By Christie Lagally
Originally published in City Living Seattle
Aug. 15, 2011
When author David Kirby set out to write about the tragic death of killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando, he found a lot more than an accidental-death investigation and corporate obfuscation of safety issues. He also learned of the plight of captive orcas at SeaWorld and other aquarium parks around the world.
Kirby was recently in Seattle to discuss his research and subsequent book, “Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity.”
While it was one of the first, real summer nights in Seattle, more than 60 people packed The Mountaineers Club at Magnuson Park to hear Kirby speak. Humane Society International senior marine biologist Naomi Rose and former SeaWorld trainers Samantha Berg and Carol Ray accompanied him.
Rose, Berg and Ray are characters in Kirby’s nonfiction book, which follows from the natural history of orcas, to their lives suffering in captivity and finally the death of Dawn Brancheau and the subsequent investigation of SeaWorld.
“Until you can fully appreciate their life in the wild, you can’t understand how wrong it is to keep them in captivity,” Kirby said in an introduction to the discussion.
Kirby explained that he was not “anti-captivity” when his research began, but he found that the costs of captivity are far too high for these intelligent animals.
Living in captivity
Kirby discovered that SeaWorld was hiding the conditions of whale captivity and the dangers to trainers, and they actively suppressed information — even destroying documents sought by federal investigators into the death of Brancheau.
The atrocities of this issue are difficult to swallow because SeaWorld and other entertainment aquaria have touted themselves as conservationists and owners of the whales for scientific research and public education.
Yet, the four speakers explained that orcas in captivity are intelligent, social mammals, kept in pools much smaller than their natural environment, where their typical life span is 2.5 times shorter than orcas living in the wild.
The confined whales break their teeth on the concrete pool walls and must be fed 80 pounds of gelatin a day to replace the freshwater they would receive from eating live fish in the ocean, according to Kirby.
Shockingly, SeaWorld forced the mating of a male whale to its own mother simply to increase their entertaining population. These are clearly not the actions of a group of conservationists — this is simply exploitation.
Former SeaWorld trainers Ray and Berg had firsthand stories to tell. They outlined how SeaWorld strips baby whales from their mothers — leaving both emotionally traumatized — and then ships the baby to multiple parks for shows. Normally, orcas in the wild live in tight family pods for their entire lives.
Berg also described the bloody death she witnessed of a false killer whale, and Ray recalled how deceased whales were cut up and shipped to dog-food companies.
Rose has advocated for the release of orca whales and cetaceans in captivity for decades. Kirby’s book describes how her warnings of the dangers of captive orcas “fell on deaf ears.”
But there was also hope in Rose’s voice when she spoke in Seattle. She describes Kirby’s book as a turning point in her work.
“This is a pivotal moment in our campaign, if we could put this issue [of captivity] to rest,” she said.
But where does SeaWorld get these orcas? Many came from here in Puget Sound.
Just recently, Howard Garrett of the Orca Network honored the 17th-annual commemoration of the brutal capture of 44 orca whales and drownings of roughly 12 orcas that occurred between 1968 and 1971 in a mass roundup where bombs and aircraft were used to corral the frightened whales to Penn Cove and trap them. Although orcas can live to 60 to 90 years old, all the 44 captive whales have since died in captivity — except one called Lolita, who lives in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium.
Garrett and the Orca Network have been advocating for the release of Lolita. They recommend retirement to a sea pen (or netted cove, where the whale can live and be cared for in a more natural environment).
Lolita’s mother is believed to still live in Puget Sound.
Questions to consider
The issue of captivity of whales and other highly social, intelligent animals (like chimpanzees and elephants) brings to light a very potent question: How is it that so many people who visit SeaWorld do not question why these giant animals live in small pools, how they got to SeaWorld in the first place and, in the case of young animals, where their mothers are today?
But the lure of branding and the guise of conservation and education seem to prevent us from questioning why the whale at SeaWorld, that elephant in the zoo or the cute baby chimpanzee on Animal Planet is not with their families but are on stage, on display or on television instead.
Perhaps the lesson to learn from orcas is not only why their captivity is wrong but to understand why we are so willing to look the other way when wild animals are on display for entertainment.
“Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity” is published through St. Martin’s press and available at the Seattle Public Library.
CHRISTIE LAGALLY writes a blog called “Sniffing Out Home: A Search for Animal Welfare Solutions” at http://www.sniffingouthome.org.