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"Death at SeaWorld": Book Slams Popular Theme Park

Hemera/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- More than two years after the horrific death of a SeaWorld killer whale trainer, former trainers from the popular Orlando, Fla., theme park have taken the park to task for its safety record and its treatment of killer whales, also known as orcas, in the new book, Death at Sea World.

In February 2010, a 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum dragged veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau under water to her death.  Tilikum was also linked to two other deaths -- that of another trainer in 1991 and of a man who snuck into Tilikum's tank in 1999.

"SeaWorld can make the environment safe, according to them, 98 percent of the time.  But what happens when the world's top predator decides to go off behavior?" former trainer Jeffrey Ventre asked in an interview with ABC's 20/20.

In a statement emailed to ABC News, SeaWorld called its killer whale program "a model for marine zoological facilities around the world" and said that in the last two years, additions "in the areas of personal safety, facility design and communication have enhanced this program further still."

Ventre was one of four former SeaWorld trainers interviewed by Death at Sea World author David Kirby.  Ventre was fired from SeaWorld in 1995 because, he claimed, he had voiced his concerns about the treatment of whales there.  (In his book, Kirby reports that Ventre was fired a week after kissing a whale's tongue, in violation of park rules.  Ventre said in the book that many had violated the so-called "tongue-tacticle" rule but were not disciplined and called his firing "total bull****.")

SeaWorld declined to comment on Ventre's history with the park but issued the following statement on Kirby's book: "While we have not yet been given the opportunity to read Mr. Kirby's book, we are familiar with his articles and blog posts on SeaWorld and the issues of marine mammal display."

Kirby, the park said, "has been very candid about his personal opposition to SeaWorld's killer whale program and we anticipate that his book will expand on those themes.  We disagree with Kirby's positions on marine mammal display and hope that he, unlike others who engage in the debate over these issues, confines his arguments to matters of fact."

In his book, Kirby wrote that there are no records of orcas in the wild attacking humans but, in captivity, aggression against trainers is not uncommon.

Kirby also noted that it may not just be the trainers who suffer. Killer whales in captivity have a mortality rate of 2.5 times higher than those living in the Pacific Northwest, Kirby wrote, citing a paper by marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose of the Humane Society.

Trainers interviewed by Kirby spoke of whales breaking their teeth on metal gates and having broken teeth removed with power drills; mother whales going into mourning after being separated from their offspring; and trainers being instructed to "masturbate" Tilikum -- the whale later blamed for Brancheau's death -- to collect semen for an artificial insemination program.

Former trainer John Jett said in the book that trainers were routinely kept in the dark about safety problems related to killer whale work.

"A lack of detailed information was the norm whenever accidents happened at other parks," he said.  "I remember one incident when all of us were pulled from water work for a short time.  To this day, I don't know what happened."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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