The Dolphin Trainer Who Loved Dolphins Too Much

Last year, I connected with a dolphin trainer called Ashley Guidry, from Gulf World in Florida. Over the more than 10 years she worked with Gulf World’s dolphins she had come to find her love of the animals irreconcilable with the business of using them for profit-making entertainment.

I have always been interested in how trainers’ attitudes change over time, as they learn all the subtleties of the marine park business, and also develop deep bonds with intelligent, captive beings. Many trainers say “I love my animals” as a way of suggesting that the animals are doing fine in captivity; that their “love” means that everything is fine (because it would prevent them from condoning or tolerating practices that harm the animals).

However, I have long thought that what many trainers mean when they say “I love the animals” is really “I love working with the animals” or “I love having a deep relationship with the animals.” In other words, that being a trainer is about themselves and their desires, and not really about the animals and the animals’ welfare.

But Ashley Guidry provided an example of what truly loving the animals means: by walking away from a business that treats them like commodities, and telling the story. That takes guts and self-sacrifice. And real courage.

The story I wrote about Guidry and how her thinking about the dolphin show business changed has now been published at Longreads.com. Here is the original introduction I wrote for the story (cut from the published story for brevity’s sake–even on the web you can’t go on forever!). I am posting it here because it sets up Guidry’s story in the way that I framed it in my own mind:

This a story about empathy, about it’s power to connect us to animals, but also to suddenly change the way we think about animals and our relationships with them. It’s also the story of a stubborn, sassy, blonde named Ashley Guidry, and how her love and compassion for a dolphin calf turned her life, her career, and her view of herself completely upside down. Because it was empathy–and her undeniable compulsion to try and consider the world from the point of view of a little guy named Chopper–that unexpectedly dumped her into a morass of introspection, self-doubt, and painful self-discovery. In the end, Chopper changed her life for the very simple reason that she couldn’t change his.

Read the full story of Ashley Guidry’s change of heart here.

Orca Breeding Update: Takara Pregnant

Folks in orca forums have been suspecting this for a while, but as Blackfish continues to roll out, I thought I would confirm that Takara is indeed pregnant.

Following the failure of her last pregnancy, she was AI’d again last summer, presumably again with sperm from Kshamenk. Takara is the dominant orca at SeaWorld Texas, and she tends to be on more of a hair trigger through the early hormonal surges of pregnancy. So for a while the Texas orca group had to be managed carefully to minimize the likelihood that Takara would rough up other whales. Interestingly, part of the strategy was to keep the whole group of orcas together in one pool whenever possible, on the theory that Takara’s mobility would be limited and that for Takara a confined space limits her inclination toward aggression during the early stages of pregnancy. Separating her was believed to make her more anxious to affirm her dominance when she got a chance.

Apparently, Kasatka, Takara’s mother, also has similar issues with hormones and aggression during early pregnancy. But while conscious of Kastaka’s propensity for increased aggression during the early stages of pregnancy, the California park did what it could to manage the aggression without reducing Kasatka’s space.

Not sure what is happening with Kayla, who last year was also on the AI list…

SeaWorld’s Takara No Longer Considered Pregnant

At the risk of over-exciting all my skeptics, who think I pull SeaWorld orca pregnancies out of my ass, I have been getting word that SeaWorld Texas’ Takara is not pregnant. Takara was one of a number of SeaWorld pregnancies that I wrote about last November. All seemed normal, and SeaWorld considered Takara to be pregnant, but in March her progesterone levels dropped below a level consistent with pregnancy. An investigatory sonogram did not reveal a fetus, but it was not clear whether she had lost the fetus (though she had not passed one) or simply had experienced a false pregnancy.

The failure of Takara’s pregnancy raised a question about the sperm of Kshamenk, the male from Argentina’s Mundo Marino, which had been used in Artificial Insemination (AI) procedures on both Takara and Kasatka. Kshamenk’s sperm is one way for SeaWorld’s captive breeding program to get beyond a preponderance of Tilikum genes, so it is important to the future of orca breeding at SeaWorld. But Kasatka’s pregnancy is progressing, with a fetus visible on sonograms, so Kshamenk’s sperm is at least viable.

So Takara will not be giving birth along with Kasatka and Kohana. However, she seems healthy despite the false or failed pregnancy, and SeaWorld plans to try and inseminate her again by mid-summer. Not sure whether they will use Kshamenk’s sperm again. But SeaWorld also has an AI and sperm collection arrangement with Marineland Antibes in France, which used sperm from SeaWorld California’s Ulises to impregnate their younger female, Wikie. That led to the birth of a calf called Moana last year. Marineland Antibes has two males, Valentin and Inouk, who are sexually mature and presumably could also be used as sperm donors for SeaWorld’s breeding program.

SeaWorld Florida also has plans to AI Kayla sometime soon (in March I mentioned she was next on the AI list), though apparently she does not cycle normally, so the timing is a bit tricky.

That’s all the orca pregnancy news I have for the moment. So let the skeptics have at it…

Kayla Next Up For Pregnancy?

Last November, I wrote about the pregnancies of SeaWorld orcas Kohana, Kasatka, and Takara (much to the skepticism of some readers). Not sure what my critics are thinking right now, but I can add some detail to my previous post by reporting that I am told that Takara is expected to deliver in December, with Kasatka following in January.

Also, at the risk of inflaming the skeptics again I’ve heard that Kayla is next on the breeding list, and the hope is that she can be impregnated by artificial insemination using a sperm donation from Mundo Marino’s Kshamenk–which reflects the fact that SeaWorld is doing what it can to diversify the limited captive gene pool.

If Kayla is successfully impregnated it will raise questions, given Kayla’s checkered breeding history. She was born at SeaWorld San Antonio to Kenau (sired by Orky) in November 1988. According to her profile, when she was 11 months old she was separated from Kenau, and when she was 2 years old was shipped off to SeaWorld Ohio, eventually returning to SeaWorld San Antonio in 1999.  The profile says that while Kayla has had behavioral issues, she was consistent with husbandry and in November 2001 was artificially inseminated. That AI, however, did not lead to a pregnancy.

From April-November 2003, blood samples showed high progesterone levels indicating a possible pregnancy. The profile notes that Kayla’s behavior changed over this period, and she showed aggressive tendencies toward trainers. However, as winter arrived her progesterone returned to normal levels, and her behavior improved.

Kayla finally became pregnant (for certain) in the summer of 2004 (in the early months of her pregnancy her behavior again became inconsistent, before stabilizing further into her pregnancy). Keet reportedly was the father, and she gave birth to a female calf, called Halyn, in October 2005. As her profile records, she immediately became aggressive with her calf, pushing Halyn against the glass, picking her up in her mouth and throwing her, “fluking” her out of the pool onto the slideout, and then pushing her back in and up against the glass. Trainers got Kayla through a gate to separate mother from calf, and then then removed Halyn from the stadium. Kayla allowed herself to be milked a few times a day for about six weeks. Sadly, Halyn died in June 2008, at 2 years and 8 months old.

Halyn being bottle-fed.

In November 2006 Kayla was transported to SeaWorld Florida. She was pregnant during the transfer (so within a year of giving birth to Halyn, again by Keet) according to the profile. But in April 2007 an ultrasound showed no fetal movement. Shortly after, she delivered a stillborn male calf.

If SeaWorld is successful with an AI of Kayla, it would be her first calf since Halyn. It would be interesting to know whether the training and animal care staff believe that an older, more mature, Kayla would handle a calf better than she handled Halyn, and if so, why. Or it could be that SeaWorld is more confident about its ability to hand-rear a calf, if necessary, based on the success (so far) of raising Adan at Loro Parque despite Kohana’s refusal to nurse and lack of involvement. We’ll have to see how it all plays out.

I last wrote about Kayla here, because she reportedly helped shut down the Believe show that took place before the Dine With Shamu show in which Tilikum killed Dawn Brancheau. Here she is, putting her stamp Kalina is, after Kayla worked her over during another show a few months later.

And speaking of Tilikum, there has been a lot of concern and chatter about the fact that he wasn’t well earlier this year. For what it is worth, I have been told that SeaWorld believes he is on the mend now, but that it was a close-run thing and he has lost a fair bit of weight.