Death At SeaWorld Q&A with Author David Kirby

David Kirby is a journalist for the Huffington Post and a New York Times bestselling author. David has been a professional journalist for many years, writing for many newspapers and magazines. David spoke with me about his latest book, Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity. David’s book offers an insight into the world of Killer Whales in captivity that has never been offered to the public before. It certainly is a must-read for anybody on the fence about these beautiful creatures. I was so lucky to have had the pleasure of speaking to him about his wonderful book.

Alex: Where did the idea for your book come from?

David Kirby: On August 23rd I was driving home from Vacation, I got a call from the Larry King Show to talk about the egg recall. They said I was on in the second segment so I asked what was on the first half, and they said “Today OSHA hit SeaWorld with a massive violation in the death of the trainer back in February. A whistle blower has come forward and she’s accusing SeaWorld of blocking the federal safety investigation. She claims they destroyed documents, obstructed justice and she’s going to come on TV tonight and talk about that”. The second the producer said that, what got me was destroying documents, obstruction of justice, stonewalling a federal investigation all my alarm bells went off and I said “Whoa that sounds like a book!”

Alex: Once you figured out the subject of your book where did you go from there?

David Kirby: It didn’t take long, just a few days of researching, that I read about how brutal captivity can be for Killer Whales, and the diseases they get, the immune disorders, the dental problems, the short life spans, the inter-breeding and separation of families. Then I read about all the captures and the early history of the industry and pods, especially the Southern-Resident pod in Washington State being ripped apart, and then all of the attacks that happened. Which I had no idea, I had no idea Tilkium had killed two other people; I had no idea somebody died in Spain that December.

Alex: It makes me sad to think that somebody had to lose their life for more people to question what’s going on.

David Kirby: I hate to say it, but if nothing had happened to Dawn Brancheau that day I certainly never would have written this book. I would still be as ignorant about killer whales in captivity as I was that day. My book has three sections and the third section is called “After Dawn” and it’s a play on words but it’s apt. She died tragically but that event shed new light on something that had mostly been over-looked by the government, the media, and people like me and by the average person.  Sometimes it takes a horrible tragedy to wake people up.

Alex: After writing your book do you think it’s acceptable to keep Orca’s in captivity?

David Kirby: I have no problem, even as journalist, saying that after examining the evidence very carefully and very objectively, because I did not approach this as any kind of anti-captivity person, I just don’t see how you can come to any other conclusions. I just want people to ask themselves if they were a brilliant, large communicative animal, who has life long bonds to their family, who travel 100 miles a day in their natural range, were playful and more like us than most people realize, to be locked up in a small confinement, whether they were captured or whether they were born there, justification for that practice, in my mind, is no longer possible.

Alex: In your opinion, now that you’ve written this book, what could SeaWorld do to better themselves?

David Kirby: There’s a lot that SeaWorld could do to make my book less relevant -one estimate was that 70% of their revenues come from having Killer Whales. That’s billions of dollars, if they had taken that money and dedicated it to saving Whale habitat; well then having a few in captivity is what it takes. Maybe that’s what we would have to do to raise that kind of money to save the Whales in the wild, but of course they are not doing that. If they let their Whales retire to sea pens, and people can pay money to watch them from the banks in Washington State and watch them engage in far more normal behaviors and have it narrated like a Shamu show, instead of having them doing back flips and rocket hops…have them foraging, have them socializing, resting, explaining exactly how they behave in the wild. Why not truly inspire people, somehow try and work more natural behaviors into the show, and use the show as a way to truly explain not only how brilliant these animals are but how they are in trouble in many parts of the world and what can be done to save them. If SeaWorld did any of these things it would make it so much better.

Alex: Are you afraid SeaWorld might take legal action against you for your book?

David Kirby: No. If they come after me, it will provide me with a wonderful opportunity to have an open discussion with them on the issues raised in the book. SeaWorld did not cooperate and did not allow me to fact check with them.

Alex: What are you hopes for readers after they finish your book?

David Kirby: To bring about a change in public opinion, for this specific species, captivity is a thing whose time has come and is going. Any intelligent, caring person, who’s not benefiting in some way from this industry, who sits down and weighs the benefits and the costs to animals and to people for Killer Whales to live at SeaWorld (or some other marine entertainment park) it is almost impossible to come to any other conclusions that it’s not in the best interest of these animals.

Alex: What is your response to people who perhaps feel it’s necessary to boycott SeaWorld after reading your book?

David Kirby: I’m not asking for a boycott of SeaWorld, I’m not asking to shut down SeaWorld. I honestly don’t believe the people of SeaWorld are evil. I think they are misguided and I wish they could figure out a business model to either make all that money without the killer whales or become a nonprofit and donate anything you raise to saving habitat and forget the shareholders. If that’s really what you are concerned about, saving the oceans, go and save the oceans.

Alex: Can we expect to see you on a book tour with this book?

David Kirby: I have my launch July 17th in New York at the Barnes and Noble in Tribeca. Then I go out to San Juan Island for a couple of days, there’s a big event there at the Friday Harbor house, along with Naomi and the former trainers and that’s on the 21st. We have an event in Seattle Monday the 23rd with Naomi and the trainers. On the 25th I have an event at the Hub in San Francisco. More events are being set up and will be released shortly.

Alex: What can people do to raise awareness about your book?

David Kirby: I do hope that people who read your blog will tell people about the book who aren’t in their own community. It’s the people who are on the fence, people who are unsure who need to be approached. If they share this information, not just post it on animal welfare sites. Reach it out to sites that hit young people, reach moms, sites about workers safety, sites about strict marine biology, academic places, even sites about entertainment and sites about private equity firms. Think beyond the normal Whale and Dolphin customer, if you will, and realize this story is of interest to other people. Just like I got hooked by the federal investigation, other people will be hooked to other channels quite apart from animal welfare or captivity.

You can read David’s latest Huffington Post article here about “Phasing out Shamu shows”. All the statistics from this article come straight from his book! You can also read an excerpt of David’s book here which I highly recommend doing so.The book is available for pre-sale in the United States, Canada and the UK! What are you waiting for? Go and pre-order your copy now from Amazon!

A very huge thank you to David Kirby for taking time out of his day to speak with me. I feel very lucky that I had the pleasure to pick your brain. Thanks again!