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Awesome Commentary About Orca Training Dreams Abandoned

April 12, 2013

I often hear (or see) a lot of commentary from young aspiring orca trainers, whose passionate dream it is to work at SeaWorld. So it is very refreshing to be hearing from aspiring orca trainers who changed their minds.

Take, for example, Kelsey Prosser, who just posted this comment:

As a 3-yr old little girl, my parents took me to SeaWorld in SD, California. I fell in love with the orcas, and from then on, it was my lifelong dream to become a “marine biologist” and work with orcas. SeaWorld was my goal, and nothing was going to stop me from becoming an orca trainer. Until I went on a whale watch in the San Juan Islands and saw orcas in the wild for the first time: powerful, social, vocal, and free. They had the ocean to roam, and no concrete tank to stop them. I even had the great privilege of watching Residents hunt for salmon and Transients hunting harbor seals. I spoke with local orca biologists who work with these animals in the wild and read as much as I possibly could on orcas in captivity, and after 21 years as an aspiring orca trainer, I have changed my mind. These animals belong in the ocean. They are intelligent, social, incredible marine mammals and they deserve a life of freedom. In the wild, orcas can reach 90+ years! J-2, an orca known as “Granny,” is 102 years old! In captivity, a 30-yr old orca is considered lucky. To all of you want-to-be-trainers, I simply ask that you think about the animals you are so in love with. What’s best for them? To be locked in an acoustically-straining tank with no natural surroundings, no social structure, and no room to roam and hunt? Or to live free with their family pods for their entire lives, hunting and playing at will? If this is your passion, won’t you want what is best for them? Is it selfish to want to work with them in a tank, even though deep down you know it’s not the best living situation for an intelligent marine mammal? I, too, was once that young girl with a dream. Now, I finally see the reality of the situation and know that my dream is to ensure that these animals are protected and studied in our world’s oceans, so that they may live full, happy lives. Now a Master’s student in Biology, I am still aiming toward a career with orcas, but my dream has changed: instead of working as an orca trainer, I am striving to study orca in their natural environment as well as teach others about their beauty and their behavior in the wild and the importance of conservation.

Kelsey zeroes in on the number one contradiction of orca training: if it is about loving the animals how do trainers rationalize the aggression, rakes and injuries, and captivity-related stress that they see? This is the contradiction that every trainer I know who eventually turned against captivity struggled with. And to the oft-asked question of why they worked so long at SeaWorld if the were uncomfortable with what they saw and experienced, they almost always explain that they had a hard time stepping out of SeaWorld because they worried that no one would care for the whales as well as they did (though some just say it took a while for the reality to supplant the corporate and management BS).

Kelsey’s comment is especially on point, because it tracks the logic and questions that arise when an aspiring killer whale trainer focuses not on his or her own interests and dreams but on the interests of the whales. I have always felt that a dream to train killer whales is not about love for the whales. It is about love for the thrilling experience of working with whales. But that thrill is the trainer’s thrill. The whales did not choose to be at a marine park, or dream of working with humans (okay, I don’t know that for sure, but I think it’s a pretty reasonable assumption). So to me a dream of training killer whales is about the dreamer’s fantasy, and what the dreamer wants. It is not at all about what the whales might want or prefer, if they could have been given a choice to work at SeaWorld or live a normal killer whale life in the wild.

By the way, the photo above is from Kelsey, who has found a different and beautiful way to engage her love of working with whales.

Here’s another comment in a similar vein, from Jennifer Jackson:

I once wanted to be a trainer and was probably one of the happiest people when San Antonio got SW… I wanted to go everyday and eventually move there for work. Later I met a friend who trained dolphins in Hawaii and she showed me video of the dolphin she trained and told me the story about his death, its so sad to me so I began to do a little more research on captivity. I had heard tons of arguments from both and I just couldn’t make up my mind and eventually I kept researching but not the parks but the habitat of these sea animals and that was it I was convinced they did NOT belong in captivity!!
Now I just try and educate my friends on what I have learned and I am very proud to say I have convinced several people NOT to go to SW and it is one of the best feelings in the whole world :)

I just want to say Thank You to ALL who participate in helping educate others as to why these amazing creatures belong in the sea and only in the sea!! Love you all from the bottom of my heart❤

I’d love to hear from more people who had a dream to work at SeaWorld and then changed their minds, including their reasons.

I’d also love to hear more from anyone who still aspires to be a trainer at SeaWorld, and would like to address Kelsey’s questions about whether love of killer whales can be consistent with wanting to work with them in captivity. I totally get why being a SeaWorld trainer would be thrilling and appealing from the human point of view. But I have a harder time understanding how aspiring trainers justify their dreams from the whales’ point of view. It’s an excellent conversation to have.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2013 11:51 am

    I have a beloved aunt who adores dolphins and SeaWorld. Her love for dolphins inspired my love for dolphins, and I decided I wanted to be a dolphin trainer when I was 7 years old. A big dream for a youngster from the Midwest! Nevertheless, I read all the dolphin books in the library, went to Shedd Aquarium and SeaWorld Ohio, watched all the SeaWorld shows on TV and was on everyday. I had photos of captive killer whales up on my bedroom wall, and an inflatable orca that I would pretend to “train.” Even though I was so young, I was very serious about my dream. I was writing to SeaWorld and every college in the country that offered marine mammal training courses. I still have my old journals, and every entry ends with the statement: I WILL become a SeaWorld trainer. Nothing will stop me.
    I held onto that dream until I was 19. In 2009 I watched “The Cove”. I didn’t even know that captivity was controversial. (Who doesn’t love SeaWorld!) But I felt the need to investigate further rather than taking the film at face value. After doing some research online I came to the conclusion that captivity is wrong. What really convinced me was the fact that the majority of the world’s marine mammal scientists are anti-captivity. These people know more about the animals than anyone else in the world, and the vast majority are anti-captivity. There must be a reason for that, and I can’t ignore it.
    Now I’m a sophomore in college, seeking my degree in marine biology to study WILD cetaceans.

    • Helen B. permalink
      April 12, 2013 6:55 pm

      Thank you for making a conscious decision to follow your dream and study marine mammals in their natural habitat – this is the only place that their natural behaviours can be observed and appreciated and recorded and we can ALL learn from that.

    • April 16, 2013 10:17 am

      You sound exactly like me! I had orca wallpaper, posters, a comforter set, all with orcas on them! I even put on “shows” with my stuffed animal orcas for my parents and friends. I was OBSESSED with orca training, and I incorporated orcas in everything, even school projects. I’m so glad to hear that others, who were similar to me growing up, are now changing their minds as well. We have the passion, the dream, and the drive to help these wonderful cetaceans. We can be their biggest advocates! Let’s show the world how beautiful they are in the social groups in the wild, and help make others want to protect them as well! Thank you for your comment🙂

  2. miranda permalink
    April 12, 2013 12:13 pm

    Orcas in the wikd are dying from many issues soon there wont be any left. But you still continue to complain about captive whakes. Timd to lesve well enough alone. Corky has health issues and is partially blind you think shes going to survive happily in the wild? I see another keiko seeking human affection – in the making your argument for freeing longtime captive orcas is invalid. Watching the cove, slave to entertainment and fall from freedom was just nothing but a giant propaganda video. People are too stupid to see why slaughters are taking place . And those movies are just so poorly done to just point fingers at captivity. Say ever heard of the Iki islands? No dolphins taken for captivity there, yet all were killed as Pest control. Whales being taken into captivity hasnt happened in years. Morgan was a special exception. Narnia is not under USA jurisdiction. Such a faulty arguement posed here

    • April 12, 2013 1:06 pm

      Just to clarify, I don’t believe that any captive whales (except possibly Lolita, Morgan, and Narnia) could be successfully released. But I do think the moral approach to orca captivity would be for marine parks to stop captive breeding, phase out their killer whale shows over the substantial period of time left for their existing captive killer whale population, introduce more real education into the shows, improve the environments and living/working conditions of the killer whales, and ideally retire some, like Tilikum, to a natural sea pen.

      I do have great concern for the health and populations of marine mammals in the wild, and write frequently about the toll of fishing, climate change, and pollution on them.

      • April 12, 2013 1:13 pm

        OK, so I don’t think I’m 100% clear on the concept of a sea pen… could you explain it to me?

      • April 12, 2013 1:57 pm

        Well, don’t have time for a lengthy response. But the basic idea is to create a safe natural environment–by netting off a cove, for example, as they did for Keiko–where routine husbandry could still be performed, but a retiring captive killer whale could live a less stressful, and hopefully more stimulating and natural life in the ocean. A more detailed description of the concept can be found in this proposal regarding Lolita:

  3. Future Orca Trainer permalink
    April 12, 2013 12:28 pm

    I’m back! I like your blog very much, even though I’m pro-cap, because I think I should know both opinions and I find it interesting.

    I think that orca training will be a way to share my passion for orcas with thousands of people every day, and hopefully make people want to learn more about them and their relatives! Dawn Brancheau, on the Believe DVD, said this to describe her job: “How do I make this animal as beautiful as they are, and have people walk away loving this animal, and they’re touched and they’re moved and I feel like I made a difference to them.” Really, as a future trainer that’s my mission statement, as well as glorifying God by trusting in his plans for me.

    • Lana David permalink
      April 12, 2013 4:42 pm

      Have you seen orcas in the wild?

    • Helen B. permalink
      April 12, 2013 7:00 pm

      Might I suggest seeing your aspiration to fulfil your dream and passion for orcas that you do an in-depth study into captivity issues and also wild cetacea issues. I will be more than happy to share with you scientific research on both sides to help you inform yourself on all that there is to know so you can make an informed decision.

  4. April 12, 2013 1:07 pm

    Having spent time with Orcas in the wild, now knowing their family structures it saddens me to hear people who are willing to support the captive industry. Here are creatures that have bigger brains than ours, sophisticated ways of communicating with each other family relationships that last for a lifetime, grief over the loss of one of their pod and we put them in a cement tank to be slaves to our addiction of pretending to conquer nature. We are a truly “sick” society when we are willing to trade the God given freedom of a species for a few minutes of so called pleasure to humans… it’s like watching a gladiator in a den of lions! How can you have passion, if your passion is based on the slavery of another?

    • April 12, 2013 1:12 pm

      It’s not slavery, it’s a mutual bond. And my passion isn’t based on orcas just in “captivity”. I love orcas wherever they are. I would love to go kayaking with orcas in Puget Sound sometime- it sounds like an awesome experience.

      • Susan G. permalink
        April 12, 2013 5:24 pm

        @Future Orca Trainer, I can pretty much guarantee when you see Orcas up here in WA (not really in Puget Sound very often, San Juan Islands area) you will NOT want to be an captive Orca Trainer again. Have you done research on the natural hierarchies of Orcas and the hierarchies of SeaWorld and them breaking up those hierachies as well? You do know that Dawn is Dead, right? She had a “mutual bond” with Tilikum, yet his captive stress won him over and he did what any frustrated being would do….take it out on the only person he could, bonds or no bonds. Unfortunately, most people go to SW because they want to see the Orcas do dumb tricks, not to passionately learn about them. The only difference you make make, is to get educated about what captivity is TRULY like for these beings and then educate others. I hope you will see BlackFish when it comes out this Summer!

      • Helen B. permalink
        April 12, 2013 7:24 pm

        I beg to differ and agree to disagree with you but captivity is not a mutual bond and it is slavery!

        Slavery is defined as:

        1. The state of one bound in servitude as the property of a slaveholder or household
        2. The condition of being subject or addicted to a specified influence
        3. The state or condition of being enslaved – a civil relationship whereby one party has absolute power over another & controls life, liberty, and fortune
        4. The subjection of a party to another party in being forced into work
        5. The condition of being subject to some influence or habit
        6. A state of subjection like that of a slave

        Captivity is defined as:

        1. The state or period of being imprisoned, confined, or enslaved
        2. The condition of being captive; imprisonment
        3. Obsolete, the act of confining, as in a narrow space
        4 Restriction of liberty

        Definition of mutual:
        1. A feeling or action experienced or done by each of two or more parties toward the other or others
        2. Two or more parties having the same specified relationship to each other
        3. Having the same relationship each to the other
        2. Directed and received by each toward the other; reciprocal: mutual respect
        3. Possessed in common mutual interests

        Definition of bond:
        1. Something that binds, fastens, confines, or holds together
        2. Something, as an agreement that unites into a group; covenant:
        3. To connect or bind
        4. To hold together or cohere
        5. Something that binds a party or parties to a certain circumstance or line of behavior

        Neither slavery nor captivity is a mutual bond if you refer to the definitions above and certainly both slavery and captivity would require the consent of both parties in order for it to be considered a mutual bond – in the case of captive animals this will never occur and can never be considered such as animals cannot consent and if you truly believe that they do consent to be held captive in tiny little tanks where they are forced to entertain humans then you need a little more help than I am willing or professionally suited to giving you! But my offer remains to share with you scientific research on the ills of captivity!

  5. Ex Sea World Dreamer permalink
    April 12, 2013 9:33 pm

    I spent the vast majority of my life planning to train orcas at Sea World. My parents took me to Sea World and the San Diego Zoo regularly as a child, and I never outgrew my dream to train whales. During high school I interned at Sea World 3 summers in a row through their Career Camp program, I was even featured in an episode of Jack Hannah’s show touting the awesomeness of Sea World. I graduated high school and went on to get a marine biology degree, all the while volunteering with a dolphin rehabilitation program, and THEN I attended the Exotic Animal Training and Management program at Moorpark College ALL with the intent of training orcas at Sea World. However, at Moorpark I began to work closely with exotic animals, and that was when I began to realize that I could never work at Sea World, or any other profit-driven animal facility.

    I now closely follow the fight to stop marine mammal captivity, and although I have several friends who work as marine mammal trainers at Sea World and other facilities my opinions on this have not changed a bit since I began to really educate myself about the realities of captivity for these animals.

    I have far too much respect for marine mammals to be comfortable with the conditions they must endure in captivity. I am not against all captivity, but I don’t believe that animals should be used for profit or entertainment, and Sea World absolutely exists solely for profit and entertainment no matter what their PR people try to tell you. Watching someone jump off a whale’s head does not inspire them to help protect wild whales. I believe that many Sea World trainers truly care for the animals, some of these trainers are my friends, and they have just been blinded (or in some cases closed their eyes) to the realities of marine mammal captivity.

    To those who aspire to work at Sea World- watch The Cove, watch Blackfish this summer, read the many articles written by the world’s top marine mammal scientists, and take the time to learn about wild marine mammals and how deeply they vary from those trapped in Sea World’s concrete prisons.

  6. Renee Wrede permalink
    April 12, 2013 11:22 pm

    Hello Future Orca Trainer! You sound excited about spending time with these beautiful, very intelligent orcas. I don’t blame you, they are magnificent animals. I also understand why you think they bond with their trainers, after all it looks like they do and Seaworld wants you to think they do. I have spent my entire life loving, admiring, learning, caring for even teaching people about animals. When I was younger I wanted a tiger (we did have 26 acres at our country home in the Catskills) someday because I adored them and their power and incredible beauty. A lot like orcas, tigers are apex predators–one the most powerful on land, the other the sea. All animals seem to be attracted to me and often wild animals were unafraid of me–my family and friends jokingly called me “Mother Nature.”

    I went on to get a good education toward my goal to work with animals. The first time I assisted with a tiger at the veterinary hospital was incredible! Just petting that iconic soft, striped fur was simply amazing, his muscles were thick and defined, his breaths were deep and rumbly. It also made me think about what the tigers really wanted INSTEAD of what I wanted. It broke my heart, but I knew there was no doubt that the tigers are much happier in their wild home. The best thing for me to do was not place them in captivity just because humans were destroying their habitat but work hard to SAVE THEIR HABITAT. If you research more and then look deeply into your soul you will know that orcas should not be in captivity. You will know they need to be wild in the big ocean. The very best thing you can do if you really love orcas is make the ocean a better place for them. Go to college, become a marine biologist and do what is so much better than training orcas to do silly tricks –HELP these magnificent orcas live free in the ocean. Study them, be with them in the ocean. You could be the one who helps save the resident orcas in the Pacific Northwest! Orcas are too smart and too big to be in a cement pool, I know you are too smart to not realize that. Best of luck in your career.

    April 15, 2013 4:12 pm


  8. April 16, 2013 7:32 am

    Thanks for the post! I fell in love with whales in second grade from books in my school’s libraries. Naturally, most of these books were dated, and captivity was treated as the final frontier–an amazing wonder of mankind’s ingenuity. I bought it all. I didn’t just dream of being a SeaWorld trainer; I dreamed of opening a marine park in the DC area. During doodling time in class, I would make aerial plans for the park. I loved orcas. I was romanced by their power and intelligence. I visited SeaWorld a couple times and saw the show. My parents were wonderful, and always supported my interests. In seventh grade, my mother took me to SeaWorld for the dolphin experience for Christmas. I donned a wetsuit and we each posed for pictures with a dolphin. I call this my turning moment. I never wanted to be ungrateful, but it didn’t feel right. I stuck a smile on my face and acted happy the rest of the day. After that, I kind of let the dream alone for a while. It wasn’t until a couple years later, when I was in high school, that I started looking into captivity again. I read the PBS Frontline story on captivity. I read the many websites and forums on the issue. I discovered where I saw the photos of Junior. From then, I never looked back. I knew captivity was wrong. Now I work for a national humane society. While our main interest is cats and dogs, I never pass up an opportunity to educate readers about the animals languishing in tanks.

  9. Educator permalink
    May 7, 2013 5:00 pm

    I have read quite a bit of what Tim has written on this subject in addition to many responses. I have seen Orcas in the wild, and although it was an amazing experience, believe that whale watching is incredibly destructive to the animals and their habitat (but thats a different discussion). Like a great deal of 2-3 year olds, I wanted to ride the killer whales. I was so passionate about it that I went to 10 consecutive years of Camp Sea World. I am the first to admit that I am probably brainwashed by them, but as a college educated adult who majored in Environmental Science (and after being exposed to many arguments against Sea World), I still feel that they have a very significant role in educating the public about the ocean and its ecosystem. I am not blind to the concerns, but I also believe that the people working with these animals have their best interest in mind, and are doing everything they can to make sure the animals are healthy and stimulated. If release isn’t an option, as Tim has mostly conceded, then I believe that Sea World in continually working to make the best, currently feasible, situation. I no longer want to be a killer whale trainer, but that has little to do with captivity. I am pursuing a career in environmental education (possibly at Sea World), because I want to follow the people who taught me so much and instilled a life-long appreciation for the marine ecosystem. My passion is to create that appreciation in the next generations, and how better than to have people see marine animals for themselves. No one will argue that watching a documentary is just as good as actually seeing and interacting with the subject matter. I grew up in California and was lucky enough to be able to take weekend trips to the beach and take a cruse in Alaska to whale watch. Very few people will be as lucky as I and the other’s in this thread were because they will never be able to see killer whales in the ocean. Before Sea World killer whales were deemed “killers” (hence their name) and people were afraid of them. It is true that perhaps they skewed too much to the cuddly stuffed animal idea, but at least they are trying to educate the public and make people realize that these animals deserve respect. I really do believe Sea World and its equals are embassies to the ocean, and they serve an important role in our society. Yes, They can do better, and yes, I am probably going to pursue a career at Sea World. I promise to do everything I can to make it better.

  10. Kristen permalink
    May 29, 2013 4:26 pm

    I think the answer to your question of whether loving orcas can be consistent with wanting to work with them in captivity depends on how you define love. If you think that love can be selfish, then yes, you can love orcas and want to work with them in captivity. If you think that love is defined by wanting the best for that which you love, then no, you cannot love orcas and want to work with them in captivity.

    I decided to be a whale trainer when I was 3. I was a regular attendee of the whale shows at Marineland, Canada, and went to Sea World, Florida whenever we went to Florida for vacation. When my dentist told me (at 10 years old) that marine biology existed as a job, I decided I wanted to do that instead, because I could combine my love of whales with my love of science. When I started learning more and more about the lives that captive orcas truly live, and compared this to the lives of wild orcas, my reasons for wanting to study wild orcas instead of train captive ones shifted from my love of biology to wanting the best for the animals that I love. I stopped going to marine parks out of protest, and speak out against captivity any chance I get. Orcas do not belong in captivity, and cannot be happy there. I love orcas, and cannot be happy engaging in something that makes their lives so awful.

  11. Louise permalink
    July 21, 2013 9:36 pm

    Well there is something to be said for SeaWorld here: the love for orcas that it created in so many of you. I am an animals’ rights activist, but I too am fascinated by big predators, and I think the trainers, just like the people who have tigers or bears as “pets”, do love them, albeit in a selfish kind of way, as stated above.

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