By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - SeaWorld executives urged California lawmakers on Wednesday not to pass a bill banning live performances and captive breeding of killer whales, a move that would force the company's San Diego marine theme park to end its popular "Shamu" shows.
Executives met with lawmakers and aides in private meetings over two days, and it was the first time in years that SeaWorld hired an outside lobbyist to advance its interests.
Many consumers are re-thinking the company's use of marine mammal parks in the wake of last year's film "Blackfish," which dealt with the treatment of killer whales at SeaWorld parks and the death of a trainer in 2010.
"This film was a piece of propaganda and an attempt to exploit a tragic incident," John Reilly, president of SeaWorld's flagship San Diego park, told lawmakers and legislative aides attending a briefing in the state capital on Wednesday.
Led by Scott Wetch, an influential lobbyist who is best known for his work on behalf of labor unions, Reilly and other top SeaWorld officials pressed their case that the parks bring millions in revenues to the San Diego area annually.
SeaWorld also runs an extensive animal rescue program and funds considerable research into marine biology, Reilly said.
Introduced by Santa Monica assembly member Richard Bloom after he saw the film "Blackfish," the bill would ban orca shows in SeaWorld's California park, though it would not affect similar programs at parks in other states.
It would also ban the breeding of orcas in the state, and require the release of any of the animals capable of surviving in the wild. The remaining animals would be held in so-called sea-pens in the ocean.
"Orcas are inherently unsuited to being held in captivity, due to their intelligence, sociality, and size," said Naomi Rose, a scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, a sponsor of the bill.
Christopher Dold, who heads Sea World's veterinary services, said "Blackfish" and the bill's supporters mischaracterized the company's treatment of the animals.
For instance, the leaps and slides performed by the orcas in the company's shows were natural movements that they would be making in the wild, Dold said. In captivity, he said, they need the exercise that the shows provide.
But Sean MacNeil, a spokesman for Bloom, dismissed the company's arguments.
"SeaWorld says this is the kind of thing that killer whales would do in the wild," MacNeil said. "I don't know of any orca in the wild who jumps through rings of fire and does tricks for humans to get fish - that's just goofy."
It is not yet clear whether the lobbying trip will sway members of the assembly's Water, Parks and Wildlife committee, who are scheduled to vote on the bill next week.
A spokesman for Bloom said he is not sure whether the committee will support the measure, saying that members are still learning about it.
One powerful local politician, assemblywoman Toni Atkins, whose San Diego district includes SeaWorld, has said only that she will study it. Atkins, a pragmatic but socially liberal Democrat, is the incoming speaker of the assembly, and if she does not throw her support behind the bill, it may never reach the assembly floor.
Last month, she spoke at a celebration of Sea World's 50th anniversary, and presented the company with a resolution honoring the occasion from the state assembly.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein, Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Bernard Orr)