Sunday, October 13, 2013

Where The Trained Dolphins Go?

When you get into the marine mammal training field, there are some questions and myths you sort of already anticipate getting as a trainer.  These are questions/misconceptions that you had, and/or you encountered to some degree in your internship.   

Without delving too deeply into these topics (you know, I gotta keep material for other Middle Flipper posts!), here is a short list of things you expect the laymen to ask or think:

1) The job is really glamorous.  Like you totally play with animals all day, la la la la!

2) The dolphins/sea lions/seals swim in giant tunnels underneath the park from one habitat to the other

3) Algae is dirt

Algae.  In the ocean.  You call it "seaweed".  It therefore doesn't mean the ocean is dirty. Google it if you don't believe me. 

When you see a habitat like this, it's like looking at someone's lawn that's just been mowed.  It's just algae we don't allow to grow long and seaweed like.

4) Dolphins have the patience and ethical compass of Buddhist monks.  If the dolphins ever have a conspecific conflict, they resolve it the way all intelligent animals (such as humans) do, by discussing both sides of the issue calmly and respectfully until a mutual understanding is reached, at which time they enjoy a canon round of Kumbaya over some kind of underwater campfire.*
Once all of the dolphins' chakras are aligned, they are like, super peaceful.

But I have to say, as many ridiculously hilarious as well as totally mind-numbingly incorrect and infuriating things people have said or asked me, there is one thing that just simply baffles me.

The question I've gotten at every facility I've worked at:

Are the dolphins being trained to go to SeaWorld?


This puzzles me, because even though I had some really crazy, wrong notions of what this field is like when I was a kid, it never occurred to me that SeaWorld's dolphins were trained somewhere else.

SeaWorld can train their own animals just fine.

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten was that if I encounter an idea I simply do not understand, it's beneficial to put yourself in the other person's shoes to get another perspective.  That advice has never led me astray, so I'm going to try it here.  Publicly, on the internet.  You know, so you can benefit from it, too.

It's as though these guests think SeaWorld is like a professional athlete organization, like the NBA.  I suppose we could call it the NDAA, which of course stands for National Dolphin Athlete Association.  Perhaps the laymen believes that the NDAA selects dolphins in the following manner:

1) All dolphins must have at least four years of basic training

2) All dolphins must be in shows at a farm league facility, such as all of the places I've worked

3) The strongest, fastest, highest-jumping dolphins audition for SeaWorld talent scouts who visit each Farm League Facility

4) SeaWorld Talent Scouts select their desired candidates amidst heavy anticipation and competition between the Farm Leagues.  Not to mention, the dolphins are just beside themselves with stress in hopes that they will be selected to go to the NDAA West, Central, or East**.

This jump's good enough for any NDAA team!

The Farm Leagues spend their time training dolphins in hopes that their little facility will be recognized by the Talent Scouts and hopefully at least one dolphin will go Pro.  

Sound ridiculous?  Yes, I agree, but I get that question pretty regularly from people.  So why is it that we're asked that, really?

Is it because they see smaller facilities actively training more?  I doubt it.  SeaWorld has a killer series of shows from a training and showmanship standpoint.  But that doesn't mean they don't whip out the target pole.  They'll answer questions after the shows sometimes, too.  So they're not secretive about their training.  And they're good at their training, so they don't need to take animals trained from elsewhere.

Photo evidence of SeaWorld training their dolphins.

Is it that the behaviors the dolphins do at smaller facilities are less impressive than the ones at SeaWorld?  While we could argue this point, I'm 100% positive that all facilities have animals who can do some pretty amazing things.   You don't have to be at one particular place in order to have some really well-conditioned critters.  But what about the guests' perspective?  I'm not sure.  But I will say that most of the time I am asked if the dolphins are being trained to go to SeaWorld, it's after one of the dolphins did a really impressive behavior.  Here's an example:

Dolphin does impressive spin bow
Guest: WOW! That is AMAZING!
Me: They are amazing animals!
Guest: So what, is that one being trained for SeaWorld?
Me: Uh, no, she is staying right here.
Guest: Really? But that jump was so cool.  It's simply too cool for this place.  Give that dolphin a $100,000,000 5-year NDAA contract, is what I say!

My best guess for the reason behind this unusual perception is that the laymen relates to the SeaWorld brand.  It has lots of shows, it's popular, its parks have a lot of cool animals.  Everyone knows SeaWorld, even if they've never been there.  That's not necessarily the same situation for…well, almost any of the facilities I've worked at.  So that's gotta be it.

I'll take it as a compliment if people feel that SeaWorld is the Ultimate Mecca for Talented Dolphins and that the dolphins with whom I work have what it takes to be NDAA all-stars.   But I'll also gladly tell these imaginative folk that as trainers, our main reason for being at our place of employment is to give the best possible life to the animals in our care.  It's not about having dolphins that jump the highest, even if a show has some amazing dolphin aerialists.  It's about being able to answer the question, "Am I making these animals' quality of life the best it can be, every day?"  with a resounding YES.  Behind the scenes or out in front, each trainer at each facility cares deeply for their animals beyond just a show.  And that's exactly how it oughta' be!

* I know, I know.  That's ridiculous.  Underwater campfires fires are more likely than calm conflict-resolution in intelligent species.

** SeaWorld San Diego, SeaWorld San Antonio, or SeaWorld Orlando.  

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