David Kirby / St. Martin's Press / 480 pages
Semi-biographical, Death at SeaWorld centers on the subject of keeping orcas in captivity for human entertainment. It is full of carefully researched facts and statistics, and meticulously details whale-human incidents and red flags that preceded the now infamous killing of SeaWorld orca trainer and performer Dawn Brancheau by the orca Tilikum in February 2010. Though Kirby has written a serious book that tackles a complex and heady subject, he artfully engages the reader from the start by centering his work on the lives and careers of two principal characters, marine scientist Dr. Naomi Rose and ex-SeaWorld orca trainer Dr. Jeff Ventre. Though coming from very different backgrounds—Rose, an academic turned activist for the Humane Society of the United States, and Ventre, a former SeaWorld trainer/performer turned MD—both work independently to end orca captivity, for the sake of the orcas and their handlers. Rose uses science and activism to take on the captive orca industry while Ventre, with his inside knowledge of SeaWorld operations and his respected persona, provides a powerful, reasoned voice that must be the nemesis of his former employer. SeaWorld, as one might imagine, does not fare very well in the book. It is portrayed as a corporate, profit-grabbing bully that indoctrinates its workers to be yes-men or else. Kirby uses information from Ventre, other former employees, and court documents from the Brancheau case to expose SeaWorld’s allowance of poor and unsafe worker conditions, patronization of the public, and total disregard for the whales as anything other than dispensable commodities.