Pro-SeaWorld activists are engaging in censorship in an attempt to quell award-winning author David Kirby's new book, "Death at SeaWorld." What are they afraid of? Digital Journal talked to Kirby to find out.
The book, set for release July 17, 2012, has ruffled some feathers. More than enough to warrant petitions by pro-SeaWorld activists asking media outlets and bookstores not to sell or promote, Kirby's, Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity.
What is in the book that could possibly warrant such censorship?
Could it be that Kirby has won a bevy of awards for his previous investigative book, the 2006, Evidence of Harm? Or is it perhaps, that even prior to its release, Death at SeaWorld, is generating waves of interest and perhaps a touch of fear?
Recently reviewed by the Library Journal, and selected as one of 13 non-fiction titles to highlight and preview in July 2012, Death at SeaWorld has also been nominated by St. Martin’s press for Columbia School of Journalism’s, 2012 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.
Kirby's book centers on the battle with the multimillion-dollar marine park industry and the controversial sometimes lethal ramifications of keeping killer whales in captivity. It also follows the story of marine biologist and animal advocate Naomi Rose at the Humane Society of the US, and tells of the two-decade fight against a PR-savvy SeaWorld, which came to a head with the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
So what exactly is in this book that is causing such a stir? And why is it angering pro-captivity activists enough, that they want to censor it? Digital Journal caught up with the author, David Kirby, to find out.
David Kirby / St. Martin's Press
David Kirby's book, "Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity," became available July 17, 2012.
EB: So what do you think about all this?
DK: It's kind of interesting. I think every good story has two sides, and this is a good story, and people feel really passionate one way or the other, doesn't matter if they're for or against keeping killer whales in captivity. They feel very, very strongly about the way they feel. There's two petitions out there I guess, to stop the book. In a way, it's nice to know that I took a subject that people feel so strongly about.
EB: Have those who oppose the book, read it?
DK: No, nobody's read it.
EB: So they're making judgements and assumptions on something they have not even read yet?
DK: Yeah, I basically just finished it yesterday.
EB: So what are they scared of then?
DK: I don't know. It's an interesting thing because they have every right to complain and protest – I wish they would read the book first – but it is interesting that it's their First Amendment right to say and petition, it's just curious when somebody uses their First Amendment rights to try to suppress somebody else's First Amendment right.
I mean its still their right, it's a free country. From what I can tell, a lot of these people are from all over the world. I would say less than half are Americans – and that was what is really interesting, and not just from Europe either, but I really mean from all over the world. I don't know what that means, I guess they were foreign tourists that came into Florida, and went to SeaWorld, but I think that they feel very strongly and passionately about the whole enterprise, and they feel a very strong kinship with the trainers. I think a lot of them are young people who want to be trainers one day, so you know anybody who, sort of criticizes your dream profession, I can understand why you would have an emotional attachment.
EB: It appears to be a protest about the inclusion of Dawn Brancheau and her death, that pro-captive activists are taking offence at. [According to this online petition, they write how "It is not fair that people like David Kirby are using it to make a profit." Dawn was killed in Feb. 2010 at SeaWorld by Tilikum, a 12,000 pound orca involved with human deaths before].
DK: They do believe that this somehow centers on Dawn Brancheau and that it's exploitive of her death, and I think they're going to be surprised when they find out how little of the book actually involves Dawn Brancheau. She was just sort of in the wrong place at the wrong time. But It did happen, and it's on the public record.
There was just a lengthy trial about it, there was a congressional hearing about it – not about it, but about the issue, and the media has reported it, so to single out an author writing a book when so many other venues have explored this issue in so many different ways – including profit making venues who are going to make a lot more money off this story than I am.
They criticize authors, "well he just wants to sell books." You know what? Yes. GM wants to sell cars, McDonald's wants to sell burgers. You don't make hamburgers and then not care if nobody comes to buy them. So yes, of course I want to sell books.
EB: But surely no author is going to sit down and write a book without a certain amount of interest?
DK: Nobody is going to read a book that doesn't grab their interest, and this is an incredibly interesting story. To go back to talking about Dawn. I don't think just because somebody dies, that area is then off limits. If that was the case, look at all the books about 9/11, was that exploitive? Or look at a Perfect Storm, was that exploitive with all of the people who died on that fishing boat?
Sometimes people die and there are four deaths in my book and each death is equally tragic. All four people should be grieved for, but it's not about Dawn, what it really, really is about, is killer whales. Obviously you need to have humans to tell the tale, but the bottom line is, this story, this book is about the whales. It's not exploitive, and Dawn's family very politely declined to participate, and her friends declined to participate.
EB: But you gave them the option?
DK: Absolutely. Her mom wrote me a letter back, everybody was very polite. I met her husband and some other family members and introduced myself, they were very pleasant people.
There was no hostility, and I told them that rest assured, I would treat Dawn as respectfully as possible, that I have absolutely no reason or inclination to speak ill of her and that by all accounts, she was a wonderful person and everybody loved her, and a horrible thing happened. Where I mentioned Dawn at all, I feel I handled the matter very respectfully, and I don't think there is anything in there about her that is going to upset anybody. I didn't play up the attacks, I just basically stated what happened.
EB: So the story is more about an entire historical situation and not one person?
DK: Well the story starts in 1985, when Dawn was probably a child. This book is not about Dawn Brancheau, it starts with Naomi Rose, a Humane Society scientist who goes out to British Columbia to get her Ph.D in marine biology and spends five summers up there studying whales in the wild.
While she's up there, Keltie Byrne is killed in 1991 (Byrne worked at SeaLand of the Pacific in Victoria, BC. Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for her death), and we learn about the whales in the wild right alongside with Rose, and it is in many ways, the most fascinating part because of the natural history of these whales, and the biology of their social evolution which is just staggering.
I felt it was really important to put this info upfront, because once the reader gets that, once you understand these animals, you can understand why captivity just probably is not suitable for them. But then also in the first part of the book, at that same time, in those same years, Jeff Ventre and Carol Ray and later on, Sam Berg and John Jett were working at SeaWorld. So we sort of go back and forth.
The second half of the book, really examines the problems of trying to keep these whales alive in captivity. It goes into the whole Keiko saga, and Dawn doesn't even come into the book until the end of part two, which is the attack. She's maybe in one chapter, and there are 36 chapters.
The aftermath is basically just the investigation, the OSHA investigation, the trainers coming forward, the congressional hearing, everything that is on the record, everything that has already been published and talked about. There's a lot of stuff in the book, especially from part two, that a lot of people in the public are not going to be familiar with. I think they'll be quite surprised. I also go into Loro Parque (a marine park in Tenerife, Spain) quite a bit.
The death at SeaWorld obviously refers to Dawn, but not only to Dawn. There have been a lot of deaths at SeaWorld, two human deaths and many human injuries, and about 25 whale deaths.
EB: So I noted that the petitions give no names, so I don't know who is behind it.
DK: I don't either. I recognize a few of the names of people who keep pro-captivity blogs and websites. It seems like a number of these people are quite young and want to work at SeaWorld someday, and that's fine. They should feel free to express their opinion, but it's not a good idea to attack something that you haven't read, or at least read a good, solid, synopsis or review of.
EB: So do you think they're perhaps more worried of you as the author, than they are of the actual book then? Being known as you are for investigative journalism, for which you've won numerous awards.
DK: I do believe it is more difficult to attack a journalist than an activist. I knew nothing about this issue before I started writing on it. I'm not an activist, I'm not a member of any animal organization, I really did approach this as an outsider. I ended up with an opinion, although authors of books are allowed to have an opinion. But I'm not anti-SeaWorld, I'm not anti-zoo, I'm not really even anti-captivity, I am really focused on killer whales.The evidences I see, can only lead to the conclusion, that captivity is not in the best interest of these animals.
EB: How so?
DK: The company line – and it's all over my book, is that the ocean is a dark scary place, and we have to protect these animals. So it becomes a sort of tragic Noah's Ark analogy, where the oceans are dying, let's save the animals by putting them in pools. Rather than the oceans are dying, let's save the oceans. You know? And there are those who like to pretend like they are saving the oceans and to some extent they do, but I didn't find anything they are doing to save the habitats of the Southern Resident killer whales, which are endangered.
Canada just announced that the habitat of orcas in British Columbia has to be protected, which means maintaining salmon stocks and all this other stuff that should be done, so I guess what I am saying is, conservation often implies rescuing endangered species, breeding them and returning them to the wild.
They say (SeaWorld), that they can't be returned and they probably can't, I mean a captive bred orca probably couldn't make it in the wild, but you know i was just thinking about this the other day, we also don't know if they could make it in the open ocean or not. You know you might be able to take the mother and a few calves all born in captivity, transition them into a sea pen and drop the net one day, and who knows, maybe they would swim out in the open ocean and become real whales.
We keep talking about how adaptable these animals are, we caught them in oceans and put them in tanks. Look at Corky, look at Tilikum, they have lived all these years even though they should be in the ocean, so I don't know how to look at it, but the point is, well we don't know.
These animals, especially the older ones now, have earned billions of dollars for this company and their shareholders. They have employed tens of thousands of people, they have conferred so many benefits on people from vendors to stock holders, to top executives, to trainers and their families. Just think of them thousands and thousands and thousands of people, who have actually benefited from having these whales around them for so long, and all the money, and all the economic activities, why can't we give them ten years of their life off?
You know in a sea pen, cared for by people, completely taken care of, veterinarian care, food, hopefully learning to catch food again, live fish. Keiko did. Then charge money for people to come see them. SeaWorld can still own the whales.
I've seen some of these coves proposed for sea pens, and they are spectacular, and they're huge and would take a whale a good ten to fifteen minutes just to swim the perimeter, and it's ocean water and they can hear what is going on in the ocean. These are beautiful settings and there is plenty of space for spectators.
When Keiko went to Iceland it was great. I mean he thrived and he did really, really, really well, and he even tried it on his own and went to Norway, and when he got to Norway he was fine and he stayed in Norway for 18 months and he was fine and then he died. Which is what whales do, they just drop dead really quickly that's just the way they are designed.
I've spent a year and a half investigating this, but for killer whales life in captivity is not the same as life in the ocean and that's what SeaWorld basically says, that it is the same and it is not the same. Seaworld says that they live and die the same way they do in the wild, and they do not live like they do in the wild and they do not die like they do in the wild. It's not an opinion it's fact, it really is just a fact the mortality rate is two and a half times greater for orcas in captivity, and that's not from me, it's published science.
EB: Are orcas anguished or happy in captivity do you think?
DK: We can only truly speculate how anguished they really are and how happy they really are and we cant say for sure, but I think there are scientific tests, and I think there are signs of physical deformity, and they die young. Are they truly anguished everyday when they start their day, are they just bummed out because they are at SeaWorld? I don't think anybody could say that, but I don't think anybody could say that they are truly happy either.
It's just not what nature intended. I would encourage these people even more to read my book, to go to British Columbia and go to Iceland, and go to Norway, where ever you can go to see the killer whales in the wild. In Washington State, they come so close to the shore, and it doesn't cost a dime, even the parking is free and you just stand there and there are bald eagles swirling overhead and then 30 yards offshore, there's a pod of whales just rolling around in the kelp, it's spectacular.
But anyway, I am a firm believer in the First Amendment, and that includes everybody. People have every right to protest this book, I just wish they would read it first and then we can have an honest dialogue about it, then people should feel free to speak their mind.
EB: Thank you David. Good luck with the book.
Jeffrey Ventre MD, former SeaWorld trainer and co-founder of Voice of the Orcas, told Digital Journal:
"The idea of SeaWorld supporters attempting to stop or suppress the release of Death at SeaWorld is not well thought out and somewhat amusing, considering the the hub-bub itself is generating more interest for the book. It reminds me of the idea of book burning or a state-controlled media."
Young activist Gwen Williams, who is from Melbourne, Australia, also commented:
These people are fine with removing free speech if it means SeaWorld will be saved from even the slightest shred of negative publicity. God forbid someone writes a book about them – it might mean that they can no longer pretend everything is sunshine and rainbows at SeaWorld."
David Kirby's book, Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, is set for release July 17, 2012. It is available for pre-order through Amazon.com. For further thoughts on the attempt to censor Kirby's book, the author has issued a personal response.