Animal Law Update

California Passes Orca Protection Act

By Nicole Pallotta, Academic Outreach Manager

Last month, California became the second U.S. state to ban the use of bullhooks on elephants. The positive trend for captive wild animals in the Golden State continues this month with the passage of the Orca Protection Act, which bans captivity and breeding of orcas and their use in entertainment. In California, home to SeaWorld San Diego, it will soon be unlawful to “hold in captivity an orca, whether wild-caught or captive-bred, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, display, performance, or entertainment purposes.”

Amid declining profits and mounting public pressure that intensified after the 2013 release of the influential documentary Blackfish, SeaWorld announced earlier this year that it would discontinue its orca breeding program and phase out using them in theatrical shows. The Orca Protection Act codifies into law what SeaWorld has pledged to do, thereby protecting orcas in the event the theme park changes its corporate policy or a similar business opens in California.

Twenty-six orcas are currently held in captivity in the U.S. In addition to the 11 living at SeaWorld San Diego, 12 orcas are held at SeaWorld’s Texas and Florida parks and one orca named Lolita is kept alone at Miami Seaquarium in the smallest tank in North America; the Animal Legal Defense Fund and other groups have been fighting to free her under the Endangered Species Act. In late 2015, California Congressman Adam Schiff introduced the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement (ORCA) Act, federal legislation that would phase out orca captivity nationwide.

Because the Orca Protection Act will grandfather whatever orcas already exist in captivity on January 1, 2017, the orcas at SeaWorld San Diego will live out the rest of their lives at the theme park unless SeaWorld decides someday to retire them to a marine sanctuary. While the law bans their use in entertainment, it allows for them to be used in presentations deemed educational and SeaWorld has announced it will unveil new “educational orca encounters” with its remaining orcas beginning in 2017. While it remains to be seen what these educational shows will entail, this law will ensure the 11 orcas currently kept at SeaWorld San Diego will be the last held in captivity in California.

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