We are big fans of writer/law student Kevin Schneider’s brain, and were thrilled that he agreed to do a review of an extremely important nonfiction book, Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, by David Kirby.
Book Review: Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby
by Kevin Schneider
If David Kirby’s new book is any indication, the tide may finally be turning against orca captivity. In Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), Kirby surveys the last five decades of humankind’s troubled relationship with this magnificent species. Once reviled by fishermen as cold-blooded killers, orcas (the scientific name for “killer whales”) have captivated people ever since the first one was captured and displayed in the 1960s. Blown away by their intelligence, capacity to learn, and apparent receptiveness to human interaction, people were instantly hooked. Over the years, our love affair with orcas has grown increasingly complicated, if no less strong, as we’ve learned more about their rich lives in the wild. Today, with the benefit of 50 years of hindsight – and works like Death at SeaWorld – we can truly reflect on the propriety of keeping these majestic beings in captivity. Death at SeaWorld paints a fair and nuanced picture of the issue, and will lead many readers to the same conclusion: orca captivity has simply got to go.
The history of captive orcas reads like a Greek tragedy, complete with inbreeding, infanticide, deadly attacks, and the splitting of families who in the wild would remain together for life. Death at SeaWorld tells the story of how, by reducing orcas to captivity, we destroy their bodies and create mere facsimiles of their natural selves. In the wild, orcas don’t have collapsed dorsal fins, they don’t suffer epileptic seizures, they don’t lose their teeth, they don’t ram their heads into walls until death, and they don’t viciously attack one another. They do all of these things in SeaWorld pools. It seems like the more we drag orcas into our human world, the more they take on our worst qualities: depression, anger, and violence toward themselves, each other, and people.
Among all the orcas who have been subjected to life in captivity, the massive bull Tilikum features most prominently in Death at SeaWorld. Since he was snatched from the north Atlantic off the coast of Iceland as a youngster, Tilikum has had a rough time of it. Disturbingly, about 20 years before his notorious attack on Dawn Brancheau in 2010, Tilikum was involved in another fatal attack on a trainer at a Vancouver, British Columbia, aquarium. SeaWorld was fully aware of the previous attack, and did everything it could to hide it from the public and its own trainers. The story of what happened to Dawn Brancheau and Tilikum is tragic, and highlights the ultimate folly of orca captivity.
Death at SeaWorld doesn’t focus strictly on the negative, though; it regales the reader with tales of orcas in their native oceans. These days, we know orcas as individuals, more so than almost any other wild species on the planet. Each and every orca, just about, has a name, a history, and a real place in the world and in our imaginations. (Take for instance “Granny,” the 100-year-old matrilineal queen of one pod of the British Columbia Resident orcas.) Avid researchers capture countless orca life events, including births, deaths, skirmishes, and romances. Through the work of committed scientists like Naomi Rose and others, people have learned to appreciate orcas for what they really are: incredibly complex, intelligent, and social animals. And all without capturing or disturbing a single one.
With Death at SeaWorld, Kirby does an admirable job of presenting the controversy over orca captivity in an evenhanded way. The author points out, for one, that the display industry almost certainly deserves some credit for getting people interested in orca and ocean conservation. He also describes SeaWorld trainers and other employees who genuinely love the orcas they’ve worked with. At the same time, Kirby is unflinching in his scrutiny of the display industry’s public relations and “science-based” communications. As he points out, while SeaWorld has and continues to expend substantial amounts of money on education, conservation, and animal rescue efforts, the profits reaped off the backs of captive orcas far outpace these amounts. What’s worse, the display industry fails the public by nurturing the mistaken belief that we cannot learn about and love orcas in their native habitat, without taking them into captivity.
Fortunately for the orcas, there are positive signs, even as the crowds continue to pile into SeaWorld. President Obama’s Labor Department brought serious pressure on SeaWorld after the death of Dawn Brancheau. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conducted hearings and heard damaging testimony against SeaWorld. Currently, trainers are effectively barred from water work with orcas – instead of flying through the air on the orcas’ backs, the trainers are limited to rather silly choreographed dances outside the pools. We can hope that this will decrease the demand for SeaWorld tickets.
Furthermore, trends in technology, communications, and culture have been instrumental in fueling the nascent backlash against the captive industry. On YouTube, you can easily find footage of orca attacks on trainers, whereas before these incidents were carefully managed and whitewashed by SeaWorld. Social media outlets like Facebook and Google+ have been instrumental in bringing orca activists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens together to work for change. And, the new documentary film Blackfish is getting rave reviews from critics at the Sundance Film Festival, exposing more people to the truth of the captive display industry (the film is already being compared to The Cove, which shed light on the horrors of dolphin slaughter in Japan).
By placing the controversy over orca captivity into a concise and engaging narrative, Kirby has done the cetacean activist community a great service. Not only does Death at SeaWorld lay out all the myriad arguments against captivity, it provides a window into the psychology of the display industry, and describes the strategies that have been deployed by activists thus far. As an advocate for freeing orcas from captivity and granting them legal rights, I found these insights extremely valuable. I believe that one day soon, we’ll look back on Death at SeaWorld as integral to shifting the public’s attitudes toward orca captivity. Orca captivity is too cruel for the orcas, too dangerous for the trainers, and simply fails to educate the public about how magnificent these beings truly are.
Kevin Schneider is finishing his final semester at Florida State University College of Law, with a focus in environmental law. After graduating, he wants to begin a career as a consultant to sustainable and plant-based businesses. Kevin’s also interested in advancing the cause of animals through the legal system. During law school, Kevin has worked for several animal protection organizations, including Mercy For Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. He is a long-time volunteer with the Nonhuman Rights Project, responsible for social media outreach, web content development, and legal research. He has also done some lobbying for pro-animal legislation on the state and federal level, and worked on a number of projects with the Animal Law Committee of the American Bar Association. Early in his first year of law school, Kevin began serving on the board of the Animal Law Society, and soon afterwards helped convert it to a Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (SALDF) chapter. Kevin currently serves as chapter president, and in that capacity has coordinated a pro bono program in which law students analyzed animal-related bills pending in the Florida legislature. Originally from Boston, Kevin plans to move to New York City after law school.