Over the past month I’ve been digging into the lives of former SeaWorld Animal Care workers, and publishing their stories (here, here, and here). Many of their experiences seem shocking to people unfamiliar with animal care work, and how difficult it can be. And it is easy to see how the stories can fuel an anti-SeaWorld sentiment.
Jim Horton, one of the three former Animal Care workers I interviewed, was troubled by the vehemence and hardcore anti-SeaWorld nature of some of the comments he saw posted to social media in the aftermath of the stories (big mistake, to read comments, I explained). And also by the fact that many of the stories published in the Animal Care series focus on the negative aspects of the lives of the workers and the nature of managing animals in captivity.
Animal Care obviously includes a lot of positive experiences, where animals are nurtured, rescued, or saved. And the thing I admire most about the Animal Care workers I spoke with and wrote about is that they did the work–with all the good, the bad and the ugly–because they cared first and foremost about the animals. They weren’t there to become Shamu Stadium stars. They were there because they loved animals and wanted to care for them. Eventually, especially for Krissy Dodge and Cynthia Payne, the nature of the work, and the way in which captivity compromised the lives of the animals, forced them to step away and pursue other careers. But the point is that Animal Care work, and the emotions and realities involved, is not at all simple. How Animal Care workers feel about the work they do, especially post-Blackfish, is an intensely complex subject, and that didn’t always come across in the articles I published.
So in order to dig deeper into what Jim Horton felt and feels about the work he did, and how Blackfish opened up many difficult questions, I am posting (with Jim’s permission) a letter that he wrote to a friend. In it, Jim explores and articulates the powerful and conflicting emotions he feels about the work. And if you want to judge him or Animal Care workers harshly, as so many were quick to do, I only ask that you make sure you read this letter first:
I feel your pain. I think the movie Blackfish and it’s flock of anti captivity followers has made us all take a deep look inside at what we have done over the years and where we are now emotionally in our careers as animal care takers. Torn between our love of the animals we have come to know and the public outcry from those that have never experienced what we have, with the exception of a few. I find it very ironic that the world of those we entertained and taught priceless educational values to are now claiming injustices and untruths that rock the very core of our souls, creating gaps and even bitterness between our friends, co workers and family.
I’m sure you can recall as I can the hundreds of times we were told by the public, family and friends that we must have the greatest job in the world. I recall, later on in my career, often scoffing at that comment and explaining to those that would listen, that this career is a labor of love and full of extreme highs and extreme lows and at times can very well be the worst job in the world. Those people, the ones looking from the outside in, so-called experts by the very knowledge that we as teachers have taught them, through the media and personal interactions, have no idea what it was like and also what it is like now.
What they don’t know and what the media never found newsworthy is the extreme duress we’ve gone through. The news only covers the animal’s story, not ours. The nights on end of watching, medicating, note-taking of sick animals. Every 3 hour tube feedings, injections and enemas, standing alone in poop-filled pools in freezing temperatures to bottle feed baby manatees or baby dolphins, while those around us celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, forgetting their anti-captivity rhetoric, while we shiver through the night, tired and hungry in the middle of a 24-hour shift doing everything you can to save a creature who has put all of it’s trust into us. Knowing fare well that if you screw up, fall asleep standing up, or miss a subtle cue of distress that this beautiful creature may die. They have not experienced the pain of watching and the feeling of the last heartbeat and breath of a dolphin, sea lion, or manatee dying in your arms, looking you straight in the eye as if to say help me or thank you, and in those final moments only you can decipher the final thoughts before death. You begin to cry if you’re alone there in the dark and cowboy up if you’re surrounded by peers, only to let it out in the seat of your car in your employers parking lot at the end of a very long day. You sit and ponder in anguish at what you could have done differently to save this one and what you can do the next time. You celebrate their life by helping the next one of their species.
Unless you’ve done it, one could never understand what it’s like to cut open and remove the brains and eyes of an animal you’ve cared for all it’s life. Sure, you put on your scientist mask, bundle up all of your emotions and swallow them like a big nasty pill and commence to do your job in the efforts of science and discovery and the personal need to know why. Your internal emotions and feelings of sadness, images of the happier times with this animal run through your veins in the form of liquid courage and it takes all of your might to carry on stoically. Hoping to find that smoking gun, that reason for not surviving your treatment. You hope to see the worst, a cancer, an infected kidney, inoperable stomach blockage or a brain abnormality. Often we find nothing and spend the rest of the evening wondering what went wrong and what could you have done differently. The thoughts haunt you through the night as your friends and family wonder why you’re so despondent and can’t sleep or why you aren’t in the mood to eat that piece of steak. Our reward is to move on to the next case unless you are one of the unfortunate ones that has to make that trip the following day to the rendering factory to dispose of the carcass and once again, feel those emotions as you toss a head that you’ve hugged a thousand times into a vat of guts while dodging the spray of nastiness.
They will never know the pain of the animal bites, the broken bones, contusions, sprains, cortisone injections, IV fluids, stitches, ear infections and the unfortunate times you had vomit, the diarrhea and the long dead animal guts and maggots fly into your eyes and mouth.
They will never know the disappointment and the emptiness you cast upon your families with missed vacations and birthdays and the wonderment by those you love that can’t understand why you lack emotion at the death of a family pet or when you make an early decision to put the animal to sleep, knowing early on the inevitable suffering that prolonging death can create.
They will never know what that final rub down, that saying of I’m sorry, what that pat on the back of an animal feels like when you are getting ready to inject a life ending medication in an upwelling of humbleness and hopelessness, a surrender of effort of all your skills to prevent suffering.
They will never know the terror and horror, the sounds and images of being in a rescue van or cage or pool when an animal goes through its death throes. Flailing about in a final fit of uncontrollable rage, sending humans, skin and blood flying through the air, destroying everything in it’s path and then the sudden unexpected feeling of what was once hope comes crashing to the ground in a matter of seconds.
They will never know the many times we came very closed to being killed, mauled, drowned, or losing a limb, toe or finger or co worker in the efforts of just doing our job, you know, the one that is the greatest one in the world?
And so now were are forced to believe by many that this isn’t the greatest job in the world, that all that we’ve done, all of the pain and effort, tireless nights and trips to the hospital is a bad thing. They say our animals are treated poorly, our facilities are substandard, and we should be ashamed. Ironically, in a much misinformed manner, these foul cries of care seemed limited to the United States, where the best care in the world is provided. Having transported animals all over the world, I have truly seen the atrocities of animal care in third world countries. But that’s ok I guess, because we only believe what we see and fail to listen to the real experts. Untouchable they are the third world facilities, look at Taji. Those animals are captured and slaughtered every year, yet there are more outcries regarding a little blonde haired girl blowing a whistle–feeding and rubbing down an animal that she truly loves and will give her all with great sacrifice to her life and those around her in an effort to give that animal a good life- than the cries of slaughter. The paths we chose in the animal industry we didn’t always chase. We started as education staff, operations staff, cigarette butt picker up’ers, scuba divers and bucket washers. Suddenly, we were given the opportunity to be closer than most to these wonderful creatures. I’m sure there isn’t a soul in the business who hasn’t stated that “I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this”. So innocent and inexperienced, having no idea that this journey will take you through a river of emotions, good and bad and that those children that you teach and share the joy of making a connection to animals, those children will grow up to say what you are doing, the efforts that you made, were not in the animals’ best interest.
I can truly say that I am against captivity and I am for captivity. I think perhaps, maybe it’s time to end Killer Whales in Captivity, but why not the elephants? I don’t really see the need anymore, we’ve learned about all we can. On the other hand, if it were not for having killer whales in captivity, who would have freed Willy? Who would have rescued, rehabilitated and released Springer? Who would have flown to Turkey for 2 years of their life to train captive dolphins to be wild again and set them free? Who of you out there are planning and watching every day the case of Morgan the Killer whale in Spain. Who of you is experienced and ready to leave your family for years to train and release this little whale back to her family? Who is prepared to make real sacrifices other than spouting verbal diarrhea from your warm cozy couch with an I Pad……..We are!
We are the ones who still love our job, we love animals in our care more than our friends and our future. We are proud of our accomplishments, we do make a difference in the lives of others, we are tough as nails, we are not afraid, we can control our emotions, we can laugh in the face of adversity and we can succeed where others have never tried. We teach and train the animal caretakers of the future, there will always be a need for us. Who is going to save the beached animals of the future? Movie directors?
I am proud of who I am and those that I have helped have a better life. I am not part of the problem, I am the solution. I am an animal husbandry specialist and I will never stop caring.
There you have the conflicts, the pathos, and the doubts (and certainty) of animal care, all wrapped up into one deeply felt letter. I don’t criticize Animal Care workers. In my view they are doing their best, for the right reasons, in a captive entertainment model that is flawed and that I think needs to be reinvented. I reserve my skepticism and criticism for that model, not for the people who do their best to ease the lives of the animals trapped in that model. It is easy to say they shouldn’t do that work. But if they didn’t do you think the lives of the animals would be better or worse? I thought so.
When I started cycling a lot about seven years ago, the relationship between drivers and cyclists seemed in flux. It felt like with a little motorist understanding, and better cycling manners, motorists and cyclists could learn to live together and learn to share the road.
Unfortunately, the opposite has happened. In my experience, the relationship has steadily deteriorated and now motorists and cyclists exist in a state of perpetual cold war. Many motorists are hostile and abusive, and still don’t understand why someone on a bicycle is slowing their progress by, oh, 10 seconds. And many cyclists are slow to single up while riding, or don’t think twice about taking a driver’s right of way at an intersection, or yelling, or giving the finger to, or smacking the side of cars that pass in a way they don’t like.
The result is overt hostility from some drivers, and since it is motorists who have the benefit of a 4,000 pound vehicle and a powerful engine, it can get a little dangerous out there. So I thought I would share just a single incident that reflects what it can be like out there for a cyclist on the road in the DC area.
This occurred last Monday evening in southern Anne Arundel County during the regular Monday night ride from a local bike shop. A group of five of us was riding north on the shoulder of Route 2, and as the light at Harwood Rd. approached pulled out toward the centerline in preparation for making a left onto Harwood Rd at the light. As we did, a car coming south at about 50 mph steered onto the double yellow line/rumble strips to pass very close by.
One of our riders had a camera in the flashing light under his saddle and caught this video (click on the settings icon in the lower right of the video to slow it down to .25 speed and watch from about 25 seconds in).
I was in front of the rider with the camera and close to the center line, and estimate that the car passed less than a foot from me (and it felt like inches). Unfortunately, the resolution of the camera and the car’s speed (plus maybe a license plate cover) is making it hard to pull the plate number.
It is impossible to know whether this was a deliberate attempt to target and intimidate a group of cyclists. Maybe it was just distracted driving, and the driver was on a device. But the steering was very precise and smooth throughout. There was no sudden course correction, which you might expect if a driver suddenly looked up from a text and saw that he/she was about to take out a group of cyclists. It certainly felt calculated and deliberate (and it hurts me all the more that it was a Redskins fan!).
It goes without saying that whatever logic or thought process was at work, it is INSANE. A minor steering mistake by the driver or a cyclist could have resulted in a death. What also struck me was that this sort of driver BS is common enough that I didn’t even flinch, and I don’t think my heart rate increased one beat. It was like: “Oh well, another complete a**hole driver. Glad I wasn’t killed or maimed.”
So that’s just a single moment in the deteriorating motorists vs. cyclists cold war. It is an entirely asymmetrical war since it is easy for motorists to kill cyclists, and very hard for cyclists to injure a motorist. And I have lost hope that drivers who, for whatever reason, can’t stand that they have to share the road will somehow mange to keep things in perspective and remember that lives and families can be destroyed in an instant if they give in to their aggression.
I used to joke that I would love to have a helmet-mounted paintball gun to surreptitiously paste the back bumper anytime a jerk driver blasts by too close while leaning on his horn, or spits, or curses, or throws something at me. But until that technology arrives I think the best thing cyclists can do is to put cameras on their bikes (the one that caught this incident is integrated into the blinking light that mounts on the seat post; but it is apparently flawed by the fact that the resolution and frame speed wasn’t good enough to read the license plate).
And if enough cyclists do that, and if there are enough prosecutions that result from cyclists doing that, and enough motorists become aware of the fact that their actions might be captured on camera, maybe then drivers with cyclist rage will, you know, not try and take it out on vulnerable cyclists.
I have also been thinking cycling jerseys that simply, and in easily visible lettering, declare “Camera On Board,” or “Caution: You Are Being Filmed,”would be a good safety innovation (regardless of whether there actually is a camera on board). Because deterrence is the key, to draw on a central cold war strategy. I’d much rather prevent a motorist from putting me in the hospital than prosecute a motorist from a wheelchair.
Be careful out there…
While SeaWorld continues to dig its heels in – pointing out that tens of thousands of visitors are in its parks right now – others are responding more progressively. In 2012 the National Aquarium in Baltimore, a highly regarded institution synonymous with its dolphin show, cancelled its performances. Since then visitors have been able to sit and watch the dolphins as they are simply taken care of by staff. Now, the aquarium is considering retiring their eight bottlenose dolphins altogether and is in talks to create the first ocean-side dolphin sanctuary in the US. Its decision was based on regular polling of visitors; it learned that people no longer felt comfortable with the show.
“Our audience has evolved,” Aquarium CEO John Racanelli told Baltimore Magazine. “Baby boomers grew up on Flipper, but millennials grew up on Free Willy and The Cove. They are interested in these animals being treated more humanely.”
Others are following suit. This September, the Clearwater Aquarium in Florida announced it would also end animal shows, choosing to focus on rehabilitation and marine resources instead. When asked by the Guardian if SeaWorld would ever consider a similar move, the company said the terms “retire” and “sanctuary” are misplaced in the context of animal care. But added: “The short answer is no.”
I think it’s very telling that Baltimore’s National Aquarium based its evolutionary leap toward the future on polling its own visitors. Presumably SeaWorld is regularly polling its audience as well, and I wonder what those surveys are saying (maybe that info will turn up in one of the imminent shareholder lawsuits).
Read the whole thing. You’ll finish with a good understanding of all the forces in play right now.
Greg Allen, NPR’s Miami reporter got in touch earlier this week while reporting a story on SeaWorld’s efforts to rebound from its post-Blackfish malaise. Here’s the story Allen aired on All Things Considered this evening.
It’s interesting to note that SeaWorld seems to have decided that its head vet, Chris Dold, is SeaWorld’s most effective spokesperson (when I did my Shamu Stadium tour, in 2010, head trainer Kelley Flaherty-Clark was my guide.
Dold is definitely smooth, but he constructs a popular SeaWorld straw man when he says that Blackfish attacks SeaWorld’s staff as uncaring or abusive with SeaWorld’s killer whales. Quite the contrary. SeaWorld’s killer whales are worth millions and are the core of SeaWorld’s business, and therefore SeaWorld has every incentive to do everything it can to keep them healthy (and breeding). And I’ve always felt SeaWorld’s personnel, especially the trainers and Animal Care staff, are sincere in their efforts to care for the whales.
But when SeaWorld’s business interests conflict with the killer whales’ interests (such as the age or frequency with which females are bred; of mother-calf separations, for example) it is usually the business interests which prevail. And, more broadly, there is a limit to what can be achieved even with sincere efforts to care for the killer whales if the environment itself is inherently unsuitable. So I wouldn’t say SeaWorld’s people are abusive. I would say the killer whale entertainment business is abusive.
In this round, Jim and Cynthia talk about what it was like to try and dive the dolphin feeding pools to keep them clear of objects that either fell in or were thrown in by guests. And Jim explains the impossible situation he faced with an irate male dolphin called Ralph:
The young calves would maybe grab your flippers and drag you back. That was kind of fun, though the number one rule was never to react. You didn’t want to reinforce it so we would never react to any behavior. We’d just ignore the animals totally. But Ralph would really mess with you. He’d get in your face and be jaw popping really hard. He’d be 6 inches from your face slamming his mouth shut with 200 pounds of force. It would sound like firecrackers going off underwater. You could tell [he was coming]. He’d start vocalizing really loud, and you’d go ‘Oh lord, Ralph is getting worked up.’ He’d get right in your face and scream and vocalize, really, really loud. Or he’d grab you by the head and pull you around. He’d lay on top of you.
Krissy concludes with the traumatic death of a sea lion named Eric, which prompted her to quit SeaWorld. It is a story she has never before told publicly:
We went to give him fluids and Eric began to go into convulsions. His head was shaking involuntarily. All of a sudden he arched his back into what they call the ‘death arch’ and he laid down and stopped breathing. He had no pulse. We thought he had died. Several people left to get ready for the necropsy. I stayed with him. He then started breathing again and I felt a pulse in his neck. The decision was made to euthanize him. But Eric’s body was not taking the poison. Even though it was injected into his heart, he didn’t die. Eric was taken to necropsy anyway. He was hoisted onto the truck, taken to the necropsy room and laid on the floor. He was still breathing. I figured we’d just wait for him to die, but I was wrong. What happened next I will never forget.
Read the whole thing here.
Since this is the last in the series I want to emphasize that it took courage for Jim, Cynthia, and Krissy to tell their stories, especially because they knew that doing so would provoke criticism and personal attacks from all sides of the spectrum. And, already, I have seen many unthinking and knee-jerk comments on social media that add nothing to the debate our our thinking about animal care, marine mammal captivity and marine parks.
We all expected that. But the reason to put these stories on the record is to add to the growing wealth of information and experience that comes from people who have worked in the industry. So anyone who really wants to learn and think about marine mammal captivity, and what it is like for both animals and those who work and care for them, can now read what Jim, Cynthia and Krissy had to say. And hopefully that will help deepen, inform, and expand the post-Blackfish debate about marine mammal captivity.
So I greatly appreciate the spirit Jim, Cynthia and Krissy have shown in sharing their experiences. And I hope you do too, no matter how you react to the information.
Over the past year I’ve had some fascinating and revealing conversations with three dedicated former SeaWorld Animal Care workers: Jim Horton, Cynthia Payne and Krissy Dodge. Their experiences have given me a much deeper understanding of the lives of the animals at marine parks (and the lives of the employees!), and last month I published some of what they had to say over on Outside Online.
Today, The Dodo is publishing another installment of my conversations with Jim, Cynthia and Krissy. It focuses on the dolphin feeding pools, a steady and important source of revenue at SeaWorld. This installment will be followed by another either later this week, or early next week.
Here’s a sample of the conversations that are up today (Jim Horton talking about doing medical check-ups on the dolphins):
Occasionally we’d have to get a young calf whose Mom was still in the pool. Mom would do anything trying to get the calf away from us. I broke my nose once on [the vet’s] head. I had the calf. He was trying to stop the female from getting to me, and she whacked him. And he went flying and his head went right into my face and knocked me practically unconscious.
We did not mess with calves until they were one year old. But when we did at that age of one year and up, the little ones really put up a good fight as this was something new. So that generally took two to three guys. But then the mothers would come after us in attempts to dislodge the calf. A coordinated effort was required to grab both mother and calf at the same time and hold them very close together, face to face. We would handle only one animal at a time, unless it was a mom and calf. So it was always a battle in that pool and those animals weren’t really trained to do much.
Read the whole thing here. You will learn lots of new things about dolphin feeding pools. I promise.
There are lots of interesting lessons (most of them cautionary) in the extinction of the passenger pigeon 100 years ago, and most of them are raised in Carl Zimmer’s excellent story about why it happened and what scientists are doing to try and bring the species back (did you know social media played a role in wiping the passenger pigeon out?).
But here’s a point that really caught my attention:
Soon this technology-driven slaughter was decimating the passenger pigeon. Its decline was so worrisome that Congress passed the Lacey Act, one of the first laws to protect wildlife in the United States. The Lacey Act would eventually help protect many species, but for the passenger pigeon it came too late.
In 1900, the year in which the act was made into law, naturalists spotted a single wild passenger pigeon in Ohio. They never saw another one in the wild again.
For the next 14 years, the species clung to existence in a few zoos. But the birds proved to be poor breeders in captivity. Martha, the last of her kind, was barren.
That history should be kept in mind the next time you hear a zoo or marine park justify captivity and their business model by saying they are helping preserve species that might be threatened or endangered in the wild. Some species will presumably be easier to breed in captivity than passenger pigeons. Some presumably less. That will affect how long a species can “cling” to existence. But the point is that zoos and captivity are not a way to save or preserve a species. That work has to take place in the wild.
And that is completely apart from the question of whether a species can be considered “preserved” or in “existence” if it only exists in a zoo. The difference between a wild passenger pigeon and “Martha” is like the difference between a facsimile and the real, dynamic, thing. Here is how Zimmer describes Martha’s life in the Cincinnati Zoo:
People coming to the zoo to see the last passenger pigeon were disappointed by the bird, which barely budged off its perch. As Joel Greenberg writes in his recent book A Feathered River Across the Sky, some threw sand into its cage to try to force it to walk around. But on that first day of September a century ago, Martha no longer had to put up with such humiliations.
It was a quiet end to a noisy species. As recently as the mid-1800s, deafening flocks of billions of passenger pigeons swarmed across the eastern half of the United States. But they proved no match for humans, whose rapidly advancing technology drove the birds to extinction in a matter of decades.
Martha (and the story of her species), it seems, is well worth remembering.