A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Death at SeaWorld

According to a new poll, three out of four Americans are against keeping orcas in captivity. That’s not good news for marine circuses like SeaWorld who are in the business of keeping these huge, majestic killer whales in small pools so they can do tricks for tourists and their children.

More and more people, however, have begun to think it through and are deciding not to take the family to these seaquariums. David Kirby’s new book, Death at SeaWorld – Shamu and the dark side of killer whales in captivity, will leave even more people with serious questions about not just the ethics of keeping the world’s top predator in the equivalent of a bathtub for their entire lives, but also the safety of it.

The “death” in the book’s title refers to the demise of Dawn Brancheau, who was the trainer of Tilikum, the largest orca ever to have been kept in captivity. In February, 2010, when Brancheau was entertaining the audience at a Dine with Shamu show at SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum suddenly pulled her into the pool, savaged her and drowned her. It was shocking, horrible and, as Kirby, tells the tale, entirely to be expected.

Captive orcas confined to tanks one ten-thousandth of their normal habitat size experience dramatically reduced lifespans and higher mortality rates, research shows.

Tilikum, who had been torn from his mother and family off the coast of Iceland in 1982, had been taken to a marine circus in Vancouver where, nine years later, he killed his first human, a trainer who’d slipped while riding around the pool and whom Tilikum and his two fellow captives dragged to her death. When he was moved to SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum killed a man who got into his pool after hours. And now there was Dawn Brancheau. (Just two months earlier, 14-year-old Keto killed a trainer at a seaquarium in the Canary Islands. And there are dozens more reports of trainers being killed or injured. You can read a collection of them here.)

Orcas die, too. They crash into each other and into the wall of their pool, they get sick and stressed, and they need constant medical attention just to live out their unnaturally short lives in these miserable conditions.

Kirby digs deep into the story of Tilikum, exploring it through the eyes of former SeaWorld trainers, along with scientists and other experts who are vehemently opposed to the exploitation of these huge, super-intelligent creatures. For some of them, especially the trainers, that opposition did not come easily. SeaWorld had a cult-like culture that discouraged criticism of any kind from its employees. Two of those trainers were John Jett and Jeff Ventre.

The doubts that began to germinate in John’s and Jeff’s minds were sometimes planted from people on the outside. SeaWorld executives had already anticipated that anti-captivity critics—activists and scientists—who routinely showed up to observe the animals would also try to make contact with staff members. But the company had done a thorough job of infusing its employees with a general disdain for anyone who criticized the business of keeping cetaceans in tanks. All members of groups such as the Animal Welfare Institute, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, In Defense of Animals, and, of course, The HSUS were almost universally despised at SeaWorld. They were nut jobs to be avoided at all costs.

The book reads more like a thriller than as the meticulous investigative that it is. It details much of what it’s like being an orca at SeaWorld. For example, since the whales frequently chew on the bars of their cages – out of boredom, aggression or attempting to escape – this damages their teeth, which slowly rot.

Many of the killer whales had developed serious dental problems—mostly chipped and broken teeth, but also teeth that had been removed or had fallen out. Most disturbing of all were teeth that needed to have the pulp drilled out of the center, leaving behind a conical cylinder.

Jeff and John were beginning to believe that stress and boredom were adding to the tooth problem. The steel gates that separated the park’s pools were made from horizontal bars. These gates were the first line of defense when the orcas went “off behavior” and became aggressive and in need of physical separation. Once separated, they sometimes bit down on the bars, a display of aggression called jaw-popping.

Even when they were not challenging each other through the restraints of the gates, some animals passed the time fighting boredom by simply chewing on the bars or on the corners of the concrete pools. Several times Jeff and John discovered teeth or fragments of teeth on the bottom of the tanks, especially near the gates.

Eventually, their doubts about working at SeaWorld convince several of the trainers to leave the company and to work for the liberation of their former charges.

“You know, every day I go in to work, it becomes more painful for me to see these animals in this environment,” John confided in his buddy Jeff over beers at a local pub. “But I keep telling myself that maybe my presence is going to make their lives better. And I really do try to make their lives better, especially Tilikum. I work as hard as I can for that poor guy.”

Today, those former trainers, along with scientists, attorneys, philosophers, and people from major animal protection groups all around the world work together to bring an end to keeping these marine mammals in captivity.

As told by Kirby, their story, along with the stories of the whales themselves, is a remarkable one. Coming on the heels of government sanctions on SeaWorld concerning its safety protocols, Death at SeaWorld will be another big nail in the coffin of a corporation that’s more in the business of the conservation of its own business than, as it glibly proclaims, to the conservation of the world of the ocean.