SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. won a round in its fight to keep killer whale shows in California, with a lobbying campaign that raised doubts about claims that the animals are harmed in its parks.
In the month since a ban on keeping orcas in captivity was proposed, SeaWorld raced to head off the measure. Company lobbyists met with members of the state Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee to challenge assertions by animal-rights activists. The panel decided yesterday to study the matter, putting off a vote for at least a year.
“The most compelling argument in our discussions with members is that there’s not one piece of recognized research that keeping whales in captivity is deleterious to their health and welfare,” said Scott Wetch, a veteran California lobbyist hired by Orlando, Florida-based SeaWorld.
Releasing the whales or placing them in an ocean enclosure, as the measure seeks, would “lead to almost certain death,” Wetch testified. SeaWorld would simply move its animals from San Diego, he said. In addition, the company would view the ban as a property seizure and seek hundreds of millions of dollars in restitution from the state.
“The bill was laughable in its lack of sophistication,” Wetch said.
The measure’s rapid progress after its introduction by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, a Santa Monica Democrat, forced both sides to move fast. SeaWorld lined up support from veterinarians, the California Association of Zoos & Aquariums and the California Retailers Association to underscore the impact on research and the local economy.
That put supporters on defense.
“We had a very short time period to educate the committee members,” said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Washington-based Animal Welfare Institute, which backed the bill.
When meeting with legislators to discuss the bill this week, Rose said her team bumped into representatives of SeaWorld who were distributing a 32-page rebuttal of “Blackfish,” the 2013 CNN documentary that criticized the theme-park operator and prompted the legislation.
The panel’s study will delay a vote until mid-2015, said Anthony Rendon, a Democrat from Lakewood who chairs the committee and said he supports the ban.
SeaWorld rose the most since January. The shares advanced 5.4 percent to $30.90 yesterday in New York, bringing the year- to-date gain to 7.4 percent. Blackstone Group LP, which purchased the company in 2009, is the largest shareholder.
Proponents remain hopeful they can win.
“It was just a matter of the committee wanting to be fully informed,” said Jared Goodman, an attorney in Washington with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “There’s no indication it was done to sweep it under the rug.”
The bill would end whale breeding in the state and their use in entertainment. If enacted, the legislation would force SeaWorld to close its signature show in San Diego, one of three company parks in the U.S. with performing killer whales.
Both sides hired lobbying firms to represent them in Sacramento, with proponents of the orca ban working with Mercury Public Affairs, which bills itself as handling “high-stakes public strategy.” SeaWorld hired Wetch, described by the Los Angeles Times as “blunt, shrewd and intimidating” in a 2012 profile.
“If you ban them, you buy them,” Wetch told legislators at the hearing, referring to the whales.
Blackstone, the New York-based private equity firm, bought SeaWorld from Anheuser-Busch InBev NV for $2.3 billion. It has been reducing its stake since a public offering of shares in the theme-park company last year.