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September 11, 2012

When Orcas Go Postal: The Gravest Show On Earth


By Duncan Strauss

Host of ‘Talking Animals,’ at NPR affiliate station WMNF-FM, Tampa, Florida; listen online at

It’s a safe bet that most people didn’t have occasion to ponder how profoundly problematic it is to keep killer whales in captivity, training them to perform in the “Shamu” shows or comparable productions countless families have flocked to for decades.

Just how tragically problematic this practice can become exploded into an international news story in February of 2010, when a 12,000-pound bull orca named Tilikum killed his longtime trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld in Orlando.

David Kirby

This incident also serves as the narrative heart and soul of  Death At SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, the latest book by David Kirby, investigative journalist and New York Times bestelling author of  Evidence Of Harm and Animals Factory.

Death At SeaWorld represents an exhilarating journalistic achievement—the reporting is singularly deep and wide, the research enormously meticulous, the storytelling as gripping as that of a great novel.

Indeed, one of the most striking conclusions one can’t help shake when Kirby provides a detailed, moment-by-moment account of that fatal attack on Brancheau: It’s not shocking that it happened so much as it’s highly surprising that Tilikum didn’t kill more people than the two he was responsible for prior to Brancheau—and that there haven’t been far more deaths overall at the hands, or fins, of captive killer whales.

In an interview on the July 25 edition of Talking Animals, Kirby heartily agreed with that assessment. “I think the killing of Dawn Brancheau—and I do believe it was a killing—was sort of the culmination of years and years of trying to find a way to have killer whales and people in a pool at the same time, and how to get the people out unscathed,” Kirby said.

A BBC report on the killer whale Tilikum’s attack on trainer Dawn Brancheau. There is no footage of the actual attack in this video.

“SeaWorld has worked really hard on their safety protocols, and implemented a whole raft of measures to try to prevent this kind of thing from happening. But I think the lesson is: Even if 99.9% of the time you keep an animal under control, on that one incident where you can’t, a killer whale is going to do whatever it wants to do. And it won’t stop doing it until it decides it wants to stop.

“And of course, Tilikum just kept going. Even after Dawn was dead, he paraded her body around the pool and wouldn’t relinquish it. I sort of made Tilikum a character in the book—he can’t talk, but I thought it was extremely important to tell the story from his point of view, as well, to the extent we can get inside an animal’s mind.

And this is a keen, highly intelligent, immensely sophisticated mind we’re talking about—not just Tilikum’s mind, but the mind of all orcas. That’s part of the very problem. “Their brains are four times larger than our brains,” Kirby explained. “They have been evolving for about four million years…they can do things that we just can’t even comprehend. Their communication, their echolocation, their ability to navigate and find prey and keep in touch with each other is uncanny.”

So sitting all day, every day, in a small tank—hell, even a big tank—is immediately and profoundly stifling to these cerebral creatures who ordinarily swim upwards of 100 miles a day, employing complex methods to navigate and communicate with each other.

‘It’s only a matter of time before the next serious event occurs’: Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, a former SeaWorld trainer, discusses fellow trainer Ken Peters being attacked by the Orca Kasatka at SeaWorld and why the whales attack.

There were times reading Kirby’s book—a sweeping examination of all aspects of orcas in the wild and in captivity,  a wide array of relevant research, character studies of current and former SeaWorld trainers and executives, and an extended profile of Dr. Naomi Rose, one of the world’s leading experts on orcas (and a Talking Animals guest on December 7, 2011)—where the multiple descriptions of captive whales’ isolation and sensory deprivation evoked what happens to some prisoners who are consigned to solitary confinement for extended stretches: they go nuts.

Actually, when the orcas go postal—and this has happened with alarming frequency over the years, but it’s in SeaWorld’s best interest to keep you and me from hearing about these incidents and, boy, are they good at it–the causes appear to involve far more than killer whales’ Mensa-level brainpower and rich intellect being destructively squandered. To be sure, these elements alone add up to a woefully limited life of captivity. The biggest tank at SeaWorld is still about an ocean too small.

Still, beyond the shackles of size and undersimulation for these whip-smart whales, Kirby’s book makes clear there are other signifcanct ingredients in the orcas-in-captivity eventual recipe for disaster: namely, the social structure and distinctive family relationships that killer whales develop and maintain ordinarily—that is to say, when living free,  decidedly not in captivity.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper interviews David Kirby, author of Death at SeaWorld and former trainer Carol Ray

“I thought it was really important to describe the natural history, socio-biology and behaviors of these animals in the wild,” he explained, “to understand why captivity is so unsuitable for them, and one major reason is the family bond. Killer whales have perhaps the strongest family bond of any animal on the planet, including humans. In the resident community, the whales that live in the Pacific Northwest, some of them—the males, in particular—stay with their mother for life. Often remaining within one body length of her.

“Males are sub-dominant in this society, they depend on females for status, for protection, for being part of the herd or the group. And if you remove a male from his mother, it’s probably going to be extremely traumatic for both of them. Now I should point out that Tilikum is an Icelandic orca, and they have not been studied to the extent that whales in the Pacific Northwest have been studied. So we don’t know for sure that Icelandic males stay with their mothers all their lives, but there is evidence to suggest their culture is somewhat similar to the resident communities [in the Pacific Northwest].”

Good Morning America interviews Linda Simons, who was hired as SeaWorld’s director of health and safety a week before Tilikum’s attack on Dawn Brancheau. She claims SeaWorld fired her because it didn’t want her to speak to OSHA investigators.

Given this intricate latticework of leviathan family relationships, it’s nothing short of astonishing that we see over and over in Kirby’s book that SeaWorld moves orcas around its parks (in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio; there was a now-closed location in Ohio) like gameboard pieces, without any regard for the killer whales in question, the relationships—particularly family relationships, including sibling or parental—that will be torn asunder by that next job transfer.

This wholesale indifference to the animals’ fundamental well-being is but one instance of SeaWorld (dys)functioning as a craven corporation for whom the bottom line is strictly, well, the bottom line. The relentless, sometimes twisted quest to breed more orcas is yet another. It sometimes seems like all these machinations represent little more than a game to SeaWorld—a high-stakes, high-profit game—but a game nonetheless.

“Yeah,  the moving around of whales like so many chess pieces is problematic for many reasons,” he said. “One, the physical act of moving a several-ton animal that belongs in the water is very stressful for the animal. They spend hours in these tiny little boxes of ice water, basically, as they’re flown about the country. But you mentioned the separation of calves from their mothers—I think it’s no less traumatic at SeaWorld than it would be in the ocean.

Even if 99.9% of the time you keep an animal under control, on that one incident where you can’t, a killer whale is going to do whatever it wants to do. And it won’t stop doing it until it decides it wants to stop.

“I describe several cases when calves are removed from their mothers, and it was horrible for both of them. The mothers would go into what seems to be a grieving period. And then the other problem is, when you start introducing whales from different societies into the same pool and try to create these artificial pods, with whales thay don’t even have the same dialect—that can’t communicate with each other, that have different DNA—that eat different types of food, that behave differently, and then you expect them to be one big happy family.

“There’s a lot of aggression between the whales, as well as between whales and trainers. And it leads to things like inter-breeding, so you can breed an Icelandic whale with a Pacific resident whale, perhaps even they bred transient orcas, which some scientists actually believe are a different species than resident orcas. So for SeaWorld to say they’re doing conservation work—they’re not.  They’re creating a—I don’t want to say mutant—but completely unnatural DNA lines.

“And then there’s actually inbreeding: Tilikum is the father and grandfather of many, many whales at SeaWorld, and they’re now being bred with each other. And in one case, SeaWorld allowed a young whale to impregnate his own mother. And that calf is not growing as large as some of her tank mates. She’s quite likely the only directly inbred killer whale in the world. That is as taboo in orca society as it is in our own society. SeaWorld never should’ve allowed that to happen.”

Holy orca incest, Batman! As documented in Death At SeaWorld, that’s about as twisted as the titular entity allows things to get on the orca side of the equation. On the human side, well, the collective denizens of SeaWorld manage to commit most of the seven deadly sins, as Kirby gradually reveals through his deft, dogged reporting, alongisde what emerges in the course of a large-scale investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), triggered by Dawn Brancheau’s death.

A year following the tragedy at SeaWorld, Good Morning America’s Elizabeth Vargas interviews Dawn Brancheau’s mother and siblings about her life and death and the formation of the Dawn Brancheau Foundation

We encounter a jaw-dropping string of people and scenarios reminiscent of a dark, cinematic thriller: shady characters; corporate and individidual transgressions; malfeeasance of various stripes, including doctoring company records and intentionally failing to note dangerous orca behaviors or attacks in the reports regularly made available to the trainers; racial discrimination; sexual harassment; whistleblowers (and whistleblowers recanting—once, in such last-minute and startling fashion at the outset of a deposition that the whistleblower’s attorney is shocked; it would seem SeaWorld and/or SeaWorld money got to this whistleblower just before she was to testify), and much, much more.

And this constitutes only a swatch of the humongous, flowing tapestry that is Death At SeaWorld, a whale-sized book that’s the better part of 500 pages including the index and Kirby’s extensive footnotes. Yet it’s a riveting read, and I was sorry to see it end—high praise in this ADD age, no?

After zooming through this book, you’ll never look at killer whales the same. Before cracking Death At SeaWorld, if you think you know quite a bit about orcas, I hope it’s not too impertinent for me to suggest that you really don’t—not even close, pal. If you come to the book not knowing that much about orcas, believe me, you will.

And if you’re someone who’s frequented SeaWorld over the years, taking your kids there or otherwise, I have a little prediction: That last time you were there—earlier this summer, a few months back, a year ago, whenever—probably was your last time there.

After reading this book, I doubt you’ll want to return to SeaWorld.


Click here to go to the Talking Animals show featuring David Kirby discussing his book Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and The Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity

Click here to go to the Talking Animals show featuring Dr. Naomi Rose.

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