Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Only Awful Reality About The Marine Mammal Training Controversy

There's a blog floating around the internet some of you might have heard of: "6 Awful Realities Behind the Scenes at SeaWorld."   Or maybe you've seen some "documentary" about the topic.

Haven't read it? Take a peek

Let me first say that I do not, nor have I ever worked at any SeaWorld park or any of its affiliates.  I've spent my career working at smaller facilities, most of which are owned privately or are a non for profit business.  

So why am I addressing a blog about a facility I've never worked at? Well, there were a few reasons I initially wanted to dedicate this week's Middle Flipper to it.  But when it came down to it, my fundamental issue deals with a myth many anti-zoo people out there believe.  What is that myth?  Well, here it is:

Marine mammal trainers are "in it" for their ego.

I know which side I want to be on. (P.S. Who made this graphic? I want to know so I can credit them!)

I can't tell you how many people, ranging from close friends to complete strangers have, since the release of Blackfish, told me in some fashion that I am selfish. While on the surface I may love the animals and think I'm doing good in the world, the "real" reason I'm doing what I'm doing is because I'm so deluded by my selfishness to be a marine mammal trainer.  And furthermore, that selfish ego prevents me from seeing the "truth" about what I'm supporting or doing.  Sigh.

I've sat back and heard people's asinine assumptions about my and my colleagues' alleged egomaniacal reasons for wearing a whistle around our necks.  I've stayed quiet about it, because I figured everyone is entitled to their own opinion.  But after I read yet another ridiculous internet contribution to this idea that marine mammal trainers are essentially selfish people trapped in childish notions of self worth, I had to say something.

I could never cut it as a good marine mammal caregiver if I was in it for selfish reasons.

Who's the greatest? This guyyyyy

Luckily for me, the author of "6 Awful Realities Behind the Scenes at SeaWorld" beautifully portrays what happens to someone who tries to get into the field with selfish notions.  By selfish notions I mean the Look At Me, I'm A Dolphin Trainer! mentality.  You don't last very long in the animal care field if that's your primary motivation. 

First of all, this job requires a TON of grunt work.  This means you're cleaning habitats, getting good and intimate with poop.  As a marine mammal trainer, you're handling tens to hundreds of pounds of fish a day.  Raw fish.  And you're covered in fish slime, skin, scales, and guts for several hours.  You spend hours a day hunched over a sink looking at each individual fish, making sure it meets legal requirements for your animals, not because you don't want to get in trouble with APHIS, but because you want to make sure your animals get the best quality food as possible, because they are relying on you to be on your A-game with their food every single day without fail.

Capelin, the trainer's fragrance of choice

And then you spend an hour or two cleaning up after yourself, which means using a detergent and a disinfectant to sanitize every object that touched fish.  The entire fish kitchen, from floor to ceiling, is cleaned, scale-checked, disinfected, and scale-checked again.  The refrigerator is restocked, because you gotta do it all again tomorrow, with the same level of thoroughness, passion, and dedication.  Oh, are you too tired from your second job?  Did you only get three hours of sleep because you needed to afford your car payment?  Too bad, you can't let that affect how you sort fish at 6am.  Because the animals depend on you; suck it up.

So when I read the part about how being a trainer "ruins" your body, and that we use "harsh compounds" in fish kitchen, I laughed out loud.  What kind of chemicals does this person think humans use in restaurants?  How about a lot of Dawn soap?  How about a diluted bleach or vinegar spray to disinfect buckets, sinks, walls, floors, etc?  Does that seem like a harsh compound?  

Oh no, look at the otter whose life is being saved by a harsh cleaning compound!

Does cleaning all day take its toll on you?  Sure.  Some people's skin dries out (that's what detergent does, no matter how natural the compound is).  We don't use cleaning agents that are so harsh that they a) can't be used on food supplies and b) would hurt our skin or eyes because…why would we use them around the animals? 

Second, there are a lot of sacrifices when it comes to caring for these animals.  Aside from the actual physical labor it takes to keep habitats clean and food properly prepared, there is a massive time commitment.  If an animal falls ill, or is pregnant, or is just born, guess what?  Your weekend and vacation plans are out the window.  You want to be home for Christmas and Thanksgiving?  Too bad.  The animals still need to eat, they still need your full attention.  If I came in on Christmas day and decided that I just had to cut corners with cleaning, food prep, or enrichment because I wanted to be with my family who I never see, guess who pays the price? The animals.  And who exactly am I trying to care for in this job?  The animals.  Not my ego.  So I give up the family time, because that's what I signed up for.

Me at Christmas with some awesome penguins.  Did I miss being with my relatives? Yes.  But my other family lives here.

There are a lot of financial sacrifices, too.  Of the places I worked, I've only been in an corporate environment for a couple of years.  And guess what? Each job I've had paid me barely enough for me to afford electric and water bills, and rent.  Until I moved in with my boyfriend, I was living paycheck to paycheck.  Could I have gotten a job that paid better somewhere else?  Yes.  But I love the animals, and believe in what I help contribute to, so I stayed with it.   This is a common sacrifice with marine mammal trainers.  I've seen trainers driven into debt over things that my other friends with higher paying careers wouldn't bat an eyelash at.  The people who are in it to brag about being a dolphin trainer don't have the necessary drive to stick out the times of extreme financial stress. 

Third, you deal with guests/customers from all walks of life.  I've spent a lot of my career in an interactive or educational setting.  Even though right now I work at a facility where I do dolphin and sea lion shows, there is a heavy emphasis placed on interaction and education.   We get a lot of face time with our park guests, even just walking through the facility to start a session with another group of animals.  

Sometimes, it is the most refreshing thing in the entire world to talk to guests about the animals.  There are always people who care very much about the living world.  Even the people who show up and are clearly not in favor of zoos or aquariums, but have a deep love and passion for the animals, give us all a breath of fresh air when we see that we are not alone in trying to make a difference for the interface between humans and the rest of the natural world.  We also have interactions with people who maybe didn't care or know very much about animals, but who become inspired because they have someone to answer their questions, or give them a cool random biofact about one of the animals.  People light up when we tell them that yes, stingrays are trainable and have individual personalities.  They wow over the fact that alligators aren't mindless machines, that dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror, that a sea lion can create her own series of behaviors without batting an eye.  That is amazing.

If I help people see how incredible the animals as a species AND as individuals are, then I've earned my paycheck.

But then there are the really infuriating, trying interactions with people.  The people who tell trainers they think their dolphin show was awful, because there weren't enough jumps.  The people who can't understand why you have to cancel an interaction, because the animals are not participating.  "I paid for this," they scream.  "What kind of animal trainers are you?"

We deal with a lot of people who really don't care about animals.  So why do they show up to a zoo or aquarium?  Sometimes there is no answer! We ask ourselves the same question.  But other times they are there with children, grandchildren, or friends.  Sometimes, the animals can break through to those people, at which point they come to the trainers with questions. And sometimes, the relationship the guests see between the animals and the trainers is what breaks through.  It's NOT just us, the humans.  Our show hair, our wetsuits, our whistles, our narrator voice doesn't inspire people to care about animals.  But I'll tell you what does: 

1) Seeing that the animals are not just mindless creatures: the relationships the animals have with the trainers shows people who don't CARE that wait a second, maybe there is something going on inside that dolphin/sea lion/stingray's head

2) Seeing the animals up close and personal in a safe (and legal) manner

3) Having access to animal care professionals who can answer their questions!

So anyone who gets into this field solely to show off their waterwork skills and has no understanding or interest in the benefit of education will not last long in this job.  

Does that mean marine mammal trainers at show facilities don't care about education?  No way!  Show trainers do a great job with waterwork, but they will answer questions.  They will talk to the general public about what they do and why they do it.  They create a venue in which the animals can show off their incredible power.  And while I am more of a public presentation-type gal myself (just a personal preference, not a judgment call), I will be the first to say that many of the people who don't really care about animals in general will often be reached by the shows you'll see at show facilities. 

So, in reference to the Awful Reality #2 ("The Guests Are Drunken Lunatics"), that's what's going to scare the author away from a career in this field?  Did they think everyone who showed up at SeaWorld was going to understand animals the way they thought they did?  Or care about them the way they do?  No!  That's the problem, of course.  But a major part of the author's job as an animal care professional is to educate, and try to reach the people who seem unreachable. 

No comment.

Fourth, and I'll only touch briefly on this because I've addressed it in this blog (and will continue to in future posts): this job is extremely emotional.  You experience the highest highs and lowest lows.  You cannot be in this field for a long time and not experience the death of an animal, because many facilities have at least a few old residents.  Or, you work at a rehab facility where you see a lot of pain and death.  You can't get through that on any level if you are only in it to pat yourself on the back for playing with dolphins.  You. Can't.

Last, if you are really in this for the animals, then you are always looking for ways to improve the system.  What does this mean?  Well, it's different depending on what level you're at in the field.  As an intern or entry-level trainer, your job is to learn as much as possible about working with animals.  It's to cultivate a strong work ethic, to see as much as possible, and to talk to as many people as possible to give yourself a strong foundation.  Why?  Not so that you become the Best Trainer Ever (because uh, that doesn't exist).  But so every day you can become a better trainer, so you can improve the quality of life for each animal you care for, no matter how big their brain is. 

When you get a little more experience and clout, then you can start implementing changes you think are important.  Also, when you get experience, you can more easily move around in the field.  While it's very difficult to get your foot in the door, it's much easier to pick and choose your next job if you've gained enough experience and a good reputation at your first one.  

So what I'm getting at here, is at some point, you need to figure out what you are about ethically speaking.  Does the facility you work at share the same values of animal care as you do?  While I realize this is a sticky subject, we can agree that not all zoos and aquariums are created equally*.  And there are a lot of different opinions about animal care and training.  Some people prefer to work in a rehabilitation setting, because that aligns more closely to their moral compass.  Some people prefer interactive settings, others like corporate environments , while others like mom-and-pop shops.  

Everyone is different!

But it's up to YOU to first, LEARN your trade at your first job.  Then, after a year or so, you can decide if it's the right culture for you.   For those of you reading this who believe that dolphin trainers are just in it for the ego, can  you try to appreciate what it's like to develop relationships with animals and then leave them, because you want to stick to your values?  Do you think someone who just wants to run around in a wetsuit and brag at a bar that they play with magical sea creatures has the inner strength to make a change?

The author of 6 Awful Realties says that he/she volunteered in zoos for five years, then was an intern at SeaWorld.  An intern.  Really? How much credibility can we assume this person has as an intern?

While I can't comment on all facets of the blog (since I haven't worked at SeaWorld and didn't see what was described in some of the "realities"), I can tell you that when I was an intern, there was a lot I saw that I thought I understood, only to find out that I was completely wrong.  

In fact, as an intern there was a particular situation where I naively thought there was a problem with the way a rehabilitated dolphin was being dealt with, because I got caught up with a rumor mill among the volunteers.  When word got around to my boss at the time (who remains one of the most selfless, incredible animal caregivers and trainers I have ever known), she sat me down and rightfully reamed me for my stupidity.  She gave me a perspective I couldn't POSSIBLY have had as an intern.  My four months versus her almost ten years of experience at the time could not have the perspective needed to understand what was going on.  After she explained it all to me, I felt really dumb, because I realized how wrong I was: there was no actual problem.  Not only that, the worst part was had I continued blabbing my opinions about the matter I so poorly understood, it could've resulted in the animals paying the price.  THAT was totally what did it for me; to think that even though I had the best of intentions, my ignorance might have affected the life of an animal made me promise myself that I'd always ask questions and take time to learn the situation before I reacted.

Wow, that dude is flexible.

So again, an intern writing an article about what they perceived at SeaWorld makes me skeptical.  But more importantly, I wonder why that person never asked about the things that horrified them?  Were they afraid of getting fired?  If they were, I want to know about their priorities.

Here's one of my favorite quotes from the article:

"But I didn't care. Living that life was utterly intoxicating: People wanted to take pictures with me and asked for my autograph, and little kids acted like I was a superhero. I worked with the most incredible animals in the world." 

Read more:

Pairing the above quote with the fact that the author had to be around "gross" animals, that they had to clean all the time with "harsh compounds", that they had to "deal" with obnoxious guests appears to indicate that the author was really only in it for his or herself.  And if they had such a major issue with the way things were done, what did they do about it?  Again I ask, did they ask their supervisors what was going on to get another perspective, one that involved experience that they didn't have?  Can the author tell his/her readership how long the move for the sharks and rays had been planned?  Can the author perhaps share a photo of what actually happened at the park, instead of a stock image of a bloody cow-nosed stingray from an unknown source? 

If they asked all the questions and voiced your concerns, why didn't they leave and find a place that did things more the way they preferred?  Did they take all that negative energy and channel it into a way of inspiring people to work towards countless marine mammal conservation efforts?  No.  They just wrote a blog article to piss off a bunch of internet trolls.  Congratulations, author of 6 Awful Realities.  You've officially helped 0 animals.  But you've really given the ignorant, vocal minority something to get excited about while the rest of us try to actually do work.

I can speak for myself and many of my colleagues when I say that none of us look at ourselves like we are some kind of celebrity, or feel intoxicated by the attention we get from other people.  What is intoxicating is the feeling of an animal putting his/her trust in you, seeing a child light up when they see their favorite animal, hearing an adult learn something new about an animal that maybe now they'll care about.  

The other stuff is nice, but it isn't what drives us through the sacrifice, the hard work, and the challenges of working in this field.  The animals are truly what inspires us, what makes the sacrifices all worth it.  The idea that maybe just one person who entered our facility with no interest in animals could leave with the desire to help the environment is what gets a lot of us up in the morning.  

Am I proud of my profession? Yes.  I worked (and work) hard to do this.  But I'm prouder of the animals I know and love, and what they accomplish as individuals, in training scenarios, and the people they inspire everyday.  I am just their humble custodian, who is happy to be part of it all.

So what's the actual awful reality here?  Ignorance fueled by unbridled emotion, with a dash of internet sensationalism.  And while the humans fight over whose opinion is correct, the animals wait for us to finish.

* Now this is a blog worth reading:
Thanks for the Controversy: What Anti-Zoo People Have Taught Me


  1. Thank you, I will make sure that each and every one of my students reads this to hopefully address the balance that is so desperately needed. Great work.

  2. I did the same internship as this author less than a year after him (a gender assumption I make based on the idea of not wearing a swim suite under wetsuits. I never saw a female trainer or intern do that.) and your assessment of him is spot on in my opinion. Most of what he said as far as animal care was either bogus or specific to things that happened before I arrived. However your interpretation of his fish house experience was right, and exactly what I have experience at three different facilities now. The part that really got me was his annoyance with being told off for cussing at a guest for mistreating a bird. If you can't interact appropriately with the public this is not the career for you. After all, that kind of behavior toward a guest wouldn't fly at any zoological facility or in the hospitality industry as a whole.

    Thanks for writing this, expressing so many of my own views and giving me some new things to think about as I chart my career.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and for the insider info!

      I also think if you don't agree with how your workplace deals with unruly guests, you should go work at another place. Or try to educate people on why they shouldn't be jerks to animals. Not give it all up, then write a article.

  3. Fantastic article!! Beautifully states the reasons we do what we do. I can't imagine ANYONE doing this job for attention or their own ego, you hardly feel like a celebrity at the end of the day. But having a guest come up and tell you that they had no idea that stingrays were such beautiful animals and that they love them after an interaction makes all the grunt work and scales worthwhile.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment!! :) I agree with you about the ego being a very fast limiting reagent in an animal trainer's career.

  4. Cat, as usual, another well-written and thought provoking post. I've been reading your blog for about 5 months now and I love it. I work as an educator at a natural history museum/aquarium/nature center and while I only handle the animals for programs, your blogs help me appreciate some of my amazing animal care colleagues even more (who are also my friends, by default). :) Thank you for your perspective on this contentious issue, and more importantly thank you for presenting it in a mature, balanced and articulate way. Which is what I would have expected from you. Cheers.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comment!! It means a lot :)

  5. Well written! I have worked most of my career as an educator at various places. I was lucky enough to volunteer with dolphins at an aquarium...which I loved. I am one of those nut cases that actually likes scrubbing buckets! And I did it all for FREE. Simply for the joy of caring for the animals.

    1. Hey, I'll never call you a nut case for volunteering your time. That's what passion is about!

  6. The idea that SeaWorld is someone how bad for hiring good-looking people sounds like something an SJW on Tumblr would right. What, just because they look good somehow means they don't know anything? Really?

  7. I really want to learn more about marine life training. I am a sophomore in college at the University of Iowa(not an ideal location) but want to know more before I make a huge life choice.

  8. here is my email if you are willing to give me more info and help me out..