During an eleven day period, from April 8 through 18, a state legislative hearing and two Federal Court decisions would have serious implications on SeaWorld and its orca program.  In this first installment, I’ll give you an idea what it was like to be inside a California Assembly Committee hearing on the Orca Welfare & Safety Bill.  The second installment will examine what a Federal Appellate Court’s decision means for the the country’s parks housing orcas.  And the third will look at the latest developments as the Georgia Aquarium attempts in Federal Court to overturn NOAA’s denial of a permit to import belugas.  Some of those belugas are scheduled to be housed at SeaWorld’s three marine life parks.

Before I get into the grit, there are two things you need to be aware of: I’m not part of a movement. I’m neither for nor against the orcas being in captivity.  I’m not “anti-cap” and I’m not a staunch SeaWorld supporter.  You’ll find me talking to former SeaWorld San Antonio trainer John Hargrove, who many of the park’s supporters can’t stand, just as much as I talk to his former co-worker Bridgette Pirtle-Davis, who Blackfish fanatics consider the Joan of Arc of their movement.  Excuse me a moment, I’ve just been told that last statement is not true.  But that’s rule number two of my six rules: talk to everybody.  I don’t care what mud one side may sling at an individual on the other side in an effort to discredit them.  Not only is it juvenile, but it serves no purpose in resolving the question at hand: what to do with the orcas in this Kramer vs Kramer fiasco.

As far as AB-2140 is concerned, I am a supporter only of one part of the bill – that ending performances.  I can endorse SeaWorld’s pregnancy program if it is shown that it is being used for conservation purposes to keep the species alive in the wild or for research.  If it’s being done solely to maintain a stock of performing animals, then I suggest SeaWorld’s orcas be reclassified as domesticated livestock, and we’ll just drop the whole issue and treat them like show horses. (Shit, I just opened another Pandora’s box for Peta).  I do have concerns that should something happen to the Iceland population, this bill prevents the five orcas that are 100% genetically of the Icelandic ecotype in the San Diego park’s collection  from being used for breeding under a Species Protection Plan.

I’m also very much on the fence about sea pens.  In all my years of blogging, I have only once removed a post.  It was the one where I, based on what David Kirby had written, compared the transfer of SeaWorld’s orcas into sea pens to what happened to the Jews of World War II Austria.  There was a lot of anger, with activists saying I had gone to far (love you, Carol).  I stand by my statement that if activists can call orcas in tanks “slaves” and “prisoners,” then it’s fair game for me to equivocate placing animals in sea pens based on their genetic lineage to the NAZI placing of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Both are facsimiles of the real thing and separated from it by a fence and a gate.  I didn’t take it down because I felt I had gone too far in my analogy.  I took it down because I had the opportunity to sit down with Representative Richard Bloom, the author of AB-2140.  He’s a good legislator and a good man and I don’t agree with the vast majority of this bill, but the way I wrote that blog post proved a bit insensitive on my part to who Bloom really is.  I still embrace my NAZI ghetto analogy.  After all, moving orcas from tanks to sea pens is simply exchanging one kind of captivity for another.

The other thing that you need to know is that there is a huge disconnect between the HAVES and the HAVE NOTS.  In the case of the orcas, the HAVES are those that physically, legally, financially have possession of the animals.  The HAVE NOTS are those who preach, “Have not these whales the right to freedom, like their brethren in the wild?”  SeaWorld currently has around 86,000 animals (including Busch Gardens).  Each of those animals has a monetary value attached to it.  When you move away from keepers, and trainers, and veterinarians, and move up the corporate ladder to where those in power with adding machines crunch the numbers, you’ll hear animals refered to, as one zoo’s executive director recently used the term when I interviewed him, as “assets.”

On the other side of the argument are those who think of these animals, especially orcas, as “thinking, feeling beings” (that’s a direct quote from Dr. Naomi Rose).  Because of the social structure, wild roaming patterns, and high intelligence, they feel these animals are not suited for captivity and the best place for them is the wild.  To complicate matters even more, there’s a third party – the thousands of individuals working directly with zoo animals who also consider them ‘thinking, feeling beings,” but unsuitable for one reason or another for introduction to the wild or sanctuary environments.

For a week, I was on the phone back and forth with Bloom’s Chief of Staff and the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee office.  My question was simple.  I was headed to the hearing as a journalist, writing for a trade publication that covers the attractions industry.  Would I be able to get in the room?  There seemed to be a bit of confusion.  Some thought nobody would care about the bill and nobody would show up.  Others thought the room would be full of vocal Peta protestors, being escorted out by Highway Patrol.  I was told to just show up.

I arrived at the hall outside the room half an hour before the doors opened.  The hall was already packed and I was lucky enough to make it in line to be one of the last people allowed in for the 50 or so seats available to the public.  I estimated around 100 to 200 remained in the hall during the hearing.  I couldn’t really tell.  I was in the room and couldn’t see them.

The hearing started peacefully enough.   Bloom and the others in favor of the bill had their say (see video linked at end of post).  Each time one would finish, a roar of cheers could be heard in the hallway, where those who didn’t make it into the room, were watching on a monitor.  Supporters of the bill inside the hearing room started to cheer, only to be silenced by one of the Sergeants at Arms.   Decorum must stand inside such a meeting, after all.  Twice more, he hushed the room when individuals inside started to clap.  A Sergeant at Arms standing close to me stopped three young ladies sitting in front of me, apparently of the Peta variety, from applauding in American Sign Language.  “But we’re not cheering,” they told her. “Yes, you are,” the Sergeant sternly replied.  “And I don’t care what language you’re cheering or clapping in, I’ll escort you out if you do it again.”

The Committee Chair asked members of the public wanting to show their support to come up to the podium.  Due to the vast number, they were restricted to stating their name, a group they were associated with, and that they approved the bill.  Over ninety individuals came up, many from NGO’s, but the majority were  just individuals supporting the proposed legislation.  A number of them started into speeches and were cut off by the Chairman.  One woman went up and just started reciting poetry about orcas.  The Sergeant at Arms swung the microphone away from her.

Then it was time for SeaWorld to argue against the bill.  First up was San Diego Park President John Reilly, who had a very nice speech about what the park does for the community . . . until the very end when he spoke about animal rights and the bill being based on falsehoods of the film.  A large grumble could be heard from the public seats in the hearing room.  I’ve heard the term animal rights extremist used a lot lately.  It was mentioned on SeaWorld’s web page and in an interview I did after the hearing with Mary Healy, the President of the California Association of Zoos & Aquariums.  I’m not sure I would consider Naomi Rose, the co-author/sponsor of AB-2140 as an “extremist.”  As far as I know, she works within the law, be it through the courts or legislation – but it’s all within legal boundaries.  When she and other orca advocates go to SeaWorld to inspect the conditions of the orcas, I’ve been told they do so on season passes.

It’s a far cry from the extremist activists who will be cutting the nets on the sea pens to let the orcas swim free in the oceans.  And it’s a far cry from the extremist activist group known as Peta, who has undercover investigators in SeaWorld’s parks who have actually gotten themselves legitimate jobs on SeaWorld’s payroll, allowing them to carry forth their undercover work with full legal impunity (I’ll explain in a later blog post) .   But don’t worry, Peta.  Your secret’s safe with me.  After all, nobody at SeaWorld reads this blog.

The other thing that irritated me was bringing up Blackfish.  SeaWorld’s been going on offensive about the film in the past few weeks on social media.  I think that’s a bad idea.  I think they should let Blackfish go for the time being and concentrate solely on the bill and its provisions.  For three months, I looked into Blackfish, trying to tie the film in with some bigger conspiracy – with Peta, or OPS, or WDC, or EII.  What I found it to be is a well crafted, but simply made, work.

  • Step One: Film a few orca researchers who are against captivity.
  • Step Two: Film six disgruntled former trainers, two of whom were terminated.  The reasons for the terminations are irrelevant. SeaWorld has its explanations, Tim Zimmermann wrote about the trainers’ versions.  However, as someone who has hired and fired, I know darn well that if you terminate someone, and they believe it’s a wrongful termination, expect a fight sometime, in any kind of arena.
  • Step Three: Use footage from the former trainers’ reels, combined with FOIA-acquired footage, and video from YouTube.  Incidentally, the video of the orcas pushing the seal off the floating ice (the seal does go back on the ice at the end of the full video, as it appears to have been a training session for the youngsters), was also shot in high definition by Ingrid Visser, but her footage was either not used or had its resolution decreased to match that of the YouTube video.

SeaWorld can vilanize Gabriela Cownperthwaite, Tim Zimmermann, and the rest of the producers on Blackfish.  But the one person they should be marking as enemy number one is this guy.  He’s the one mastermind who brought it all together:

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And when he was done, they had the fortune of having their film played and promoted over and over and over and over and over again on a 24-hour “news” network that took advantage of a social media savvy audience that would raise its numbers and increase its advertising revenue over months until a man decided to drop a different kind of whale into the ocean, giving the network something else to play over and over and over and over and over again.

After, Reilly, SeaWorld’s research and veterinary staff spoke.  Then, out of the blue, came Scott Wetch, SeaWorld’s lobbyist, playing a greatest hits medley of “This is crap, this is crap, this is crap.”  He came to town with guns a blazin’.  Those that had fallen asleep were certainly jostled awake as he did his best to discredit Hargrove and Rose, all while flinging reports around in the air.  Wetch’s tone, compared to the other testifying witnesses, was as inconsistent as Brian Clark Howard’s pieces of Peta-laden anti-SeaWorld propaganda are to the rest of the National Geographic website.

(As an aside, National Geographic, you’ve now surpassed both CNN and Pixar to gain top tier on my list of hypocritical companies and organizations decrying public display of cetaceans while doing the opposite with their business practices.  This has nothing to do with Howard’s pieces, but I’ll get on your case in a later blog post.)

After the hearing, in a phone discussion, Naomi Rose explained to me that she was hoping the sea pens would be something SeaWorld would be involved in 100%.  That it would be built by them, managed and staffed by them, and visitors could be charged by them.  But after Wetch mentioned how the orcas would be removed from California before the law went into effect were it to pass, and after he warned the Committee, “You ban them, you buy them,’  she now sees the company as not wanting to accept and implement this idea.

Twenty-three people came to the podium to object to the bill.  Most of them were from organizations with a financial stake in tourism in Southern California.  Mary Healy represented the state’s zoos and aquariums that are members of her organization.  Veteran orca trainers from SeaWorld were there, each adding they had no injuries.  Trainers from Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, the other park that would be affected by this bill (it’s a bit complicated and I’ll get into it after I’ve completed my interview with Six Flags on the matter) were there.  Six Flags is neither an AZA or CAZA member, but is a member of ZAA, which is an industry organization predominately populated by privately-owned parks, and which has a number of stipulations different from AZA.

Most surprising was seeing Jim Maddy, the President and CEO of AZA, take the microphone in opposition to the bill.  Since Blackfish first aired in October, I have not heard a peep out of the organization, even writing them an email for a statement.  From what I saw, Maddy was not here to support SeaWorld, but rather was in the hearing room to represent the state’s and the nation’s AZA member zoos and aquariums.  Although the bill, as it now stands, is solely for orcas, wording can easily be modified to change “orcas” to “dolpins,” “cetaceans,” or even “marine mammals.”  And the bill sets a precedent, for now that it’s been introduced it paves the way for similar legislation for other captive zoo species to have breeding ability and habitation dictated by lawmakers.  Mary Nealy called it taking the “expertise and the experts in animal care out of the equation.”

I wasn’t surprised when San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez made known her concerns about SeaWorld.  She’s had a shark fin up her ass about the chain since she was CEO of a labor union in the county.  In fact, when she first mentioned her support of the bill on her Facebook page, it was along the lines of (paraphrasing here) “SeaWorld screws over its employees, I can believe it’s screwing over its orcas.”  The big surprise to me was Huntington Beach Assemblyman Travis Allen, who brought up being a surfer, who’s surfed all over the world, who loves the ocean.  I was fully expecting a “respect the animals in their natural habitats” speech.  Instead, he came out in support of the parks as inspiring people worldwide.  Allen’s district literally comes within three blocks of Disneyland.  His communities rely on tourism dollars.  I’ll let you make of that what you will.

It looked, from where I was sitting, that the bill could have passed this committee were it not for the question of sea pens and the fact that a plan for them is not yet in place.  “Blue sky” is the term I heard.  Had it passed, it would have gone on to the committee that oversees tourism and that would have been a hard fight for Bloom and his supporters.  It’s one thing to talk about the animals themselves.  It’s another to discuss the economic impact, and comparing the people who came up to the podium for or against the bill, the ones with an economic concern are all on SeaWorld’s side.

The press has been saying the bill is dead.  This is true.  The bill is dead for the current session as it has been moved to interim study.  It will be examined, expanded, and extrapolated.  And, possibly, it may find its way to committee again next year.

I gave orders for my horse to be brought round from the stables. The servant did not understand me. I myself went to the stable, saddled my horse and mounted. In the distance I heard a bugle call, I asked him what this meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me, asking: “Where are you riding to, master?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “Only away from here, away from here. Always away from here, only by doing so can I reach my destination.”

“And so you know your destination?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered, “didn’t I say so? Away-From-Here, that is my destination.”

“You have no provisions with you,” he said.

“I need none,” I said, “The journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don’t get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.”

— Franz Kafka

WATCH THE FULL AB-2140 HEARING ON CAL CHANNEL

READ MY INPARK MAGAZINE ARTICLE ON SEAWORLD’S CONCERNS WITH THE BILL

LISTEN ME RAMBLE ON AND ON AND ON ABOUT THE HEARING AND THE MONETIZATION OF ZOO ANIMALS ON THE URBAN LEGENDARY PODCAST