Animal Book Club: Interview with David Kirby

Posted on April 25, 2013

This month the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Animal Book Club discusses issues of orcas in captivity—as we continue our fight to protect Lolita, an orca trapped at the Miami Seaquarium. David Kirby is the author of Evidence of Harm, a New York Times bestseller, winner of the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for best book, and author of Animal Factory, an acclaimed investigation into factory farms. He spoke with ALDF recently about his new book, Death at SeaWorld.

In 2010, Dawn Brancheau, an orca trainer at SeaWorld, was publically killed by a captive Icelandic orca named Tilikum (one of many orcas who have “performed” with the stage name “Shamu”). The tragedy of her death revealed to millions of people the ongoing suffering of orcas in captivity and sparked a massive legal battle against SeaWorld, as we discussed in our review of David Kirby’s Death at SeaWorld.

What drew you to write this book?

“You know when you have a good story. But often the book you set out to write at the beginning is not the book you end up writing, especially if you’re honest and do your research,” David says. “I saw this story about a corporation that has a very happy, shiny veneer and a reputation as a great family entertainment place,” but had become enmeshed in a major legal battle over what SeaWorld did and didn’t do, and what the government did and didn’t do.

As he investigated deeper into this story, David was shocked by what he learned, especially as he juxtaposed the conditions of captive orcas against wild whales. He saw whales trapped in pools in Florida whose lives differed so much from wild orcas in their natural environment in the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island, swimming and playing in the kelp.

How did your point of view change as you researched your book?

“After talking to Naomi Rose and the trainers, and reading things such as Orca, by Eric Hoyt, which everybody should read, I realized how grotesque the history of orca captivity was,” he says. “I didn’t even know orcas were dolphins. I just hadn’t thought about it.”

As he wrote Death at SeaWorld, many myths fell apart before him. “These are extremely smart animals. They’re not deadly predators to humans. I found that out right away. And when I saw they die in captivity at much greater rates – that was it.” The more he learned, the more involved he became.

With this new information it was no longer a question of just exploring an interesting political controversy. “It would be dishonest of me as a journalist, or as an author, to not take a position.” Although his book primarily a laying out of facts and comparisons, David says: “I think it impossible to be pro-captivity at the end of the book, unless you’re completely invested in the profits.”

What draws people to visit theme parks? Kirby writes that humans
"respond to beauty, majesty, power, size, and intelligence, and no
animal possesses all these things more than Orcinus orca."Kirby’s
book allows that there are animal lovers on both sides of the debate.
"Readers must make up their own minds" he writes. But can anyone remain
supportive of captivity after reading Kirby’s descriptions of the great
suffering of orcas in theme parks, or the violence inflicted upon humans
in these utterly preventable tragedies?

What’s the cruelest part of captivity for orcas?

“I think the cruelest thing is separation of families, of males from their mothers, the breaking up of a pod and reforming of artificial pods made up of whales that have nothing to do with each other—the family structure is just annihilated. Calves are removed from their mothers at very young ages and sent off to other parks.”

The shamefully small spaces are also problematic. “These are top predators that are supposed to swim a hundred miles a day. We now know from science that large predators with large range are the worst candidates for captivity. SeaWorld says ‘oh they don’t have to look for food, it is right there!’ Well, going to look for food is about 40% of their day. That’s what they do. That’s what they have evolved over 500 million years to do. And from what I’ve seen, it looks like they enjoy it.”

What can we do?

David says “I am on the side of urging SeaWorld to develop a business model that doesn’t depend on captive cetaceans for a profit. I am in favor of retirement of these animals – and possibly for a few of them to be returned to their pods. Every other animal in show business gets to retire; they get to go to a sanctuary somewhere.” As David notes, few animals anywhere generate more profit for than the killer whales at SeaWorld.

David is currently working on a book about “our troubled Bill of Rights.” He is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and The best animal book he’s read lately is called How Animals Grieve, by Barbara J. King.

Visit David’s website at

Join the Animal Book Club and leave a comment below to qualify to win a free copy of Death at SeaWorld. Contest ends April 30!


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