Orca Triomphe: France Bans Breeding of Cetaceans

In 2010, Tilikum, an orca held by SeaWorld Orlando, killed Dawn Brancheau, his trainer for the previous six years. Since that tragic event, the campaign to end the captive display of cetaceans has gathered tremendous steam. The release of the documentary Blackfish in 2013 generated what is now popularly called the Blackfish Effect; musical acts canceled performances at SeaWorld parks, long-time business partners terminated their relationships with SeaWorld, and late night hosts mocked the company’s image.

All of this resulted in a decline in visitorship and revenue, leading in March 2016 to SeaWorld’s voluntary termination of its much-vaunted orca breeding program. CEO Joel Manby stated that “the idea of having orcas under human care was not a positive thing” to the general public anymore. Because SeaWorld also vowed to no longer acquire orcas from other sources, this will be the last generation of orcas displayed at SeaWorld’s parks. Within months of the company’s paradigm-shifting announcement, the California legislature passed a bill that codified this corporate policy into state law. (See AWI Quarterly, winter 2016.)

Historically, anti-captivity advocates sought to ban outright the practice of displaying captive cetaceans. But with the passage of the California statute, it has now become clear that prohibiting the breeding of captive cetaceans is more politically palatable—it allows the industry to transition from one business model to another over time, which attracts the support of legislators who might otherwise oppose a purely “animal rights” proposal that has no regard for economic realities. Advocates in other jurisdictions have paid attention.

California is the only US state currently displaying cetaceans to decide to phase out that display. South Carolina banned cetacean captivity years ago—but it had no captive cetaceans at the time and no real plans to allow them. Now France, which has three dolphinariums, is the first country to pass a breeding ban—a major milestone. (Other nations have banned the display of cetaceans, but like South Carolina, they didn’t have them to begin with.)

The French arrêté (variously translated as decree, ordinance, or bylaw) passed in early May. Among other things, it (1) ends the captive breeding of cetaceans, (2) prohibits the display of any cetaceans not held at the time the ban was enacted, and (3) establishes a series of operational and maintenance standards that all cetacean facilities must meet. This means that the facilities currently holding cetaceans may continue to do so until these animals age and die, and may also continue to use them in educational “demonstrations.” However, the arrêté establishes strict controls on content and presentation, ending the more theatrical elements of a traditional dolphin show or performance. Dolphinariums also cannot replace any animals that die. Over time, therefore, the display of the two species currently in France, bottlenose dolphins and orcas, will end.

While, ideally, all of these cetaceans would be placed in a sanctuary, the reality is that cetacean seaside sanctuaries are still in the development phase. So politically and economically, the breeding ban makes sense and means, at least, that no more cetaceans will be condemned to the inhumane conditions provided by concrete tanks. The continued welfare concerns of this last generation of cetaceans in France can also be addressed in the near future, as sanctuaries become operational.

France last revised its regulations regarding the maintenance of captive cetaceans in 1981, and pressure to update these provisions had been increasing. The effort gained significant momentum, however, after a ferocious Mediterranean storm in October 2015 flooded Marineland Antibes, in the French Riviera, where both dolphins and orcas (as well as sea lions, polar bears, and other wildlife) are held. Days after flood waters contaminated the orca tanks, a male named Valentin died, almost certainly as a result of the disaster.

The government consulted with animal nonprofits, as well as the industry, as it developed new standards. Yet, for the most part it appeared—despite vigorous lobbying by animal groups—that the proposal would favor the industry more than the animals. The death of Valentin did not seem to influence the government’s thinking much, if at all. One Voice, a small group AWI has worked with before, invited Dr. Naomi Rose, AWI’s marine mammal scientist, to visit two of the three French dolphinariums in October 2016. This was an effort not only to address the regulatory process but also to focus attention on Planète Sauvage, a facility whose dolphin exhibit was particularly troubling. One Voice hosted the visit of another cetacean expert, Dr. Ingrid Visser, in June 2016, when she expressed concerns about the dolphins at Planète Sauvage. As a result, One Voice filed a complaint with government authorities about the conditions there, started a petition, and pushed for improvements to the standards.

At Planète Sauvage and Marineland Antibes, Naomi saw enclosures that were old-fashioned, several conditions that should have resulted in citations and fines (but apparently did not), and animals who showed various signs of stress and possible health problems. She prepared a report for One Voice, which noted in particular that one dolphin at Planète Sauvage, a 6-year-old male named Aïcko, was emaciated and behaving erratically. She expressed urgent concern for his welfare. Tragically, eight days after Naomi’s visit, Aïcko died. One Voice used this report in both its specific complaint against Planète Sauvage and in its lobbying of the federal government.

When imminent publication of the arrêté was announced on May 3, animal advocacy groups still thought it would favor the industry and were preparing to mount vigorous opposition. However, when it was published in its final form on May 6, it surprised everyone by including the breeding ban!

Of course, the industry expressed outrage at this unexpected reversal, despite the ability of the three dolphinariums to continue making money from displaying these animals well into the future, given the relatively young ages of many of the cetaceans in captivity in France. By July, the dolphinariums had filed a legal challenge. Naomi prepared a statement that was submitted with other documentation by One Voice in a successful effort to prevent a temporary suspension of the breeding ban while the legal challenge proceeds. The full hearing on the merits of the challenge will hopefully happen by the end of this year. AWI will report on developments as they occur.

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