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Living with Wildlife: 10/15/2016

Governor Brown improves lives for captive wildlife in entertainment

As I recall, I was driving around town on Feb. 24, 2010, when the news reports started to trickle in on the radio. Something about a death at SeaWorld in Orlando. It got my attention right away. As the day progressed we learned that Tilikum, a captive Orca, had dragged trainer Dawn Brancheau underwater during a performance. In front of a horrified audience, he killed her. He didn’t just drown her, he mutilated her. It was not an accident.

The news reports went on for days. Even though Tilikum had previously killed two other people, the trainer was blamed for her own death. It was carelessness on her part according to SeaWorld. The story eventually died down and SeaWorld went on. Little did we know at the time that Dawn Brancheau’s death was going to bring about a sea change for whales used for entertainment.

Two years later, David Kirby’s masterful book, Death At Sea World: Shamu and The Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity was published. The book stirred more than a few ripples, but what really got things moving was when the documentary film Blackfish was released in 2013. The film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, was shown at theaters across the country. CNN aired the documentary for five consecutive nights to a much broader audience. There was an immediate outcry and backlash from the public, and it’s been downhill for SeaWorld ever since. Attendance went down as did their credit rating and stock value.

Orcas, arguably the most amazing predators on the planet, were here millions of years before humans. One has to question what right we have to capture them, confine them in bathtub sized enclosures, and train them to do demeaning tricks simply for our entertainment! These are sentient, highly intelligent animals with complicated social structures. One of the most chilling scenes in Blackfish is when Tilikum is captured as a young whale and taken away from his family. As he is loaded onto a boat in a huge net, he cries out to them. Heartbreaking. It is now illegal in this country to capture whales in the wild, so SeaWorld breeds the orcas they have in captivity.

The tremendous public pressure put on SeaWorld caused them to make a stunning announcement earlier this year: they would end their killer whale shows and stop breeding killer whales by 2017 – in San Diego. One hopes they would keep their word, but the nail in the coffin on this issue in California occurred when Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill last month that would ban any breeding of captive orcas in this state, making California the first state to do so. Thank you, Governor Brown!

We can also thank our governor for signing another bill into law. That would be Senate Bill 1062 banning the use of bullhooks in California. Bullhooks are used by elephant handlers to train and control elephants. A bullhook is a 2- to 3-foot-long pole with a metal tip on the end. It resembles a fireplace poker, is cruel, and causes pain to elephants. Handlers use bullhooks to prod, hook and strike elephants on sensitive parts of their bodies before and during performances. There is nothing humane about them. This law will effectively keep circuses with elephants out of California. It should be mentioned that it is not necessary to use bullhooks to control elephants. Sanctuaries, such as Performing Animal Welfare Society, right here in California, never have used bullhooks. They control their elephants by using positive reinforcement.

Earlier this year Ringling Brothers announced they would phase out the use of elephants in their traveling circus by 2018. It was an international news story. Their decision came about as a result of the cities of Los Angeles and Oakland banning the use of bullhooks. They could see the handwriting on the wall. No bullhooks – no performing elephants. SB1062 leaves no doubt about it.

As a child who loved animals – my parents took me to the circus every year – I loved it, especially the elephants. As a young mother, I well remember taking my children to SeaWorld and probably being more excited about it than they were. But times have changed, and so have I. Public opinion is turning away from circus style shows featuring killer whales and elephants. People care about animal welfare, especially in California and that is a good thing.

Sharon Ponsford is a a longtime volunteer with Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and a former board member of the California Council of Wildlife Rehabilitators. She lives in Glen Ellen. If you have questions or would like to ask her about our local wildlife, please email her at

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