City Journal Autumn 2014

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Autumn 2014
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California

Steven Greenhut
A Whale of a Legislature
Corruption in Sacramento? Look! An orca!
7 April 2014

On the floor of the California senate, incoming president pro tem Kevin de León recently declared Sacramento’s legislature the most august deliberative chamber in the nation. He then ridiculed a Republican senator as puritanical and sanctimonious for demanding that three allegedly corrupt colleagues be expelled. The Los Angeles Democrat preferred to suspend them with pay. The resolution carried the day on a 28 to 1 vote at the end of a week that saw FBI agents raiding a senator’s office. The indictment against Leland Yee charges the San Francisco Democrat—a well-known crusader for gun control and campaign-finance restrictions—with conspiring to traffic in weapons and trading campaign cash for various favors. Such episodes are sadly typical for a legislature that has become such a legend in its own mind that it sometimes struggles with basic ethical questions.

Corruption in the legislature hasn’t kept California lawmakers from addressing other pressing matters, such as a recent bill targeting SeaWorld—the popular aquatic park in San Diego. Introduced by Democratic assemblyman Richard Bloom, the bill would ban parks from holding orcas in captivity for performances or entertainment. Further, it would forbid the capture of orcas in state waters, the breeding of them in captivity, or the collection of their semen. SeaWorld could continue to house its captive orcas for viewing, but it would have to halt all whale shows—which would mean potentially going out of business.

The bill’s supporters say it’s cruel to keep captive an animal known to travel 100 miles a day in the wild. In a recent interview, Bloom noted that orcas are relatively intelligent marine mammals that live together in family units. Scientists agree, he said, that orcas “are not appropriately kept in very small pool-like environments.” Bloom unveiled his legislation while surrounded by some of SeaWorld’s biggest detractors. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) promptly issued a statement of support: “This bill has the potential to end the deep injustice of exhibitions of captive marine life.” In the past, PETA has argued that killer whales should be protected under the U.S. Constitution. If that sounds farfetched, consider that the California Coastal Commission is, at this very moment, halting the construction of a desalination plant in Carlsbad over concerns about the death of plankton. But if whales are granted certain rights, why not dogs and cats? Where does it end? SeaWorld’s orcas would likely die in the wild and there’s no evidence that having them perform tricks is worse than riding a horse or housetraining a dog. SeaWorld does a wonderful job studying these creatures and using what it learns to help save them in the wild. And the company is not about to mistreat its prime tourist attraction.

SeaWorld has been under the gun ever since the release of Blackfish, a 2013 documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite tracing the life of a particularly aggressive killer whale. The film is a jeremiad against keeping these intelligent creatures in captivity, and SeaWorld has questioned its accuracy, but the park has been slow to react to growing efforts to curtail its prime attraction. “If I’m the PR manager for SeaWorld, I’m worried,” wrote columnist Scott Lewis. The Bloom bill “is a genuine existential threat . . . The idea that SeaWorld could easily absorb the elimination of killer whale shows—that the company could easily pivot to a more acceptable business model—is naïve.” The park’s efforts to personify whales, Lewis continued, “have profoundly backfired.”

Efforts to make California’s legislature look less corrupt haven’t gone so well, either. During his speech on the senate floor last week, de León complained that the negative attention focused on Yee and Senators Ron Calderon (accused of accepting bribes) and Roderick Wright (convicted of perjury and seven other felonies related to his not living in the district he represents) was distracting the legislature from its real task of improving the “human condition”—a phrase that perfectly captures the hubris of California’s elected lawmakers. They are so busy trying to save the world that they can’t figure out how to balance the state budget—never mind dealing with senators accused by the FBI of trying to facilitate the sale of shoulder-mounted rocket launchers.

The prospects for the orca bill appear unclear. So do the prospects for the state of California.

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