On December 9, Jackass star and daredevil Steve-O will voluntarily begin his 30-day sentence in a Los Angeles county jail. After his release, he’ll then begin a three-year probation and be temporarily banned from Hollywood. And it’s all because of a whale.
Well, technically, an orca, also known as a killer whale or blackfish, which is the largest member of the dolphin family.
Steve-O v. the LAPD
Back in August, Steve-O (real name Stephen Glover) set off a media frenzy when he climbed to the top of a crane on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard to protest SeaWorld’s mistreatment of killer whales. While inflating a plastic orca with the words “SeaWorld sucks” painted on the side, Steve-O live-streamed the stunt on his Facebook and Snapchat — attracting dozens of emergency responders in the process. By the time the entertainer had climbed to the top of the crane, the street below was swarming with 80 firefighters and five ambulances. A helicopter was also dispatched to the site.
After setting off a few fireworks, Steve-O climbed down from the crane and surrendered himself to the authorities. He was booked on five misdemeanor charges, including conspiracy to commit trespassing and filming without a permit. On October 7, the 41-year-old stuntman agreed to a plea deal, copping to the trespassing and fireworks charges and agreeing to the 30-day sentence, with the judge dismissing the remaining three charges.
Steve-O v. SeaWorld
In late September, Steve-O jumped on Reddit to participate in a Celebrity AMA (Ask Me Anything) and promote his upcoming comedy special. During the session, he explained that he asked for jail time over community service as a means of further spreading awareness about his cause.
“I asked my lawyer to get me jail time because I’m an attention whore and I knew that would get more news coverage for me and my cause,” he wrote, “and because the whole point of what I did was to make a statement about captivity.”
Indeed, after his arrest, Steve-O posted a comic to his Instagram, in which a jailed Steve-O chats with an orca in the cell next to him. “When you get out,” the orca asks, “would you tell my mom I miss her?”
Sadly, the only artistic license here is that the orca talks. Former SeaWorld orca trainer John Hargrove has confirmed that the park does separate young calves from their mothers, and that the experience is traumatic for both animals.
“In fact, [when Takara was taken from Kasatka], she was emitting vocalizations that had never been heard before ever by anyone,” Hargrove told NPR’s Fresh Air. “[O]bviously Takara was gone and [Kasatka] was trying anything she could to try to locate and communicate with Takara, which is absolutely heartbreaking. Those vocalizations continued on for a long time.”
According to Orca Network, a nonprofit organization that records the movements of SeaWorld’s killer whales, SeaWorld separated at least eight orca calves from their mothers when they were four-years-old or younger. At least six were taken from their mothers at the ages of three or younger.
Several wildlife organizations have protested SeaWorld’s popular killer whale shows on the basis that they exploit an intelligent animal that should not be held in captivity. The movement to ban the shows has grown significantly since the release of the documentary Blackfish, which shows firsthand the debilitating effect captivity can have on the creatures, including sickness, depression and violent behavior.
In the two years since the film’s release, attendance has dropped at SeaWorld parks and CEO Jim Atchison has resigned. The killer whale shows are also near their end, following a recent ruling by the California Coastal Commission to end SeaWorld’s captive breeding program.
As for Steve-O, he hopes that his stint in jail will help to expedite that process. “What can I say,” he wrote on his Instagram after his arrest, “I mean, if your goal is to make a statement about captivity, you may as well get yourself locked up!”
A (Superficial) Victory of Sorts
In early November, SeaWorld San Diego announced that it will end its killer whale shows sometime in 2016. And yet, despite ending the antiquated practice of making intelligent animals perform tricks for our amusement, SeaWorld still plans to keep the cetaceans in captivity, albeit in a slightly larger tank.
As part of its Blue World Project, the San Diego park will replace its existing 1.7 million-gallon tank with a 5.2 million gallon tank and a 450,000-gallon pool. But Ingrid Visser, the head of the Orca Research Trust in New Zealand, has criticized the new tanks as inadequate, citing the fact that killer whales swim a daily average distance of 138 miles and dive to depths of about 600 feet. By comparison, the new tanks will cover 1.5 acres and reach only 50 feet deep.
“These new tanks do not meet these basic requirements,” she told the LA Times. “No facility ever will.”
There is also the glaring fact that SeaWorld intends to continue its killer whale shows at its Orlando and San Antonio parks, and will continue to breed its captive orcas and acquire new ones as long as it is legally allowed to do so. Ending the shows in California is a superficial capitulation to animal rights activists that can’t be viewed as any real improvement. When Steve-O enters jail next week, he will do so for the sake of the real victory that is yet to come.