July 26, 2017
A fight over whether to ban the captive breeding of killer whales has ensnared state Rep. Thad Altman, who is blaming his staff following the circulation of a letter bearing his name that called for a hearing on the issue.
The Indialantic lawmaker said he knew nothing about the letter, but an animal rights group that worked with his office believes he was lobbied by SeaWorld, which the group says does not want the issue discussed publicly.
Altman blames staff for the letter, which is dated May 5. In it, he said that lawmakers should consider passing a state law banning killer whale breeding and theatrical shows. In 2016, SeaWorld announced it would voluntarily take those steps after intense pressure from animal rights groups — but some groups are concerned that policy could be reversed, and have been pushing for a state law.
In the letter, Altman seemed to sympathize with those with concerns.
“As home to one of the three domestic SeaWorld theme parks holding this protected species captive, it is important that Florida explore the necessity of legislation to formally codify SeaWorld’s state corporate policy,” he wrote.
He also noted that in 2017 the Chinese-based company Zhonghong Group bought a 21 percent share in the company, an indication that corporate ownership — and policies — can change.
“Discussing whether the stated corporate practice should be codified in law is vital, as corporate leadership and ownership change constantly,” read the letter. “In fact, in March 2017, the New York Times reported that a large shareholder stake in SeaWorld has been obtained by a Chinese investment firm.”
Altman said he did not know about the letter, which was under his office’s letterhead, and that he is not even opposed to killer whale captive breeding because “we don’t have enough science” to justify a blanket ban.
“I think what happened was my aide was probably getting information from stakeholders and wrote a draft letter and probably had them take a look at it,” Altman told POLITICO Florida. “I didn’t know about it, and I’d be shocked if you found a letter that was actually signed by me. I never signed it.”
He really began getting feedback after a copy of the letter found its way to the website for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which was using it to ask people to reach out to lawmakers on the issue.
“I have called them and asked them to remove the letter,” Altman said.
The letter specifically asks that state House Natural Resources and Public Lands Subcommittee Chairwoman Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, hold a workshop to discuss a 2016 California law that banned killer whale captive breeding and theatrical shows. SeaWorld, which did not oppose that law, has a location in San Diego.
Travis Moore, a lobbyist for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said that his group is concerned the SeaWorld policy can change, especially in light of the purchase by the Chinese company.
“It’s now owned by a Chinese investment firm with not a great track record with this sort of thing,” he told POLITICO Florida. “If it’s a corporate policy, why don’t we codify in law because policy can change, it probably will.”
He said he reached out to Altman because he had worked with him on other issues and he seemed like a Republican who would be open to the idea.
Not so, Altman said.
“I am not ready at this point to pass a state law banning captive breeding,” he said. “I respect SeaWorld’s decision, but I don’t think we have enough science to pass a ban.”
Moore said he thinks SeaWorld, which he says opposes the idea of a Florida law or workshop, likely persuaded Altman to change his mind.
“It certainly looks that he has been talked to,” Moore said. “Everyone has a right to change their mind, but I am still pushing forward with this.”
Moore said during last session he was told by the those who represent SeaWorld that they did not want the issue to be the subject of legislation or discussed publicly.
“It was made clear to me in the Governor’s Lounge. They said, ‘If we could give any wiggle room, we would, but on this issue we can’t,’” Moore said. “They said, ‘We can’t have this issue discussed.’”
The Orlando-based company declined comment. Altman said SeaWorld reached out to him to see if he had actually requested a workshop, but he would not elaborate on the conversation.
“I don’t want to speak for them,” he said. “You would have to ask them.”