Last week, California governor Jerry Brown signed a law that many people have been asking for for a very long time. The law, which goes into effect in 2017, bans all captive breeding of orcas. It also bans theatrical shows involving orcas.
Animal rights activists are hoping that this will be the final step needed to end the practice — studies have shown that living in captivity is extremly harmful to the orca, or killer whale. There have been protests against having orcas in theme parks for decades, but the most effective campaign was the documentary film Blackfish (2013). After Blackfish was released, aquatic theme parks across North America experienced a huge drop in attendance.
Law follows change at SeaWorld
SeaWorld — the largest and most well-known chain of aquatic theme parks — already announced in March that they were voluntarily ending their breeding programs for the orca. There are three SeaWorlds, one each in Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego. This new California law will affect only one of these parks: the one in San Diego. But lawmakers felt that it was important to pass the law so that SeaWorld couldn't change its mind. It also, of course, stops any other programs from starting up in the state.
It must be said, though: it's hard to imagine SeaWorld attempting to change its mind now. The company's profits dropped 84% between 2014 and 2015 following the release of Blackfish. In other words, far less people are going there and to other parks like it. Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario has been hit hard by protesters, especially after a Toronto newspaper published several stories about the poor conditions for its animals a few years ago. (The province of Ontario made a law similar to this Californian one back in 2015.)
But what about the animals still there?
Laws such as these are a great step forward for the future of the orca, but there is an obvious question: what happens to the orcas still there? Under the law, the animals who are there now can remain there. They can only be featured in a show that is educational. SeaWorld says that this is their plan.
Animal rights activists want these orcas released back into the wild. But representatives from SeaWorld claim that it simply isn't good for the animals. Because they have lived for so long in captivity (and in many cases, were born there), they aren't equipped to live and hunt in the open oceans. In the Los Angeles Times, SeaWorld's president, Joel Manby, reminded people that even the whale from the 1993 film Free Willy, Keiko, died when returned to the wild.
Some marine biologists argue this point, but there is yet another issue at hand: what about the other marine mammals there? The reports about the terrible conditions at Marineland involved not just the orcas, but other cetaceans like belugas and dolphins. Currently, the laws only address the orca. As places like SeaWorld and Marineland work to rebuild their image — and as protesters continue to fight for the humane treatment of animals in captivity — you can bet that this debate is far from over.