompatible with the moral system that most people accept.
Ultimately this bill would have a negative net impact and would create a precedent that would be difficult to maintain. The bill as it stands is an exclusive indictment of Sea World’s practices that would have a ripple effect throughout our local economy and global conservation and rescue efforts. The conditions of orcas in captivity appears to be steadily improving as a better understanding of orca capture environments is achieved. The imposed ban on the captivity of orcas is an unnecessary upset on the road to attaining that understanding and may endanger future captive orcas by limiting the amount of information available for their treatment. The proposal by Assemblyman Bloom is a poorly thought-out plan with wide-reaching negative impacts for a company that has had an undisputedly positive effect on research, rescue and conservation.