So long Shamu? California bans keeping, breeding orcas.

California is the first US state to ban breeding killer whales in captivity, as a new law caps years of debate about ethical animal treatment. 

Mike Blake/Reuters/File
Activists with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) painted 38 protesters like killer whales to represent what they say are the number of orcas that died prematurely at SeaWorld, in San Diego, Calif., in September.

More change is coming for California’s captive animal breeders after state Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that prevents aquariums and wildlife parks from breeding or keeping orcas in captivity.

California is the first state to pass a law this comprehensive, but zoos and other wild animal parks have struggled for years with the ethical and practical problems of keeping wild animals in captivity. The marine entertainment chain SeaWorld announced the end of its own breeding program in March.

“In a way I think it’s really big. It really says that [SeaWorld is] paying close attention to public sentiment,” Marc Bekoff, a fellow for the Animal Behavior Society and former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told The Christian Science Monitor in March.

“There a lot of other ways to learn about these animals than seeing them in all sorts of cages,” he says.

Although California's animal parks will be forced to stop breeding the animals when SB 839 takes effect next year, they can keep all orcas currently in captivity only if they use them for for "educational presentations," the law specifies – not for display, performance, or entertainment purposes. All captive orcas must either be rehabilitated and returned to the wild or used to demonstrate "natural behaviors, enrichment, exercise activities ... that provide science-based education to the public," the law states.

In practice, this means SeaWorld San Diego will retain its 11 orcas. (In total, the SeaWorld entertainment group owns 29 killer whales.)

Since it announced its decision to stop its controversial orca shows, SeaWorld has voluntarily reevaluated its approach to orca training and public interactions, opting to create what it calls "natural" encounters between the animals and park visitors.

The new orca shows will focus on education and health, according to SeaWorld – an approach that the new law requires.

“We are excited to move forward with these new, inspiring, natural orca encounters beginning next year at SeaWorld San Diego,” according to a company statement. “These presentations will reflect the natural world and will focus on the research, education, care and respect that align with our mission to advance the well-being and conservation of these beautiful creatures.”

The new law and SeaWorld's reforms largely stem from the 2013 documentary "Blackfish," which sparked widespread criticism of SeaWorld’s animal shows and practices, after the documentary highlighted the stresses placed on performing orcas – and the dangers they can create for their human trainers.

The same spirit that motivated orca reforms has spurred a movement towards more ethical treatment of other species of animal entertainers. For example, in March 2015, the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey announced that they planned to phase out elephant acts by 2018.

In May, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens’ controversial decision to shoot a 400 pound gorilla named Harambe after a small boy fell into the animal’s enclosure prompted a national debate about keeping animals in captivity.

Since the 1980s, the share of zoos with elephant enclosures (a popular draw for visitors) has dwindled from about half of all zoos in the United States to less than a third, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

Yet despite debate over the benefits of keeping massive wild animals in captivity, these places can also serve as necessary sanctuaries for injured and endangered animals.

SeaWorld officials say they are aware of the park chain’s mixed legacy as both sanctuary and prison for dozens of animal species.

“We are proud of contributing to the evolving understanding of one of the world's largest marine mammals,” wrote SeaWorld's chief executive Joel Manby in an LA Times op-ed in March. “Now we need to respond to the attitudinal change that we helped to create.”

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