Is California killer whale bill dead? Hardly, activists insist.

A committee in the California Assembly delayed a vote for at least a year on a bill to make killer whale stunts and breeding illegal. Opponents say the bill is dead. Advocates say it's a necessary step.

Mike Blake/Reuters/File
Young children get a close-up view of a killer whale during a visit to SeaWorld in San Diego, Calif., last month.

The California bill to ban killer whale stunts and breeding at water parks in the state stalled Tuesday, but advocates insist that the bill is far from dead and say strong support from key legislators means it is still on track to become law. 

The Assembly committee on water, parks, and wildlife agreed Tuesday to delay a vote on the bill until after further study, which means the soonest the bill could be reconsidered is mid-2015.

But activists say the move is designed to work out unanswered implementation questions, such as who would foot the bill for sea pens that would become the new enclosures for captive orcas. Opponents of the bill contest that analysis, suggesting that the bill is now essentially dead.

The proposed measure, Assembly Bill 2140, grew out of the contentious public relations battle currently being waged by SeaWorld against assertions made in a 2013 documentary, “Blackfish,” which alleges that the park mistreats the enormous sea mammals as well as its employees.

Committee chair Rep. Anthony Rendon (D) opened and closed the meeting stating that this was a “moral issue,” and that holding large mammals in captivity is ethically “indefensible.”

Meanwhile, committee member Rep. Lorena Gonzalez (D), whose district includes the SeaWorld park in San Diego, also voiced strong support for the measure.

“I am greatly concerned by the practice of confining Orcas’ living environments, sequestering them from their natural social organizations, forcing them to perform circus tricks for huge profits, and endangering the well-being of employees by putting them in hazardous situations,” she said in a statement.

She added that SeaWorld has not always been a boon to her constituents, despite its $14 million in annual rent to San Diego.

“I’m most familiar with the attempts by the local operator of Orca shows to oppose measures to increase worker safety and that unfortunately doesn’t bode well for their credibility on the other issues raised by A.B. 2140,” she said.

SeaWorld lobbyist Scott Wetch suggested SeaWorld would move the whales to another state if the bill advanced before it became law. He dubbed the measure, a “silly, silly bill.” SeaWorld San Diego President John Reilly called the bill “animal rights rhetoric and bias.”

SeaWorld has also responded to accusations on its website.

“Inaccurate reports recently have generated questions about SeaWorld and the animals in our care,” states an open letter. “We are the 1,500 scientists, researchers, veterinarians, trainers, marine biologists, aquarists, aviculturists, educators and conservationists who have dedicated our lives to the animals in our care as well as those in the wild that are injured, ill or orphaned.”

Animal advocates dispute the notion that doing stunts in a pool promotes animal conservation. More than 100 advocates showed up to the hearing Tuesday, some from as far away as Rome, and a petition launched by an 11-year-old schoolgirl has gathered 1.2 million signatures.

History is on the side of greater understanding and compassion for all animals, says Chris Green, director of legislative affairs for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. He notes that 20 years ago, only seven states considered cruelty to animals a felony. “Today, all 50 have made animal cruelty a felony.”

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