First disclosure: I've lived in San Diego for nearly a dozen years, and I've never been to SeaWorld. Wait. Check that. I've 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. I'm not a marine biologist (although I've played one on TV), and I haven't spent a lot of time studying their behaviors (whales, not biologists).
Third disclosure: I don't believe I've written anything about SeaWorld or its whale shows since we launched CityBeat in 2002, so, obviously, the theme park's business model and practices haven't been a huge priority. I'm chiming in now because, with last year's critical documentary Blackfish and state Assemblymember Richard Bloom's 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 SeaWorld's 10 whales into ocean pens. The city's 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. I'm particularly interested in what position Toni Atkins will take— this week, she became speaker of the Assembly, and SeaWorld is in her district. She'd 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, it's about morality. I suspect that SeaWorld could make adjustments to fit a new reality and do OK—maybe even better—but even if it can't, 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, it's 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 doesn't 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. I'll 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 it's to the wide-open sea or fenced-off pens.
Though I haven't crusaded against SeaWorld's practices, I'd sign a petition banning the shows and the separation of family members in half a second. By nature, I'm also against holding large, wild marine mammals prisoner in relatively small pools. Even reputable zoos make me uneasy; I think I've been to the San Diego Zoo once in the 12 years I've lived here. I'm 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 that's 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 don't think wild animals should be caged, unless it's to rehabilitate and add strength to numbers in the wilderness.
I'm inclined to view SeaWorld's past as disgusting and shameful and its present as obnoxious, at best. It bugs me that this amusement park is iconic to San Diego. I'll 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.