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A Killer Show: "Death at SeaWorld" Exposes the Tragedy Behind the Tricks

David Kirby's new book examines the risky business of keeping killer whales in captivity

All Animals magazine July/August 2012

  • Courtesy of St. Martin's Press

by David Kirby

Editor's note: On Feb. 24, 2010, a SeaWorld Orlando orca named Tilikum killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in a shockingly violent display of aggression witnessed by park visitors—his third fatal victim in 27 years of captivity. The tragedy dredged to the surface age-old questions about the wisdom and morality of holding intelligent, socially complex, self-aware animals in small tanks to perform tricks in front of an audience. In his book Death at SeaWorld, author David Kirby exposes the risky business of keeping killer whales in captivity. The edited excerpt that follows examines the inner lives of SeaWorld’s orcas and the backstage doubts experienced by four trainers who worked at the Orlando location.

Nobody likes cognitive dissonance, the itchy, uncomfortable feeling that your previously held beliefs about a person, place, or thing—a job, say—do not conform with what your eyes and ears are telling you. Human nature goes into overdrive to eliminate, or at least tone down, the unbearable internal conflict.

Denial and rationalization are thus highly useful for collecting a paycheck. As the great muckraker Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

No matter what their eyes and ears were telling them, they still thought SeaWorld was a great place to work—for people and animals alike.

Looking back at their earlier years at SeaWorld, former trainers such as Jeff Ventre, John Jett, Samantha Berg, and Carol Ray marvel at the denials and justifications they used to muzzle the whispering doubts that followed them to sleep at night. They were loyal team players at the world’s premier marine-life enterprise. No matter what their eyes and ears were telling them, they still thought SeaWorld was a great place to work—for people and animals alike.

After all, they had been trained to believe many workplace myths: The whales and dolphins in their care were happy, healthy, and pampered, with longer life spans than animals fending for themselves in “the dark, scary ocean,” as SeaWorld officials sometimes called the natural environment. The trainers were part of the SeaWorld “family”: They were fairly if not richly rewarded for their one-of-a-kind jobs; their bosses, while not always congenial, were leading experts in animal behavior; and above all, they felt safe, even while doing water work with killer whales. No one at SeaWorld ever led them to believe otherwise.

Over time, however, cognitive dissonance grew stronger; the soothing balm of denial and rationalization eventually began to wear off.

Jeff and John had become good friends; they spent many Orlando nights over beer at local hangouts, where talk often turned to the more disquieting aspects of their jobs. Each recognized the other as a critical thinker, and both had ethical questions about keeping marine mammals in captivity, and its effect on the animals’ mental and physical health. They were also growing skeptical about the integrity and intelligence of their supervisors and the relatively low pay they received. Such discussions were reserved for quiet corners in dark pubs, far from the earshot of other SeaWorld staffers.

All members of groups such as ... The HSUS were almost universally despised at Seaworld. They were nut jobs to be avoided at all costs.

One thing the men noticed was that orcas, because they were so smart, easily got bored. The animals needed to invent ways to amuse themselves when humans weren’t interacting with them. Frequent targets of their restlessness were birds—usually seagulls, but other Florida fowl as well. Captive killer whales in San Diego had been observed leaving small bits of food on the surface to attract hungry birds, then ambushing and killing them, for fun, not a meal. In other cases, the killer whales would float a whole fish on the surface as bird bait. This indicated purposeful intelligence: the willingness to forgo food up front for the potential of a greater reward later on. The use of bait to attract a victim was a form of tool deployment, a hallmark of intelligence in animals.

The doubts that began to germinate in John’s and Jeff’s minds were sometimes planted from people on the outside. SeaWorld executives had already anticipated that anti-captivity critics—activists and scientists—who routinely showed up to observe the animals would also try to make contact with staff members. But the company had done a thorough job of infusing its employees with a general disdain for anyone who criticized the business of keeping cetaceans in tanks. All members of groups such as the Animal Welfare Institute, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, In Defense of Animals, and, of course, The HSUS were almost universally despised at SeaWorld. They were nut jobs to be avoided at all costs.

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