Blackfish, an eye-opening documentary about the devastating consequences of keeping orcas in captivity, premiered a little more than a year ago, and since then, the remarkable outrage and debate it inspired has created waves of black lash against SeaWorld, from visible protests of the institution to successful pressures that resulted in embarrassing cancellations of scheduled musical performances. The ‘Blackfish Effect,’ with its growing momentum, will only continue. But how far will it go, and is real, tangible change for captive orcas achievable in the near future? Maybe yes—there is certainly good reason to hope.
Beyond the loud public outcry, the film has attracted serious attention from one California lawmaker, State Assemblymember Richard Bloom, who earlier this month introduced legislation that would outlaw all killer whale shows in his state—including those at SeaWorld San Diego, which holds 10 captive orcas. The bill, if enacted into law, will also prohibit the import and export of orcas intended for performance or entertainment purposes, and end captive breeding programs. As for the orcas themselves, under the proposed legislation, they “shall be rehabilitated and returned to the wild where possible,” or if that’s not possible, then “transferred and held in a sea pen that is open to the public and not used for performance or entertainment purposes.” The latter provision is necessary because, realistically, most captive orcas at SeaWorld San Diego are not viable candidates for release.
Particularly noteworthy about the bill, aside from its intended impact, is that its primary justification rests on animal welfare concerns, not merely on the adverse consequences to humans of mistreating captive orcas, as in the tragic case of Dawn Brancheau. In a press release, Bloom stated in unequivocal language that “There is no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment purposes,” adding that:
In their natural habitat orcas are family-oriented, highly adaptable, socially-complex with cultural traditions and trail only humans as the most intelligent creatures on this planet. However, in captivity, they have shorter lifespans, show increased health problems, live in swimming pool sized habitat that are approximately one ten-thousandth the required size and demonstrate aggressive behavior towards one another and towards humans that has never been documented in the wild. They simply do not belong in captivity.
Of course, whether these serious animal welfare concerns—and others explored in Blackfish—will ultimately move California lawmakers to do the right thing, by the orcas, remains to be seen. If they do, they will find public support – and history – firmly on their side.