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article imageReview: Death at SeaWorld exposes the lethal legacy of orca captivity

By Elizabeth Batt     Jun 28, 2012 in Environment
From horrific orca captures to the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, David Kirby's groundbreaking investigative thriller chillingly exposes a side of SeaWorld deftly hidden from public view.
Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity is the latest book written by investigative journalist David Kirby. Scheduled for release by St. Martin's Press on July 17, 2012, this non-fiction thriller dives into the captivity versus anti-captivity debate with gusto, to analyze the true cost of keeping killer whales in captivity.
"One faction views SeaWorld as a Garden Hilton" Kirby writes in his introduction, "and the other views it as a Hanoi Hilton." But the debate, which has raged back and forth for years he suggests, grabbed a whole new gear after the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by the giant orca Tilikum in February 2010.
Featured prominently in the book is Naomi Rose, a marine biologist and senior scientist for the Humane Society of the US (HSUS). Rose never considered the detrimental aspects of captivity until her extensive studies into killer whale societies forced her to question how artificial life truly was for orcas kept in a display environment.
In the Northern Resident orca community for example, "orcas have their own cultures," Kirby explains, with each pod having its own signature collection of clicks and whistles. Rose discovered and wrote in her dissertation, that "Residents travel in matrifocal [centered on the mother] units called matrileneal groups." In other words, Kirby said, from infancy to old age, male orcas "spend most of their time by their mother's side," thus making them "the planet's ultimate mama's boys."
Quite unlike their Resident counterparts, Transient killer whales are less vocal and less maternal, the book says. In fact some scientists the author explained, "now believe that the two ecotypes should officially be designated distinct species." These two types of orcas Kirby adds, really "do not like to mix." It's a point hammered home harshly later in the book, when SeaWorld's breeding program is explored in more depth, and it is revealed that Transient orcas are bred to Resident orcas, without any regard for the differences between "species and races."
Like Rose, several former SeaWorld trainers reached disillusioned conclusions of their own. Seeking to advance their knowledge about marine mammals, some eventually realized that independent thinking was neither encouraged nor welcomed by SeaWorld, particularly if it differed from management's own view.
SeaWorld possessed a culture all of its own they said; a world of "operant conditioning" and smoke and mirrors designed to obfuscate the most discerning guest. Use of industry "buzzwords" coupled with drilled responses were part of a comprehensive handbook and repertoire that trainers were compelled to learn.
There was an entire list of words to avoid said Kirby, as trainers were "spoonfed corporate soundbites." Marine mammals were "not captured," they were "acquired." Captivity was a "controlled environment" or animals were in "human care." Marine mammals did not live in "tanks," they resided in "enclosures" or "aquariums." In one particular memo passed down the chain, trainers were told that no matter what happens on any given day, "Stay positive and keep [explanations], on a 5th grade level."
Kirby's detailed history behind the capturing of orcas for the display industry is both gut wrenching and haunting. By the 1970s, the book says, the era of the orca cowboys had removed "more than 200 orcas from Puget Sound." It's hard not to feel nauseous when Kirby explains that in the 1971 Penn Cove capture, some 80 killer whales were netted, "almost every member of J, K and L pods," says Kirby, or "the entire Southern Resident Community."
Seven of these young calves and juvenile orcas were kept and sold to the captive marine industry. Today, only Lolita remains alive, living in an undersized tank at Miami Seaquarium. The aftermath of the Penn Cove captures was equally devastating. "Many orcas perished" in this capture said Kirby. Their bodies being "slit and weighted down with steel chains and anchors so they didn't wash ashore."
For those orcas taken from the ocean and their families, the outcome was worse. In April 1968, Hyak II, a calf captured and ripped from his mother during the Pender Harbor roundup, was sold to the Vancouver Aquarium for $5,000. Paul Spong who worked with the calf after his capture said that during the orca's transport, the calf "emitted nothing but a plaintive cry again and again." Spong would later go on to become a staunch advocate for Orcinus orca, abhorring captivity altogether.
Meanwhile, the statistics that Kirby provides are a hefty pill to swallow. Of "nearly 130 orcas shipped to display facilities between 1960-1992" he writes, only "24 of them are still alive;" astonishingly few of them.
Through changing perceptions and the examination of procedures at one of America's premier marine mammal entertainment parks, David Kirby's Death at SeaWorld, seeks to answer several questions. Does captivity benefit wild orcas as the captive industry claims, and is it a truly educational experience for the paying public? More importantly Kirby queries, is keeping orcas in captivity safe for trainers?
Kirby systematically punctures the veneer cleverly melded by a savvy SeaWorld public relations department, until the answers are revealed with startling clarity. Cover ups, undocumented incidents of trainer injuries and whale deaths, are consistently dumbed down for the public and in some cases, not even acknowledged at all.
"SeaWorld" Rose told Kirby, "was a slow-motion death machine for killer whales." Rashes of trainer injuries or injuries between orcas resulted in death, were passed off as trainer error, or exuberant whales playing. One such episode occurred after Dawn Brancheau's death, when prior to further investigation, Thad Lacinak, the former Vice President and Corporate Curator for Animal Training at SeaWorld, placed the blame for the attack firmly on the battered trainer's ponytail.
Sadly, Tilikum's history is a spotted one. His heartbreaking capture at an early age, ties in with the beatings he endured from more dominant orcas, and clearly defined the whale that he has become today. One cannot help but sympathize with SeaWorld's prime bull, who will be remembered not for what he has endured, but for a bloody legacy cemented by his involvement in the killing of three people: trainer Keltie Byrne in 1991 at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada; Daniel P. Dukes at SeaWorld Orlando and finally, the horrific death of Dawn Brancheau.
Brancheau’s death resulted in a vigorous but successful investigation by OSHA, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Judge Ken S. Welsch recently sided with OSHA, which spent six months investigating SeaWorld's killer whale safety practices following Brancheau’s death. Welsch upheld OSHA’s request which recommended that trainers be protected by a physical barrier or something with the same level of safety, when performing with orcas.
Despite SeaWorld's protestations, when Tilikum attacked Brancheau Kirby says, "Tilly was not just playing ... this was a killing ... and it changed the debate forever."
Kirby is no newcomer to investigative journalism. His previous book, Evidence of Harm, was a New York Times bestseller, and won the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors award for best book. It was also a finalist for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism.
The author's latest endeavor generated its own controversy which came long before the book had been read or published. Attempts were made to have Death at SeaWorld banned, accusing Kirby's efforts of exploiting Brancheau's memory. While the trainer's death is certainly covered, it is not taken out of context, Brancheau's death is one part of a much larger story.
Back in February, Kirby told Digital Journal, that his book was not "only about Dawn. There have been a lot of deaths at SeaWorld," he said, "two human deaths ... many human injuries, and about 25 whale deaths."
In a more recent interview with Alex Lewis, Kirby readily admits, that as much as he "hates to say it, if nothing had happened to Dawn Brancheau that day, I certainly never would have written this book. I would still be as ignorant about killer whales in captivity as I was that day."
The author also willingly acknowledges the early role of aquariums and captivity in advancing our knowledge of killer whales, specifically in changing perceptions of a once-feared predator to an intelligent counterpart. Unfortunately, as the book reveals, these changes dealt orcas a crapshoot, and in captivity, their intelligence now works against their psyche.
Death at SeaWorld pierces the heart in parts, and titillates in others. From the first bumbling intrusion by humans into the world of Orcinus Orca, to whimsical facts about certain members of the species itself, readers will endure a roller coaster of emotions.
Kirby also shows that behind the glitz and glamour of a self-regulating SeaWorld, is a corporation that clearly brooks no opposition. For decades, and occasionally with the aid of private and government entities, the organization has bought, bullied and battered those who oppose it, right down to the little guy.
And the irony of SeaWorld's 'expertise' is genuinely irrefutable. Touting themselves as having superior knowledge in the field of marine mammalogy, Kirby repeatedly demonstrates how the corporation refuses to acknowledge any external and legitimate studies from superiors in the field. SeaWorld's denigration of opinions that do not jibe with their own, has cost the lives of human and orca alike.
Death at SeaWorld is a 'read it and weep' exposé of shocking connotations. The reader is cleverly and artfully guided by the author through a complicated 'mess-story' that for years now, has been wracked by controversy and confounded by opposing points of view. But this is the quiet strength of the book.
Far, far louder, screaming in fact, is the realization that trained orcas in parks bear little resemblance to their counterparts in the wild. Learned behaviors in artificial environments could not be more different, despite the company mantra that captivity for orcas is "educational" for the public. One only has to look at "the wildly popular raspberries," Kirby writes, "when whales make farting noises from their blowhole;" there could not be a more perfect example of how anomalous these animals have become.
Sadly, such parlor tricks, have turned one of the ocean's top predators into little more than a circus act, and Death at SeaWorld's crucial exposure of the industry left me feeling betrayed by an organization that courts families on a daily basis, then misinforms them.
Death at Seaworld is a comprehensive book that astutely gathers the material that matters, then delivers it with a profound punch. Kirby's knockout format is articulate and mind-blowing. This riveting read is not one that will easily be dismissed. By the book's conclusion, the author's revelations, make it virtually unconscionable for any person with a smattering of compassion for these majestic creatures, to ever visit a marine mammal entertainment facility again.
Kirby, David. Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity. St. Martin's Press; July 17, 2012. Hardcover. ISBN-10: 1250002028; ISBN-13: 978-1250002020.
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