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Moment that mattered: California bans the captive breeding of orcas

A female killer whale, Moana, center jumps with its mother "Wikie" (11 years old) at the animal exhibition park Marineland in Antibes, southern France, Saturday, March 17, 2012. Moana celebrates today her first birthday. The baby killer whale was born by artificial insemination with the sperm from "Ulysses", a killer whale of the Seaworld aquatic park at San Diego in USA. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

When I saw the SeaWorld executives rushing out of the room, I knew this was an important moment. I was an expert witness at the California Coastal Commission hearing, which was actually brought about by SeaWorld itself. It had requested permission from the authority to expand the size of its orca tank to 10 million gallons. The commission agreed to the expansion, but only after one of the commissioners, Dayna Bochco, added a clause banning the park’s captive breeding programme. She said they did not want to allow bigger tanks just for them to be filled with more whales. This was not what SeaWorld was expecting and the moment it was announced John Reilly, president of its San Diego park, shot out of the room.

In the build-up to the hearing, SeaWorld was telling the press that the tank expansion was about animal welfare… but Orcas are valued at $15-20 million each. Because of the clause, SeaWorld are not currently building the new tank and on 29th December sued the California Coastal Commission claiming that it had no right to introduce the restrictions, which not only banned breeding but also the sale, trade or transfer of captive orcas.

I was a trainer at SeaWorld for 12 years in three different parks; in many ways they created me. I look back at that time now as if I was in a cult.
We had it drilled into us every day that everyone that criticised the way we treated animals was crazy, and I believed it. Working with orcas had been my dream since I was six years old. I had a tough childhood, and the dream of working with those animals kept me going. I was delighted when I got my first job at SeaWorld, I was 20 and a killer whale trainer at Shamu stadium. I worked hard to rise to the position of senior killer whale trainer. I quit in 2012, but for several years before that I had felt deep down that the way we confined these animals in captivity was wrong. I justified it for selfish reasons – I wasn’t ready to give up the whales. I also thought that the love I had for the whales would make up for what was happening to them. I didn’t quit when Alexis [Martínez] was killed by Keto – a whale I had worked with – or when Dawn [Brancheau], who I had known for nine years, was killed by Tilikum [Brancheau and Martínez were killed by orcas in captivity within 69 days of each other]. But when I saw SeaWorld’s reactions to the deaths, I realised I had to go. Seven days after I resigned, I did an interview for Blackfish [a 2013 documentary that was highly critical of SeaWorld]. After that I felt a huge backlash. People declared that I was an animal rights extremist, which is so far from the truth – this was my life for years.

“I think public opinion is slowly turning against keeping these magnificent giant creatures in captivity”

After the California Coastal Commission case, SeaWorld announced that it was going to end live animal shows and replace them with an experience focused on the natural environment. It felt to me like a PR stunt, a distraction from the fact that many people feel orcas should not be in tanks at all. If you want to show orcas in a ‘natural environment’, then put them in a natural environment and release them to a sea sanctuary.

I think public opinion is slowly turning against keeping these magnificent giant creatures in captivity. The problem is that orcas create a powerful response – as soon as you see them you are incapable of thinking straight. They are beautiful creatures and experiencing them so close is incredible, but it is still morally wrong and has no place in 2016.

This is going to be a big year for SeaWorld. If it fails to overturn the commission’s verdict and still builds the new tank then we could be seeing the last generation of captive whales in California – they won’t be able to breed or bring in replacements. The company is also facing federal legislation proposed by Californian congressman Adam Schiff which proposes a national ban on keeping orcas in captivity. Just as importantly, in 2015 SeaWorld’s [second quarter] profits fell by 84 percent from same period the year before. The public are staying away. If this continues, they will need to adopt a very different business model, one that is more in keeping with the times.

I still miss the whales. They meant everything to me. When I realised I would never see Takara or Kasatka again I cried like I have never cried before. It was more than I cried over losing any member of my family.
But I was able to leave and get on with my life. The whales don’t have
that choice.

John Hargrove is the author of ‘Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish’ published by Palgrave Macmillan. The paperback edition is out in April. 

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