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Showdown at SeaWorld

Animal lovers are freaking out over the perceived treatment of the orca whales that are the celebrity stars of SeaWorld’s Shamu show. They claim keeping these striking wild mammals in captivity to entertain thousands of spectators is cruel and inhumane.

As soon as the state legislation was introduced to stop the Shamu show, I began to consider the merits of government regulation of private enterprise where there is no proven illegal operation or threat to mankind. Why should a special interest group have the power to shut down a popular enterprise because of a disturbing film?

Apparently the media is taking sides on the issue. Locally, U-T San Diego has jumped into the pool big time with a spread of several pages in the March 16th edition. One correspondent commented that state legislators should not pass laws by watching movies.

The critics of SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas in captivity have not mentioned all the other marine creatures also kept in tanks or performing tricks to amuse children and adults. In fact, the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) hasn’t included other wild animals held in captivity in its quest to keep them in the wild.

The focus of the censure is directed at SeaWorld, with proposed state legislation sponsored by Santa Monica Assemblyman Richard Bloom that prohibits the Shamu show. That would cripple the operations at SeaWorld, a major tourist attraction for San Diego’s economy and provider of jobs for nearly 50 years.

The latest SeaWorld operations for a year report 4 million visitors, $14 million in rent paid to the city and 4,500 employees. That counts as one of the city’s largest employers behind Qualcomm, Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy.

If PETA succeeds in slamming SeaWorld for cruelty to animals, I suspect they will next attack the San Diego Zoo, an even bigger attraction for tourists in San Diego and another major job provider. If those bleeding hearts for the orcas walk by all those caged or confined wild animals held in captivity at the zoo, what will they claim next?

There had not been a major protest against SeaWorld since its founding in 1965, or any of the other marine mammal shows around the country until the 2013 documentary film “Blackfish” fired up animal lovers. That’s not to say that some of the early marine shows did not disgust many caring animal lovers by their methods of capturing the wild mammals and keeping them in confinement.

SeaWorld, which began as a marine science laboratory and tourist facility, has shown exemplary care of its collection, including assistance in preventing the extinction of endangered marine life and emergency aid to distressed wild creatures.

Anyone who objects to keeping wild animals in captivity is in conflict with history of the human capacity to domesticate all forms of animals. Zoos and private collections go back centuries before activists had legal recourse to protect wild life. PETA might serve the world better if it spent its efforts and resources to protect African wild animals from slaughter.

Now that I have posted my opposition to the concept of government regulation of private enterprise, I will give some credit to the exposé of orca treatment in the film “Blackfish.” Any caring person would be upset by the documentary record of how captivity can distress the orcas used in the SeaWorld show.

The most disturbing was the capture of young orcas taken away from their pod family. These mammals have a natural instinct to spend their life with their mothers in a group that has its own communication. Separating them is cruel.

The lifespan of an orca in the wild is comparable to human life expectancy. It is only half as long in captivity. Marine scientists might agree that separation from the native pod and a life in confined captivity creates distress and possibly aggression.

At least that is a major point in the film blaming these possibilities as the reason for three human deaths caused by aggressive orcas. Considering the high risk of personal contact with a 2,000-ton wild animal, that is a remarkable record over 50 years. Compare that to surfing, cycling or any sport and it becomes a non-issue.

The Assembly committee debating the legislation voted to put the bill on hold under pressure from the SeaWorld lobbyists. The issue has gone international with an article in The Economist on March 15 blaming the documentary film for inciting the controversy.


Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com

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