Editor's note: Following the recent conversations surrounding SeaWorld and its animal care practices, we set out to get the opinions of people who have firsthand experience working at the park. This is one former trainer's story.
Let’s drop all assumptions and preconceived notions at the door. I am not here to persuade you to stand with SeaWorld or to turn you vehemently against it. I am here to share the experiences I had working as a trainer with the park for seven years. My only agenda is to speak the truth.
Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, I was a regular season pass holder at the local SeaWorld and I never grew tired of the many summer days I spent learning about the conservation and protection of animals at the park. When I think back to my childhood, I see a 5-year-old girl sitting in the stands of marine amusement shows, dreaming of one day becoming a whale trainer. It was the connection that the incredible whales seemed to share with their trainers that first drew me to the career.
As a young girl, I summoned the courage to go up to one of the trainers at Shamu Stadium and ask how to become a trainer myself. I followed the advice she gave me, and at the age of 22, in the midst of getting my master's degree, I received the phone call to come and interview for an animal trainer position at SeaWorld San Antonio. A month later, I got the job — my childhood dream became a reality.
When I first started working at the park, I was overwhelmed with excitement as senior trainers took me under their wing and taught me the “ways of SeaWorld.” They showed me how to clean everything, how to prepare food, how to care for the animals and build relationships with them. I was encouraged to see that each animal and trainer shared a unique bond, and the relationships portrayed in shows weren't just part of an act.
I quickly learned that much more goes into training these animals than I ever could have imagined. On a busy summer day, the other trainers and I only performed in shows for around two to three hours a day, but we spent another 12 to 16 hours interacting with the animals behind the scenes. We often passed more time with these remarkable animals than with our own families, and we spent countless weekends, nights, and holidays side by side with the dolphins, whales, and sea lions.
When SeaWorld’s first location opened its doors in 1964, the purpose and passion behind the park was to care for animals, aid in conservation, and educate people about a previously unknown world. Over years of long hours, SeaWorld and its staff have learned a great deal about how to care for their animals in the most enriching environment possible.
Today, trainers are able to effectively monitor the animals' health, weigh them, clean teeth, and perform sonograms on females to check on pregnancies, to name just a few things. Trainers are responsible for holding many different types of daily sessions with the whales and dolphins — ones in which they monitor their health, play with them, build relationships, and teach them skills.
A common criticism of SeaWorld is that its trainers “make” the animals perform in shows. But in reality, we didn't make the animals do anything. After all, it would be impossible to make a 9,000-pound creature do something it didn't want to do. Shows are simply another type of interaction between animal and trainer.
Whales and dolphins are incredible intelligent creatures, and once I got started at SeaWorld it was my job to figure out how to speak their language. I'll always remember my time working with Tuar — the first killer whale I had the opportunity to truly get to know. During my second year working at Shamu Stadium, I was training him on a behavior called a “belly breakspin,” a move that required him to slide out onstage and spin 360 degrees on his belly.
As I was training Tuar, I kept feeling like I was coming to a hiccup in the process. I knew that he had the understanding and ability to spin halfway around, but he wasn’t fully powering through it. My supervisor who was watching the session suggested that I step off the stage before asking him to complete the move. Sure enough, he spun in almost a full circle as soon as I did — that's when I realized he had just been concerned about hitting me with his tail before.
He was still learning body control, and he wasn't going to kick hard until he knew I was in a safe place. I took this as a powerful display of his intelligence — one that spoke to the bond we shared. The whales do not simply do “tricks.” They work in tandem with trainers to successfully interact as a solid team.
My fellow trainers and I came to work every day eager to spend time with such bright animals — the true ambassadors of the ocean. SeaWorld just celebrated the 50th anniversary of giving animals in need a second chance, and the park has performed 28,000 rescues. They've donated more than $13 million to the care and conservation of animals, which does not include the millions spent on rescuing them.
Let me be clear. I would not stand with a company that placed its own needs before the needs of animals. Following the negative portrayals of SeaWorld that have flooded the media lately, I stand strongly and firmly with SeaWorld. I continue to be encouraged by, believe in, and support what they are doing for animals in the wild as well as those in their care. I am honored to have been given the opportunity to spend seven years there, to have worked side by side with some of the most incredible people and animals in the world.
So to all the wide-eyed children who sit in the stands amazed by the relationships that the trainers and animals have … please know that these are real, and they shouldn't be underestimated.
Photo credit: iStock Photo