First disclosure: Ive lived in San Diego for nearly a dozen years, and Ive never been to SeaWorld. Wait. Check that. Ive been there once, when I was about 12 years old, and my family was visiting from greater Los Angeles. I recall nothing about the experience, but I probably had an OK time; this was roughly two years before a became a seriously surly teenager.
Second disclosure: Like most people, I know little about killer whales. Im not a marine biologist (although Ive played one on TV), and I havent spent a lot of time studying their behaviors (whales, not biologists).
Third disclosure: I dont believe Ive written anything about SeaWorld or its whale shows since we launched CityBeat in 2002, so, obviously, the theme parks business model and practices havent been a huge priority. Im chiming in now because, with last years critical documentary Blackfish and state Assemblymember Richard Blooms consequent bill to ban some of what SeaWorld does, the theme park has become a huge issue.
Bloom, a Democrat who represents the Santa Monica area, wants to ban public entertainment involving killer whales, end the captive breeding of whales, bar companies from importing or exporting whales and move SeaWorlds 10 whales into ocean pens. The citys top two politicians, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and City Council President Todd Gloria, have announced their opposition to the bill. Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez so far is the only local state legislator to indicate support. Im particularly interested in what position Toni Atkins will take— this week, she became speaker of the Assembly, and SeaWorld is in her district. Shed seem to be colossally important in this debate.
Politicians like Atkins no doubt feel pressure to consider the economic impacts of such a bill, and economic concerns might sway some San Diegans. But, from my view, its about morality. I suspect that SeaWorld could make adjustments to fit a new reality and do OK—maybe even better—but even if it cant, morality should trump the loss of some tourism jobs and city general-fund dollars.
My guess is that the low-hanging fruit for Bloom are the killer-whale shows. I suspect that of all the things SeaWorld does, its demanding that these majestic creatures perform tricks, in exchange for food, for our entertainment, that rubs the most critically thinking people the wrong way. Assuming that SeaWorld truly doesnt take whales from the wild anymore, next on the objection list would likely be the importing and exporting of whales, particularly when mothers are separated from their offspring. To me, a separation scene in Blackfish was eerily reminiscent of a horrific scene in 12 Years a Slave, when two children are torn from their mother. Ill bet that the tougher public sell for Bloom will be the ban on breeding and the requirement to relocate the whales currently housed at SeaWorld to the ocean, whether its to the wide-open sea or fenced-off pens.
Though I havent crusaded against SeaWorlds practices, Id sign a petition banning the shows and the separation of family members in half a second. By nature, Im also against holding large, wild marine mammals prisoner in relatively small pools. Even reputable zoos make me uneasy; I think Ive been to the San Diego Zoo once in the 12 years Ive lived here. Im all for wildlife research, rescue, conservation and education, but those efforts tend to exist as mitigation for the public entertainment in these parks rather than from any sense of genuine altruism. I believe you can have the research, rescue, conservation and education without the exploitation and the gaudy entertainment.
But thats just me. I think wildlife habitat should be preserved to the greatest extent possible, and the critters and creatures should be protected and left alone. I dont think wild animals should be caged, unless its to rehabilitate and add strength to numbers in the wilderness.
Im inclined to view SeaWorlds past as disgusting and shameful and its present as obnoxious, at best. It bugs me that this amusement park is iconic to San Diego. Ill take a real park—Balboa Park—any day of the week. And I think that steps toward more humane treatment of other species are steps toward the positive evolution of our own.