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Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby

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But what if the capture of the young calf had never occurred? Tilikum might still be swimming free in the frigid water of the North Atlantic, chasing his cherished herring, perhaps alongside his mother. He might be surrounded by siblings, nieces, and nephews, and his grandmother might still be leading the pod.

An oceanic Tilikum would be gliding through his boundless home with fearless power and majestic grace, his fin erect, his teeth intact, his interactions with humans minimal and nonlethal. There would be no need for gelatin or Tagamet, antibiotics or isolation.

And of course, if Tilikum had never been wrenched away from his family and friends, entirely for the amusement of humans, the family and friends of Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes, and Dawn Brancheau might not be grieving to this day.

Tilikum was trying to tell us something. It was time to listen.

The road to this book began with watching the documentary Blackfish (thank you to my sister and her Netflix). It was spurned even further by a love of marine life that I’ve had since I was a little girl. I was never one of those kids who begged to go to Marineland, but more so a kid who begged for whale watching out on the ocean every summer my family went out East (to the Maritimes for you Yanks, much love to ya). Even now, living a few short hours from Niagara Falls and having been there numerous times, there has never been a desire to visit the so-called “educational marine mammal” park. After watching the ground-breaking Blackfish and reading Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity as a follow up, I’m grateful I recognized, even as a kid, that something about SeaWorld and its captivity of orca whales just didn’t feel right.

In Death at SeaWorld Dr. David Kirby tells the story of whale captivity for the purpose of entertainment and propagated by a company driven to protect their earnings as well as the complexities of the marine whale communities those whales were taken from in the wild. As one reads through the book it becomes clear that the very topic of captive vs. whales in the open oceans is what both sides cling to for their defense. Kirby moves back and forth between the views of the scientific community, along with the freely swimming whales they study, and the stories of whales who now perform in parks around the world. The history of the whale entertainment industry is examined stage by stage along with the whales that perform (whether captured or born at SeaWorld), the stages of protest against whale custody and finally the fatal attack on Dawn Brancheau in 2010 that led to a public war about the morals of whale captivity.

There are so many things I loved about this book. First, while the first impression is to think this book is biased, especially considering its agenda and the main figures that Kirby includes, I slowly came to understand that much of the evidence against SeaWorld was damning enough by itself (four deaths seems legitimate enough proof to me). Kirby also states in the prologue that he offered SeaWorld representatives opportunities to respond and be involved but heard nothing back. Their side is voiced through public statements and contact, and even then it is clear how contradictory their own public declarations have been.

Kirby has done extensive research to make this study as accurate as possible. The studies and ideologies of many of the world’s most renowned marine biologists and scientists who specialize on orcas are included, backed up by statistics and research. Dr. Naomi Rose is the main scientific figure, a marine biologist who spent years studying the pods off of the Pacific coast and who took up the anti-cap torch. Kirby also includes the stories of numerous SeaWorld trainers who during their employment saw things they could not come to terms with (such as the lack of stimulation for the whales and the horrendous ways in which some of them died) and would later speak out against their former employer.

However, the most significant aspect is the stories of the whales themselves. From their boredom in non-stimulating holding tanks, the destruction of their families and social customs, from drilled down teeth and deadly mosquito bites, to the victory of a singular release into an open concept sea pen, Kirby reveals how their intelligence, emotions and human-like familial structures are abused for the sake of entertainment. The big-bad ocean was never such a thing to them (as SeaWorld apparently likes to claim) but a world of interaction and discovery. It becomes clear that keeping orca whales caged in tanks is like sentencing a Great Dane to live forever in a car.

There’s no denying that the deaths that occurred at SeaWorld over the past few decades are tragedies. Kirby recognizes that in Death at SeaWorld but he also examines the causes that led up to these tragedies. When you finally turn the last page there is only one conclusion to come to; that killer whales deserve to be in the depths of the ocean and not in the shallows of a tank.

Devon – a1000booklife

Other books written by Dr. David Kirby: Animal Farm: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment (2011)

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