Adding to a chorus of critics of SeaWorld's killer whale shows, a U.S. congressman from Southern California has announced legislation to phase out the display of orcas for entertainment.
The bill, if approved, would put an end to shows across the country featuring the marine mammals once the existing whales in captivity die.
"The evidence is very strong that the psychological and physical harm done to these magnificent animals far outweighs any benefits reaped from their display," Schiff said in a statement.
A SeaWorld respresentative responded to Schiff's announcement, saying the company does not neglect or abuse killer whales.
"Through our work with scientists, conservation leaders, and the government SeaWorld is ensuring that all animals in human care are treated with the dignity and respect they require and deserve," said Jill Kermes, a spokeswoman for SeaWorld Entertainment.
The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums spoke out against Schiff's proposed legislation, saying facilities that keep whales conduct valuable research and help increase the public appreciation of the mammals.
"Each generation can benefit from the opportunity to see these animals in person," said Kathleen Dezio, executive director of the group.
Schiff's announcement comes as SeaWorld struggles to fight back against charges leveled in the 2013 documentary "Blackfish" that captive killer whales are abused and neglected at the marine-themed parks.
SeaWorld tried to fire back against the negative publicity by announcing plans recently to spend $100 million to expand its killer whale enclosure at SeaWorld San Diego. The California Coastal Commission, which has authority over construction along the coast, approved the project but added the condition that SeaWorld end its breeding program and import no new orcas.
SeaWorld has announced plans to challenge the decision in court.
SeaWorld officials have rejected calls to end whale breeding, saying the only way to ensure the animals don't breed is to separate male and female whales. That would mean separating siblings and parents from offspring.
No whale has been caught off U.S. waters since 1976, and no wild-caught orcas have been transferred to the U.S. from other countries since 2001, according to Schiff.
The 11 whales at SeaWorld San Diego range in age from 10 months to 50 years, which could allow the park to display animals for decades, depending on the longevity of the whales.
Animal rights activists have demanded that SeaWorld release the orcas to seaside sanctuaries, although none currently exist to hold the 11 whales.
Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute, said the fact that captive whales are breeding with close family members shows that captivity is harmful to the orcas. She also said that the legislation would create an incentive for SeaWorld to develop a long-term contraceptive for whales.
"Right now, they have no interest in developing a long-term contraceptive," she said.
Last year, Schiff tried to add an amendment to a funding bill to update the federal Animal Welfare Act to "reflect the growing scientific and public concern about the effect of captivity on these animals." The amendment was not added to the final funding bill.
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