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.

UK’s Guardian Looks At The Future Of Marine Parks

Seems like everyone is trying to peer into SeaWorld’s future these days (and they should be!). But Will Coldwell of the Guardian does a really nice job of picking up all the trends in play right now:

While SeaWorld continues to dig its heels in – pointing out that tens of thousands of visitors are in its parks right now – others are responding more progressively. In 2012 the National Aquarium in Baltimore, a highly regarded institution synonymous with its dolphin show, cancelled its performances. Since then visitors have been able to sit and watch the dolphins as they are simply taken care of by staff. Now, the aquarium is considering retiring their eight bottlenose dolphins altogether and is in talks to create the first ocean-side dolphin sanctuary in the US. Its decision was based on regular polling of visitors; it learned that people no longer felt comfortable with the show.

“Our audience has evolved,” Aquarium CEO John Racanelli told Baltimore Magazine. “Baby boomers grew up on Flipper, but millennials grew up on Free Willy and The Cove. They are interested in these animals being treated more humanely.”

Others are following suit. This September, the Clearwater Aquarium in Florida announced it would also end animal shows, choosing to focus on rehabilitation and marine resources instead. When asked by the Guardian if SeaWorld would ever consider a similar move, the company said the terms “retire” and “sanctuary” are misplaced in the context of animal care. But added: “The short answer is no.”

I think it’s very telling that Baltimore’s National Aquarium based its evolutionary leap toward the future on polling its own visitors. Presumably SeaWorld is regularly polling its audience as well, and I wonder what those surveys are saying (maybe that info will turn up in one of the imminent shareholder lawsuits).

Read the whole thing. You’ll finish with a good understanding of all the forces in play right now.

Zoos Couldn’t Save The Passenger Pigeon

There are lots of interesting lessons (most of them cautionary) in the extinction of the passenger pigeon 100 years ago, and most of them are raised in Carl Zimmer’s excellent story about why it happened and what scientists are doing to try and bring the species back (did you know social media played a role in wiping the passenger pigeon out?).

But here’s a point that really caught my attention:

Soon this technology-driven slaughter was decimating the passenger pigeon. Its decline was so worrisome that Congress passed the Lacey Act, one of the first laws to protect wildlife in the United States. The Lacey Act would eventually help protect many species, but for the passenger pigeon it came too late.

In 1900, the year in which the act was made into law, naturalists spotted a single wild passenger pigeon in Ohio. They never saw another one in the wild again.

For the next 14 years, the species clung to existence in a few zoos. But the birds proved to be poor breeders in captivity. Martha, the last of her kind, was barren.

That history should be kept in mind the next time you hear a zoo or marine park justify captivity and their business model by saying they are helping preserve species that might be threatened or endangered in the wild. Some species will presumably be easier to breed in captivity than passenger pigeons. Some presumably less. That will affect how long a species can “cling” to existence. But the point is that zoos and captivity are not a way to save or preserve a species. That work has to take place in the wild.

And that is completely apart from the question of whether a species can be considered “preserved” or in “existence” if it only exists in a zoo. The difference between a wild passenger pigeon and “Martha” is like the difference between a facsimile and the real, dynamic, thing. Here is how Zimmer describes Martha’s life in the Cincinnati Zoo:

People coming to the zoo to see the last passenger pigeon were disappointed by the bird, which barely budged off its perch. As Joel Greenberg writes in his recent book A Feathered River Across the Sky, some threw sand into its cage to try to force it to walk around. But on that first day of September a century ago, Martha no longer had to put up with such humiliations.

It was a quiet end to a noisy species. As recently as the mid-1800s, deafening flocks of billions of passenger pigeons swarmed across the eastern half of the United States. But they proved no match for humans, whose rapidly advancing technology drove the birds to extinction in a matter of decades.

Martha (and the story of her species), it seems, is well worth remembering.

A New Era Of Wild Orca Captures

Photo: Tatiana Ivkovich (Far East Russia Orca Project/ Whale and Dolphin Conservation)

The Russian Far East has started a new beluga and orca gold rush. I’ve got an update, based on information from Erich Hoyt and his Far East Russia Orca Project, about the wave of captures up on Outside Online. Here’s a key point:

Hoyt says that these new wild captures are being conducted by a conglomerate of companies called White Sphere, which captures marine mammals, and builds and operates aquariums in Russia. One aquarium, the Sochinskiy Delfinariy has been identified as the owner of Narnia. Hoyt believes that two of the recently caught orcas, a 4-year-old female and an 8-year-old male, are being offered for sale abroad, perhaps to a Chinese facility, and that at least two of the remaining group of five (one is a mature female; the sex and ages of the others are not known) will be shipped to Moscow soon to be placed in an Oceanarium that is being built at the All-Russia Exhibition Centre. Hoyt worries that the mature female might be the mother of the two young orcas being offered for sale abroad, which means that the family group would be broken up.

According to Hoyt, two CITES permits have already been issued, presumably to transport the two young orcas to China. You can read the whole thing here.

All About Smooshi

A little over a year ago the Toronto Star started running a series of blistering exposes about Niagara Falls’ Marineland.

Here’s the story so far:

At the heart of these exposes is the relationship between former Marineland trainer Phil Demers and a walrus called Smooshi. For Demers, perhaps the single most difficult aspect of his departure from Marineland, and all that followed, has been his inability to take care of, or even see, Smooshi, who has eating and regurgitation problems along with other chronic health issues. Smooshi also had an incredible attachment to Demers, always seeking him out, or following him around Marineland.

While Demers was at Marineland he was able to try and tend to her needs. Since he has been gone from the park, and can’t set foot anywhere near Smooshi, all he can do is wonder, each and every day, how Smooshi is doing and whether she is even alive. The only way he can really get any answers is through occasional sightings of Smooshi that pop up on video.

A few weeks ago a video of the show at Marineland was posted to YouTube. In it, Smooshi makes an appearance. I asked Demers to analyze what he sees.

Here’s the video:

And here’s Demers’ analysis:

Smooshi and my relationship is a true anomaly that few people are capable of understanding. She is still waiting and always searching for me – it’s heartbreaking. 

There are few situations where we can possibly ever be re-united, but those are the situations I’m hoping for.

Here’s the vid breakdown – 

@ 2:52 Smooshi emerges from the barn. She is playing with fish or sucking the floor – the trainer doesn’t have her attention.

@ 2:55 Smooshi immediately looks around the stage (away from her primary trainer). Historically when I was training other trainers to work with Smooshi I would be elsewhere on the stage, but she would always find me (she has an amazingly keen sense of hearing and smell), so eventually I would have to hide away altogether). She is looking for me – always. 

@ 2:59 The trainer tries to get Smooshi’s attention by giving her a little tap on the shoulder area – it’s proves futile. The trainer waves (which is intended to get Smooshi to wave, but she doesn’t). Smooshi continues to ignore the trainer and look about the stage. 

From this moment till about 3:13, Smooshi can be seen surveying the stage for me while bobbing her head up and down. She is simultaneously regurgitating whatever fish she has brought from backstage. This beats the hell out of me – she is searching for me and regurgitating due to her anxiety.

The trainer continues to try to “work” her, but Smooshi is not interested. A few hand signals go ignored until finally she rolls over. This is done reluctantly as well, as her criteria for this behaviour is just horrible. The trainer is clearly frustrated and tries to play it off as laughable. There’s nothing funny about watching an animal pine for what she believes is her mother. 

Up until 3:50, the trainer continues to try to get Smooshi to perform – Smooshi continues to search, paying little to no attention to the trainer’s repeated requests. 

@ 3:52, Smooshi once again places her head on the stage to regurgitate. The trainer then opts to walk away from Smooshi to try to ger her attention. This is a subtle threat of punishment, as Smooshi knows that if she is left alone on stage (which makes her nervous as she’s a very social animal), she will also not be fed any more fish. The other trainers take this cue and leave stage. 

Smooshi continues to search for me. 

Finally at 4:10 Smooshi begins to perform a wave, then is cut off by the trainer asking for a “no” behaviour. The trainer insists on asking for multiple behaviours in the hopes that Smooshi will perform 1, which will hopefully get her attention back. The “no” works. 

Finally at 4:15 Smooshi performs a “wave”.

The trainer then asks Smooshi for another behaviour (which is ignored) prompting the trainer to once again threaten Smooshi with the “I’m leaving you and taking my bucket” threat. The camera then pans away. The trainer makes good with the threat, as she’s seen grabbing the bucket and walking away.

This video breaks my heart. Watching it makes me feel ill. All Smooshi ever thinks about is me – that’s the sad nature of our relationship. Always has been, always will be – until we meet again. 

I don’t wanna watch this video again.

It’s a great reminder that all the lawsuits, and all the hue and cry, is about the well-being of the animals in captivity at Marineland–thinking, feeling, unique, animals, one of which has a unique bond with a human being that hopes he can somehow win her a better life.

Demers and the other Marineland whistleblowers have gone through a lot this past year, too. And the only way they can somehow make it all worth it is if they endure, and then win, the legal assault they are under from Marineland (you can help them here). Because that could lead to change for the animals, and maybe a better life for Smooshi.

Awesome Commentary About Orca Training Dreams Abandoned

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.

Seeing Is Important: Taiji “Dawn To Death”

Via the ever-vigilant Elizabeth Batt comes this 28-minute video which captures the full tragedy of what is happening in Taiji’s killing cove.

Elizabeth has the backstory here. The video is as painful to watch as you might expect. But that’s why it is important that people see it.

What is happening there is almost beyond imagining, and certainly beyond understanding.