A new book by David Kirby called Death at Sea World: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity delves into the debate about orca captivity. There are whales in captivity all around the world, but should there be? Or should whale captivity be phased out? As the title suggests, this book is about more than just the ethical issue of keeping sentient beings such as killer whales in captivity; it addresses myriad instances of Sea World deaths. Killer whale captivity has led to Sea World trainer death, as well as chronic health problems that contribute to shortened life spans for captive whales when compared to whales in the wild. Death at Sea World gives a look behind the glossy facade of smiling trainers and seemingly happy captive orcas to reveal orca facts. Told through the stories of several people who are active in the debate about orca captivity including Naomi Rose, Ph.D., a whale expert and senior scientist for the Humane Society, as well as former Sea World trainers Jeffrey Ventre, MD and John Jett, Ph.D, it’s a must-read for anyone who visits or has visited marine parks.
Killer whales in captivity perform tricks like circus animals for entertainment. Flickr user dream2life.
Dawn Brancheau, a Sea World trainer killed by Tilikum on February 24, 2010, was a very experienced senior trainer who was working with the large bull during a Dine with Shamu show. Tilikum pulled her into the water and thrashed her about, severing her arm, removing her scalp, fracturing her neck and breaking her jaw, among other injuries. This Sea World whale attack was not the first, and it probably won’t be the last. So long as trainers get in the water with captive orcas, they are at risk of severe injury and possible death. It should be noted that orcas in the wild do not attack humans; this behavior is particular to captive orcas.
We have pondered this question before: Should animals be kept in captivity? There are many opinions in this debate, and the answers vary depending on the animals being discussed. The research suggests that certain animals such as large cats, polar bears, elephants and cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) should not be kept in captivity.
Personally, I grew up visiting marine parks such as Sea World, and a few short years ago, I went to a dolphin park in Mexico to swim with dolphins. However, after learning about the effects of captivity on whales and dolphins, I no longer visit marine parks that have captive cetaceans. Aside from the physical and psychological health risks of captivity, reading Death at Sea World also made me realize how dangerous killer whale captivity is for the trainers as well. Are the profits generated and the entertainment proffered worth the lives of trainers and whales alike?