Animal Care Chronicles Wrap-Up

King Ralph

The final installment of my conversations with former Animal Care workers Jim Horton, Cynthia Payne, and Krissy Dodge is now up on The Dodo. (Previous conversations are here and here).

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.

SeaWorld Bogus Critique Of Blackfish

Despite insisting that Blackfish is having no impact on its business, SeaWorld continues to invest heavily in a PR counter-attack on Blackfish and the former trainers who appear in the film.

It’s latest minute-by-minute critique of Blackfish was perhaps the most detailed, and most tediously off-base, critique it has issued yet.

Below you will find the Blackfish production team’s rebuttal. What’s notable is that SeaWorld continues to massage and manipulate the facts even as it tries to accuse Blackfish of mis-representing the facts. What’s also notable is that SeaWorld continues to try and distract and divert from the core issues raised in Blackfish about the wisdom and morality of killer whale captivity, without ever directly addressing those issues.

I guess we can keep going round after round on this, but the facts simply are not on SeaWorld’s side. And it seems clear that the public is beginning to understand a very different, more credible, and increasingly troubling version of killer whale captivity than the narrative SeaWorld has been promoting for the past 50 years.

Morgan’s Fate At Loro Parque

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A decision on whether Morgan, the lost young female orca, should remain at Loro Parque is due anytime, and could be released this Wednesday.

The arguments over Morgan have always been based on two completely different, and contradictory, narratives of her life at Loro Parque. Today, over on The Dodo, I took a look at what both sides claim regarding Morgan’s well-being, and how a pregnancy is the big wild card, and would seal her fate if it happens.

Here’s a key part of the story:

Loro Parque, in a statement e-mailed in response to a request for comment, calls Visser’s argument “erroneous and misleading,” as well as “emotionally charged. The statement goes on to try and rebut each of Visser’s claims one by one, and dismisses Visser’s work as an “animal activist opinion piece.” For Morgan, the statement flatly states, “negative welfare conditions do not exist.”

“I’m not an activist. I am a scientist who happens to care about the welfare of animals,” Visser responds. “There is a big difference.” Moreover, Visser’s research and conclusions about Morgan’s life at Loro Parque have won an interesting advocate in Jeff Foster, who spent decades catching killer whales, dolphins, and other animals for SeaWorld and other marine parks. Foster knows a lot about killer whales and how they handle captivity, and is not opposed to captivity for killer whales if they are well-integrated into a stable environment. After observing Loro Parque’s videos of Morgan he was initially skeptical that her experience at Loro Parque was as negative as Visser believes. But based on two trips to observe Morgan (the most recent was last Fall), Foster says he fully agrees that the group of SeaWorld killer whales at Loro Parque is dysfunctional, that Morgan has not been well-integrated, and that Morgan is suffering. “It’s pretty obvious. She’s crying out in distress almost all the time,” Foster says. “You usually don’t hear those vocals from animals unless they are really in distress. The only time I’ve heard them is when we were catching whales and separating them from their families.”

You can read the whole thing here.

Here’s a brief video, showing Morgan’s isolation during a show at Loro Parque earlier this year.

Blackfish Effect At Work: Southwest Airlines

It has been amazing to see all the Blackfish-inspired efforts to campaign for changes in the way we see and think about SeaWorld and the captive display of orcas. There have been a multitude of grassroots petitions urging musical acts to avoid playing at SeaWorld. There have also been grassroots efforts to inspire SeaWorld’s corporate partners to revisit their relationship with a business that displays orcas. For example, this petition to Southwest Airlines.

The response from singers and bands has been impressive. But getting corporate partners to move on from longstanding relationships is a bigger challenge, and multiple approaches are possible. That’s why I wanted to flag Kimberly Ventre’s quiet and respectful effort to engage Southwest about its relationship with SeaWorld. Instead of rallying thousands of potential fliers to petition Southwest, it is based on a strategy of trying to engage Southwest’s leadership in a thoughtful conversation about SeaWorld and captivity (and included offers to screen Blackfish and have some of the former SeaWorld trainers who featured in Blackfish meet with Southwest executives; Ventre is former SeaWorld trainer Jeff Ventre’s sister, and a devoted Southwest flier).

Southwest has been open and responsive, but also hasn’t accepted Ventre’s offer for further engagement and discussion. They did send her a Southwest thumb drive, but I suspect that won’t be enough to deter her from her goal of having Southwest revisit its SeaWorld partnership.

It will be interesting to see whether this alternative approach to the Blackfish Effect will succeed. And whether it can be a good model for change. So, for the record, I am posting a summary from Ventre regarding her Southwest campaign, as well as the letters that have gone back and forth.

Here’s Ventre:

When is the last time you wrote an airline and they responded right away? This is why I love Southwest. They are different. They are thoughtful. They listen.

Recently, I sent a letter to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly (and four other executives) expressing my concern over their on-going partnership with SeaWorld. I explained a group of scientists, filmmakers, and authors were willing to come present the facts surrounding orcas and captivity. Shortly thereafter, I received an encouraging response.

Southwest’s leadership team said their eyes and ears are not closed and vowed to “remain transparent and open in their desire to learn and educate (them)selves.” Remarkably, they confirmed they had seen Blackfish and said they would read Death at SeaWorld as well as the other articles I provided.

Their transparency, willingness to engage in dialogue and commitment to do their due diligence are all hallmarks of great global brands. Their partner SeaWorld could learn a lot from them.

Southwest asked for patience as they move through their learning process. As they begin to understand the real story of Shamu, they will reach the same conclusion millions around the globe already have. What was once popular is now seen as an inhumane. I believe Southwest will evolve and choose to be on the right side of history.

See my letter to Southwest and their response.

Macy’s Caught Off-Guard By Blackfish Backlash?

SeaWorld’s “A Sea Of Surprises” is definitely surprising Macy’s. And not in a good way. But I guess you should never underestimate the power and energy of the orca-defending community. Or the power of television. And Blackfish is doing enough damage to the image of the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, that we just might have to file a corporate incident report.

Buzzfeed gets in on the action with a sharp story about how Blackfish snuck up on Macy’s:

Blackfish, a damning documentary about SeaWorld’s treatment of animals after one of its whales killed a veteran trainer in 2010, premiered at Sundance in January, about three months before SeaWorld went public. Analysts who cover the company didn’t see it to be an issue. In September, J.P. Morgan analysts said it had “negligible, if any, impact on attendance,” given that it garnered just $1.8 million in the box office from its July 19 release. Goldman Sachs didn’t mention it in September and October notes about SeaWorld. The film didn’t show up in conference calls either, though visits have been falling.

But the documentary stopped being a non-issue when CNN aired it on Oct. 24, sweeping the ratings of every group under 55 during a Thursday night showing. Twitter said it was the most talked-about show on CNN in October, with 67,673 tweets seen by 7.3 million people. (It was the second-most tweeted about non-sports program that night after Scandal.)

Blackfish, SeaWorld, and the issue of whales in captivity have all been far more visible since then — and Macy’s is now catching a lot of the heat.

The company has drawn disparaging commentary for the float on its Facebook page and from celebrities including Alec Baldwin and Jason Biggs. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is leading an online campaign to get rid of the float and has protested at Macy’s New York flagship store.

I guess while we are on the topic, can we just pause for a second to note how utterly vacuous and meaningless Macy’s standard PR line about this controversy is? Here’s what Macy’s told Buzzfeed (and pretty much every other news organization that has sought comment):

“[The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade] has never taken on, promoted or otherwise engaged in social commentary, political debate, or other forms of advocacy, no matter how worthy….Its mission has always been about entertaining millions of families and spectators. While it is understandable that such a widely embraced event can sometimes feature elements or performances that some people may find disagreeable, Macy’s intention is to provide a range of entertaining elements without judgement, endorsement or agenda.”

By that standard, SeaWorld could duck all the heat about Shamu by swapping in a float celebrating the use of slaves to grow the cotton industry. And Macy’s would be okay with that, and let it roll (without “judgment” or “endorsement,” mind you). As long as it was “entertaining.”

PS: Note to Macy’s PR specialists: Since Macy’s actually chooses who and what will be featured in the parade, there is an implicit endorsement no matter how many times you try to say there isn’t.

PPS: When said PR specialists also say that the Macy’s parade “has never taken on, promoted or otherwise engaged in social commentary, political debate, or other forms of advocacy, no matter how worthy” are they saying that the criticisms of SeaWorld raised by Blackfish are, well, worthy? Because that would be awkward.

Anyhow, read the whole Buzzfeed story, for lots more juicy goodness. It includes some of the pointed and clever tweets and comments that Macy’s has been dealing with. Like this one, from Jason Biggs:

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Vancouver Aquarium’s Internal Response To Blackfish

What do you think of me being here at the Vancouver Aquarium?

Here is what I am told was a note sent to staff at the Vancouver Aquarium, to help address the issues raised in Blackfish. It is a lot more reasoned than SeaWorld’s response to Blackfish, but at the same time is an interesting insight into the arguments aquariums make about captive marine mammals. 

Vancouver Aquarium has had a long and checkered history, that has included trading in, and keeping captive, killer whales, dolphins and belugas. At the same time, it is a non-profit, and I think is qualitatively different (especially in its current version) than a for-profit entertainment corporation like SeaWorld. That doesn’t mean I think that Vancouver Aquarium should keep cetaceans, or has always acted sincerely or with the best interests of marine mammals in mind. I don’t (and I wish more aquariums would follow the more ethical model of the Monterey Aquarium). But I do think that Vancouver Aquarium is on more solid ground when it comes to trying to make the case for keeping cetaceans captive. So their arguments are worth noting.

That said, what I think is most interesting about Vancouver Aquarium’s response to Blackfish is that it doesn’t really try to make the case that marine mammals are suitable for captivity, and don’t suffer in captivity. Instead, it makes the tried and truthy argument that keeping marine mammals captive helps humans connect with them and care about how they are doing in the wild. In other words, there is a trade-off, and the ends justify the means. I disagree with that calculus, and think that the more people understand the reality of what killer whales and dolphins experience in captivity, the less they will be willing to buy that argument.

Here’s the memo:

Some of you may have seen the documentary “Blackfish” which has been playing in theatres across North America and aired on CNN several times last week. The film is a documentary that focuses on SeaWorld, their display of killer whales and the tragic death of one of their trainers in 2010. SeaWorld chose not to participate in the making of the documentary.

Blackfish attempts to “expose” SeaWorld’s supposed negligence in areas from employee safety to animal welfare largely through personal opinion and allegations made by a handful of former trainers depicted in the film. Some of the footage and testimony is disturbing and there are staff here that can tell you from first-hand experience that caring for killer whales is a demanding occupation, requiring concentration at all times and a comprehensive understanding of killer whale behaviour.

A member of the Senior Staff has spent a great deal of time working with the professional and dedicated team at SeaWorld and has also spent time at all their facilities and with many of their animals. He comments that their facilities are amazing, their animal care expertise is outstanding, the safety training that he has witnessed is first class and, without a doubt, their research has directly and  positively impacted the lives of thousands of marine mammals around the world.

SeaWorld, like all U.S. facilities caring for marine mammals, is licensed to do so by the U.S. federal government and regularly inspected. SeaWorld adheres to the strict standards of all federal and state laws, including the Animal Welfare Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, as well as the professional Standards and Guidelines of the international Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, which surpass government standards for the care of the animals.

Although the film is not about Vancouver Aquarium, it is important to share some of our messaging on killer whales so that you may respond to inquiries as needed.

What happened to the killer whales at Vancouver Aquarium?

Bjossa, the Vancouver Aquarium’s last killer whale, was transferred to SeaWorld in San Diego in April 2001 to provide her with the companionship of other killer whales. Sadly, Bjossa succumbed to a chronic lung infection that she had been battling for two years and passed away on October 8, 2001.

What is the Aquarium’s policy on capturing whales and dolphins?

On September 16, 1996, Vancouver Aquarium became the first aquarium in the world to make a commitment to no longer capture cetaceans from the wild for display and to only care for:

• Cetaceans that were captured before 1996

• Cetaceans that were already being kept in a zoo or aquarium before 1996

• Cetaceans that were born in a zoo or aquarium

• Cetaceans that were rescued from the wild and rehabilitated, but deemed un-releasable by the appropriate government authorities

Why have animals in aquariums?

Aquariums perform a vital role in educating people about aquatic conservation and contribute to critical research to conserve aquatic life. Seeing animals in aquariums has helped change public perception and increased support for conserving wild populations. There is no real substitute for connecting with our oceans and animals first-hand to generate a feeling of interest and engagement that leads to positive behavioral changes.

More information:

The Power Of Art: Who Is Shamu?

One of the themes of Blackfish is that orcas are highly intelligent, self-aware, social beings. In short, they are individuals.

However, SeaWorld’s marketing and presentation of killer whales–through its promotion of every whale as a single whale, Shamu–works to erase the idea that each killer whale in SeaWorld’s “collection” is a distinctive, unique, killer whale, with its own individual experience and history, and its own identity.

That doesn’t sit well with Lee Harrison and James Wolf, and they have created this powerful and moving graphic to drive home the fact that there is no Shamu, that instead there are multiple killer whales with multiple fates.

Here is how Harrison (you can see more of his work here) explains the project:

“This idea came to me when I recalled some of the orcas that have died and have been forgotten based on SeaWorld’s ‘sweeping it under the rug’ ways.

I wanted to create awareness by drawing attention to some of the more shocking and upsetting stories we know of in a simple way to get people more interested to discover more.

The simple and pleasing visuals seem to draw people in, while the stories shock them and they tend to ask more.”

And here is what he and Wolf (who in encyclopedic when it comes to SeaWorld’s killer whales and their histories) produced (click image for a version you can enlarge):



For more a more detailed presentation of this art, and the life histories of the killer whales featured, go to OrcaAware.

Chart Of The Day: Blackfish And SeaWorld’s Stock Price

Click image for full-size.

The little whales indicate the dates of the Blackfish premiere in movie theaters in July, and the CNN broadcast in late October.

The chart comes from this colorful analysis of how investors should think about SeaWorld, its stock price, and the potential impact of Blackfish on public opinion:

Do you $SEAS this opportunity or let it pass?  That question should lie with your ethics and whether or not you think it will affect paying customer’s ethics.  Like the headlines state, “Judgment Day has arrived for SeaWorld—well, at least in the court of public opinion.”  In a publicly held company that depends on customer opinion and customer dollars, this stock seems to be dead in the water for now.  Of all the growth factors and instruments in your portfolio, I think I’d leave this one out of your orca-stra.

Blackfish Fallout: Debunking A Slander

Real life and real art.

It’s a classic PR technique. When you don’t like the message, and the facts are not on your side, distract and confuse the debate by attacking the messengers.

Since I first started reporting on Tilikum, SeaWorld and orcas in captivity, there have been efforts to delegitimize the former SeaWorld trainers who had the courage to step forward and talk openly about the reality at SeaWorld. They were disgruntled, they were fired, they weren’t experienced and knowledgeable, they were simply seeking 15 minutes of fame. Every possible charge was leveled against them in response to their criticisms of SeaWorld’s practices, in the hopes that the public would not listen to what they were saying about the lives of killer whales in captivity, which is, after all, the core issue. Here is an early rebuttal to those attacks.

Now a new and even more explosive charge has been thrown into the debate swirling around Blackfish, the documentary which has brought the issue of killer whale captivity before a global audience: that one of the trainers in the film was fired from SeaWorld for intentionally abusing an animal.

As far as I can tell, the charge was first aired at the recent International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association (IMATA) conference in Las Vegas (at a session critiquing Blackfish). The below, for example, comes from one account of the IMATA conference (love the session on penguin media training):

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Abusing an animal is the worst charge that could be leveled against anyone who cares about animals, and since that casual and sly slander has been happily bounced around on social media without much scrutiny, how about we look at the, you know, facts.

The accusation involves Dean Gomersall, who worked at SeaWorld from 1987 to 1994. In 1994 Gomersall was working at the Sea Lion and Otter Stadium (after running the Whale and Dolphin stadium). One day he was doing a training session with two small-clawed river otters, called Trixie and Bubba. The session involved sending the two otters to a target, and then calling one to the exit gate (the other was supposed to remain on the target). No big deal, except Trixie was in heat. Gomersall could call Bubba to the gate without any problem, while Trixie remained in the enclosure, on the target. But if he called Trixie to the gate, Bubba would not stay on the target, and would not let her go. With the session going poorly, Gomersall took a break, and left to go work with some other animals. Before he did, he slid down the plastic slider on the exit gate, which was used to keep the otters from messing with any other otters on the other side of the gate.

Gomersall, back in the day.

Fifteen minutes later he returned, opened the gate, and saw blood all over the floor of the enclosure. As best Gomersall could figure, Bubba must have stuck his nose under the gate as Gomersall was dropping the slider down, and the slider cut Bubba’s nose (Gomersall hadn’t noticed anything because you can’t see through the slider). He immediately called for help and Bubba was treated. The next day, Gomersall was called in by management and told he was being fired for injuring an animal and waiting 15 minutes before telling anyone.

Gomersall says he was not surprised when management twisted the facts (accusing him of knowing the otter was injured and waiting before telling anyone; “Why would I do that?” Gomersall says) to create a firing offense. He knew he was already under scrutiny because had been complaining persistently about the misuse and living conditions of a Pacific Walrus called Garfield, a troubled (and potentially dangerous) animal who would cooperate with almost no one other than Gomersall, and as a result was treated harshly. In addition, Gomersall had refused a request to work at Shamu Stadium, because he had become uncomfortable with the idea of killer whale captivity and did not want to work with captive killer whales.

After being fired, Gomersall was escorted out of SeaWord’s Orlando park by Robin Friday, who had a long and successful career as a trainer and manager with SeaWorld. He knew something was off. “Dean you are getting really screwed here,” he said, according to Gomersall. “I don’t know what the hell happened. But if I ever go somewhere else I would hire you in a heartbeat.”

Gomersall was angry at the way in which SeaWorld had misconstrued what happened to drum up a firing charge. But when he looks back now he is glad that SeaWorld forced him to walk a different path. “It ended up being the greatest day in my life because it changed the way I think about everything,” he says. “Lots of trainers walk away on their own. I wish i had done that.”

Since SeaWorld Gomersall has gone on to work in marine mammal rescue in southern California. Does that sort of commitment to helping animals seem consistent with the charge of animal abuser?  

Blackfish On CNN

Last night, CNN Films aired Blackfish, and gave the issue of killer whales in captivity extraordinary exposure. (If you missed it, CNN will re-broadcast Blackfish this Sunday at 9 pm EST).

As part of the lead-up I appeared on Crossfire, with hosts Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. Across the table, taking the opposing view of killer whales in captivity, was Grey Stafford, Director of Conservation at the Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium.

You can watch part of the discussion here (it was a tough night for Stafford, I think; not even Newt Gingrich believes SeaWorld’s killer whale program is on the right track):

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During the CNN broadcast, CNN assembled a great team to tweet live during the broadcast. Sadly, due to some sort of technical glitch my prolific effort to add background details to the film somehow never made it onto the Live Blog. But it’s worth checking out anyhow! And I think they will do it again during the re-broadcast of Blackfish on Sunday.

Overall, I was amazed and impressed by how many people CNN managed to engage in the issues and in the film. Yet another humbling lesson for a writer in the power of the visual medium!

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