David Kirby. Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and The Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity (2012)

David Kirby. Death at SeaWorld:  Shamu and The Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012) 1st edn., 469 pp.

Published:  July 17, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-250-00202-0 (hardcover)

ISBN: 978-1-250-00831-2 (e-book) 


David Kirby’s book Death at SeaWorld documents and effectively engages with the fierce debate about whether it is good and right to keep killer whales (orcas) in captivity at marine theme parks for the purpose of entertaining the public.  For his compelling arguments, the author employs a wide range of sources: empirical evidence, scientific expert opinions, and numerous interviews with trainers and a host of others.  Each chapter is packed with essential information and supports the author’s comprehensive argumentation.

In February 2010, Tilikum, a male killer whale at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida killed Dawn Brancheau, an experienced trainer, during a public performance.  Tilikum is also directly linked to the death of Keltie Byrne in 1991 and Daniel Dukes in 1999.  This is not only a human tragedy, but also one for the orca involved—Tilikum.  The marine animal display industry has been harshly criticized already for several decades because they maintain orcas (killer whales) in captivity.  The horrific tragedy in 2010 is now a catalyst for moving the debate forward.  Anti-captivity advocates hope orca captivity will finally come to an end.  However, it is not so simple.

Kirby provides critical discussion from both sides of the debate.  He vigorously argues with support of insurmountable evidence and source material, that Tilikum, like countless other orcas held in captivity, is a genuine victim of humans’ cruel, ignorant actions.  The immense revenue generated from killer whale performances only perpetuates the ongoing misery that these animals must endure in their daily lives.  And the aggressive behavior imposed on trainers and other captive orcas is apparently the result of the cruel and violent way they were initially captured in the wild, the post-capture stress they suffered, the way they are confined in marine theme parks, and numerous other reasons.  Inevitably society has moral obligations to these animals, but at what cost?

Dawn Brancheau’s death in 2010 has inevitably fueled and agitated the debate even further between pro- and anti- captivity advocates. Naomi Rose, the chief marine mammal scientist at the Humane Society of the United States, set out to prove scientifically that “keeping killer whales in captivity was unethical, indefensible, and hazardous to both animals and their trainers” (p. 238).

Tilikum, once a upon a time was a killer whale who lived freely out in the ocean, and then was suddenly abducted and has been forced to live in captivity ever since.  Like so many other orcas in marine theme parks around the world, Tilikum’s character and health changed for the worse: Tilikum is a victim of captivity and the result is a neurotic and dangerous creature not only around humans, but other captive orcas as well.  Humans have caused this complicated tragedy that seems to be almost infinite in scope.

I would like to say something about Dr. Naomi Rose.  The book is also in a sense a biography of Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine biologist whose specialty is the killer whale (orca).  She is one of key people featured in Death at SeaWorld. Rose conducted pioneering field research on the social dynamics of Resident killer whales in British Columbia, Canada.  And she continues her important and influential work as an anti-captivity advocate for the Humane Society of the United States and collaborates with international task forces.  Rose’s studies on the natural history and natural behavior of Resident killer whales is vital to understanding the whole book.

My purpose in reviewing David Kirby’s book is to elucidate the philosophical and ethical elements and issues that arise when killer whales are kept in captivity.

Kirby presents two profound questions in the Introduction of his book:  (1) “Is captivity in an amusement park good for orcas: Is this the appropriate venue for killer whales to be held, and does it somehow benefit wild orcas and their ocean habitat, as the industry claims?”, and (2) “Is orca captivity good for society: Is it safe for trainers and truly educational for a public that pays to watch the whales perform what critics say are animal tricks akin to circus acts?” (p. 7).

Appreciating the intrinsic versus the extrinsic qualities of killer whales…

Kirby writes, “There is something about killer whales” (p. 1).  Yes, there certainly is. Orcinus orca (killer whale, orca) is indeed a highly intelligent and rational thinking creature as observed by scientists, and orca trainers.  At times orcas even exhibit human-like qualities especially when they socially interact with fellow orcas and humans.  Kirby points out that what an orca essentially is cannot be reduced down to merely its physical and apparent mental capacities (observed at marine parks), rather the entire context needs to be considered: the family and social structure, and the ecosystem in which orcas flourish.  Killer whales are categorized into distinct “ecotypes”: Residents (fish eaters) and Transients (mammal and fowl eaters), Offshore (eat sharks and fish), Icelandic and others. Moreover, each ecotype has a distinctly different social dynamic.  Kirby emphasizes how important it is to understand these distinctions because ultimately they are vital for understanding why difficulties—particularly aggression—arise when orcas are kept in captivity.

However, for the marine animal display industry apparently, the killer whales in their possession are simply a means to an end: First, to generate profits, and second for reproducing orcas in capitivity since “wild” orcas from the oceans are increasingly difficult to obtain. The money generating potential.  Through his principled and prudent analysis of interviews, Kirby demonstrates that the intrinsic qualities of these animals comes only second to generating profits.  The industry view is that orcas are only animals and they have a job to do. A sad reality.

I would also like to address a tangential point with regard to reproduction of orcas in captivity.  Kirby makes the reader aware that most orcas in captivity (presently) are the result of crossing Resident and Transient orcas (fish eating versus mammal eating). Scientific experts are disenchanted and highly critical about these breeding practices.  The mixing of Resident and Transient genetic stock could lead to further problems down the road—even more aggression towards humans and other orcas.

“Control” …

The idea of “control” surfaces repeatedly throughout the book.  I categorized it into two forms.  The first is about “controlling how an orca (killer whale) should live”.  In other words the marine display industry has its own ideas about how a captive orca should live. After reading Kirby’s book, and the evidence he cited, I was convinced that the owners/managers of marine parks are not at all interested in how orcas live and flourish in the wild.  Rather marine parks consider their artifical marine enviroment as being better and safer for orcas than the natural marine environment from which they originally came.  If a whale is abruptly and violently abducted from its natural home and family (pod), this very act is taking control away from the whale itself.  The whale is essentially a prisoner whose fate is decided upon by others.  Orcas become neurotic and aggressive due to the constant confinement; normal social behavior between whales can suddenly become catastrophic; and many orcas suffer terribly in their overnight holding pens.  Repeatedly the industy trivializes such gruesome events. The animals are forced to perform redundant circus-like tricks in pools.  They become quickly bored, and it is not at all surprising that they suffer considerable psychological stress and then behave in unpredictable ways—dangerous for the traniers.

Moreover, orcas in marine parks are forced to live with other orcas that are not related to them, i.e., with orcas that are not from their original family social structure.  Forcing these animals to live in this way (Kirby provides evidence) leads to aggression against not only other orcas, but also humans.  Trainers who work with them each and every day are thus exposed to high risk for sustaining serious injuries, or even death.  Trying to control the orca’s natural way of being, apparently leads to tragedy for both orcas and humans alike. Kirby’s includes a quote from Russ Rector in his book, that is quite profound: “Tilikum is a casualty of captivity, it has destroyed his mind and turned him demented” (p. 322).

The second form of control is the “control of information”.  What information should be provided to trainers and other staff who work with killer whales?  The author has consistently demonstrated— interviewing trainers—how trainers were not informed about a particular whale’s orca-human interaction history (p. 144).  Thus, it demonstrates, without a doubt, how controlling and manipulative the display industry is with the people it employs and their disregard for human safety.  If trainers had been given accurate information about the risks involved in working with these animals, e.g., the details of Keltie Byrne fatal accident and the countless other serious accidents, perhaps the death of Dawn Brancheau may have been prevented.

Orcas living in marine theme parks do not in any way (as Kirby demonstrates) benefit wild orcas.  The public is being spoon-fed a false image of what a Killer whale is: the public apparently believes that the orcas they see performing performing tricks and games in the pool are showing their normal behavior.  What the public does not know is that a wild orcas, be they Resident, Transient or Offshore, do not behave in these ways out in the wild.  Moreover, the public does not know about the holding pens the orcas must stay in during the period when the parks close and reopen again.  During nightly confinement the orcas suffer mentally and physically, often sustaining serious injuries, or engaging in self-mutilation.  The animals even attempt suicide.  Psychological stress is a consistent animal welfare issue that surfaces repeatedly throughout the book.  Psychological stress cannot be emphasized enough.  The constrained living quarters in general are directly linked to suppressed immune systems, disease, dental problems and early deaths.  Is this good and is this right?

Furthermore, the revenue generated from the marine parks does not benefit the wild orcas swimming around out there in the ocean, as pro-capitivty advocates continuously claim, rather quite the contrary.  Why?  Because marine parks expand in order to increase profits and to breed more orcas in captivity.  Marine theme parks are not an adequate substitute for the killer whale’s natural marine environment.  Not to mention how the natural social and familial structure (which industry / pro-capitivy advocates ignore) is disrupted permanently.  Kirby demonstrates that none of the reasons that the marine park industry asserts for justifying orca captivity directly benefits wild orcas.

Is “entertainment” an authentic means of learning about and appreciating killer whales?

The marine animal display industry seems to think that entertainment is an authentic means of learning about and appreciating killer whales.  Kirby abruptly denounces this view by invoking the expertise of Naomi Rose to undermine the opponents’ arguments: extensive behavioral field research in British Columbia, observing killer whales in their native natural habitat.  How can a venue of entertainment possibly be considered as a genuine and objective place to appreciate and learn about a species such as the killer whale? The proponents even went so far as to claim, “that captivity was not only the best way to study killer whales, it was the only way” (p. 332). Observing killer whales in the wild is not considered by the industry to be a serious undertaking.  Proponents also assume that the public in general is not interested in stale scientific information about whales, rather it’s the entertaining activity itself that stimulates interest and learning among visitors at shows: “They learn from these animals when they are entertained by them” (p. 332). Commanding an animal to perform tricks and funny games is not in any way revealing its authentic nature. (Yes, we can clearly see they are quite capable of playing games).  The defenders’ assumptions not only degrade the orca for the extraordinarly intelligent and rational animal that it is, but it’s also disrespecting the very people (millions) who attend the orca performances at marine theme parks each and every year: the authentic nature of the orca is never presented, only a false image.  It seems the public is nothing but a consumer of entertainment—unknowingly spoon-fed deceptive images about orcas.  Moreover, the impression I got after reading industry arguments is that what the public does not know will not hurt them either.  For the industry, the only thing that really matters is to entertain the visitors in exchange for the money they paid to see the shows.

The point of no return”…

What would it feel like not being able to go home again?  Imagine for a moment that you were abruptly taken away from your home and family, and then forced to cohabit with others who have nothing in common with you.  And all you experience day in and day out is hostility and aggression.  You yearn to go home, to be with your family. You suffer immensely. But there is nothing you can do.  Kirby has developed and argued this theme over and over again in his book about how important it is not to disrupt killer whale family structure: it makes it nearly impossible for a killer whale to be reintroduced to the wild at a future point in time.  This is a critical welfare issue that is debated in the book.  Reintroducing a killer whale back into its native marine habitat is a complicated and risky process, for health, medical, political, legal, and financial reasons.  Kirby presents Keiko’s case in detail (pp. 270-1, 278-9). It was also not feasible to release Tilikum back into the wild (p. 128).  The social-familial structure of killer whales is complex, and apparently poorly understood by the marine park industry.  The non-acceptance of a reintroduced whale by other whales can be fatal.  Once they are taken from their native home, it seems the orcas can never return unless it is done almost immediately or within a short period of time.  And some maintain that because Keiko showed preference for human company, he should never have been released (p. 275). There seems to be no happy ending.  Releasing captive orcas into the wild is a contentious point (pp. 329, 341).

Philosophical and ethical elements abound in Death at SeaWorld, and I have highlighted only some of them.  Other elements are no less important.  The book is lengthy, the main text is 440 pages plus an extensive notes/reference section and a comprehensive index.  This book should not be viewed as merely something to read, but also as a source for useful information and for encourageing in-depth discussion.  Therefore, the scholarly character of this particular book—it’s rigorous and systematic analysis of diverse source material and in-depth engagement with the core issues—makes it ideal as a supplemental text for courses in animal ethics as well as interdisciplinary studies in political science, cultural and social studies, economics, environmental studies, and moral and political philosophy.

David Kirby has left no stone unturned.   He has successfully refuted the arguments put forward by the pro-captivity advocates (the marine theme park industry).  Kirby has presented valid and convincing arguments as to why orcas should not live in captivity and also why this is not good and for society.

After reading Death at SeaWorld, I came away with the gut feeling, that I, like so many people—even those who think they know something about killer whales—still have so much to learn about them!

I have seen the killer whales when I visited SeaWorld in San Diego and Orlando.  Instantly my first thoughts were, “How can they be happy living like this…they don’t have much room?!  Don’t they miss the open ocean?  Don’t they get crazy?”  I am certainly not the first person to ask such questions.

The readers of Death at SeaWorld must now decide for themselves: Is it good and right to keep killer whales in captivity?

David Kirby’s book is simply superb.


Review by Karin Susan Fester (c) 2012.

Photograph of Death at SeaWorld book cover was reproduced by myself.  And the quotations appearing in the above review were taken directly from the book given to me by St. Martin’s Press.

I would like to thank the author, David Kirby and St. Martin’s Press in New York  for providing me with a review copy of Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity.

This book review may not be reproduced, or any part of it, without the book reviewer’s (Karin Susan Fester) permission


John Asht. Quesis 1: Gedankensplitter. Roder Verlag, 2012

John Asht

Quesis 1: Gedankensplitter

Erlangen, Roder Verlag, 2012, 40 Seiten.

E-Book-ISBN: 978-3-940932-32-7


Spontan, witzig, flott..

Mir hat das Buch sehr gut gefallen. Ein witziges und flottes Buch, besonders wenn man darin rum stöbert! Die Sprüche sind einfach originell und spontan. Der Humor von John Asht ist schon ein ganz besonderer! Wie John Asht schreibt, ‘ “Quesi” stammt ebenfalls aus meiner Hirn-Schmiede und steht für: Quersinniges.’ Und genauso isses! Das Buch enthält insgesamt 333 quersinnige Sprüche: witzig, flott, frech, lustig und aufregend. Die Sprüche sind sehr rhythmisch geschrieben. Wer Sinn für Humor hat und sich für Aphorismen interessiert, sollte unbedingt diese Sammlung von John Asht lesen und geniessen.

Rezension von Karin Susan Fester, 2012

Photograph of book cover from Roder Verlag www.roder-verlag.de