Iconic SeaWorld killer whale show will go on for now

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A California bill that sought to end killer whale shows at SeaWorld in San Diego and phase out their captivity was put on hold Tuesday, dousing an escalating fight between animal activists and supporters of the major tourist attraction.

The bill’s author, Democrat Richard Bloom of Santa Monica, agreed during the bill’s first hearing before the water, parks and wildlife committee to revisit his proposal after further study. As a result, AB2140 is dead for this year, and the soonest lawmakers could vote on the proposal would be mid-2015 following additional hearings.

“It’s unfortunate that much of the conversation has been fueled … by fear and invective and misinformation,” Bloom said. “It’s clear that many committee members are simply unprepared to make a decision on the bill.”

Bloom was inspired by the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” in which filmmakers argue that captivity and mistreatment of orcas make the animals aggressive and have led to attacks on trainers. It examined the events leading to the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in SeaWorld Orlando when the whale Tilikum pulled her underwater.

The bill would have banned the import, export and breeding of orcas while requiring SeaWorld San Diego to move its 10 killer whales out of tanks and into larger sea pens.

Witnesses for the marine park said that was not a viable option, and SeaWorld lobbyist Scott Wetch told lawmakers the bill would have likely resulted in the orcas moving to parks outside the state.

Public outrage over the movie drove 1.2 million people to sign a petition supporting the bill which was delivered Monday to the Assembly by three elementary school students who successfully stopped an overnight school field trip to SeaWorld.

Dozens of animal rights activists packed the hearing room on Tuesday to support the bill, with more who were unable to get seats waiting outside.

SeaWorld dismissed their contention that orcas are too intelligent and too large for captivity.

“That argument is not based on credible peer-reviewed science,” John Reilly, president of SeaWorld San Diego Park, said in an interview. “It’s based on emotion and a propaganda film.”

Groups supporting business and tourism backed SeaWorld, saying it provides thousands of jobs and attracts tourists to San Diego.

John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld trainer in Texas and San Diego who appeared in “Blackfish,” told lawmakers that orcas appeared agitated and pulled him underwater multiple times.

SeaWorld has mounted an aggressive public relations campaign to discredit the film for relying on what it calls unqualified former employees and biased experts.

The publicly traded company bought newspaper ads, set up a website countering “Blackfish,” and criticized the film on Twitter. SeaWorld says it expects record revenue in 2013, even after the documentary aired on CNN and at the Sundance Film Festival.

Recent filings, however, showed a dip in attendance at the start of the year that the company attributes to a change in how holidays fall in the calendar year.

Witnesses for SeaWorld said the animals receive the highest level of care and provide opportunities for research to help conserve killer whales in the wild.

The marine park saw the delay of the bill as a victory, though they will be called upon to defend their practices before lawmakers again.

“The bill was deeply flawed and fundamentally flawed and didn’t appear to have support today,” Reilly, the park president, said after the hearing. “We believe strongly there is an inspiration benefit to people seeing (killer whales) in our park.”

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, a sponsor of the bill, said she was disappointed by the delay but believes science will ultimately show orcas are ill-suited for captivity.

“Nobody likes to wait, but I’ve been doing this for over 20 years,” she told reporters after the hearing. “I’m playing the long game.”

New York lawmakers have also been considering a bill to ban the captivity of killer whales, although there are none in the state. Rose said she had been working with lawmakers in Texas and Florida, where SeaWorld has parks in San Antonio and Orlando, to introduce similar legislation.

The bill tested incoming Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, who has not taken a stance but said in a statement that she supported the interim study. The divisive bill placed the Democrat from San Diego in an awkward position as she had to balance pressure from the party’s environmental base and one of the largest employers in her district.

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