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SeaWorld death prompts author to explore whales in captivity

In 'Death at SeaWorld,' writer David Kirby examines killer whale shows in the wake of the 2010 theme park tragedy.

By Randy Dotinga / July 20, 2012

Trainer Dawn Brancheau (pictured) was killed by a killer whale at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. in 2010.

Julie Fletcher/Orlando Sentinel/AP

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If you drop by one of the SeaWorld theme parks in San Diego, Orlando or San Antonio, you can head to Shamu Stadium and watch killer whales perform thrilling tricks and splash the audience.

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But these days, you won't see animal trainers ride on the tops of the killer whales or be flipped high into the sky from their noses.

In fact, the trainers won't get into the water at all. If federal safety officials have their way, they never will again, at least during a show.

Why? Because killer whales can be dangerous. Two years ago, a killer whale named "Tilly" killed a trainer during a show at SeaWorld Orlando, and it wasn't an isolated incident. Tilly had killed people before, not once but twice.

It turns out that killer whales have a long history of harming trainers at SeaWorld. The chain of marine parks was horrified by the death, but it wants to restore the interaction between human and sea creature that made Shamu shows so spectacular for decades.

Last week, SeaWorld lost a battle in its bid to return to the old way of doing things. And it got a firm slap in the form of journalist David Kirby's fascinating and deeply disturbing book "Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity."

In an interview, I talked to Kirby about the inner lives of killer whales, SeaWorld's position and the big questions underlying the debate. 

Q: What makes killers whales a unique kind of animal?

A: They are quite possibly the most socially complex animals on earth after humans, and they're among the smartest.

They engage in abstract thinking, recognize themselves in the mirror – which very few animals can do – and understand gestures. If you point your finger, a dolphin [a killer whale is a kind of dolphin] will generally either look or swim in that direction.

They recognize themselves in the mirror, which very few animals do. They can distinguish a Chinook salmon from a coho salmon at a great distance simply by issuing clicks that bounce off the fish.

And they have a great propensity for compassion – for saving each other, for saving other species, for saving people.

Q: What are their personal lives like?

A: They have a highly developed culture. They quite possibly have the greatest family bonds of any animal on earth, including humans.

Males in at least one resident community of the Northwest stay with their mothers for life, and their mothers introduce them to females in other pods.

Ask your mom if she'd like to spend 70 percent of her day, every 24 hours, within one body length of you. I don't think my mom would like it, and I don't think most men would either.

Q: Well, let's just say that you haven't met my mom. But never mind that. What do the mothers get out of this?

A: Part of the deal is that the older males babysit their younger brothers and sisters. Then if the mother wants to go off and rest or get away for a while, mostly to socialize with other females who run these societies, the oldest male will be left behind to watch after his siblings.

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