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.