Book Review: Death At Seaworld

Even if you’ve only known me for a short period of time you probably would be unsurprised to learn that I often don’t like people. Of course I like YOU! It’s just that I often find people–well, grown-ups, it’s rare that I don’t get along with a child–rather…awful.

One of the things that I find most awful about people is our seemingly endless arrogance. Now, look, I know I am more sensitive than some folks. Some, certainly not you, would even say neurotically sensitive. I became a vegetarian at eight because when I bit into a hot dog all I saw was bleeding pigs. So reading the fantastic nonfiction book Death At Seaworld was an engrossing, and heartbreaking, experience. I read the whole thing today and felt captivated all day; even when I put the book down, I found myself absorbed in the narrative, seeing killer whales even without closing my eyes. It’s a masterful book, marrying science and human drama.

Death At Seaworld is an account spawning multiple decades that culminates in the 2010 slaying, by the orca Tilikum, of Dawn Brancheau, his trainer. I am not going to try to summarize the entire history of orcas in captivity, because author David Kirby does it much better and more comprehensively than I could. Suffice to say it is an awful, awful history. There’s so much devastation in the ways that humans have ravaged the seas, and one clear way to see this (homonyms FTW!) is in the culling of wild whales for display. The book opens with the story of a 1991 attack in Victoria, BC, in which a trainer named Keltie Byrne was killed…by Tilikum. Interspersed with the story of Naomi Rose, one of the book’s heroines, as well as several other people, including former Sea World trainers, Kirby explains how Tilikum was captured. Kirby weaves Tilikum’s story into the story of a great many other killer whales who were culled from the wild, caught up in nets, one dragged for hours by a harpoon. The book continues with the stories of many whales once they were in captivity and on display. 

You should just read the book, rather than my telling you about all of the amazing research and stories that are part of this fabulous book, but I will tell you this: it is astonishingly sad. And what gets me the most is how incredibly obvious it is that Dawn’s death could have been prevented. For one thing, Sea World could have not taken Tilikum after he’d already killed one person. Or, after he killed surgically opened the scrotum of a man who snuck into SW, they could have added more precautions. SW appears to have been fairly open about the animal amongst the senior trainers, who were told that getting into the water with Tilikum was a death sentence. However, trainers were still allowed and even possibly encouraged to get NEAR Tilikum.

Now, look. I get it. If you told me I could go swim with a killer whale tomorrow, well, I’d likely say yes. I love aquariums. I like the zoo. And yet I have many ethical problems with them, and I believe more and more firmly that there are animals that should never be held captive. Ever. Elephants. Chimps. Dolphins. Great apes. Some sharks. And whales. and obviously those species that ARE held captive–which I’m still not super happy about–must be kept in the most ethical way possible.

The actual attack on Dawn was incredibly brutal and quite clearly a deliberate slaying. And hers, while the most dramatic, is not the only one. The book details many, many other orca-on-human attacks, so it’s not as though Tilikum was the only dangerous whale, and it’s not as though there was no history of attacks.

To be clear: I blame neither Tilikum nor Dawn for her slaying. It was brutal. It was also the natural consequence of our uniquely human hubris, our assumption that if we can capture and assert our authority over creatures who were here first–well, we should. 

That’s a dangerous attitude. You could ask Dawn to clarify that, but she’s dead. You could ask Tilikum, but years in captivity have made him insane. Of course, I think he already gave us his answer.

here is a great fact sheet


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