The San Diego SeaWorld Killer Whales: Does Public Opinion Change Policies?

Political protest is arguably the cornerstone on which the modern American nation rests. Created by the American Revolution, the U.S. is a country in which popular dissent played a crucial role in forming the nation itself. Since that time, activism outside the realm of governmental institutions has remained a vital way in which the nation has been shaped.

This can be seen in the example of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Lasting thirteen months, this protest was organised around a shared view that the segregation of buses should not be legal. The result was the US Supreme Court ordered integration of buses and the beginning of a movement which led to the Civil Rights Act. As just one example among many, this demonstrates one of the most significant instances in which public opinion had the power to reform and create policy in America.

But does public opinion hold the same power today in contemporary American society? With the rise of neoliberalism and the triumph of big money politics, it seems as if monetary interests have all but eclipsed the influence the public has on policy. In an era in which the richest one percent hold more wealth, and arguably power, than the rest of the ninety nine combined, does that ninety nine percent really have any true say?

The recent California Coastal Commission ruling that the San Diego SeaWorld can no longer breed Orcas in captivity, suggests that public opinion still does have some impact at changing policies. Whilst a much less dramatic example than the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Commission’s decision nevertheless indicates that public dissent has remained a valid method of challenging and changing policy.

Traditionally, the Commission created by the 1976 California Coastal Act is a body responsible for regulating the use of land and water in California’s coastal zone. This breeding restriction was therefore an unprecedented decision, and is a stark challenge to the policy of SeaWorld itself.

This restriction was imposed on SeaWorld with what began as a simple hearing to grant the approval of a $100 million expansion of SeaWorld’s whale tanks. Referred to as ‘The Blue World Project’, SeaWorld hoped to build a new 450,000 gallon pool and 5.2 million gallon tank. Whilst the Commission approved this expansion it also added on the stringent breeding condition; thereby effectively forcing SeaWorld to change its entire policy of using Orcas in entertainment shows. This is because this ruling could halt SeaWorld’s practice of having Killer Whales. Without the ability to continue breeding Orcas, SeaWorld’s supply of Killer Whales may end with the eventual death of those they currently have in captivity. Without its main attraction, SeaWorld will be little more than an aquarium like most others.

So why did the Commission make such a provocative ruling? Largely, the decision seems to be linked to the rising tide of anti-SeaWorld sentiment. As has been widely reported, the expansion hearing was attended by hundreds of protesters, particularly those from the animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). PETA have long protested what they perceive as SeaWorld’s inhumane treatment of its wildlife, and as such they appeared in force at the Commission’s ruling.

The result, was what the LA Times characterized as “emotional testimony” from opponents of SeaWorld’s expansion and practices. Adding the breeding condition at the last minute, it seems that the Commission was swayed by these emotive denouncements of SeaWorld.

Furthermore, it is likely that the Commission considered the wider context of these denouncements. SeaWorld has fallen into disrepute following the 2013 release of the documentary ‘Blackfish’, which depicts psychological and physical torment of SeaWorld’s Killer Whales. Following this, public opinion has largely turned against the amusement park. This can be seen in SeaWorld’s declining profits, with SeaWorld Entertainment suffering an 84% drop in its net second-quarter income from 2014 to 2015.

Crucially, public disapproval has even led to the so called ‘Blackfish Bill’ to be debated by the California Legislature. If passed, this bill would make using any wild Killer Whale for entertainment illegal. Those currently held by SeaWorld prior to the bill would also be returned to the wild or placed in protected sea pens. It would also indisputably forbid the breeding of Orcas in captivity, a measure which would apply state wide.

Clearly, SeaWorld has suffered a decline in public support which has affected not only their profit, but has led to an increasing number of challenges to the park’s Orca policies. Whilst the Blackfish Bill has not yet been voted on, public pressure has undoubtedly created the first steps of making what is widely perceived as animal cruelty illegal. Given this mounting public outrage, the California Coastal Commission’s restriction can be understood as a response to a wave of public disapproval of Killer Whale captivity.

Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether public opinion has done enough to change the policies of SeaWorld. To say the Commission’s decision is contentious would be an understatement. SeaWorld has declared it’s intention to sue the Commission for the unjust overextension of its authority. As company President Joel Manby asserts, the Commission was “way beyond its jurisdiction and authority… It simply defies common sense that a straightforward land-use permit approval would turn into a ban on animal husbandry practice.” And legally, they may not be wrong; this decision targets the very heart of SeaWorld’s breeding policy, and as such the Commission may not have the authority to enact these sweeping changes.

So can it be said that public opinion really does change policies in the modern era? The Commission’s ruling covers only the San Diego SeaWorld, and as such any change it creates will be limited in scope. However, whether this ban is within the remit of the Commission’s authority or not, the fact that the Commission made it despite resting on a tenuous legal basis indicates that the intensifying anti-SeaWorld sentiment has had an impact on authority bodies in California.

Whilst this breeding restriction may not stick, it indicates that public opinion is being heard at the level of policy makers. Furthermore, this ruling is indicative that authority bodies are to a greater extent considering ethical and environmental factors in their decision making, suggesting that the idea of using animals simply for entertainment is beginning to be discredited.

Ultimately, the Commission’s ruling is promising news for those hoping to affect change; it indicates that public opinion continues to be heard and continues to create change.

Author Biography

Scarlett Gurnham is a recent graduate from the University of Nottingham in American and Canadian History, Literature and Culture. As part of her undergraduate degree, Scarlett also studied at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, where she studied International Relations and American and Canadian History. Scarlett is interested in issues of political activism and protest, foreign policy, class, gender and social justice and hopes to pursue these interests through a masters in International Relations next year.

Cover Image: Milan Boers under a CC BY 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license

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