'Death at SeaWorld' book examines killer whale captivity

Book references SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau's death

ORLANDO, Fla. - "Tilikum was trying to tell us something. It was time to listen."

That is how author David Kirby ends his new book "Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity", making reference to the 12,000 pound killer whale that attacked and drowned Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau February 24, 2010.

Kirby's book details Tilikum's sometimes violent history, beginning with the orca's capture near Iceland in 1983. Using what he calls "informed speculation", Kirby describes what the killer whale may have seen and heard as he was caught in a net and taken to a Canadian marine park. The book details SeaWorld's efforts to purchase Tilikum in 1991 following his involvement in the death of Sealand of the Pacific trainer Keltie Byrne.

Kirby also devoted a chapter to the death of Daniel Dukes, a petty criminal described by SeaWorld officials as a trespasser, who was found dead lying on Tilikum's back in the Orlando park in 1993.

SeaWorld officials did not participate in the creation of the book. On the first page, Kirby acknowledges that the company turned down interview requests and that few supporters of the display industry were willing to speak on the record. However, company officials are frequently quoted from media interviews and comments in public records.
"We feel (Kirby) isn't approaching the complex issues of marine mammal display in good faith," SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs told Local 6 before reading the book. He said their response to the book was also complicated by legal issues surrounding an OSHA citation, which was recently upheld by an administrative judge.

Besides examining the events surrounding the Brancheau incident, "Death at SeaWorld" follows the careers of several anti-captivity activists, including Dr. Naomi Rose, a senior scientist with the Humane Society of the United States who has extensively studied wild killer whales in the Pacific Northwest. Rose is one of SeaWorld's most vocal critics in terms of captivity issues.

The book also traces the backgrounds of the "SeaWorld Four", a group of former Orlando trainers who left the company voluntarily or were terminated and now speak out in opposition to killer whale captivity.

"Death at SeaWorld" raises the question of whether captive whales live as long as their counterparts in the wild, and the challenge of gathering comparable statistics. Scientists cited in the book insist that whales are more likely to die at a much younger age when held in marine park pools.

"The longevity issue is complicated," said Jacobs, suggesting life expectancy is tied to the waters where wild killer whales reside. "Will a killer whale born today at SeaWorld live as long as one born off the coast of Chile and one born in Iceland and one born in Alaska? Probably."

"Death at SeaWorld" will be released July 17.

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