Animal Care KNOWS



Over the past few years, the more I heard about the Animal Care staff at SeaWorld, the more I wanted to be able to hear their stories. They seemed to be involved in everything: births, deaths, rescues, illnesses, transports. If anyone could add texture to what we know about the lives of the animals at marine parks it was Animal Care workers.

Over the past ten months I have been speaking with three SeaWorld Animal Care veterans, who worked at SeaWorld Florida and SeaWorld Texas (I also spoke with a fourth, but for reasons never explained, he/she just dropped off the radar after telling me some amazing stories; sadly I couldn’t use them). Their tenures spanned a period from the late 1980s through 2006, and they had plenty of interesting and revealing tales to tell.

You can read them all here.

One of the most surprising and intriguing new revelations was supplied by Jim Horton, the most experienced of the trio. He told me about the existence of a ring knife, a small blade which slips over a finger and can be used to cut open and eviscerate a stillborn calf that is stuck in the mother’s birth canal. It is a procedure with a noble aim–to save the life of the mother. But if you imagine the experience of the mother–suspended in a sling or otherwise immobilized as a person inserts a hand up inside her vagina, eviscerates her dead calf, and starts pulling its internal organs out–it is at the same time grotesque.

Horton sent me a picture of what the ring knife he was describing looked like:


SeaWorld’s Fred Jacobs confirmed the existence of this knife, and explained that the procedure in which it is used is called a “fetotomy.”

“Our veterinary medical care program is identical to that found in referral hospitals and veterinary medical teaching hospitals around the United States. We practice comprehensive medical and surgical care. That includes obstetrical care and, rarely, surgery to reduce fetal dystocia. The tools used for veterinary obstetrics are similar to those used in human medicine. The instrument you’re referring to is used in a procedure known as fetotomy.”

Horton told me he was pretty sure that a fetotomy was performed on the stuck, stillborn calf that killed Gudrun in 1996 (the calf was forcibly removed with the help of a winch, tearing Gudrun up, which led to her death days later). But he couldn’t 100% remember, in the chaos and stress of trying to save Gudrun’s life, actually seeing the calf being eviscerated.

Asked about Gudrun, SeaWorld’s Fred Jacobs would not confirm that the calf was eviscerated, but did note that instruments and procedures were used to try and help Gudrun pass the fetus:

“On rare occasions veterinarians have to help an animal pass a fetus. With very large animals like whales, elephants, rhinos, horses and cows, there are specifically designed veterinary obstetric instruments. The goal of any such procedure is to save the life of the mother and quickly ease any discomfort she would have as a result of the stillbirth. The tools used by SeaWorld are identical to those used by large animal veterinarians.”

Even more intriguing to me about the existence of this sort of knife was that it offers a potential explanation for something that has puzzled me for years: rumors and tips that the 2010 death of Gudrun’s daughter, Taima, also from a stuck stillborn, was especially bloody, and involved some sort of operation to try and remove the calf.

Some speculated that some form of modified Cesarean had been attempted. But that didn’t really make sense since it seems almost impossible that an orca mother could survive an intrusive operation so there would be little to gain.

However, an attempted fetotomy, especially if that is a procedure that SeaWorld uses to try and deal with fetal dystocia (as Jacobs acknowledges), could well explain what happened with Taima and her calf. We’ll have to wait for an eyewitness account, or a miraculous release of SeaWorld records, to know for sure. But it is an intriguing potential explanation to questions about Taima’s death have been a bit of a mystery.

TiliLeaks: Tilikum’s Traumatic Final Weeks At Sealand

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I’ve got a new post up at The Dodo, examining the set of documents from activist Russ Rector’s FOIA haul that relate to SeaWorld’s application to move Tilikum from Sealand to SeaWorld in January 1992 on an emergency basis. The documents (and some additional commentary I solicited from Steve Huxter, who managed SeaWorld’s killer whales at the time) add many troubling details to what we know about Tilikum’s sad experience at Sealand–most notably that before he was shipped to SeaWorld he was confined to Sealand’s tiny module for 17 days, with a noticeable impact on his health and mental attitude.

From the post, here is how Steve Huxter described what he observed:

In all his years at Sealand, I had never seen [Tilikum] so immobile in the module; he was listless at the surface all of the time. He floated for hours on the surface at the gate and facing the pool that held Haida, her calf, and Nootka. He seldom moved around and primarily only when he was offered food. For the first few days he ate well but his appetite seemed to fade and  there were times when we would give him food and he would simply let it slide out of his mouth and let it sink to the bottom of the module pool.

Read the full Dodo post here. I’ve embedded the full set of documents below, or you can read them here. They are worth reviewing because they contain lots of additional information about SeaWorld, Sealand and Tilikum.

For The Record: SeaWorld Pool Dimensions

Okay, this is only for people who are deep, deep in the weeds. Every once in a while I get an email asking me for the sizes of SeaWorld’s pools. And I have never really had rock-solid information on the dimensions. So, apart from the insights into SeaWorld’s thinking about Tilikum, Haida, and Nootka contained in Russ Rector’s FOIA’d documents, I was glad to see that SeaWorld’s 1991 application to import and display Tilikum, Haida, and Nootka from Sealand included…..very detailed pool dimensions. So I have posted them below (I have left SeaWorld Ohio out since that is now closed).

One thing that jumped out at me from this section of SeaWorld;’s application is just how few killer whales SeaWorld had in 1991 (12, including Ohio), compared to the 29 they keep today (23 at SeaWorld parks, and 6 at Loro Parque).

So, for the record, here are the sizes of SeaWorld’s pools in 1991:

SWF Pool Sizes 1

SWF Pool Sizes 2

SWC Pool Sizes 1SWC Pool Sizes 2

SWT Pool Sizes 1SWT Pool Sizes 2

The Tili Files: SeaWorld’s Permit Application For Tilikum Reveals Complacency

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After years of persistent FOIA appeals, dolphin advocate Russ Rector has managed the very worthwhile feat of getting NOAA to release more than 1000 pages of documents related to SeaWorld’s purchase of Tilikum, Haida, and Nootka from Sealand Of The Pacific. I am going through them and posting some of the details and insights that the documents contain.

My first post, about the back and forth SeaWorld and NOAA had over how SeaWorld planned to deal with the fact that the three killer whales it was purchasing from Sealand had killed a trainer, is up at The Dodo.

SeaWorld’s take on whether Tilikum, Haida and Nootka’s behavior was normal, and whether SeaWorld was set to handle the three whales in the aftermath of Keltie Byrne’s death, doesn’t look so great in light of what followed with Tilikum’s life at SeaWorld. NOAA, which gets credit for pressing SeaWorld on the question of how it might deal with killer whales that had killed, was clearly not that impressed by SeaWorld’s complacency. Nevertheless, they ended up granting the permit.

You can download the full set of permit-related documents here, and I’ve also embedded them below:

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.

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.

Perhaps A Shamu Pause To Install Some Fast-Rising Pool Floors?

SeaWorld has long been considering the use of fast-rising floors in its show pools to help alleviate safety concerns related to waterwork. Perhaps they are finally ready to proceed with the Florida installation:

“One Ocean,” SeaWorld Orlando‘s iconic killer-whale show, will be taking a break in early 2014.

The theme park will be doing routine maintenance on the main performing pool at Shamu Stadium, a SeaWorld official says. The work will begin in early January. “One Ocean” is currently on the park schedule posted on its website through Jan. 5.

The Dine With Shamu experience will also be suspended for the first part of next year.

During the closures, SeaWorld Orlando will offer “Shamu Up Close,” which will include above-water and underwater interactions and a look at training techniques.  It will be held in the Dine With Shamu space and accommodate hundreds of guests at a time, a spokeswoman says.

“One Ocean” and Dine With Shamu will return sometime in the spring, SeaWorld says.

Shutting down the cash-gushing Shamu show for a period of months is not “routine maintenance.” I have no knowledge that a fast-rising floor is on its way (previous on SeaWorld’s fast-rising floor here). But if I was a betting man….

[Also worth noting: this will be a very interesting experiment in how important the Shamu show is to SeaWorld’s gate revenue].

Tilikum To Iceland Rumor Explained

Sorry. Not that it’s a surprise, but Tili isn’t going anywhere.

When Icelandic media started reporting a few days ago that a permit request to return Tilikum to Icelandic waters had been filed with the Fisheries Ministry, it was a puzzler. There is just about zero chance that SeaWorld would ever release Tilikum (or any other killer whale). Yet, the Ministry Of Fisheries seemed to be confirming that at least someone had filed a permit request.

Icelandic media kept churning out stories, with at least one yielding an interesting anecdote about the young Tilikum in captivity. And I kept reading along, until I finally saw a name associated with the permit in this story (via tortured Google translation):

In the register of the Ministry stated that the application was received in August. Appointment of qualit inc., From Tracy ELPoured and copy center Sea World. Requested the Ministry to permit that Tilikum will be transferred to his home after decades stay as gripping performances. “It is not a position has been taken to the communication. But, here might be a new whale-tale coming up, “said an employee of the Ministry. “They want to get rid of him. But, this seems to be financially. “

So a new permit was filed in August. And seemed to come from a person called Tracy EL Poured, of Qualit Inc. The name Tracy Poured sounded very familiar and a quick search of my e-mail revealed she had been in contact with me in August (according to her e-mail signature she is CEO of Qualia Inc.), to express her support, and belief that the world is changing for the better. We also connected on LinkedIn (that’s her profile picture above), so she could share with me her own lengthy analysis of Tilikum and how his life had affected him.

I e-mailed Tracy yesterday to ask her about the Tilikum permit application, and she did not want to respond directly to the question of whether she had filed it (though she did make clear she did not in any way speak for SeaWorld). After some back and forth, here is what she said:

I appreciate your inquiry and desire for clear answers, Tim. I answer what is mine to answer. Some things are not mine to answer.

I pointed out the 1992 application* in response to your statement “SeaWorld would never release Tilikum”.

I’m involved in conversations with Iceland, SeaWorld, scientists and many more involved in the orca Tilikum situation.

The mention of the 1992 application refers to the inquiry SeaWorld made at the time it was trying to import Tilikum from Sealand to its Orlando park on an emergency basis. Part of that process was establishing that there was no good alternative to the import, so SeaWorld needed Iceland to say they didn’t want Tilikum back.

Separately, I learned that Tracy had been in touch with some of the former SeaWorld trainers about the possibility of participating in a rehab and release process for Tilikum.

So I think it is safe to conclude that Tracy filed the permit application, or at least played a role in it, in a well-meaning but quixotic hope that somehow she could help orchestrate Tilikum’s return to Icelandic waters. And the media took it from there.

“Damn, I was kinda hoping the rumors were true.”

Tilikum To Iceland (cont.)

Sigfus: "He caught me from behind!"
Sigfus: “He caught me from behind!”

The chatter about whether someone has filed for a permit to return Tilikum to Icelandic waters continues. I don’t for a minute believe that SeaWorld is in any way involved. And if any sort of permit request was in fact filed (I’m trying to confirm that) then I strongly suspect that someone is spoofing the Ministry Of Fisheries, or it has nothing to do with Tilikum.

More interesting to me is this report about all the rumors (sent to me by Elizabeth Batt). The details of Tilikum’s experience in captivity in Iceland during the many months before he was shipped to SeaLand of the Pacific have always been sparse. So this is worth noting, and adding to our understanding of this early chapter of Tilikum’s story:

Tilikum was captured by the Icelandic coast in 1983 and kept at the Aquarium in Hafnarfjörður to begin with.

There, Sigfús Halldórsson began the animal’s training. Sigfús is now a computer scientist and lives in England, but remembers Tilikum very well.

Tilikum was being prepped for transport to Canada when Sigfús started training him and was the smallest one of three killer whales kept at the aquarium.

Sigfús fed Tilikum on herring and had failed a few attempts to lure the animal into another pool. Eventually, it was decided upon to move Tilikum with an overhead crane.

“I foolishly jumped into the pool to remove the rail between the two pools and he must have been mad about being separated from the other two killer whales because he caught me from behind and pulled me underwater. He tore a big piece from the back of my wetsuit but I managed somehow to get out of the pool,” Sigfús told Ví

He added that apart from that incident, Tilikum was normally sweet-tempered. “He was my friend, I often put my arm into his mouth to scratch his tongue; he liked that. He was normally very sweet except for that one time he got angry.”

Those were the cowboy days. My guess is that, in retrospect, Sigfus must think he is pretty lucky guy to have emerged from the “one time he got angry” fully intact.

Keiko 2? Tilikum?

“Well, no one asked me, but who wouldn’t want to retire to Iceland?”

Some curious speculation in the Icelandic media about the possibility of another effort to rehab and release a killer whale in Icelandic waters:

American parties have applied for a license to the Ministry of Fisheries [for] dropping killer whales in the ocean around Iceland in the near future according to data from the ministry. [Whale expert] Gisli Víkingsson says that [during] the summer [he] has been invited to participate in the project but he declined it.

Killer believed to be the case called Tilikum and he has played in their arts sædýragörðum Sealand in British Columbia in Canada and Seaworld in Orlando, USA.

More here, if you can decode the English delivered by Google Translate.

It’s (almost) inconceivable to me that Tilikum will ever be taken back to Icelandic waters, and definitely inconceivable that he could ever be released. But someone, somewhere, clearly thinks someone, somewhere has applied for a permit with the Icelandic Fisheries Ministry to do….something. How’s that for a clear and detailed report? If you know more, please share.

(Hat tip to @ShamuWorld)

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