Non-Fiction Book: Dreaming of Orcas

Trainer with Whale

I grew up watching the Shamu performances at SeaWorld, and then I watched as they were condemned as unethical captivity. Still, I find myself drawn to these shows, where humans rode the slick backs and bellies of killer whales. As a Stanford researcher, I'm giving another look at this relic of my childhood. In doing so, I hope to assemble a new perspective on the human-animal relationship.

Most people agree on a mysticism in animals. You look into an animal's eyes and you feel like something's there. And yet, with our technological innovations, we have been drifting away from animals and nature. Zoos, aquariums, and marine parks give us hope. In the U.S., more than 180 million people visit these facilities each year. They show that we still have an attraction to animals, but what is it? What, really, do we get from watching a trainer hugging a killer whale? Perhaps, as we understand this attraction, we can better act on it and become closer to the natural world.

Through heavy archival research and exclusive interviews, we will look at the stories of exotic animal trainers, indigenous cultures, activists, scientists, and normal people stuck in the right place at the right time. Through psychology, philosophy, literature, and even some math, we will repaint the world of man and beast. This is a very long-term project. Publication date not set.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are you looking for?

I'm a computer scientist by day, and a storyteller by night. I think human stories are amazing, and I try to tell them without editorializing or searching for "gotcha" moments. In other words, I am not an investigative reporter. My official title is closer to oral historian.

This being said, I am putting on a pro-captivity lens. Marine parks and marine mammal trainers have been critiqued harshly by popular media, and my preliminary research has shown that this pushback may have been too strong. These trainers have such amazing stories to tell, and so does the industry they represent.

I acknowledge that the issue of captivity is ethically complicated. While I am emotionally drawn to the trainer's story and the stories of animals in human care, I will treat pro and anti-captivity arguments with equal compassion and academic rigor in my writing.

I am very much an open book about all parts of the project. If you have questions or concerns about what I'm doing, you can always ask me, and I'll give you the best answer I can.

Who have you talked to?

I am acquainted with a generous handful of educators and orca trainers at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Diego, and I have also been in contact with former trainers, one former executive, and someone who has been involved in a similar counternarrative project. My main character is a very highly-respected orca trainer who has worked at Miami Seaquarium and SeaWorld Orlando. I owe some of these connections to the Dawn Brancheau Foundation and one of Dawn's sisters, who has so kindly supported me throughout this process.

On the academic side, I have been in touch with Jason Colby, a historian who has studied extensively the history of orca captivity in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. I am also consulting various books and media on whale-related philosophy, biology, and social sciences. With animal training, I am relying on a combination of interviews, literature review, and my own experiences working with a theoretical form of "animal training" known as reinforcement learning.

On the opposing side, I have interviewed some marine biologists, animal activists, and social media "armchair activists." I'm currently establishing a relationship with the Lummi Nation in the Pacific Northwest to uplift their perspective (which is often anti-captivity) in my work. I also have the canonical publications that go against this industry. They add the right balance to the narrative I'm trying to tell.

What are you writing?

I am writing a creative nonfiction book. This means that everything you read will be based from archival content and oral interviews. But it also means that you will find creative elements that are typically not found in history books, like funny dolphin training stories and the quirks of running an amusement park. I will also tell my own story through this narrative. It's gonna be fun!

What are your qualifications?

I'm a senior producer for the Stanford Storytelling Project and minoring in creative writing. Thanks to a wonderful collection of mentors, I've been trained on the craft of interviewing and story creation. For my creative writing minor, I've also been through many workshop classes that teach the art of writing. But most importantly, I am willing to listen, and to empathize.

Why do you care?

This whole project started on a pandemic-driven impulse to do something with my spare time. As a middle-schooler, I was quite involved with both the anti-captivity and pro-captivity communities, often back-to-back. This obsession was something I had actively tried to suppress during my high school years because it didn't fit my narrative as a budding scientist. But as I became friends with one killer whale trainer, I realized that I had so many questions...

Researcher's Corner

If you are here because you have academic interests in the subject and are a student / scholar, you can contact me to get partial access to my database even before my book publication. If you have a general academic interest, you can view a preliminary reading list here.