From horrific orca captures to the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, David Kirby's groundbreaking investigative thriller chillingly exposes a side of SeaWorld deftly hidden from public view, including the vast difference between orcas in captivity and their wild counterparts.
In the Northern Resident orca community for example, "orcas have their own cultures," Kirby explains, with each pod having its own signature collection of clicks and whistles. Rose discovered and wrote in her dissertation, that "Residents travel in matrifocal [centered on the mother] units called matrileneal groups." In other words, Kirby said, from infancy to old age, male orcas "spend most of their time by their mother's side," thus making them "the planet's ultimate mama's boys."
Quite unlike their Resident counterparts, Transient killer whales are less vocal and less maternal, the book says. In fact some scientists the author explained, "now believe that the two ecotypes should officially be designated distinct species." These two types of orcas Kirby adds, really "do not like to mix." It's a point hammered home harshly later in the book, when SeaWorld's breeding program is explored in more depth, and it is revealed that Transient orcas are bred to Resident orcas, without any regard for the differences between "species and races."
Former trainers at SeaWorld said the compnay possessed a culture all of its own. A world of "operant conditioning" and smoke and mirrors designed to obfuscate the most discerning guest. Use of industry "buzzwords" coupled with drilled responses were part of a comprehensive handbook and repertoire that trainers were compelled to learn.
There was an entire list of words to avoid said Kirby, as trainers were "spoonfed corporate soundbites." Marine mammals were "not captured," they were "acquired." Captivity was a "controlled environment" or animals were in "human care." Marine mammals did not live in "tanks," they resided in "enclosures" or "aquariums." In one particular memo passed down the chain, trainers were told that no matter what happens on any given day, "Stay positive and keep [explanations], on a 5th grade level."
Kirby shows that behind the glitz and glamour of a self-regulating SeaWorld, is a corporation that clearly brooks no opposition. For decades, and occasionally with the aid of private and government entities, the organization has bought, bullied and battered those who oppose it, right down to the little guy.
Far, far louder, screaming in fact, is the realization that trained orcas in parks bear little resemblance to their counterparts in the wild. Learned behaviors in artificial environments could not be more different, despite the company mantra that captivity for orcas is "educational" for the public. One only has to look at "the wildly popular raspberries," Kirby writes, "when whales make farting noises from their blowhole;" there could not be a more perfect example of how anomalous these animals have become.
Sadly, such parlor tricks, have turned one of the ocean's top predators into little more than a circus act, and Death at SeaWorld's crucial exposure of the industry left me feeling betrayed by an organization that courts families on a daily basis, then misinforms them.
If you TRULY love orcas, then you need to read this book.