BOOKS: Death at SeaWorld, by David Kirby

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  June 2012:

Death at SeaWorld  by David Kirby
St. Martin’s Press (c/o MacMillan (175 Fifth Ave.,  New York,  NY 
10010),  2012.  480 pages,  hard cover.  $26.99.

Marine mammal trainer Dawn Brancheau,  age 40,  was on February 24,  2010 killed at SeaWorld in Orlando,  Florida,  toward the end of a lunchtime show with Tilikum,  known to most of the world these days as an orca,  but still called a  “killer whale” by SeaWorld.

Tilikum “had Dawn Brancheau in his mouth,”  writes Death at Seaworld author David Kirby.  “The orca would not release his trophy. Ten minutes later,  workers pried the trainer’s lifeless body from the whale’s mouth.  How could this happen despite corporate training and safety measures?”

A decade of controversy over keeping orcas in captivity, sparked by the 1993 hit film Free Willy!,  had subsided after Keiko, the whale star,  left human care in September 2002 and died 15 months later.  “Dawn Brancheau’s death changed everything,”  Kirby says.

Media descended on Seaworld,  seeking answers and reviving the questions raised by the Free Willy! episode.  Seeking to satisfy an anxious public and to protect the image of an enterprise sold in 2009 for $2.7 billion,  SeaWorld revamped training procedures for all employees.

SeaWorld also announced “spending tens of millions of dollars on new safety equipment, including rising pool floors that can quickly lift people and whales from the water,  underwater vehicles to distract the animals in emergencies and portable oxygen bottles for trainers,”  summarized Mitch Stacy of Associated Press.

But the Brancheau death nonetheless renewed and amplified the criticisms of scientists and animal advocates who have long opposed training whales to perform in shows,  and often,  the entire practice of keeping wild animals in captivity.  Kirby spotlights the views of Naomi Rose,  a central figure in the Free Willy controversy who became outspokenly critical of marine mammal exhibition as a doctoral student in marine mammalogy at the University of California at Santa Cruz.  Rose has spent most of her subsequent career working for the Humane Society of the U.S. Orcas,  Rose points out,  do not live alone in nature.

They share family bonds.  Captivity disrupts their behavior in practically every manner.  Contrary to marine mammal exhibition industry claims, orca life-pans are significantly shortened in captivity.  Rose concluded in a scientific paper,  Small Whale Species: The Case Against Captivity,  that orcas are “more than 2.5 times as likely to die in captivity as in the wild.”

Tilikum first seized Brancheau by her ponytail as she lay on a submerged ledge facing him during a show.  Tilikum pulled her into the water,  grabbed her waist in his mouth,  and killed her much as he and two other orcas had killed trainer Keltie Byrne,  20,  during a 1991 water show at the SeaLand oceanarium in Victoria,  British Columbia.  Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld when SeaLand folded in November 1992.

“Tilikum was also involved in a 1999 death,”  reported Associated Press writer Mike Schneider,  “when the body of a man who sneaked by Orlando SeaWorld security was found draped over him.  The man jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water and died of hypothermia,  though he was also bruised and scratched by Tilikum.”

Repeatedly dunked and bodily shaken,  Brancheau suffered multiple traumatic injuries.  SeaWorld initially contended that Brancheau had drowned,  but witnesses and videotapes suggested that much more had happened. An autopsy found that Brancheau’s left arm and part of her scalp were ripped off.  She also suffered spinal cord injuries and broken bones in her legs,  arms,  face,  and rib cage.

Cut and bruised all over her body,  Brancheau did ultimately drown. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration eventually fined SeaWorld $75,000,  reduced on appeal to $12,000.  But Seaworld still keeps captive whales.  In the end,  though Brancheau’s death brought about some changes at SeaWorld,  the case may not have changed much overall for captive animals in entertainment.
–Debra J. White

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