No one can say the writing wasn’t on the wall. Ever since the release of “Blackfish,” the marine mammal industry has had to swim quickly with the tide to protect its existence as the rallying cry to end whale and dolphin captivity every year appears to strengthen. Enter California Senate Bill 1405 — the Dolphin Protection Act.
By Dr. Brian W. Ogle
The measure, the “Marine mammals: protection of cetaceans: unlawful activities,” better known as the Dolphin Protection Act, mirrors the ban being pushed through in Canada. The California legislation going forward would essentially ban the captivity of whales and dolphins for breeding, display, and entertainment purposes in the Golden State.
A measure that puts SeaWorld squarely in the crosshairs. A measure that is short-sighted and ignores complicated consequences — both to the local economy and local conservation efforts. And a measure, in its myopia, that simply focuses on marine park activities but overlooks the conditions that allow facilities to operate as they do.
For the record, circus-style performances should cease. Facilities must emphasize educational shows. In that regard, facilities that have made this transition deserve credit. That includes SeaWorld — which swapped its Orlando and San Diego orca shows for new educational programming. Additionally, SeaWorld has turned its attention to its dolphin shows and is in the process of phasing out the shows’ extreme tricks.
What the proposed California ban fails to recognize is this: many of these animals on display attract visitors through the front gate. Visitor dollars help fund conservation, rescue, and rehabilitation efforts. Many of these efforts would dry up — noticeably impacting local ecosystems — without this funding. Absent those dollars, not all facilities could maintain their current programs. Smaller facilities, in particular, would be the hardest hit.
“We should not rely on cruel and inhumane treatment of any creature simply for our entertainment,” state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement.
Her measure speaks to the abundant research documenting the deleterious effects captive cetaceans experience. Yet, and still, many facility operators are simply abiding by regulatory standards — which long have been subpar.
Real change shouldn’t begin with state law, but by turning up the pressure on the United States Department of Agriculture to enhance the lax marine mammal standards in the Animal Welfare Act.
Similarly, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the independent accrediting organization for the world’s leading zoos and aquariums, too should be held accountable for its timid approach to establishing and enforcing tougher accreditation standards specific to marine mammals.
AZA intensely has focused its efforts on enhancing accreditation standards for elephants, yet allows marine facilities to essentially self-regulate their exhibit standards. This hypocrisy led AZA to fail its member organizations that house cetaceans with feckless standards. Now, these facilities face threats from careless legislation.
This is a complicated issue, and it’s not made any easier in the wake of change-resistant marine park fans. As an avid park-goer, I marvel at conversations between fans rankled by SeaWorld Orlando’s orca show changes that seem distant from tradition. Yet, refuse marine parks the ability to change and adapt, and we seal their fate. They will be unable to thrive in future decades.
Banning the exhibition of these animals is not the solution. Keeping cetaceans in captivity under current practices is not the solution. Releasing these animals into the wild is not the solution.
Clearly, those involved in the conversation want to give these animals the best quality of life possible. Motive isn’t the problem. Method is.
It’s time to stop the talk about prohibiting cetacean displays. It’s time to raise our voices in unison to pressure regulatory bodies to boost standards. And vote with our dollars to support accredited facilities that engage in conservation — and allow these facilities to adapt to current trends.
Dr. Brian Ogle is an assistant professor of anthrozoology with specialties in zoos and aquariums at Beacon College in Leesburg.