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Will Place into Law SeaWorld’s Historical Announcement to End Orca Captivity

SAN DIEGO – In response to today’s announcement that SeaWorld will end their orca breeding program and phase out their orca theatrical shows at all theme parks across the country, Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) joined SeaWorld San Diego Park President, John Reilly, at a press conference today, announced that he has re-introduced the Orca Protection and Safety Act that will adopt many of the company’s new commitments into law that was first introduced in 2014. 

“With today’s announcement by SeaWorld to end orca breeding and phase out their orca shows, I believe that we have resolved a fundamental marine mammal welfare issue. For these reasons, I can now applaud SeaWorld’s forward-looking, humane and market-responsive leadership,” said Bloom.   “Consistent with SeaWorld's announcement, I will also be re-introducing legislation that will permanently end orca captive breeding anywhere in California as called for in my original bill from two years ago.”

“Assembly member Bloom and SeaWorld share a common passion for, and commitment to, marine mammals, ocean health and protection of our natural world. We recognize that society’s attitudes about orcas in human care are changing, and Assembly member Bloom has been a vocal leader in that regard,” said Reilly.  “Our announcements today shows that SeaWorld is listening and we are changing.   We are working toward new ways to deliver on our purpose.  We want every guest who walks through our doors to be inspired to take action to help protect wild animals and wild places. We look forward to working with Assembly member Bloom on ocean health and wildlife issues that are important to all of us.”

“Ending the orca breeding program is the right decision, and I commend SeaWorld for responding to recent challenges in a positive, collaborative way,” said Assembly Speaker Emeritus Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). “I am particularly excited about SeaWorld’s coming partnership with the Humane Society. Working together, these two organizations can make great strides in educating the public about the need to protect our oceans. SeaWorld has long been an important, iconic part of San Diego’s cultural identity and economy, and it will continue to be. I look forward to this next exciting phase in the park’s evolution.”

After humans, killer whales are thought to be the most socially and ecologically complex species on the planet. Scientists studying killer whales in the wild have documented the close social bonds these animals share. In fact orcas stay with their mothers their entire lives and their life trajectories are similar, in many ways, to humans.  For example, orcas nurse for up to two years, reach sexual maturity around fourteen years, males reach social maturity around 20 years of age, females go through menopause between 40-45 years of age, males live between 60-70 years, and females between 80-90 years.

As top predators, their cooperative hunting techniques and unique vocalizations demonstrate highly evolved learned behavior, what many call culture.  Yet captive orcas are almost solely used for performing or breeding to maintain stocks at amusement parks.  They are separated from their offspring, live in pods that are artificial and made up of unrelated individuals, and live their entire lives in concrete tanks that are only a fraction of the size of their natural habitat.

In addition to their unique vocalizations, their cooperative hunting techniques demonstrate a highly evolved learning behavior that is carried on from generation to generation, yet sometimes unique to that pod.  Orcas create waves in the ocean to knock seals off of icebergs and they have learned to calculate low and high tides to more easily steal prey from beaches.

At over thirty feet in length and more than 20,000 pounds with the ability to travel up to 100 miles a day and with a range of over 1,000 miles, orcas are the oceans top predators, able to take down a Great White Shark or even a Blue Whale, the largest mammal on the planet.

The orca’s size and intelligence is the reason why the scientific community has raised serious concerns about having orcas in captivity.  However, after the tragic death of a SeaWorld trainer in Florida and another trainer at a theme park in Spain highlighted in the documentary, Blackfish, the public has increasingly questioned the moral justification for keeping orcas in captivity.

In response, Assemblymember Richard Bloom introduced legislation in 2014 to end captive breeding and performance-based shows, and prohibit the import or export of orcas in California.  While the legislation underwent scientific review, support for ending orca captivity grew exponentially.  Online petitions collectively gained more than one million supporters, numerous organizations pledged their support, and legislation was introduced in two other states and in Congress. 

Recently, leading newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and the San Diego Union Tribune all acknowledged that public disapproval of orca captivity was growing and unlikely to retreat. 

As public opinion was clearly continuing to build in favor of ending orca captivity, this past December, as time for introducing new legislation grew closer, Assemblymember Bloom wrote a private letter to Joel Manby, CEO of SeaWorld, and John Reilly, Park President or SeaWorld San Diego urging the company to voluntarily end orca breeding and captivity.  In his letter, he urged changes to the company’s direction not only for animal welfare reasons, but because of the inherent business risks should they continue in this increasingly unpopular direction.

“SeaWorld is unquestionably a significant economic driver in the markets where their parks are located.  Their employees, shareholders, and surrounding businesses all rely on their financial sustainability. But they are also an international leader in rescuing and rehabilitating injured sea life and returning them to the wild.  They provide invaluable research on animal and habitat preservation and restoration.  And they have a dedicated, knowledgeable, and well-respected team of veterinarians, scientists, and trainers – all of whom are also dependent on a sustainable business plan. The importance of today’s announcement for all of these people cannot be underscored,” Bloom added.

The entire statements made by Assemblymember Richard Bloom and John Reilly, Park President at SeaWorld San Diego, at today’s press conference can be read below.

Statement by Assemblymember Richard Bloom:
Approximately two and a half years ago, I watched Blackfish, a documentary that chronicled the consequences of breeding, raising, and keeping orcas in captivity.  Like many people who watched the documentary, I was in awe of their sheer power and depth of their intelligence.  But, like many people, I also began questioning the scientific and moral justification of keeping orcas in captivity for our general entertainment.

With more questions than answers, I met with experts in the field of orca research, animal welfare advocates, and officials from SeaWorld.  Ultimately, I learned what a growing consensus in the scientific community had already known and argued for many years: orcas are too large and too intelligent to be confined in artificial environments.

With this realization, almost two years ago to this day, I introduced first-of-its-kind legislation that called for a number of things but, most importantly,  an end to captive breeding programs with the goal of eventually ending orca captivity once and for all. .

If I've learned anything in 17 years as a state and local legislator, it's that good policymaking can take time. So, even though that first attempt at legislating on orca issues was not successful, I doggedly continued to educate myself and advocate to others with the goal of introducing new legislation in the current term.

Amidst the intense, emotional and very public debate that followed for the next two years, support for ending orca captivity only grew.  Online petitions collectively gained more than one million supporters.  My office was flooded with calls with people asking how they could help.  Organizations pledged their endorsement.  And legislators in other states and in Congress introduced similar bills.

Leading newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and the San Diego Union Tribune all acknowledged that public disapproval of orca captivity was growing and unlikely to ever retreat. 

In December, as the time for introducing new legislation grew closer I took note of a number of changes that had taken place at Seaworld and around the issue, including an important decision at the California Coastal Commission and the hiring of a new CEO at Seaworld, Joel Manby, who, it seemed to me, might be amenable to a new conversation.  So,I took it upon myself to write a private letter to Mr. Manby, and John Reilly, the Park President here in San Diego plainly asking a bold question: would Seaworld consider avoiding another round of legislation and debate and  voluntarily end orca breeding and captivity.  They should consider this, I argued, not only for animal welfare reasons, but because of the inherent business risks should they continue in this increasingly unpopular direction.

With today’s announcement by SeaWorld to end orca breeding and phase out their orca shows, I believe that we have turned the corner on our fundamental disagreement.  But more importantly, I believe that SeaWorld has turned the corner on their fundamental disagreement with the majority of the public.  For these reasons, I applaud SeaWorld’s forward-looking, humane and market-responsive leadership.

SeaWorld is unquestionably a significant economic driver in the markets where their parks are located.  Their employees, shareholders, and surrounding businesses all rely on their financial sustainability. 

SeaWorld is also an international leader in rescuing and rehabilitating injured sea life and returning them to the wild.  They provide invaluable research on animal and habitat preservation and restoration.  And they have a dedicated, knowledgeable, and well-respected team of veterinarians, scientists, and trainers – all of whom are also dependent on a sustainable business plan.

In the footsteps of SeaWorld’s announcement, I am also announcing my plans to re-introduce legislation that will permanently and indelibly place into law many of the elements announced by SeaWorld today and contained in my original bill from two years ago. 

While I wholeheartedly endorse SeaWorld’s announcement today, company leadership can change and with it, so can company directions.  I owe it to the people of California and to the animal welfare advocates who have been at the forefront in calling for this change to give them the assurance they need and deserve.

Statement by John Reilly, Park President, SeaWorld San Diego:
Thank you Assembly member Bloom. Good afternoon, thank you for coming today. My name is John Reilly and I am Park President at SeaWorld San Diego. As you know, this morning SeaWorld announced that the orcas currently in our care will be the last generation of orcas at SeaWorld. The company will end orca breeding this year and the animals will continue to live their lives at SeaWorld where they can continue to inspire and educate our guests.  To that end, we also reconfirmed our commitment to end theatrical orca shows and will replace them with inspiring, natural orca encounters so our guests will continue to experience the strength and majesty of these incredible animals. Finally, SeaWorld announced a new partnership with the Humane Society of the United States to protect our oceans and the animals that call them home.

These were not easy decisions.  This about doing the best thing for our whales, our guests, our team members and SeaWorld. 

We love our whales and so do many of our visitors.   But we also know that our whales have become a growing concern for many people.  The world is changing, and in the case of orcas it is an attitudinal change we helped create, and now we need to change too.  

These announcements show that SeaWorld is listening and we are changing.   We are working toward new ways to deliver on our purpose.  We want every guest who walks through our doors to be inspired to take action to help protect wild animals and wild places.

I’d like to recognize Assembly member and former Speaker Toni Atkins who has been a strong supporter of SeaWorld’s throughout this difficult and multifaceted process. Thank you Assembly member Atkins for your guidance and support.

Assembly member Bloom who is here with me today has taken a leadership role in the State Assembly on this complex issue. We look forward to working with him.

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