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An End To Performing Orcas?

A California bill would ban keeping orcas – killer whales — in captivity for entertainment. SeaWorld is preparing for battle. We’ll dive in.

An endangered female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound west of Seattle, as seen Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014 from a federal research vessel that has been tracking the whales. (AP)

An endangered female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound west of Seattle, as seen Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014 from a federal research vessel that has been tracking the whales. (AP)

Orcas, killer whales, are big.  Ten thousand pounds.  More.  They clearly weren’t made to live in pens or sea parks.  But for decades now they have, performing for millions of visitors thrilled by their incredible scale, agility, and intelligence.  A new bill just introduced in California would end all that in the state where Sea World began.  It would ban performing orcas.  Ban the holding of killer whales in captivity for entertainment.  The evidence is in, supporters say, that it’s just too cruel for the great creatures.  But it’s a big business, fighting back hard.  This hour On Point:  the fight over orcas.

 – Tom Ashbrook


Naomi RoseMarine Mammal Scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute.

Tim Zimmermann, Outside magazine correspondent, associate producer and co-writer of the documentary, “Blackfish.” (@Earth_ist)

Grey Stafford, animal trainer and director of Conservation at the Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium in Phoenix. (@ZOOmility)

Tony Perry, San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. (@LATSanDiego)

Read A Statement From SeaWorld

From Tom’s Reading List

Los Angeles Times: Proposed ban on orca shows at SeaWorld stirs anger in San Diego — “A bill by a Santa Monica assemblyman that would ban orca shows at SeaWorld is being blasted in San Diego, home of the marine theme park. SeaWorld expressed doubt about the legality of the legislation.”

The Hollywood Reporter: The ‘Blackfish’ Effect: California’s Proposed Orca Ban, Artists Canceling Theme Park Concerts — “On March 7, California assemblyman Richard Bloom, a Democrat whose district includes Malibu, Pacific Palisades, Bel Air, Brentwood and Santa Monica, introduced legislation that would ban amusement parks from using orcas for performances in theme shows. Spurred by the controversial documentaryBlackfish about captured orcas, the bill also would illegalize captive breeding and prohibit the import and export of the so-called killer whales.”

New York Times: SeaWorld Questions Ethics of ‘Blackfish’ Investigator — “‘Blackfish’ has become a rallying point for those who oppose the use of killer whales for entertainment in the SeaWorld parks, and it has drawn large audiences in theaters and on TV. But SeaWorld has defended its practices, mounting an aggressive pushback against the film.The company continued its counterattack with a complaint delivered Thursday to the Labor Department. It accuses the official examining an orca’s 2010 fatal attack on a SeaWorld trainer of ethical violations, including leaking confidential documents to the makers of ‘Blackfish.’”

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  • Fiscally_Responsible

    I am a conservative person including taking care of the planet, which is actually a conservative value. The degree to which mankind misuses what is incorrectly considered an inexhaustible resource, namely the oceans, is appalling. This includes overfishing, cutting off shark fins, etc. etc. The emotional abuse that separating baby orcas from their families and isolating them in their pools even though they are social animals so that we can be entertained is another example.

    • lexpublius

      Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of sea life is murdered in fish nets every year, Orcas included; in fact, one caller said more Orcas are murdered by fishers than those imprisoned. LET’S BROADEN THIS TOPIC.

  • Bluejay2fly

    They should ban all performing animals.

    • Coastghost

      No no no no no: what you do is mandate lotteries at each and every show featuring orcas, and at the end of each performance simply feed the lottery winner to the frolicking orcas.

    • lexpublius

      Especially the Hollywood human animals. : )

  • Jack

    The CA bill would criminalize the breeding of orcas and ban their use in shows. I can understand and accept the latter point, but what is the recommendation for carrying out the first point? Would they suggest that all orcas presently in captivity be spayed or neutered? You can’t release them to the wild if they were born in captivity, and you can’t export them (also illegal under the bill). What I don’t understand is why Assemblyman Bloom doesn’t just have the bill say what its intent is: to prohibit the exhibition and keeping of orcas in California by any means for any reason. Never mind the fact that these orcas potentially face a far worse fate at other marine parks if SeaWorld has to divest itself of its stock…

  • LinRP

    Of course “big business is fighting back hard.” It is all only and forever about filthy lucre.

    If you scratch the surface even in the most superficial way, you can be nothing but disheartened and sickened about what these animals endure. Just like their beautiful markings, it is black-and-white WRONG, to keep the gigantic, magnificent Orca penned for our entertainment.

    For decades I thought these were hurt animals, unable to survive in the wild. But to learn that they’re actually hunted, separated from their families, and live in equivalent of cubicles is almost incomprehensible. Yes, Sea World and all the other should close.

    I would like to know why comments here say these animals can’t be returned to the wild? I would like to know if that is true–or not.

    • Jack

      Many of SeaWord’s initial orcas were captured animals, but they stopped capturing orcas in the 1980s. The majority of the orcas currently on display are captive born and have never been in the wild.

      It is possible to return orcas to the open ocean, but the only example to ever be released to the wild, Keiko (better known as “Willy” since he was the animal used in filming the “Free Willy” series of films), remained dependent on humans for the rest of his life. He never integrated with a pod. Perhaps if an entire stock were released all at once, there would be a different result, but there’s no guarantee that orcas born in captivity and knowing only captivity would ever develop the survival skills necessary to ensure a successful release.

      • Whipsnade

        I agree that you can’t just release these Orcas back into the wild and expect them to thrive precisely because they have become so dependent on humans. If Sea World truly cared about these animals’ well-being, they would find a solution – perhaps a large enclosed lagoon – that would allow them to continue to study the animals, while providing more space suited to something an orca’s size dictates. They can still find ways to monetize that, but the days of keeping these elegant animals in such tight close quarters has to end.

        • Jack

          I agree: the should find a way to more adequately maintain and care for these animals, and not just SeaWorld, but the other half dozen marine animal parks.

          As a long time fan on SeaWorld, I was always encouraged by their conservation and rehabilitation efforts, and I accepted the orcas, begrudgingly, as the means of generating the revenue necessary to carry out their other activities (and, I never thought trainers should be in the water with the orcas). But, when SeaWorld was bought by Blackstone Group and became a for-profit venture in 2009, it seemed like everything changed. Now, there is a greater emphasis on making money rather than educating the public and performing conservation. That being the case, I have come around to the position that if SeaWorld wishes to keep these animals on exhibition, and I think that is reasonable, then they need to provide greater space and resources for their care. I’m sorry if that’s not conducive to maximizing shareholder profit, but there is an ethical responsibility to the animals in their charge ahead of shareholders.

  • brittany

    I’m thrilled to hear this has become such a major issue. Maybe now we can finally begin to acknowledge another species’ intelligence and learn to respect and protect them, not exploit them. Hopefully the conversation about animals trapped in zoos, the circus and factory farms is coming soon.

    • Jack

      I hardly think that most zoos are on the same level as factory farms and circuses. That they are mentioned in the same breath is astounding.

      • lexpublius

        Many of us have seen videos of zoo animals pacing back and forth, a clinical symptom of major depression and anxiety. They were born free and are no longer able to run as far as their instincts tell them, visit a fresh water hole, seek fresh prey, enjoy life as theirs was meant to be. SHAME ON IGNORANT comments like yours. OPEN YOUR MIND and heart to what “born free” means. Go watch the documentary from 1970s called “Born Free.” If you don’t cry you are inhumane!

        • Jack

          In the first place, an ad hominem attack is not a demonstration of a valid argument, as is the appeal to emotion. In addition, claiming I am ignorant (and I may well be) without showing sufficient cause of ignorance does nothing to help make your case. Third, I’m not sure what “born free” is supposed to mean in this or any context so I cannot ascertain whether or not it is a valid criterion for evaluation. Finally, “Born Free” is a 1966 British drama based on a 1960 nonfiction account by the same title; it is not, therefore, a documentary.

  • Rick Evans

    Free Killy.

  • sik4toyz

    Having worked at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and watching the thousands of visitors come thru each day, standing over the dolphin tanks, which are too small to be considered humane, I cannot imagine that this is still legal. I would encourage parents to avoid these parks, and biologists to find another way to study these mammals.

  • debhulbh

    Orcas have been kept in captivity since 1961. At least 135 whales have been captured from the wild since that time, and the vast majority of them (86%) are now dead. In fact, the average length of survival in captivity is under six years, despite the fact that in the wild, female orcas may live as long as 80 years, and males as long as 50.

  • James

    It seems archaic what happens to Orcas. (and most animals in captivity) That being said, would Sea World survive if we got rid of this show? It might thrive, but it might also be a death sentence for them and Sea World.

  • David_from_Lowell

    I don’t see how anyone can think it’s ok, what’s done with orcas, after having left a SeaWorld show. Orcas are such intelligent mammals. It’s like watching an intelligent top predator, the paragon of its natural realm, being tarted up and kept in boxes, for the fleeting and momentary entertainment of the maladjusted. It’s a medieval spectacle. And its unbelievable people take children to SeaWorld shows. Why not a family picnic to a public interrogation and hanging?

  • lexpublius

    All animals have a right to live free from captivity; it is like jailing a human who is innocent of a crime. The 1972 “Born Free” documentary film about Elsa, a domesticated lioness who was successfully released into the wild, raised cubs, and visited her human family, taught us that all animals have a right to live free from captivity. The elephants that escaped the show in Missouri last week were running from their “wonderful” captivity. Innocent animals do not want to be imprisoned for life, do you? Outlaw all zoos, including land, water, and air. I saw a captive Eagle … talk about prison planet!

    • Markus6

      Tough one, as extrapolating from this principle, we’d need to outlaw a lot of farms as well. Then what about pets? Some have been bred for captivity, some not. Do we then make a decision about whether the animal is better off in jail or out? Is an elephant in captivity, where he’s getting enough food, medicine, etc. and has a longer life, happier? (assuming those are true). I honestly don’t know, though I know that assigning human emotions to other animals is dangerous. It’s not that they don’t have emotions, depends on the animal, just that they’re probably very different.

      • Jack

        I had many of the same thoughts, and it seems unreasonable to include circuses with zoos; I don’t think anyone doubts that the treatment of circus animals is inhumane, but I find it hard to swallow that zoos, as a category, are no better than circuses. And, even if that were true, abusus non tollit usum (abuse does not preclude proper use).

  • ThirdWayForward

    Blackfish can be viewed on Netflix — it’s a disturbing story, how ever you feel about killer whales or sea world parks.

  • sisyphus26

    What about the breeding of whales and selling their offspring? Isn’t that reminiscent of slavery? Just because these animals are non-human doesn’t mean they don’t suffer at the loss of their children.

  • Jill122

    If animals in captivity actually saved them, by educating the children, then why are elephants endangered?

    If animals in captivity actually saved them, why is Montana about ready to wipe-out it’s entire wolf population?

    • Markus6

      Because there are many factors that contribute to the extinction of animals. And maybe education slows the extinction or maybe not, but there’s rarely one answer to a complex problem.

      Sorry to pick on you, but Tom brought up the same argument and I’m always amazed it comes up.

      Just because one thing doesn’t solve a problem, doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. Someone said that perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good.

      • Jill122

        I don’t feel picked on. LOL! One of the supporters of keeping Orcas in captivity used “educating the children” as one reason to continue putting the animals in a circus venue. I’m just pointing out that the strategy doesn’t work very well.

        If we keep animals in captivity for their own good, I’m not sure performing for us ought to be one of their jobs.

        On the other hand, I don’t visit those kinds of shows, don’t visit zoos and have never taken my children to them. We have used other routes to learn empathy and stewardship.

    • lexpublius

      African elephants are endangered because Sea World does not operate in Africa so Africans do not get indoctrinated (brainwashed) by Sea World; and, there is still lots of money for elephant ivory. Wolves are sometimes in zoos and those should be outlawed too.

      • Jack

        The red wolf would be nothing more than a college mascot in a low-major conference if it weren’t for zoos. The same goes for the California Condor. I’m not saying it’s the same thing as captive orcas, but I am saying that a properly managed zoo does more good than you are willing to admit.

  • Russell Hockins

    Few people are aware of that:

    In 1980 Sea World San Diego (SWC) had four young (untrained) Orcas in their petting pool where for over a year they interacted with thousands of untrained visitors to the park with no trainer oversight and no one was ever hurt. EVER

    I had the privilege of getting to know these four Orcas (Kasatka, Katina, Kotar and Canuck II) without the restrictions of having to be a trainer or working for the park. I was able to earn their friendship and trust without the need of food to coerce the interactions as park staff does in/for shows, but just patiently waiting for them to come over and check me out. That is Kotar in my icon pic. His sad captive life is a story unto itself.

    Once we had gotten to know each other well, on more than a dozen occasions one grabbed my arm in its mouth up the elbow (in the same manner the final reports say Dawn was grabbed) as had been done to me many times before by the BNDs in the tank there and at other parks I visited back then and gently (for them) pulled on me inviting me into the water. Once two tried this at the same time, one on each arm and almost succeeded. Unfortunately, though I wanted to, I could no accept their innovation to get in the water and play and I was able to get across to them that while I was OK with the idea, the park would not have allowed it. I am still whole, alive and unharmed.

    I was under constant observation by the tank monitor and after the Orcas were consistently coming to me for interaction, by staff from the Orca show observing me from the far side of the tank, apparently wondering how I was so good with them without the use of food to coerce the interactions. Had I been doing *anything* wrong during these interactions, I would have been challenged by one or the other of these two, and even possibly ejected from the park. As this *never* happened, what I was doing was considered not dangerous or harmful to the Cetaceans or to me.

    Strangely, whenever I attempted to walk over to them to ask them questions about the Orcas or the shows, they would quickly run off when they saw me approaching.

    Now after more than 3 decades of operant behavior training, social and food deprivation, done to bend these Cetaceans into something their are not, show animals, these in SWC’s words “Highly trained Orcas” are severely injuring and even killing park staff who, in SWC’s own words “have been specially trained to work with Orcas”. This does not speak well towards their handling of these highly intelligent/sapient individuals, nor about this “special training” when I, as well as dozens of other untrained visitors to the park at that time, with these then, untrained Orcas and were *never* injured. This really debunks/disproves SW, OSHA and other’s claim as to how “wild and dangerous” Orcas are.

    Back then, I wanted to be a trainer myself. However after this unique and rare opportunity, which I’m sure will never happen again, I changed my mind about that and about keeping them in captivity.

    I have also worked on three interspecies communications projects including Dr. Lilly’s JANUS (Joint Analog Numerical Understanding System) and have gotten to know dozens of other Cetaceans through thousands of hours of hands on experience. I have learned from this just how intelligent/sapient Cetaceans are and that captivity, especially in it’s current form, is no way to treat an intelligent being like them.

    People belittle and deride the former staff whistle blowers for bringing to light the problems with keeping Cetaceans in captivity that the general public is blissfully unaware of because of what they are led to “Believe” is going on by the fancy shows at these parks. Being a whistle blower is a good thing and these people are to be commended for their strong moral compass for being forced to leave a job they love to save the animals they love and work with from horrible conditions in these same parks.

    So I do not support their captivity I have not bought a ticket to SWC or any other similar park with Cetaceans even though I have several Cetacean friends there and it pains me to not visit them. I made a singular exception to this last year to visit Kasatka and her new calf at SWC. I was thoroughly disgusted by how much more commercial the park had become in the intervening years and the open interaction petting pool had been turned into a “pay to interact and be a trainer for an hour” income stream for the park. The smell of chlorine was everywhere in the park. It was so sad.

    Why would a facility with stated goals of “Marine Life Awareness and Preservation” need a roller coaster anyway?

    To attract visitors?

    Isn’t that what the animal displays are supposed to be for?

    I’ve seen Blackfish and IMHO I think it was fine. Sea World was asked *repeatedly* to participate in the filming and their input was requested and they *refused* each time. They can’t whine about it now. They had their chance and they ignored it.

    Keiko’s release was not a failure as some seem to think either.

    Many people love and like Dinosaurs all without the need to have one in captivity to instill this in people so the claim that captivity to create this is needed for Cetaceans is really not valid.

  • Alan Holyoak

    It’s about time. Thanks CA!

  • myblusky

    A hundred years from now humans will look back on this time and think how archaic we were for these kinds of practices. The more we learn about the brains of other animals the more perplexing it is to me that we allow this at all even at this point in time.

  • Naomi Rose, Ph.D.

    For those who want to learn more about the issues behind this conversation, please visit (and like) From the Dolphin’s Point of View on FB.

    • MattCA12

      I recently watched Blackfish and almost became physically ill with sadness over what we are doing to these proud mammals. To my shame, several years ago I took my young family to SeaWorld. Never again! Now I’m telling my girls to spread the word about your work and about this bill. We must end this inhumane practice.

  • Lori Wheeler

    That makes me cry just reading this :( I sure hope this is the beginning of the end!!!

    • Sarah

      Me too :(

  • Karen Dawn

    Fantastic discussion! Thank you Tom Ashbrook. While sea pens wouldn’t offer the life we would like these poor animals to have, they would be a vast improvement – just imagine the whales not having their sonar bouncing off concrete walls! Meanwhile, in Miami, there is an orca, Lolita, who was captured from Puget Sound off the coast of Washington, whose family still swims in that sound. I hope people will get involved in the effort to bring her back to her family. Check out http://www.miamiseaprison.com/lolita.htm

  • Lynn Jacob

    I’m tired of the “it’s big business” argument. NO other being is here for our entertainment – animals, women, children…
    I think Sea World is NOT an educational institution – it might spark an interest and caring in children, but as the marine biologist pointed out, they do almost NO educating about orca life in the wild, as this would innately undermine their keeping orcas in captivity.
    It’s all about money. When does this ‘animal prostitution’ stop?

  • manganbr

    It’s called Cosmos, episode 2. It aired last week on Fox. Pay attention: the dogs domesticated us.

  • Lindsey

    Take the pledge – don’t buy a ticket. I’m proud to be a Californian right now, and I support the Blackfish bill. I tell someone everyday about Blackfish and The Cove. Thank you for airing such an important topic and helping spread the message we all so desperately need to teach. Education is the key – people need to understand how to help. Today’s message can be told across the world, as many have already heard about the show via twitter in South Africa, Europe, Japan, etc. We see this instant response of support on Twitter right now just by looking up #blackfishbill or #blackfish. As more people have access to view Blackfish and The Cove, the support grows. California is writing history books as we speak. This movement to end cetacean exploitation and slaughters is in my opinion, one of the most important and emotional issues in our world right now. The Blackfishbill is the beginning of the end for dolphinariums. Moving this bill into a reality and releasing the orcas will blaze the path to change for other states & countries to follow. California can paint the picture across all cultures and break through language barriers globally. Thank you for the discussion and raising awareness. Maybe by the time my daughter is older, this topic WILL be history.

    • Madoff

      I am ashamed I live in a city with enough morons who chase away baby seals from the Children’s Pool just to annoy the rest of the people born with a brain and a heart

  • alyne16

    Replace the word orcas with elephants and Sea World with Zoo and you have the same cruel situation.

  • Andrew John

    Whales are magnificent creatures. I have been on several whale watches from Massachusetts to New Brunswick Canada. Sea World has inculcated a non environmental mind set towards these creatures in their natural habitat. When cousins from out of town were visiting me in Boston, I took them to Rockport and Gloucester and we went on an all day whale watch. Humpbacks surrounded our boat and were in a feeding frenzy on the surface. They were breaching, coming up to the side of our boat and demonstrating their bubble netting behaviors where they corral their food to the surface for easy consumption. These are incredibly complex behaviors. After watching this for over an hour all around our boat with my lower jaw agape in awe, my 10 year old cousin asked the adults in our party: “Is this all they know how to do?”……..Clearly the young boy was a victim of Sea World marketing. He had the expectation that whales in their natural habitat would be jumping through hoops out at Stellwagen Bank.

  • William Rodriguez

    Why do we always have to hide behind business interests? Ultimately we will be destroyed by that mentality.

    • The poster formerly known as t

      Business interests helps men get laid in our society. We worship power.

  • ericmills

    Assemblymember Richard Bloom’s long-overdue legislation, AB 2140, will likely be assigned to the ASSEMBLY WATER, PARKS & WILDLIFE COMMITTEE for a hearing in April. Support letters are needed NOW.

    Chair of the Committee is Assemblymember Anthony Rendon. Committee consultant is Diane Colborn (email – diane.colborn@asm.ca.gov)


    This is not a new issue. We were picketing Vallejo’s Marine World back in the early 1990′s for the same damned reasons. Here’s hoping that Florida (home of Tilikum, who has killed three people so far) and Texas will soon follow California’s lead.

    The issue is not “lost jobs and tourist revenues.” The issue is animal welfare, ethics and morality. Are we up to the task?

    In the interim, read Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, THE SIXTH EXTINCTION.

    Eric Mills, coordinator

  • marasmom

    10 captive orcas in San Diego are the life and death of a $1.4 Billion/year mega-corporation? That’s a very weak business model. Businesses have to adapt to changes in societal mores and to new science all the time. SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. needs to stop ignoring the growing worldwide movement for more humane and ethical treatment of animals, and embrace it for its future health. The San Diego Tourism Authority reports that just 12% of overnight visitors to San Diego visit SeaWorld — it is NOT the “core” of San Diego’s economy as Tony Perry stated. Disney’s 2 parks in Anaheim and Universal Studios’ in Hollywood each attract more visitors than any of SeaWorld’s parks, without being predicated on captive performing wild animal species.

  • Heidi Scoggins

    Aloha, I am blessed to live on Maui, Hawaii and have been out on so many Whale/Dolphin watch tours out on the water and believe me this is by far the best way to see Whales/Dolphins and the most educational way to learn about them. You can find many, many, many tour operators in San Diego, in Florida etc. that are making a lot of $$$$$ taking people out on the open ocean showing these beautiful creatures as they should be. Yes I have been to SeaWorld in San Diego, but it left me with a sad feeling after seeing all the animals behind all that glass and in those tanks… and I have felt this way for years but since seeing Blackfish and The Cove and seeing the live feeds from The Sea Shepherd Cove Guardians from the Dolphin Hunt from the killing cove of Taiji Japan and connecting the dot’s… it all comes back to SeaWorld. So the shows must end and the captivity must end and the killing must end.

  • The poster formerly known as t

    When people think of morality, in our country, they think of the Bible and the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn mistreatment of animals.

  • Deborah Wetzel

    Thank you so much for covering this issue on your show. I’ve seen “Blackfish” and I will never forget it. I fully support this proposed ban; we as a society should stop hunting down these beautiful animals and put them in captivity ONLY for our entertainment- this is barbaric!

  • Laura Warren

    The first legislative hearing for Assembly Bill 2140 will be April 8 at 9AM in room 437 of the State Capitol in Sacramento. This is a public hearing before the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. It is important that supporters are present to state their name, organization (if any) and support. If time permits, longer public testimony will be taken. The marine parks have hired lobbyists that have already hit the Capitol. Supporters in California should also write to their Assembly Members (locate at http://www.assembly.ca.gov) and all supporters may write to the Parks Committee chairperson: Assembly Member Anthony Rendon, State Capitol, Room 2136, P.O. Box 942849, Sacramento, CA 94249 and to the co-chairperson: Assembly Member Frank Bigelow, State Capitol, Room 6027, P.O. Box 942849, Sacramento, CA 94249.

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