By Hannah Tait
On September 13th, California’s Governor Jerry Brown signed the Orca Protection and Safety Act banning all orca shows for the purpose of entertainment, as well as captive orca breeding. The legislative reform, essentially aimed at SeaWorld, is a result of the growing concern for orca welfare that began to seriously take off after the release of the 2013 documentary Blackfish.
The news is a step in the right direction, and will hopefully inspire further legal reform for captive marine animals. However, the bill doesn’t go as far as banning the display of orcas for ‘educational’ purposes. This means the 23 orcas still in captivity at SeaWorld parks in the United States will likely remain in tanks for the rest of their lives.
As the documentary Blackfish revealed, SeaWorld is known to make misleading statements about orcas, ranging from their life span to the reason for their collapsed dorsal fins. It’s difficult to see how a lonely and distressed orca in a tank could effectively teach people about these complex and intelligent animals.
Considering what we now know, it is becoming more difficult for SeaWorld to pretend that keeping such intelligent animals in captivity isn’t cruel. For example, orcas have been found to engage in vocal learning to communicate, meaning they learn to mimic new sounds and apply them to social situations. Due to this ‘hear and imitate’ process, orcas develop a special type of dialect between each pod that is passed down between generations, very similar to different languages between humans. This complex communication method is a reason why orca pods share a strong family bond. If they are taken away or born into captivity without the chance to form these bonds, it can be very damaging to their psychological development. In addition, when in captivity, orcas cannot properly echolocate and the sound bounces off the walls in strange ways, making it almost impossible to communicate, causing great psychological stress.
Given the mounting body of evidence proving there is no humane way to keep orcas in captivity, animal welfare organisations around the world are now calling on SeaWorld to retire their orcas. Scientist Lori Marino and her colleagues at the Whale Sanctuary Project are planning to build sea pens, despite SeaWorld’s obstinate stance against them. While they could never compete with the ocean, sea pens are much closer to an orca’s natural habitat than a bare, concrete tank – and are therefore a much kinder alternative to captivity. They would provide orcas with a chance to swim greater distances, use their echolocation properly, and live in a habitat very similar to their natural home.
In June of this year, Baltimore Aquarium announced their plans to move its current bottlenose dolphins into a sea pen by 2020, a decision applauded by animal welfare advocates worldwide. SeaWorld, however, is persistent in resisting sea pens, showing yet another example of prioritising profit over animal welfare.
It is vital that pressure on SeaWorld continues. As the largest company in the marine animal entertainment industry, the global chain’s policies set an important standard for other parks to follow.
It has never been a more important time to voice your opinion, join a rally, sign petitions and get involved in promoting better protection for whales and dolphins. SeaWorld cannot ignore these messages; the passing of Governor Brown’s recent legislation can be seen as a victory for animal advocates everywhere – a key example of the power of collective activism.