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"I Was A SeaWorld Trainer." A Response

"I Was A SeaWorld Trainer." A Response

By cs:User:DaBler (Own work) GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

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:

Moments later, trained porpoises arrive on scene, where they “perform incredible and beautiful feats, including ‘dancing’ to the music of a popular ballet. They tow their trainer through an obstacle course and chase mechanical fish like greyhounds.
— The Fantastical Vision for the Original SeaWorld; Conor Friedersdorg; The Atlantic; Mar. 2015

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." 

The size of all three Southern Resident pods was reduced in number from 1965-75 as a result of whale captures for marine park exhibition. At least 13 whales were killed during these captures, while 45 whales were delivered to marine parks around the world. Today, only Lolita (Tokitae) remains alive in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium.
— The Center for Whale Research

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:

Courtesy, Voice of the Orcas; Author Unknown.

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:

I have both seen and have been a part of depriving whales of food too many times to count. For example, we would often know a week or more prior to August Busch IV visiting the park in Orlando. August Busch IV was the CEO of Anheuser-Busch, the company who owned SeaWorld while I was employed there, and we were always informed by management to cut food bases during the week leading up to his visit. This helped to ensure that Mr. Busch would observe a decent show. Hungry whales generally seemed to perform much better and more consistently, which of course was the objective.
— John Jett, Voice of the Orcas

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:

Yes you can make an orca do something and it’s called food deprivation. SeaWorld has even deployed nets to have whales move to pools when they don’t want to go. Every single former SeaWorld orca trainer from the documentary ‘Blackfish’, would testify under oath that we were given the directive to use food deprivation when necessary. It’s in SeaWorld’s records if they would release them.


As for Tuar, he actually has several documented aggressions toward trainers and was deemed so high risk that the lead Supervisor at Shamu Stadium (now the Assistant Curator) stated she was fearful of Tuar in the water and that if we had won the court case against OSHA and resumed waterwork, she would never again get in the water with him.


Tuar was less than one month old when Daniel Dukes was killed. He was taken from his mother Kalina when he was four years old. SeaWorld still claims that they don’t separate mothers and calves unless on very rare occasions and if it’s medically necessary. I know for a fact there was no medical need for the transport. Texas just needed another whale.
— John Hargrove (via e-mail)
Throwback: Documents show SeaWorld waited 27 mins to call 911 after attack

Throwback: Documents show SeaWorld waited 27 mins to call 911 after attack

Unna succumbs to illness at SeaWorld Texas

Unna succumbs to illness at SeaWorld Texas