Captive Time Bombs

Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity
by David Kirby,
St. Martin’s Press, 2012, 469 pages

In Review

Author David Kirby has written a shocking exposé of the SeaWorld marine parks and the dangers that wild animal captivity poses to both SeaWorld trainers and the orcas that perform there. Death at SeaWorld was inspired by the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, when a captive male orca, Tilikum, grabbed her and pulled her into the tank with him. She died from blunt force trauma.

Orcas in tanks are ticking time bombs for the trainers. Brancheau was not the first trainer to die this way. Nor was she the first trainer to be killed by Tilikum. Orcas in the wild virtually never attack humans. But they do in captivity.

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Furthermore, many captive orcas have died at SeaWorld over the years. As Kirby shows, the deaths of trainers and orcas are related. Large carnivorous orcas do poorly in captivity, dying at young ages. Kirby notes that orcas at SeaWorld die at a rate two and a half times higher than orcas in the wild. And they can lash out at their trainers, with fatal results.

Kirby profiles Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal biologist with the Humane Society of United States who has been in the forefront of efforts to stop orcas and dolphins from being kept in captivity. Also important to the story are several trainers who quit working at SeaWorld and came out publicly against the programs they were originally hired to serve. Death at SeaWorld follows Dr. Rose as she studies the behavior of wild orcas in British Columbia – where orcas behave much differently from captive orcas – and juxtaposes her observations with narratives of SeaWorld trainers who grow disillusioned as they realize the theme park’s public claims of “happy orcas” in captivity conceals serious problems.

Kirby describes the host of problems that beset orcas in captivity. Wild orcas cannot drink seawater; they get their water from the fish they eat. In captivity, orcas are fed dead fish that have been frozen and then thawed, losing most of their moisture. To keep them hydrated, they have to be fed immense amounts of gelatin. Orcas often break teeth from chewing on the concrete sides and metal gates in their marine park homes, resulting in serious gum infections. But whales cannot be anesthetized like humans – they need to be awake in order to breathe. So dental work has to be done on the wide-awake orca, drilling out the infected pulp from its mouth to prevent a lethal infection.

Kirby recently released a 2006 video of an incident with another trainer that came out during investigations following the death of Brancheau. The video, which SeaWorld had tried to cover up, shows an orca seizing the foot of a trainer, pulling him underwater, and nearly drowning him. Kirby noted that the female orca – which had been separated from her calf and then forced to perform – turned on her trainer when she heard her calf calling from another tank.

Kirby says he came to the research for the book as neither pro- or anti-captivity for orcas. He now supports retiring all captive orcas to sea pens and, when possible, releasing them back into the wild. This is possible. In 1998, Earth Island Institute and the Humane Society of United States helped free Keiko, the whale star of the hit movie Free Willy. Earth Island formed the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation, which built a state-of-the art tank for Keiko in Oregon, and then, after rehab, moved him to his home waters of Iceland, where he remained for six years until he died at the age of 25.

Death at SeaWorld is one of the most important books written about the problem of keeping intelligent whales and dolphins in small concrete tanks for their entire lives just to amuse us. As I write this review, the Georgia Aquarium is seeking permission to bring 18 beluga whales into captivity in the US from Russia. This deadly trade in captive marine mammals must stop.

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