Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: Death at SeaWorld By David Kirby

David Kirby has done it again.  He never disappoints!  Death at SeaWorld is eye-opening and is sure to be a bestseller.  I was fortunate enough to already have an opportunity to read this book, published by St. Martin's Press, scheduled to be released this coming week.  I cannot urge you strongly enough to get a copy - it is a game changer.

I grew up outside of Cleveland, Ohio and about a half hour from where I lived was a park called SeaWorld.  The 'burbs of Cleveland seem an unlikely spot for a such a park, but there it was, in Aurora, Ohio.  Usually several times a summer, from the time I was very young, we'd venture, first as a family and then when I was a teen, sometimes with my friends, to SeaWorld.  One of the highlights, of course, was the Shamu, the Killer Whale, show.  The stands were always packed.  People vied to be chosen as the guest who would get a kiss from Shamu.  We'd pet dolphins and other animals, even penguins (hint, if you have long hair, tie it back before penguin encounters - it is intriguing to them and once they clamp on they don't want to let go - personal experience!) when they had "Winterfest" - trying to capitalize on the long Ohio winters (making this SeaWorld unusual given their other, much warmer locations).  Frankly, as a child, I never gave much thought to whether this was good for the animals or not.  Heck, the dolphins always looked happy, right (they have no choice, this is a facial feature of certain dolphins)?

As an adult, I came to understand, on some vague level, that marine animal parks like SeaWorld, were not the appropriate environments for many of their inhabitants.  I have not taken my own child to a SeaWorld.  His experience with these animals has been limited to several visits to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium - an animal rescue and rehab facility - and home to Winter, made famous in the movie Dolphin Tale.

However, it was not until reading Death at SeaWorld that I gained a fuller understanding of WHY.  In a masterful style, the author introduces us to a key characters, including some of the whales, trainers/former trainers, scientists and others, and illuminates the issues in the debate over killer whale captivity through these personal stories.  Mr. Kirby's use of the personal narrative, effective in both Evidence of Harm and Animal Factory, may be at its most engaging here.  The book reads like a thriller, a personal journal, a scientific primer, solid investigative journalism and more - all rolled into one.

David Kirby's treatment is both multi-faceted and in-depth.   He clearly does his homework before writing on a topic, and this research shows in a well-honed, thoughtful and thought-provoking finished work.  It is not easy to broadly cover a subject with so many nuances and not gloss over important issues, but Kirby succeeds, raising his work to a higher level.  As a result, readers are given a truly comprehensive understanding of the issues in the debate.  Without understanding, for example, the different types of killer whales that inhabit the planet and the unique sociological behaviors and familial ties of these animals, it is impossible to fully appreciate why captivity is not only dangerous for the whales and the humans who work with them, but heartbreaking as well.  Despite the many threads to this story, it does not unravel.  The reader does not lose track of the key events, and segues into areas such as marine biology, animal behavior and others, serve to illuminate, not distract, from the overall theme.

David Kirby does not shy away from controversial topics, such as vaccines and factory farming, and here takes on animal theme parks - an established feature in the landscape of late 20th/early 21st century America - and shows us their darker and more dangerous side.  I appreciate that, unlike many journalists today, Mr. Kirby truly investigates controversial issues, does not accept superficial explanations, and delves to understand and to share with his readers, difficult but important topics.