Animal Care Angst

AC HortonNursing

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:

Dear ……,

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.

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.

More Animal Care Chronicles: Into The Dolphin Feeding Pools

Krissy Dodge feeding the dolphins at SeaWorld San Antonio.

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.