Just as elephants were retired from Ringling Brothers circus in 2016, several members of Congress have proposed legislation that would prohibit the capture and breeding of certain whale species for public entertainment at theme parks and aquariums.
The legislation would affect animal parks that put orca whales on display, such as those at SeaWorld in San Diego and Florida, as wells as whale shows at several other aquariums and parks across the nation.
The bill’s authors say whales are extremely bright, social mammals that need wide ocean expanses to thrive, and that keeping them in enclosures amounts to inhumane treatment and leads to premature death. However, a zoo and aquarium trade organization say the bill is an overreach that would curtail access to sea mammals for many landlocked children.
“Whales are among the most intelligent, fascinating, and beautiful creatures in the world,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, a primary author of the bill, in a prepared statement. “And they deserve to live freely in their natural habitats — not in captivity where their lives are defined by the four walls of a concrete tank.”
Schiff teamed up with California members of Congress who have backed environmental legislation in the past, including Reps. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach; Tony Cardenas, D-Los Angeles; Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael; and Congress members from Washington, New York, New Jersey and Tennessee. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, signed onto the legislation, dubbed the Strengthening Welfare in Marine Setting Act, officially introduced on July 26 as H.R. 8514.
Specifically, the bill would ban the capturing, exporting, importing and breeding of orcas, beluga, pilot and false killer whales. Exceptions would be made for whales taken in for research and those living in marine sanctuaries.
About 50 whales are being held in captivity in the U.S., according to the bill’s authors.
The authors, as well as nonprofit groups and scientific data say these whales are cognitively, emotionally and socially aware animals with large brains who suffer distress when held in an enclosure for display and separated from their social circle.
“The conditions these whales live in contribute to far shorter life spans — captive orcas typically live just 12 years compared to 40 years in the wild,” said Feinstein in a statement, “and there is significant evidence that captivity is excruciating for these mammals.”
What it means for SeaWorld is not clear. The park in Southern California announced in 2016 that the whales currently in captivity will be its last, meaning no more whales would be imported. In addition, California has banned orca breeding in captivity. In 2017, after protests by animal rights groups, the park changed its orca show to one that highlights the whale’s natural tendencies to hunt and communicate.
But halting breeding means SeaWorld’s whale exhibit, the “Orca Experience,” may soon disappear if new whales can’t replace those who die.
SeaWorld summarized its opposition and deferred to others in the business who also oppose the legislation.
“What you’ll likely hear from the experts is the legislation is overreaching, misguided and unnecessary,” said SeaWorld spokesperson Tracy Spahr in an email to the Southern California News Group. She added that the legislation could threaten research and rescue operations performed at SeaWorld and other parks, work that helps sustain the population of endangered cetaceans.
Other parks and aquariums potentially affected by the bill include the Georgia Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, Miami Seaquarium and Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a trade group representing 238 members, said the bill would have unintended consequences.
“When you lose the ability to hold these animals in a healthy responsible environment, you lose the opportunity to learn about them,” said Ashe, who was the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2011-2017.
Aquariums and zoos are often called in to rehabilitate sick or injured animals in the wild, and without hands-on learning from those whales in captivity, they’d lose that expertise, Ashe said. “These are leading rescue organizations,” he said. “Call SeaWorld. Call the Georgia Aquarium or Shedd. They know how to care for these animals.”
Ashe predicted a powerful pushback from his group as well as individual zoos and aquariums who view the bill as part of a radical animal rights agenda to free all captive animals, including those held in zoos.
“Opposition will be broad and strong to this SWIMS Act,” he said.
One group that agrees with the bill is the Cetacean Society International, based in West Hartford, Connecticut. Whales, dolphins and porpoises are classified as cetaceans, and the society believes they should be protected. The group believes holding four different whale species in captivity is harmful.
Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut has a resident beluga whale, and recently imported five whales from a Canadian aquarium but two died, said David Kaplan, president of the Cetacean Society.
“They are not minnows, not goldfish,” said Kaplan. “They are shipping whales by truck. That is barbaric.”
Kaplan added, “To put a whale in a concrete tank is very much like putting a human in solitary confinements. It is torture. It is taking an animal out of its element. They get stir-crazy.”
Similar bills failed to pass in 2015 and 2016. Some say the 2016 version — specifically focused on orcas — convinced SeaWorld to agree to stop future breeding of the black and white whales. And 2017 protests by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, led to more natural orca show.
But PETA wants to see a ban on captivity and breeding in all 50 states and is supporting the legislation.
PETA said in a written response: “PETA is rallying its members and supporters to support the SWIMS Act, which would prevent more generations of these animals from living and dying in dismal concrete tanks, with nothing to do but swim in circles, beg for dead fish, and lash out at one another in frustration.”
Andy Yun, a SeaWorld pass holder from Irvine, said after seeing the orca show as a kid, he was inspired to help marine biologists track whales off the coast of Washington during a summer program in 2005. His experience with researchers led to several sightings of killer whale pods.
More recently, he said his 8-year-old daughter learned a lot about whales and protecting the ocean environment after visiting SeaWorld. The two experiences go hand-in-hand and the world needs both kinds of encounters, he said.
“It is not black and white,” said Yun, 37. “I feel like the pros of allowing the killer whales to be accessible [at a water park or aquarium] can outweigh the cons.”
Kaplan said the Cetacean Society promoted the first whale watching trips off the coast of Cape Cod in the mid 1970s as alternatives to hunting whales or keeping them in displays for entertainment. Whale watching tours have grown in popularity there and on the West Coast as a way to see whales in the wild, not in an enclosure.
“These majestic marine mammals should be observed and cherished in their natural habitat where they belong, not in captivity,” wrote Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., in a statement.
Whale watching tours are offered off the coasts of Long Beach, Newport Beach and Dana Point. These businesses have taken photos of various whale species seen from their boats and have helped with whale rescues.
“There is no one I know who in their right mind thinks it is OK to take whales into captivity,” said Gisele Anderson of Capt. Dave’s Dana Point Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari, a business operating for 28 years.
“When people can experience them in the wild it is a much better experience all the way around,” she said.