Captive Orcas, Dolphins Gain New Federal Protections

The USDA took action today to improve standards of care for captive marine mammals like orcas and dolphins, with big changes expected in the near future.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today released a proposed federal rule to improve standards for the handling, care and housing of captive marine mammals.

The long-discussed protections, in the works for nearly two decades, would amend Animal Welfare Act regulations concerning captive marine mammals, with a focus on orcas (also called killer whales) and dolphins. As for any major changes, there is now a 60-day period where the USDA will accept commentary, but the regulations are expected to go into effect.

"It is an important animal welfare step, at a time when the nation is questioning more than ever if cetaceans should be put on display at all in captive environments at for-profit ventures," Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the U.S., said in a statement.

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The USDA proposed rule would affect certain sections in the regulations for the protection of all marine mammals in the United States relating to space requirements, water quality, indoor facilities, outdoor facilities, and interactive programs, like "swim with the dolphin" businesses. The USDA is basically saying that it will now oversee these programs again.

"Interactive programs like these have carried on with no federal oversight for over 15 years since the USDA suspended its enforcement efforts in 1999," Pacelle said. "We applaud this step because these interactive programs present significant risk to the health and wellbeing of the animals as well as to humans."

It is widely believed that the new protections are merely steps toward the ultimate goal of ending the exploitation of captive marine mammals for entertainment and business profit gains. They follow California Coastal Commission actions last year, which approved SeaWorld's plan to expand its San Diego orca pools, but only on the condition that the company does not breed any more orcas at its facility and does not transfer or import any orcas in and out of the facility.

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In November of last year, SeaWorld announced that its San Diego facility would phase out what Pacelle calls its "stunt-filled, theatrical orca shows for which the company is known."

The new USDA-proposed federal rule also follows last November's introduction of the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement (ORCA) Act by Congressmen Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Adam Schiff (D-CA). The act would phase out keeping orcas in captivity by prohibiting the breeding, wild capture, and import/export of orcas for public display purposes.

Public outcry against keeping large marine mammals in captivity has been growing over the past three years. Pacelle and others largely credit the popular documentary "Blackfish" for showing the horrific consequences of long-term confinement of captive orcas, as well as the actions that led to their captivity in the first place.

Pacelle mentioned that in the wild, orcas live in family groups and swim dozens of miles a day, diving and feeding. Dolphins roam widely too as they hunt for food and play freely in a rich ocean environment.

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"A zoo or aquarium or marine park cannot provide even a faint approximation of what are normal living circumstances for these animals, and can lead to abnormal behaviors, stress-related illnesses, and shorter lifespans," he said.

Pacelle added, "Today's move by the USDA is a reason to celebrate. Please join us in urging the agency to finalize this rule. It's been a long wait, and these animals deserve a better living environment."

Instructions for sending comments are listed on page 2 of the USDA proposed rule.

An orca breaching during a show at Sea World San Diego.

Less than two weeks into the new year, big changes are already in the works that could dramatically change the fate of many animal species. Some will benefit, others won't, and still others will be a hot topic of debate for months to come. Manatees fall into the last category. On January 7, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


that the West Indian manatee should be downlisted from endangered to threatened status under the Endangered Species Act. Public comments can be submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until April 7 of this year. At stake are issues such as slow speed zones for boats, since boats have hit manatees in the past. Both state and local officials have expressed a desire to curb such restrictions. "The manatee is one of the most charismatic and instantly recognizable species," Michael Bean, principal deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior, said. "It's hard to imagine the waters of Florida without them, but that was the reality we were facing before manatees were listed under the Endangered Species Act. While there is still more work to be done to fully recover manatee populations, their numbers are climbing and the threats to the species' survival are being reduced."

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The FBI this year will be collecting data on animal cruelty crimes through its National Incident-Based Reporting System. In a recent FBI podcast "

FBI This Week

," unit chief Amy Blasher explained that the bureau partnered with the National Sheriffs' Association and the Animal Welfare Institute to initiate the data collection process. "They believe that animal cruelty was an early indicator of violent crime, and that's really what led the discussions with our law enforcement partners throughout the country," Blasher said. She added that data would be collected only on certain types of animal abuse, such as dog fighting, cock fighting and animal sexual abuse.

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By April 6 of this year, all dogs in the U.K. will need to be microchipped. The

British Veterinary Association

(BVA) will also require dog owners to register the details of any new owner before they sell or give the dog away. Their contact information must additionally be kept up to date. The BVA says microchipping offers many benefits. A fact sheet mentions: "It can help reunite strays with their owners, help tackle puppy farming, and encourage responsible ownership. In pedigree dogs it facilitates the reporting of hereditary health problems."

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With public outcry increasing against keeping orcas and other large marine mammals in captivity, SeaWorld late last year


that it was phasing out its current San Diego orca show. SeaWorld president and CEO Joel Manby said, "The main point is we are listening to our guests. We're evolving as a company. We're always changing and, again, always evolving. That means 2016 will be the last year of our theatrical killer whale experience called One Ocean." He continued, "In San Diego, in 2017 we will launch our all-new orca experience. It's going to be focused more on the natural setting, natural environment and also the natural behaviors of the whales." The announcement followed the California Coastal Commission's approval of $100 million expansion of tanks that SeaWorld San Diego uses to house its orcas, also called killer whales. The commission then also banned breeding of the captive orcas at the facility.

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Last year, recreational hunter Walter Palmer killed a beloved male Southwest African lion named "Cecil" that lived primarily at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. The death drew international attention to the plight of lions and other species targeted by big game hunters. Cecil's death may not go in vein, however. Late last year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service


that two species of lions found in India and Africa would be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The ruling goes into effect on January 22. As of then, the service will have the full authority to deny permits to trophy hunters if they have been previously convicted of violating wildlife laws. Fees for hunting permits will substantially increase. It will also be more difficult for hunters from the U.S. to import slain animals' heads, which have become "trophies" and stimulated bragging rights in the past.

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Last year, the National Institutes of Health said that it would retire all government research chimpanzees to sanctuaries. Animal rights activists are now turning their attention to other animals, such as monkeys, which are still used for research. Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), told Discovery News: "In regards to the use of monkeys in harmful research, The HSUS believes that a critical examination of primate research should be conducted, similar to what was done for chimpanzees by the Institute of Medicine in 2011."

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OdySea, slated to open in July, promises to be the largest aquarium in the Southwest. The facility, under construction now in Scottsdale, Ariz., continues the trend over the last three to four decades of massive aquariums in the United States and around the world. According to the OdySea


, the aquarium will span 200,000 square feet and will hold more than 2 million gallons of water. It is being built to accommodate up to 15,000 visitors daily.

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We are seeing the end of the caged age, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The organization predicts that 2016 will experience a greater shift from caged to free-ranging animals raised for food. An ASPCA

news release

issued late last year further said, "In the past decade, nearly 100 major food retailers have adopted policies to phase out confinement practices. Nine states have banned the use of gestation crates (used for pregnant and nursing pigs), eight states ban veal crates, and five states ban battery cages (used for egg-laying hens)."

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An effort is underway to establish land near Mount Katahdin in Maine as a national park and recreation area. The region is home to moose, black bears, deer and other wildlife. Roxanne Quimby, a conservationist and a founder of Burt's Bees, has stated that she would donate 150,000 acres for the proposed park. Sierra Club Maine is also supporting the effort. Congressional approval is needed for the designation, so organizers are now working to encourage President Obama to declare the area as a national monument. This would be a first major step toward national park status.

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The National Park Service turns 100 on August 25, kicking off a second century of stewardship of America's national parks, which are critical for much of the remaining wildlife in the United States. Centennial events are scheduled for several parks, including in Yosemite National Park, shown here. The NPS has also launched a new initiative, Find Your Park, as part of this 100th anniversary year. A listing of centennial events by location is available at the

Find Your Park website


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