SACRAMENTO — If I were a killer whale, I'd probably enjoy performing tricks in Shamu Stadium and basking in applause rather than just floating around a concrete tank all day. Then again, it's hard to know what an orca is thinking because, however smart it might be, it's not clever enough to have a chat with a newspaper columnist.
This is the bottom-line problem that confronts many modern animal-protection efforts, including Assemblyman Richard Bloom's highly publicized new bill that would ban SeaWorld whale shows. As much as most humans understandably love our fellow creatures, we get into troubled waters as we detail what protections to provide and determine what animals to protect (oysters, plankton, rats?).
Whatever one thinks about the wisdom or seriousness of Bloom's bill, there's a reasonable discussion to be had about whether these magnificent creatures — accustomed to swimming 100 miles a day in the wild — are being humanely treated in their present tank-sized circumstance. But the first step toward a sensible debate would be to dispense with notions about animals having "rights."
The morally confused, but publicity savvy, folks at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals contended in a 2011 lawsuit that five of SeaWorld's killer whales "are being held as slaves in violation of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution." Fortunately, a judge dismissed the notion that "nonhuman animals" have constitutional rights, so we won't have cats facing murder charges for killing mice. We won't have to close zoos or demolish our food-production system, either.
Bloom's orca bill takes a more traditional animal-protection route, but it is rooted in the same anti-SeaWorld campaign that has taken off after the release of the controversial movie "Blackfish" that alleged mistreatment of the whales at the park. As SeaWorld noted in a statement on Friday, "While we cannot comment on Assemblyman Bloom's proposed legislation until we see it, the individuals he has chosen to associate with for today's press conference are well known extreme animal rights activists, many of whom regularly campaign against SeaWorld and other accredited marine mammal parks and institutions."
Is this about protecting animals or promoting a controversial political agenda?
The assemblyman claims that "there is no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment purposes." His bill, however, wouldn't ban their captive display — only the (presumably) most fun part of their day. But it would reduce SeaWorld's incentive to own these creatures, and such activism always proceeds one step at a time. It's a good way to earn points in a legislative district that includes Hollywood.
Already, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, has publicized her likely support for the bill — not mainly because of animal-related issues, but because of "job quality" issues at the park. No wonder the bill will be used by national commentators to portray Californians as wacky Left-Coasters. Even in the unlikely event that it passes as is, it will do nothing to improve the well-being of animals.
That latter issue always is worth a broader discussion. There's a reason Proposition 2, which requires that chickens be given large enough cages to move around, passed overwhelmingly in 2008 despite its many flaws. It's hard to bear the thought of any creature living its short life in agony. Because animals do not have rights does not mean they should be treated as inanimate objects. It's hard to draw the right line, though, and this bill seems to go beyond the usual boundaries.
Sadly, life remains nasty, brutish and short for most animals not lucky enough to be house pets. People aren't the only problem. Two wild dogs recently chased down, tore apart and ate my tame emu, Ernie, as my wife watched in horror. Nearby goats barely even looked up from the pasture.
Most Americans are concerned about the welfare of animals. We love animals even though we also enjoy steak dinners. Life can be disturbingly complex and painful, but it's hard to see that poorly conceived animal-rights campaigns get us anywhere, especially when they target an organization known for its animal-welfare efforts — a place that preserves marine life and shares its beauty with the public.
If I were a killer whale, I probably wouldn't want to be kept in captivity. Nevertheless, if I were a member of the California Assembly, I'd focus on issues that truly improved our society.