'Blackfish' Inspires California Orca Bill

SeaWorld continues to defend itself against accusations of orca maltreatment.

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A California lawmaker has proposed a bill that would ban orca performances, breeding and artificial insemination in the state.

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The Oscar-shortlisted documentary “Blackfish” has already created a public relations nightmare for SeaWorld, and now it looks like the theme park’s worst fears could be coming true. The film, which alleges that killer whales are gravely mistreated by the aquatic entertainment theme parks, has inspired a California lawmaker to introduce legislation that would ban the captivity of orcas. Assemblymember Richard Bloom will unveil the bill at a Santa Monica pier Friday, scheduled to appear alongside "Blackfish" director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, former orca trainers who participated in the film, and Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute who helped write the legislation.

The bill would ban orca performances, breeding and artificial insemination in the state. Orcas would only be allowed kept in captivity for the purposes of rehabilitation and release. It would also ban the import and export of killer whales across state lines, meaning the 10 killer whales currently in captivity California would have to stay there, but in sea pens not open to public, unless they can be returned to the wild.

[READ: Why 'Blackfish' May Be the Best Documentary of the Year]

According Rose, Bloom had been so moved by the film he reached out to Cowperthwaite directly, who in turn brought on AWI, as they had been working together on various projects related to the film. She says legislators from Texas and Florida, the two other states where orcas are held captive for entertainment purposes, had expressed interest in passing similar bills. A New York lawmaker has also proposed legislation to ban future orca captivity, and South Carolina also has a law on the books from 1992 that prohibits the captivity of dolphins and porpoises.

A fellow California assemblymember, Lorena Gonzalez, already expressed support for the bill on her Facebook page and Rose is optimistic about its passage. PETA has signaled its support in a statement from Ingrid Newkirk, the animal welfare group's president, who says the bill "has the potential to end the deep injustice of exhibitions of captive marine life."  

“Richard Bloom is a very experienced politician,” Rose says. “He only moved forward with this with some support that would make it worth pursuing."

SeaWorld issued an email response to U.S. News from spokesperson Becca Bides:

While we cannot comment on Assemblyman Bloom’s proposed legislation until we see it, the individuals he has chosen to associate with for today’s press conference are well known extreme animal rights activists, many of whom regularly campaign against SeaWorld and other accredited marine mammal parks and institutions. Included in the group are some of the same activists that partnered with PETA in bringing the meritless claim that animals in human care should be considered slaves under the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution – a clear publicity stunt. This legislation appears to reflect the same sort of out-of-the-mainstream thinking. SeaWorld, one of the world’s most respected zoological institutions, already operates under multiple federal, state and local animal welfare laws. 

Previously, the theme park has embarked on an aggressive campaign to counter the film’s claims, taking out newspaper ads, blasting “Blackfish” by name, and preemptively sending its objections to it to movie reviewers.

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“SeaWorld is going to react very badly to this, like we are trying to shut it down,” Rose says. “But SeaWorld is a lot more than Shamu. If they want to take a really negative stand on this and they lose, they are not taking account of the zeitgeist [on this issue].”

Since “Blackfish” was released, premiering at Sundance in January of 2013 and later broadcast on CNN, a number of grassroots efforts have emerged to address its accusations of orca maltreatment, including petition drives, celebrity boycotts and even a protest led by a 12-year-old girl of the SeaWorld float at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day’s Parade.

“This is where you want to end up if you do what I do. You want to change policy; you want to affect laws,” says Rose, who has worked on marine mammal issues for 21 years. "I give a lot of credit to ‘Blackfish’ for all of this.”