Captive Orcas Finally Have the Attention of Congress—but is the USDA Listening?

Posted by Stephen Wells, ALDF Executive Director on June 19, 2014

Legally Brief

On June 11, 38 members of Congress penned a letter to Tom Vilsack—U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—demanding updated regulations for captive marine mammals. Current regulations do not take into account some dramatic improvements over the past several decades in our scientific understanding of the physical and psychological impact of confinement upon these highly intelligent and social animals.

For years, ALDF has been leading the fight to ensure better laws and enforcement for captive marine mammals. For example, an orca named Lolita has been housed in the smallest orca tank in North America at the Miami Seaquarium for more than four decades. Her tank fails to meet even the minimum requirements of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA)—requirements already recognized as outdated and inadequate. In addition to being held in a tank that is far too small, Lolita has no shelter from the sun, and she hasn’t seen another orca for decades (in the wild, orcas like Lolita spend their entire lives with their mothers and swim up to 100 miles a day). Yet the USDA keeps renewing this theme park’s exhibitor’s license, and ALDF along with PETA filed a lawsuit to stop this renewal. Recently, ALDF also urged the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enforce safety regulations for Lolita and her trainer’s sake. There’s profit to be had in this billion dollar industry, but Lolita suffers for it.

For nearly two decades, the USDA has done little to nothing to update the AWA regulations for captive marine mammals: in 1995, the USDA convened a committee that failed to reach consensus on the most important regulations; in 2002, the USDA began the process of updating the remaining regulations, but has so far failed to do so; in 2010, SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by an orca named Tilikum in front of a horrified audience at a SeaWorld show, as highlighted in the documentary Blackfish.

Last week’s letter from members of Congress strongly urges the USDA to prioritize the revision of these regulations. For example, the letter asks that tank size, temperatures, and noise regulations (along with the impact of having trainers in the water and swim-with-the-dolphins programs) be modernized, “so that the updated science can be incorporated” and the agency can “provide the most updated and scientifically supported humane standards for captive marine mammals.”

Congress took another bold step last week, as Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Jared Huffman (D-CA) added an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations Act that will provide one million dollars to study the effects of captivity on orcas, if the amendment survives the Senate and the bill becomes law.

ALDF will continue to fight for Lolita’s freedom and we applaud members of Congress who are calling upon the federal agency in charge of protecting captive animals—the USDA—to take action as well. After 20 years of delay, it is well past time for animals like Lolita and Tilikum to receive the legal protections they deserve. The Miami Seaquarium violates even the weakest, most outdated laws. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition to boycott SeaWorld and we encourage people to boycott marine mammal parks like SeaWorld and Miami Seaquarium that treat these magnificent wild animals like amusement park sideshow attractions.

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16 thoughts on “Captive Orcas Finally Have the Attention of Congress—but is the USDA Listening?

  1. Elizabeth says:

    It makes me so angry how long this has gone on, clearly because so many business men and women have so much to lose if we fix this atrocity.

    1. Walter says:

      Right with you Elizabeth, every day more people knows about captivity, every day there are more requests to stop it

  2. Mary Sims says:

    These huge, intelligent, magnificent animals should be living at home. Home for them is the open ocean . All captive breeding should be stopped. Whales should breed naturally, raise their young and live in their family groups in freedom in their natural environment.

  3. barbara jannicelli says:

    Do what is right. Leave them to live free.

  4. Lisa says:

    Free them, they are not toys!!!

  5. Alicia Perry says:

    These are barbaric practices. We should be ashamed to treat any creature but especially one so intelweent and beautiful as the orca this way.
    Please stop this now.

  6. Gumboz1953 says:

    ALDF — go find the nearest wall. Beat your head against it.

    That will be more productive than trying to convince USDA to do ANYTHING to make their client businesses spend money. They are one big revolving door. When Obama talks about cleaning out the lobbyists, I look at Ag (and the FCC) and laugh my head off.

  7. Antoinette Brown says:

    Let these animals be free abd stop abusive things for money. Greed

  8. john zolis says:

    please stop this

  9. Barbara says:

    Please give these creatures at least the minimum space and consideration due to such an intelligent being. God did not make them for our entertainment.

  10. Randy samberg says:

    This is inhumane! I went to the Seaquariam once, before I knew better. Never again will I support these inhumane practices!

  11. Kennedy says:

    Some of these whales are not able to be set free. There is a lot of research going on with the ones who are captive. That’s where some of the money people pay to get in these parks is for. None of these animals look like they mind preforming for the audience. The pools they preform in are not their permanent home. They don’t look under feed or in bad care. They actually look happy. I feel that if they are able to be released into their natural home, they very well need to be. But where would the ones who can not be released go? I think captive breeding is absolutely necessary to better understand these amazing creatures in the wild. Over breeding would be a huge issue, hiwever, I highly doubt it’s happening. This is a business yes, but it is also helping research and ways to protect the ones who ARE in the wild getting killed daily by boats and trash that we humans have polluted their habitats with. Improvements? Absolutely should be taken into a high consideration. Shutting these places down and calling it a money pit is absolutely ridiculous. Some of these places is home to these magnificent animals.

  12. Crissy Miller says:

    Words can’t describe..

  13. Crissy Miller says:

    Words cannot Reply or express my feelings

  14. Lu Moseley says:

    Let ‘em go. Orcas have no business being in anything but the ocean and serving as entertainment for humans.

  15. Holly Mattson says:

    I fully agree , leave these beautiful mammals in their native homes. My fear for lolita is she has been in captivity for so long, would she be able to survive in the wild. Would other pods accept her? Does she have the know how to hunt for food? Remember she has been hand fed for decades. Her welfare should be considered. If she was freed , I would hope she would be managed from a far. If she is unable to survive in the open ocean , the least we could do would be to expand her tank, provide her with shade andf comfort. A companion woukd be ideal.