Animal Book Club: David Kirby, Death at SeaWorld

Posted by Jennifer Molidor, ALDF's Staff Writer on April 18, 2013

Is it ethical to confine the ocean’s largest predators in tiny tanks and make them perform tricks? Is it safe? Only in captivity have “killer whales” caused harm to humans. But the debate about marine animals in captivity has taken on a national scope with the documentary Blackfish making a splash at the Cannes film festival, the public killing of trainer Dawn Brancheau, and the plight of an orca bull named Tilikum (a Chinook name meaning “friendly”). David Kirby’s excellent book, Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, investigates these questions.

In the past thirty years, the display industry has exploded with marine theme parks. Taking advantage, not only of helpless orcas, but of our innate desire to connect with nonhuman animals, these liquid prisons have meant enormous profit for corporations that buy, sell, breed, and display animals. Targeting the hearts and minds of curious children, SeaWorld’s “Shamu” shows have hidden the cruelty of captivity behind the closed doors of its pools—until now.

According to Kirby, orcas are second only to humans in social and ecological complexity. Science shows us that orcas have consciousness—and cultures. Known by the misnomer “killer whales,” orcas are neither whales nor killers: these typically gentle creatures belong to the dolphin family. Wild orcas live in tightly knit matriarchal communities; males stay with their mothers for their entire lives, which may be 50 years or more. Yet orcas, like Lolita, who the Animal Legal Defense Fund is fighting to protect, are removed from their families, isolated in small, barren tanks, and made to perform tricks—not just at SeaWorld, but in theme parks around the world.

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?

Kirby’s Death at SeaWorld is a thoroughly researched expose of the dark side of theme parks—and the ensuing attempts to silence whistleblowers. Kirby also has an uncanny ability to ventriloquize other people’s experiences, like the beautiful description of the first time famed marine biologist Naomi Rose came near a wild orca. Looking in her eyes, Naomi knew, “the animal had more than mere intelligence. She had a consciousness. She had opinions.

In the wild, orcas form bonds for life. They swim hundreds of miles through deep oceans. Yet in the stressful environment of captivity, giant predators like Tilikum, aka “Tilly,” are forced not only to perform but to live in artificial “pods.” The gravity of being in such a shallow tank deforms their dorsal fins, bending them all the way down like a piece of melted licorice. They suffer far greater stress, disease, stillbirths, and physiological distress. For example, Lolita’s only orca partner, Hugo, died thirty years ago, after ramming his own head into the wall repeatedly, in what many think was a desperate attempt to end the misery of his life.

Tilikum was also involved in the horrifying death of Keltie Lee Byrne in 1991 in SeaLand of the Pacific in British Columbia, which was the first time anyone had been killed by a captive orca, but not the last. Tilikum is not the only orca who has hurt himself or a human. In fact, as Kirby’s book shows, these abnormal behaviors become the norm for all orcas in captivity—orcas like Orkid, Keiko, and Splash. Yet Tilikum is currently housed at SeaWorld, swimming endless circles, in his little tiny tank.

Captive orcaSome argue that imprisoning wild animals in shallow pools for high-priced tickets provides education for the masses…that audiences are thrilled by proximity to these magnificent, animals the size of school buses—at least until humans are killed before their eyes. What kind of education is this—and at what cost? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) held hearings about the violence at SeaWorld and barred humans from doing water-work with orcas. Scientific studies show no benefit either to human education or animal conservation in holding orcas captive. Is Tilly’s suffering and the risk he poses to humans and other animals worth the price of admission?

What do we do with orcas like Tilikum? And how do we end the suffering of animals exploited for entertainment? These debates continue to rage. You can contribute to the conversation by commenting below. One lucky winner will be chosen at random to receive a free copy of Kirby’s book Death at SeaWorld.

Simply join ALDF’s free Animal Book Club and leave a comment below!