August 9, 2015

Review: Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us

Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us by David Neiwert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best nonfiction book I have read this year, and one of the best I have read in quite some time.

The author obviously has a great appreciation and love for orcas, and his personal anecdotes of various encounters he has had with them add a great deal to his book. There are also fascinating chapters about orca evolution and retellings of Native myths about the animals. Killer whale intelligence and possible sapience is discussed, along with their incredibly close social structure and the fact that they really do have another sense (echolocation) that humans cannot comprehend.

Unfortunately, a great deal of this book is terribly depressing. Neiwert makes a convincing case that these majestic animals should not be in captivity at all, and the way various marine parks (cough *SeaWorld* cough) treat them is tantamount to the deliberate torture of an intelligent species. (For instance, the calves are routinely separated from their mothers when they are a year old, when in the wild calves stay with their mothers and their pod their entire lives.) Orcas in captivity also do not live as long as those in the wild, despite SeaWorld's blatantly false assertions to the contrary. (Yes, I have seen the movie Blackfish, and my heart goes out to the whale profiled in the film, Tilikum. In my opinion, his captivity has left him psychotic, and that's why he killed three people, including his trainer Dawn Brancheau.) In the wild, killer whales swim up to a hundred miles a day; confining them to tanks, even million-gallon ones, is equivalent to confining a human to a bathtub. For life. Orcas never attack people outside of captivity, or each other; their highly social, cooperative natures forbid it.

There are also chapters on the people who have devoted their lives to studying these animals, and attempting to preserve their numbers, in particular the declining Southern Resident population. The possibility of returning some captive orcas to the wild is discussed, focusing on the story of Keiko, the whale featured in the movie Free Willy. All of it is very well done--the book reads like a novel--and all of it, at least to me, is fascinating. Be prepared to be pissed, though, especially at SeaWorld. I for one will never darken their doors again.

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