"I Was A SeaWorld Trainer." A Response
Occasionally, things pass across your desk that you cannot ignore. Such happened yesterday with this piece written by Kacie Kripner and posted at MindBodyGreen.com.
I do not wish to devalue Ms. Kripner's time as a trainer, her experiences are her own. I will argue, however, that to assume a bond on an orca's behalf warrants questioning whenever food is used as a motivating force.
The purpose of this article is to address some errant facts within Ms. Kripner's piece, the first of which revolves around the following statement:
"When SeaWorld’s first location opened its doors in 1964, the purpose and passion behind the park was to care for animals, aid in conservation, and educate people about a previously unknown world."
SeaWorld has an ongoing issue with its conservation message even in 2016, so it's difficult to imagine what conservation was undertaken in 1964. They have pledged money yes for the resident orcas of the Pacific Northwest, but only very recently. Really, in 50+ years, they have neither rescued, rehabbed or released any orca back to its natural habitat.
From SeaWorld's early history:
Of course, SeaWorld has evolved since then, but it certainly didn't begin its business with an eye firmly fixed on conservation. When it comes to orcas, SeaWorld would be hard pressed to produce any meaningful conservation measures taken by the company. But back to Ms. Kripner's statements:
"Sure enough, he spun in almost a full circle as soon as I did — that's when I realized he had just been concerned about hitting me with his tail before."
So what happened when Takara performed this maneuver with another trainer?
SeaWorld received a willful citation from OSHA for exposing its employees to struck-by and drowning hazards when interacting with killer whales. OSHA writes, "The agency defines a willful violation as one committed with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health." This violation is deemed one of OSHA's Fatal Four Hazards.
"SeaWorld just celebrated the 50th anniversary of giving animals in need a second chance."
This is perhaps the most misleading statement of them all. None of SeaWorld's original orcas needed a second chance. They were not rescued, but captured (until banned) for a decade in the Pacific Northwest. These captures contributed to the decline of the Southern Resident Killer Whales, and is one of the primary reasons that they currently carry the status of "endangered."
Ironically, the orca who Kripner mentions bonding with is Tuar. Tuar's grandfather -- Winston, was one of the orcas captured in the Penn Cove, Washington roundup and was believed to be a Southern Resident Killer Whale. Tuar's mother was Kalina, the first orca born successfully in captivity. Her genetic makeup is 50% Icelandic, 50% Southern Resident. Known as the original 'Baby Shamu,' Kalina would die of septicemia in 2010. Tuar is one of SeaWorld's hybrid orcas.
Left alone, Southern Resident whales would have been just fine. In fact, the SRKW community has just welcomed it's ninth new calf since December 2014. Do they face challenges? Yes, of course, they do. Salmon restoration is hugely important to their long-term survival, as is the reduction of pollutants and critical habitat protection. But to offer captivity as a solution for these problems is misguided at best and ignorant at worst.
Orcas in captivity face their own set of issues. Diseases occur in the captive environment too, some linked to captivity itself. If contagious, a disease can spread far more quickly in a restricted space particularly when there are limited options for quarantine. Furthermore, the myriad of hybrid orcas that SeaWorld boasts -- combined with inbreeding, means these animals can never be released into the wild because of the risk to wild populations.
"it would be impossible to make a 9,000-pound creature do something it didn't want to do."
Critics argue that this is typical PR touted by marine parks on a regular basis. Ms. Kripner unfortunately, chose to cite virtually word-for word, the phrasing on this SeaWorld PR Bingo sheet:
Former trainers at SeaWorld have also spoken of food deprivation. John Jett PhD is a former SeaWorld trainer who talked on the subject at length here. He stated:
It is not as cut and dried as Ms. Kripner would have you believe. Yet she insists:
"My only agenda is to speak the truth."
Not the truth, but Ms. Kripner's perception of the truth. Truths that are ignorant of an alternate reality less aware of an orca's need and more driven by ego, are not factual. If you control any animal with food as a primary motivator, this "bond" is questionable.
Following the writing of this article, I was contacted by John Hargrove, former senior SeaWorld Trainer and author of the book, "Beneath the Surface." Hargrove said he was the last trainer to swim with Tuar before Alexis Martinez was killed by Keto at Loro Parque in Tenerife. He also added: