Black and white and red all over

Author David Kirby champions the anti-captivity movement in Death at SeaWorld

Poolside reading: Kirby's book comes out Tue/17.

LIT "Death at SeaWorld." The phrase implies a gruesome demise, combining the man vs. beast connotations of Siegfried and Roy's last show with the amusement-park horrors of Wikipedia's "incidents at Disneyland" page. Death isn't supposed to pop up in environments carefully choreographed for family fun. But as David Kirby's eye-opening Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity (St. Martin's Press, 469 pp., $26.99) discovers, the marine-themed attraction has hosted its share of tragedies, and not just of the human variety.

Its most high-profile loss was Orlando employee Dawn Brancheau, killed in 2010 by a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum. Though SeaWorld has long been a target of animal-rights groups, Brancheau's death set in motion a rigorous Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation into whether or not trainers should be allowed to keep performing the spectacular aquatic stunts that SeaWorld has long been famous for. (As of this writing, the case is still in legal-wrangling mode.)

Kirby, a journalist whose previous books include Evidence of Harm and Animal Factory, found the OSHA inquiry — and the fact that it had been met with strong SeaWorld resistance — instantly compelling. He soon understood there was much more to the story.

"I started out to write a book about corporate malfeasance and obstructing a federal investigation," he remembers. "[Killer whale] captivity had not ever struck me as an issue. But I realized that even though a lot of people were screaming about how safe it was to be in the water during performances, the much larger question was: do these animals belong in captivity at all?"

As a kid in SoCal, Kirby says, he visited SeaWorld and went on whale-watching trips. But until he started writing Death at SeaWorld, "I didn't know that killer whales are dolphins, that they don't kill people in the wild, how highly intelligent they are, or that they are so attached to their families," he says. "When Dawn Brancheau died, I remember feeling very bad for her and her family, but I don't remember feeling bad for the whale."

His research made him rethink his ambivalence toward not just Tilikum, but all killer whales in captivity. Very few "display industry representatives" were willing to speak on the record, but Kirby connected with several "anti-cap" figures — including the Humane Society's Dr. Naomi Rose, a whale expert who was involved in the campaign to return Keiko, star of 1993's Free Willy, to his native Iceland.

"When you write narrative nonfiction, you really do need one character who is going to carry the reader through the whole story," Kirby says. "[Rose] was the best person to do that because she started studying these animals in 1985. She spent years doing field research, and [later became] involved in organizing against the industry, starting anti-captivity campaigns, and trying to protect these whales through federal law. She was also involved with the OSHA investigation and the media."

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