Mar 282010

On  February 24, 2010 in SeaWorld’s Shamu Stadium in Orlando, Florida, animal trainer Dawn Brancheau was pulled under the water by an orca. A few minutes later, Dawn was dead.  Subsequent discussion in the media and around the Net has focused on the keeping of orcas and the dangers of working with powerful predators.

Profoundly missing in this discussion is Dawn’s voice.

I cannot speak for Dawn, but I can share with you the professional animal trainers’ perspective. You see, we all understand a common truth, and when an event like this occurs, we talk late into the night trying to figure out how we can effectively share that truth with others – how we can explain why, as Roy Horn was slipping from consciousness in the jaws of Mantecore the tiger during a Las Vegas show, he was saying over and over, “Please don’t hurt the cat… .”

Animal training is not a job, not a hobby, not an interest.  It is an all-consuming passion.  Those of us who devote our lives to working with animals love what we do beyond reason.  We work 365 days a year, and when we are not working with animals, we are playing with them.  We forego vacations, families, nice clothes, tidy homes, and most social activities to spend our lives with animals. We spend countless hours talking about how to care for animals, we get up every few hours to bottle-feed baby creatures, we spend all our money on animal care, and we use most of the rooms in our homes for something animal related.  We are joyously consumed by our chosen path, and when an animal causes one of us injury or death we are sad, but hold no ill-will towards the animal. Let me explain.

We work with animals – not Disney characters, or humans wearing fur costumes – but real animals with real teeth and claws and immense power who behave according to their animal natures. We know that our chosen vocation is extremely safe based on the number of people harmed, but we  also recognize that it entails real risk.  We believe that life is an adventure we cannot authentically live solely by avoiding those things that might result in failure, injury, or death. Some people climb mountains, race cars, surf, pilot airplanes, luge, or share their lives with animals, and each of these journeys poses risks, although in truth people are far likelier to die in traffic accidents or childbirth than in any of these more dramatic undertakings.  Sitting at home on a couch may indeed be a safer choice, but living a rich and full life and owning our own choices and their consequences are worth a little risk.

When accidents occur, people often want to examine the details and motivations of an animal’s behavior to understand exactly what happened and why.  Careful investigation and analysis is a valuable process to allow us to improve our techniques and avoid needless future accidents, but in truth we can rarely know precisely why an animal behaved in a certain way.  In a very real sense, however, such speculative detail does not matter: whether the animals were attacking, trying to protect themselves, sexually aroused, responding in annoyance to excessive pressure or fear, or some other miscue, the stark truth is that any of these circumstances could have arisen with similar outcomes. Many animals are vastly more powerful than humans: given sufficient time, wherever humans and animals interact, injuries may occur.

People who argue against working with animals often assert that certain animals are “unpredictable,” a completely erroneous claim.  Each species, and each individual animal, is endowed with a well-established range of behaviors and rarely acts in conflict to these. Understanding and correctly predicting animal behavior is among the most basic challenges and responsibilities of any trainer.

Animals are often held accountable for their actions, a profoundly wrong conclusion: animals are not subject to “blame”: they always and simply act as animals, and people are responsible for minimizing situations in which harm might come to anyone.

Underlying the common reaction to traumatic animal incidents lurks a contemporary human expectation that the world should be “risk-free.” As human enterprise has relentlessly expanded, we have paved, denuded, and sanitized huge portions of the planet.  In virtually every populated environment, we have effectively eliminated any predator that might pursue us.  We fully expect handrails and padding and signs to protect us at all times. But nature cannot and should not be completely tamed. When we venture into the wilderness, or bring a piece of the wilderness into our world, we find that bears, wasps, mountains, skunks, waves, tigers, and orcas do not respect our notion of sovereignty and will behave as they have behaved since time immemorial.  Innate animal behavior is not amenable to human moralizing: it is neither good nor bad.  It is simply a truth that we must understand if we wish to interact with the natural world. Each day, millions of animals safely coexist with man.  Many visit schools, perform tricks, and lounge around.  For hundreds of shows, Roy’s tigers reliably came on stage and performed perfectly. Such numberless days of productive and enriching interaction cannot be forgotten as we scrutinize the day someone is injured.

Why is it that when people die in automobile accidents we do not seek to ban cars?   Or when people die on mountains we do not seek to outlaw mountain climbing; but whenever someone is injured by an animal there is such an outcry?  There are four reasons:

1.  Animal attacks are rare, which makes them dramatic and newsworthy.

2.  Few people actually work with animals or experience them firsthand: and it is much easier to blame, condemn, and legislate out of existence something you do not understand and that does not directly affect you.

3.  Over millions of years of evolution, hominids developed a powerful innate fear of being eaten.

4.  Human society is plagued by uninformed zealots always ready to twist any event to serve their purpose:

The loudest voices heard in the wake of traumatic animal incidents are those of Animal Rights advocates who aspire to outlaw all animal ownership and who seize any tragedy as an opportunity to chant their mindless rhetoric: “these animals ‘belong’ in the wild.  This death proves it…”   No.  By now every thoughtful reader should realize this is simply hogwash.  Nearly every species of animal can be superbly maintained in captivity where they are enabled to live rich lives that are longer and more comfortable than in the wild.  We can learn from such creatures and enjoy them and share them with millions of people – especially young people – who will grow to care about the natural world. These animals are not demeaned or mistreated and are not yearning for freedom. They have plenty of space, excellent nutrition and fabulous lives.  The only people who believe these animals have bad lives are people who have little experience with them and are forming their opinions based on uninformed sentimentality–people with genuine expertise quickly learn that these animals have excellent lives. The accidental death of a person who devoted herself to the well-being of captive orcas does not prove that orcas cannot be kept humanely, and the propagandists at PETA should be profoundly ashamed for using trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death to preach their own agenda, an agenda rejected and reviled by every thoughtful animal trainer.

As a professional working every day with powerful predators, I do not fear for my life; rather, I fear that should I be injured or killed by an animal, people who espouse “rights” but care nothing for actual animals will use such an event to harm the very animals I have spent my life cherishing.

We love these animals completely, even when their nature does not accommodate human society, and even when their actions harm us. They share their worlds with us, and in doing so bring immeasurable joy to our lives. We are afraid, not of them, but for them.  We want them to be preserved in the wild and in captivity by skilled and dedicated experts, and we want people to stop being enraged when they behave like animals.

All the lives of all the animal trainers ever lost working with animals is a number far smaller than the number of children who starved to death while you were reading this article.  Working with animals is safe and immeasurably beneficial for the humans and animals. If you really want to help someone, focus on providing food and healthcare to the millions of people who absolutely will perish without your help, and leave those of us who love animals to make our own well-informed decisions about how to balance our safety with our passions.

I am heading outside now to play with my beloved animal friends. I may make a mistake, and I may die. If so, please do not mourn the manner of my death.  Do not blame the animal. Do not imagine that I was an idiot, or naively unaware of what could happen, or thought myself invincible or protected by the animals’ love. It is the life and death I chose, and lived without regret. A lifetime full of joy, passion, and wonder shared with many magnificent animals whose lives were also full of joy. Whenever and however I die, I have been blessed to live my dream.

 March 28, 2010  Posted by at 8:18 pm

  75 Responses to “When Animal Trainers Die”

  1. Dawn’s voice may be absent, but her sister has spoken, and said that Dawn would never have wanted Tillikum to be harmed.

    It is indeed remarkable how strongly people react, when once in a blue moon it’s an animal that kills a human, instead of the other way round. The American Family Association, a religious group, wanted Tilly stoned to death. Of course in the Middle Ages in Europe, animals were actually tried in courts of law.

    • Miami Seaquarium is to Blame this whole “blackfish effect” at the epicenter is Lolita who needs to be with her family the L-25 sub pob in the San Juan Islands. I am confident Seaworld wasn’t expecting there boss to get killed. Msq has the highest death rate reported for marine mammals in Florida. Hugo the orca was among the dolphins who lived in the Manatee pool then killed himself when moved in the same tank with lolita.

  2. I like this condescending, “Every thoughtful person will agree with me, obviously.” I guess you haven’t noticed that many animal rights activists have worked on farms, even grown up on them.

    “The only people who believe these animals have bad lives are people who have little experience with them and are forming their opinions based on uninformed sentimentality–people with genuine expertise quickly learn that these animals have excellent lives.”

    Explain “The Cove,” then. The key activist in that film, who is opposed to dolphin training and captivity, trained the five dolphins who played Flipper and made dolphin training popular.

    • This is what she is saying.. you are not educated and miss informed on this matter and are forming an opinion from a person that did this 30 years ago.. Thing have changed tremendously since then. and are changing daily..

    • Watch “the investigation of the cove” on youtube (2 parts). The Cove isn’t accurate, and nor is Ric O’Barry’s view on cetacean captivity.

  3. I find it disgusting that you can condone the capture and confinement of animals such as whales and dolphins. These are animals whose natural environment simply can NOT be replicated in any acceptable fashion in captivity.

    While I do believe we learned things we would not have learned otherwise by working with sea creatures in this way, I don’t believe that the end justifies the means. The slaughter that goes on to capture these animals, and the torture – yes, torture – that is then forced on them.

    Do I blame Killikum for the death? Absolutely not – who could blame a bull whale for becoming frustrated after a lifetime of prison? The blame here belongs on the shoulders of the people responsible for capturing, purchasing, training, keeping and paying to watch these animals perform.

    Killikum should not be killed for causing a death. He should be euthanized out of compassion. He can never be released, he would not survive, and he has shown in the only way he knows how (more than once!) how he feels about his current life. He is miserable, and should be released in the only humane way possible.

    No, I am not a PeTA member, nor do I believe that all wild animals can not be kept properly. Most wild animals do adapt well to confinement, particularly those bred into that situation. However, you can not compare the captive requirements of animals like bears, big cats and even monkeys to that of a whale.

    Shame on you for condoning this practice.

    • Dear Kim,

      I do not condone or condemn the confinement of cetaceans. In all honesty, I have not spent enough time with these particular species to have an informed opinion as to whether or not they can be kept in a manner that meets their physiological and psychological needs. Have you? Several colleagues whom I respect greatly and who have devoted their lives to caring for captive cetaceans, have shared with me their belief that it absolutely can be done well, but since I do not have adequate firsthand knowledge I refrained from drawing any conclusion about the keeping of these animals per se, and if I implied otherwise in my blog post it was unintentional. An animal’s natural environment does not necessarily need to be replicated, so long as it needs are met. Furthermore, it is a misconception that these animals are being regularly captured from the wild–for many years now there have been extremely successful captive breeding programs, and at least in the United States, virtually every young dolphin in captivity was born in captivity. What I do condemn, based on my extensive experience, is the general notion that wild animals cannot be successfully and happily kept by humans. That any time someone is inured or killed it somehow demonstrates that “wild animals belong only in the wild.” That is the argument that was broadly articulated in the wake of Dawn’s death, and against which I spoke. As to the particular details of whether or not Tilikum or other captive whales have an acceptable quality of life, I cannot say.

      • Well considering that killer whales live in pods of up to 40 animals and swim 100 miles a day and dive unto 200 ft.I find it hard to believe their needs are being met in any way

    • Well said and I agree. There’s a lot of truth hidden under SeaWorld’s placid facade. They’re hiding one big dirty secret, they didn’t even reveal what they did to this whale after he killed the lady – they stuck him in a pool so small he could barely turn, in “order to punish him”. This is ridiculous. How can anyone side with the containment of highly intelligent, social, sentient beings. Whales are not dogs! There is no comparison. Stop treating them like a Golden Retriever. They’re smarter than us, and yet SeaWorld and other theatrical marine theme parks hand money under the counter for a pod to be divided in order to capture the baby whales and separate them from their family. I think it’s disgusting. It makes me want to vomit. It’s all about profit in the end and it makes me sick. I hope animal welfare groups outlaw using whales, big cats, elephants and other exotics as entertainment for profit – the act of disturbing the natural life of wild animals and those who capture and sell them into a life in captivity solely for these ludicrous circus performances.

      • Bob,
        It is unfortunate that you do not understand the training that goes on or the “why” in this case for Tilikum being placed in that particular pool. That is called a medical pool – it has a false bottom floor that can be raised up out of the water so the veterinarians can examine the whales up close to check for cuts, scrapes, lesions, etc. Whales are very social animals and will often rake each other with their teeth (and yes, they do this in the wild as well – you will see many pictures of wild cetaceans with these same scratches) as they do not have hands they explore their environment with their mouths (much like babies do). Tilikum was not moved into that pool as punishment, it was the only way to remove Dawn from the pool as Tilikum would not let her go. As another post stated, Tilikum is possessive of his enrichment items, and unfortunately that is exactly what some believe he considered Dawn to be. None of the trainers ever swam with Tilikum because of his size (believe me, I have been close up with this particular animal and his pectorial flippers alone are 6 feet long) and Dawn suddenly being in the water with him was not the norm for him. He simply was not conditioned to that type of interaction (which was exactly why none of the trainers ever entered the water with him – again, understanding the logical behavior of an animal who has only had a surface training relationship). Once they were able to move him to that pool and remove Dawn’s body Tilikum was lowered back into the water, but was kept in that pool until the vets could do an exam to ensure he was ok. You also need to remember – EVERYONE at the facility at that time was in shock and grieving, however there were still trainers in the front pools (there are about 8 total) taking care of the rest of the whales. Once Tilikum was checked out and cleared he was moved back to another pool, but he was never “punished”. You are correct that this is not like training a dog, far from it – unfortunately even after you stated that you still equated it as such. I’ve worked with various large (some exotic) animals my whole life. We RESPECT what they are capable of doing – and they may do it at any time. You don’t force a 200 animal or a 6,000 pound animal to do something it doesn’t want to do. I would suspect you would even have trouble getting your dog to do something it didn’t want to do. But animals are animals, not humans – there is a tremendous logic to their behavior, but you first have to study and understand why they do what they do – not “put yourself in ‘their’ shoes”. They are not human, so stop trying to make them think that way. They operate on pure instinct, so in spending time studying their behaviors we better understand why they do what they do.
        Now – as for your other comment about separating whales… don’t tell me, you saw it on some “show” (I can just take a guess which one)? Again, it is unfortunate you are so misinformed. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (please feel free to look this up, it is out there on the internet!) made it illegal to capture ANY marine mammal for display in a zoological park. So, since 1972 SeaWorld has not captured ANY animals. They have, however rescued and rehabilitated hundreds of animals who have been returned (including JJ the whale). To bad your “show” left that little piece of information out while they played the dramatic music and showed a bunch of “scary” pictures. At this point well over 90% of the marine animals in various marine parks are bred and born in captivity. The other 10% are those who were brought in the 1960’s-1971 – but not a bad life span. And yes, sometimes whales are moved from one location to another, but never young animals who are still nursing. I would recommend you spend a little time reading about killer whales and you will discover that their pods fluctuate as members mature and then go off on their own and join different pods, much like our offspring go out and create families of their own. As killer whales are run by the dominate female (not the male – their size means nothing), younger females are sometimes run out of pods if they unsuccessfully contest the dominate female’s leadership. Again, these are all things you can access through reading and research – but be aware when you do so that you should also question the motives of the author. Just as we teach our students, you need to use some critical thinking skills.
        As Marie Curie once said – “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” When we understand more, we work harder to protect it. If you really are as passionate as you say I encourage you to dig a little deeper, research from peer reviewed quality resources, and hopefully you will gain a little more understanding.

        • Thank you, Yvonne – finally, some intelligent dialog. We are all upset, and grieving over our losses – both animal and human, but we must retain our upper intelligence in the matter and stop acting like a bunch of petulant children who think they know everything about a fairly obscure subject. The trainers and scientists who have studied these animals for years aren’t truly sure why certain incidents have happened, then how can we, the average spectator, even begin to think we’re smarter? This isn’t some big conspiracy theory involving actors on a stage. The research I’ve done shows Yvonne to be absolutely correct – Tilikum was very possessive of both whales and what she called “enrichment” items. He was found parading around the body of an unstable man as well – much like a child would a favorite toy. I have also poured over the video of Ken Peters and Kasatka and I think she was definitely just making a point. I also get a “feeling” from the video, that she is possessive of him (Ken). There is an “incident analysis” of recorded Killer Whale attacks and when you look at the top 10 animals with the most “incidents” it’s clear to me that these were all the most dominant animals in their respective enclosures. There is much to learn about this – but also, Roland (?) the author makes the most valid point about those involved understanding what they do for a living isn’t taken lightly. I’m sure Roy Horn would tell you the same.

        • The MMPA did NOT make it illegal to capture marine mammals from the wild!

          • The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was enacted on October 21, 1972.

            All marine mammals are protected under the MMPA.

            The MMPA prohibits, with certain exceptions, the “take” of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas, and the importation of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the U.S.

            Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 based on the following findings and policies:

            -Some marine mammal species or stocks may be in danger of extinction or depletion as a result of human activities;

            -These species or stocks must not be permitted to fall below their optimum sustainable population level (“depleted”);
            Measures should be taken to replenish these species or stocks;

            -There is inadequate knowledge of the ecology and population dynamics; and

            -Marine mammals have proven to be resources of great international significance.

            The MMPA was amended substantially in 1994 to provide:

            Certain exceptions to the take prohibitions, including for small takes incidental to specified activities, when access by Alaska Natives to marine mammal subsistence resources can be preserved, and permits and authorizations for scientific research;

            -A program to authorize and control the taking of marine mammals incidental to commercial fishing operations;

            -Preparation of stock assessments for all marine mammal stocks in waters under U.S. jurisdiction; and

            -Studies of pinniped-fishery interactions.

            Funny – I don’t see sending them to marine parks anywhere in there. All of this information came directly from NOAA – who regulates all marine mammals currently in marine parks in the US and who also decides when or if rehabilitated animals can be released.
            It may be worth your time to read it directly from the source, it’s fairly easy to find on the web.


            • Sorry Yvonne but dolphins were captured from the wild well into the 80’s. Permits were issued based on local populations and they were for marine parks.

            • Sorry Yvonne but you are wrong. According to The Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, written by William F. Perrin as of 2009,the copy date of the book,it was still legal to acquire a permit to capture marine mammals,mainly bottlenose dolphin in the US for scientific research,public display and education but not many have been taken since 1989.

        • what do you have to say about the separation of the whales from their parents shortly after birth when in the wild, the pods stay together? Orcas are very social animals and need the interaction of each other as a pod….not just “here im sticking you with Sarah today because you guys do neat tricks that people like” They need to form a bond (not just parent-to-baby…but grandparents and brother/sister relationships too) and the mother and baby whales are obviously distressed for long periods of time after they are separated. I just don’t think its morally right to confine an animal in such a way that you cannot let it live its “normal life” in captivity. Pods of whales needs huge amounts of space that a concrete pool just cannot offer. It’s much easier to have a pride of lions in confinement when they take up a fraction of the space that just one whale does. I just don’t agree with keeping the orcas and other large marine life in captivity. It’s not right.

      • Bob, you are kidding me.. They did not punish Tiliy.. they had in that tank to keep him and others safe.. Like a quantine, to make sure all was well.. They may be smarter thatn you.. but not smarter thatn all Humans.. Sea World does more good in one week than I am sure you have done in your lifetime.. If they ever do outlaw have these animals and they go extict. ( which they will ) I hope you are happy.. when there still could have been some alive and well, but thanks to people like you, there will me now more on this wonderful planet..

    • Ha you can’t even spell him name right its tilikum you idiot

    • Duh – Talk about “uninformed”. You don’t even know the correct name of the orca.

  4. I was aware that this whale had a history of keeping other whales away from enrichment items. He also would not give up items reliably.Total speculation but I imagine once Dawn was in the water, panic ensued and people where desperatley trying to get Tillikum to give up the “item” which in this case was unfortunatley a person. The attempts may have caused him to hang even tighter and eventually dive down with her if indeed the behavior of giving items up was not solid and a challenging behavior for this individual. I was consulting at a zoo the day it happened. One of the trainers there used to work with Dawn and was devestated : (

    • I have also heard this, and witnessed it with bird feathers (or the remains of a bird) once. His behavior had, at the time, reminded me of that of a possessive herding dog – it’s mine, you can’t have it, and taking it back is either a game or a threat. This was just witnessing as a guest, of course, and I do not work exclusively with orcas but have with other cetaceans, so take it with a grain of salt.

  5. I’m hoping to read your thoughts about this topic after you see the movie Blackfish and/or read the Outside Magazine article that inspired it.

    • I have seen the movie many times. I am still a very firm believer that it is a one-sided, bias and propagana driven movie.. Also.. CNN stands to make Miliions off of the movie.. ( ” better yet millions off the death of Dawn. ).. ya that is truly a good movie..

  6. Animals like this should never be locked up in a concrete bath tub for decades. Is it any wonder they kill people, I would too. Places like Sea World lie through their teeth to protect themselves because they know through their own studies that the whales are, in every case, affected to a greater or lesser degree by mental illness.

    • Your comments are based on …. ???

      Years of scientific research? Actual work in the field? Emotional uninformed garbage?

      yeah, thought so.

      When you spend half your energy actually getting informed and DOING something about the welfare of ANYONE, animals/children/homeless/infirm/etc., then we might give you an ounce of credibility.

  7. Love this. As a person that has chosen to work with animals professionally for over 35 years, I find every word of this true. Thank u for saying this so well. It’s high time we fight back against those who know little or nothing and think they are experts after watching one propaganda-filled movie. We need both, clearly, animals in the wild and ambassadors in captivity. Thank u again for saying this so well.

  8. I know an animal trainer and although I am an animal activist, I am not concerned about the animals in the hands of skilled trainers but the rights of the dreadful practice of animal farming in cages which is occurring all over the world and I am ashamed to say it is rampant in Australia.

  9. Lots of what this writer says is valid. On the other hand, it’s a freaking whale — which presents insurmountable problems to “keeping” them, humanely. Further, this whale had KILLED before, with a suspected THIRD death. He should not have been a candidate for doing tricks with humans. Orcas ARE killers, and Tillikum seems to be a really special case in that department.

  10. Thanks for this. I couldn’t have said it better myself!

  11. For Kim – Very interesting that you would want the whale, or any other animal euthanized rather than living in a zoo. Who are you to make that decision? You condemn zookeepers like myself for “deciding” to display them in a zoo, yet you feel completely entitled to decide who lives or dies? Humans sentenced to death for terrible crimes ALWAYS fight for the lesser sentence of a life in prison. Let’s repeat that, humans would rather live in a prison being abused, raped and god knows what else, rather than die. Yet you feel you have the right to kill an animal rather than allow it to live in a zoo where its loved and cared for? It may not be cared for in a manner that you prefer, but it is loved and cared for nonetheless.
    Regarding Rick Oberry – He’s a lying alcoholic. He NEVER worked with dolphins. He had a job SCUBA diving to clean pools.

  12. Thank you so much for sharing things that so many animal keepers feel but have not put into words. I’m sorry you are having ignorant animal rights extremists tarnish your writing with their idiotic comments. Keep up the great work!

  13. Rolland.. This a very well written amd perfect.. I could not agree with you more..

  14. Thank you for your wonderful article. So good to read something so positive.

  15. I have been trying to explain this to people for years and you have put it very eloquently here. Thank you for finally explaining how people who CHOOSE to work with animals feel about the risks involved. We do this because we love to do this, not for fame or accolades, but for the love of the animals. If you can’t understand this, that’s okay, but don’t condemn us because of it. We may not approve of what you chose to do with your life either, but we respect your right to choose to do it. We only ask that you not make such a big deal out of every incident involving an animal as they are much fewer and farther between than almost any other type of human injury. Every occupation comes with its own risks, but no one bans every day occupations because of an occasional injury attached to it. So why is it such a big deal if someone is injured, or even killed, while working with an exotic animal? We know the risks, we gladly accept them, and we do not blame the animals when “incidents” occur. Leave it alone and let us enjoy our passion. If we die, we died doing what we loved. There is no fault here for us. Go find something that fulfills you and gives you joy and you won’t feel the need to be so involved in other peoples’ lives.

    • Beautifully said. If I choose to risk my life doing what I love (fully knowing this risk) that is my choice. Motorcycles are very dangerous ( mostly due to ignorant drivers). My husband is in a motorcycle club and rides his bike nearly everyday. We have lost numerous friends due to accidents, yet continue to ride. We fully know the dangers, but choose to live our lives doing what we love to do. I have been around exotic and wild animals my whole life and have surrounded myself with people with the same passion. I have never lost one of my animal friends or even heard of any serious injuries throughout my whole life. We lose on average one or two bikers a month. I feel safer being around my critters than hopping on a bike, or a boat, or a plane, or even a car.

  16. Thank you for saying what we as keepers know and feel. The ridiculous statement by Bob that Tilly was punished by being put in a smaller pool, obviously he was there and saw such cruelty….I bet he could call CNN and be in a Part 2 of the rubberish Blackfish movie and I bet Kim could be the star role wanting euthanasia as an option for humane sake. I have been a zookeeper for many years and my dedication and the sacrifices I have made are because of my passion and Dawn had so much passion for these animals I find this sickening how activists are using her death to pursue their agendas. I could easily die on my horse tomorrow as I knowingly ride without a helmet because I prefer it that way, but if I die I died doing something I loved. I in no way can provide my horse the same amount of room or opportunities a wild horse has….Does that make me cruel? I rescued a horse from the race industry and yes she nearly killed me because she was used to being abused or drugged and didn’t know how to deal with the sudden kindness I was offering. Where are the activists fighting the cruel treatment of a race horse (not a Kentucky Derby horse) but the average everyday race horse? They don’t take the time to work the horse simply twitch it to get what they need done and move to next one. She was a nervous wreck trying to figure out what I wanted when I simply wanted her to relax and walk in the round pen. She stomped me, kicked me in the back of my head, but none of this was her fault it was her way of dealing with the situation at hand and would within 30 seconds be by my side with her head on my shoulder. No one knows what Tilly was thinking when Dawn was in the water, was she enrichment that he played with? Was she a possession of his that he wasn’t going to let anyone take? I wasn’t there thank goodness, but he is treated as all the whales with the best of care, fed well, and loved by his trainers. These activists need to move to Africa/Asia/Madagascar put their efforts to preserving animals in the wild, much as SeaWorld donates millions of dollars to do yearly. Who was there when 4 mountain gorillas were killed cause a rebel group wanted to make a statement to the current reigning government? Who protected the Okapi Foundation this year as it was raided and the 14 okapi and a couple rangers that were slaughtered when they stayed behind to protect the facility and the okapi. Where are the activists and these people that are experts on orcas when a rhino or elephant are killed for senseless human greed?
    I would be there, but I have a family I am committed to at this moment so zoo keeping helps me share my passion and educate as I can to the people that really want to learn, but 11 years from now, yes you will probably find me in a remote country to educate the native people of the importance of such animals in their backyard, teach them to build a better stove that uses less wood, teach them to grow and plant trees, and help the kids have a future more than harvesting wood or animals illegally. Providing this human race has left a wild to go to.

  17. Your conflating sympathy for human trainers with sympathy for the non-human animals in captivity. That’s sneaky stuff. Having worked in the zoo & aquarium field for several years, I can certainly agree that there are super-talented people committed to the jobs that they do. There are also plenty of lazy jerks who do the bare minimum to stay on payroll — just like anywhere else.

    But a rather under-reported side to all of this is the sheer number of unnecessary animal injuries and deaths that occur while behind-the-scenes. From irresponsible and ignorant collecting techniques of animals in the wild to barely-rigged animal transport systems from beaches to highways to tanks/cages, to quarantine/parasite/injury/disease treatment in captivity to captive animal nutrition and the realities of non-natural food prep/feeding to enclosures and confinement to enrichment to animal encounter shows to live animal feedings to animal outreach programs to dealing with obvious signs of animal stress to animal husbandry to the exchange of animals from organization to organization — I could go on — you’re glossing over a LOT of key factors here and effectively revealing the single-most damaging thing about all zoos and aquaria: you’re making this about YOU.

    The arrogance and hubris essential to maintaining zoos and aquaria are rampant in this piece, well-intentioned though it may be. I’m sorry. I read it. I try to be open-minded as I still have plenty of friends working in the zoo world but I cannot agree.

  18. Nobody harmed Roy’s tiger, and nobody is hurting Tilly (well, not in the euthanasia sense of the word). Who is arguing that animal trainers don’t know the risks? That’s like saying stuntmen and athletes (bmx, nfl, ski, whatever) don’t know the risks. People are not advocating for outlawing animal training. They’re advocating for the quality of life of animals. People want Tilly freed, not destroyed. No, it’s not okay to keep these animals under these conditions so you can pursue your “dream or passion.” How selfish!

    • Took the words out of my mouth. I find it ridiculous that people can actually think that having a multi-ton animal, with one of the most complex social structures, confined to a comparatively small enclosure with orcas from multiple clans/pods is somehow better than being in the wild. Its so completely and utterly obvious to me. I understand the trainers and even SeaWorld have the best intentions and love for these animals, give their life to these animals, but they do not belong in captivity. Period.

  19. *you’re* sorry 🙂

  20. Fact: I’m an animal lover. I own domesticated pets – I eat meat – I’m fascinated (and always have been) by animals and species preservation. I’ve donated to the likes of the WWF, The Humane Societies, Sea World, Wildlife Animal Parks and National Zoo’s for practically my whole life. I have close friends that have WORKED in zoological and aquarium atmospheres- specifically Sea World, specifically trainers. I enjoy this post – because out of respect for those friends, rarely do I bring this topic up. (sort of like politics and religion) 😉

    Fact: With a heavy heart – I watched Blackfish. The Cove, etc. With logical reasoning, I understand and believe that neither were balanced and fully baked.

    Fact: I want to believe that associations, non-profits, animal welfare organizations and their staff are true to their word. Like this blog post, I believe that we share a common thread in caring, loving, PASSIONATELY for animals, their needs, their lives, their well being. I don’t believe the blame is entirely on one entity.

    Roland, with all of the above said…trying to lead with my heart with the support of my brain… I need help from you to help justify the need to make these animals perform.

    I believe whole heartedly in preserving their species – meeting their needs – giving them affection, play time, nourishment, etc. But performing? Are we being true to ourselves that we’re doing the species a service by training them and asking them to perform several times a day?

    I don’t know that we’re comparing apples to apples when we say that asking an Orca to wave to the crowd, push a performer by it’s feet and do a belly flop is the same as asking a domesticated animal (of generations and generations) to shake or roll over. Does this make sense?

    Perhaps I’m not understanding completely. But when I go to some of my most respected zoo’s, rarely do I see more a spectacle than “feeding time” which is apart of “meeting the animals needs”.

    Put capitalism and money-making aside— Are we “meeting the animals needs” by regularly and repetitively partaking in routines in exchange for reward? Or is it implied that this is irrelevant in the bigger picture?

    Just curious.

    • Charlotte, you ask some good questions and seem to have an open mind, so I hope to give you a bit of information on training and why/how we train animals.

      I like to say we train animals for three main reasons:
      1) Husbandry or health care behaviors
      2) Research behaviors
      3) Mentally stimulating, high energy/fun behaviors.

      All three serve important roles in meeting the needs of animals in human care.

      We can train for weights, morphometric measurements, blood draws, injections, urine collection, x-rays, ultrasound, body presents and pretty much anything else you have done at a doctor, we can ask the animals to calmly and co-operatively participate in for their own health care.

      We can train for research behaviors that directly help their wild counterparts. For example, energetic and nutritional studies can be carried out on a species and that information can be used to gain a better understanding of energy and food requirements of that species in the wild. Which can then be used to make informed fisheries management decisions.

      Lastly, training for mental stimulation is so important. Animals should be life long learners. They should problem solve, be engaged and think. That is the benefit of all those “silly” behaviors you see when animals “perform.” If you are working with an animal and only asking for husbandry or research behaviors, where is the relationship building and the fun for the animal? Higher energy behaviors like jumps and splashes also reinforce lower energy behaviors (Pre-Mack Principle). So those “silly” behaviors can also be used to reward a long blood draw for example.

      Will also mention that training in the marine mammal industry these days is carried out through positive reinforcement. If the animals make a mistake or refuse a behavior, no biggie, you simply move on and come back to it again. The animals always have a choice, and in my experience you will often have more refusals on those health care/research behaviors than on the fun little behavior you trained for mental stimulation or show.

      Hope that helps you out. I see the benefit of well trained animals daily. I actually believe all animals under human care should have a well rounded training program, and that that is what is helping to meet their needs under human care. Simply free-feeding your animals is not enough. Engage them, stimulate them, provide the best possible care for them, learn from them but also have fun with them because they need that too.

    • Charlotte,

      This is an excellent question you raise.

      Let me start by sharing an observation. I have been fortunate enough to work with thousands of animals representing hundreds of species. And I would say that in approximately 80% of those cases the animals demonstrably enjoyed what you call performing. In around 18% of cases there was no clear indication of how the animal felt, and in around 2% of cases the animals preferred not to perform. There are two important points in those numbers: first, that the vast majority of animals enjoy performing, and second that most trainers listen very closely to what the animals want.

      Most animals (humans included) have evolved with a fairly strong innate desire to strive, to accomplish, to use their brains and bodies. Sure, lying around doing nothing can be fun for a while, but a perfect day for most of us entails a little exercise, a few challenges, perhaps a few mental puzzles. Millions of years ago, animals with a tendency to overcome challenges were likelier to survive than lazy animals, so most species developed with a desire to “do.”

      When I go to train my animals, they are all eager and strive to get to me first in hopes that I will chose them. If I am heading to work, they will run and jump in the vehicle ahead of me. Even if I give them a bowl of food, almost every animal I work with will happily walk away from “free” food to come play a fun game. And that is the crux of the matter—we may call it performing or training, but from the animals perspective it is a form of play. If it is not, they simply do not participate, or perform very poorly. If you watch most animals “performing” it is pretty easy to tell if they are enjoying it—eyes are bright, movements are animated, posture is positive. This is not anthropomorphizing—anyone who has had a strong relationship with an animal knows that you can discern which things make them happy.

      If some of these play sessions take place in front of an audience that enjoys watching and comes to appreciate and love the animals, I see that as a win-win.

      Let me go back to the 2% of animals I mentioned that do not enjoy performing, and assure you that these animals are almost never coerced. Even if someone were a heartless jerk who did not care about the animal, it is simply not effective or efficient to try to force an animal to perform. The animal will look unhappy, likely never perform well, and may very well injure the trainer. While I am sure there have been a few cases, in the overwhelming majority of cases no sane person is going to keep pushing this when there are plenty of animals that love to play the game.

      As far as your point about zoos, that is probably a topic for another post, but the short answer is that most zoos see it as their duty to provide an extremely “natural” existence for their animals. Personally I do not share that ideal—while I think it is important to understand the natural life of an animal in order to create a good life, I personally aspire to give my animals the best possible life, incorporating many of the best aspects of a natural life but happily improving upon nature where possible. Neither hominids nor other animals in nature had heat, filtered water, medicine, pillows, or the leisure to play very often; but I enjoy all those things and share them with my animals!

  21. I guess my question is why are the people that are so against animal captivity not out there fighting more for the animals that are being killed in their natural habitate? Why are they fighting for animals that are fed and taken care of by people who love them more than they love themselves? I know I’m not very educated on either side and this has just become huge, but I am confused?

    • These animals are not being fed and taken care of in the slightest. They are starved if they do not perform correctly and are separated from their families. These whales are very family based in nature–they never separate from their family, in fact–and are forced to live in a cramped pool for their entire lives, which, by the way are MUCH shorter in captivity (50% or less). The entire ocean should be theirs to explore, but corporations like Sea World capture them and keep them in tiny tanks to be a slave to the audience. These animals are highly intelligent and emotional and it does not sit well with any compassionate human being to have them be kept in Sea World’s prison.

      I am against animal captivity and against hunters and fishermen killing animals as well, if that’s what you mean by “animals that are being killed in their natural habitate”. What makes you think these people aren’t also passionate about that? I’m an advocate for animal rights, and I believe that animals should not be tortured for the superficial pleasure of humans.

      I suggest you watch Blackfish if you want to view another side of this issue.

      • Megan,
        It sounds like you are just spewing junk from a junk propoganda movie based on highly edited YouTube videos and liars. None of the animals at SeaWorld, specifically, are starved. In fact, SeaWorld meets or exceeds the highest standards required for animal care. Their diets are so well regulated that they make sure they are at healthy weights. A person who is extremely obese would complain they are being starved when they start a diet to maintain their health. As for pod separation; SeaWorld doesn’t separate calves from mothers during the nursing ages. But males do leave the pod in the wild to reproduce. All of that information has been stated in other comments.

        Megan, I challenge you to do research and find credible sources for your information. The movie Blackfish has been proven to be nothing but falsehood. So it needs to stop being used as a source.

      • no.

    • yes.

  22. BRAD!! YOUR an idiot………what bothers me its that people who have all this love for animals and Risk their lives interacting with these wild creatures. Think that they are helping the survival of this creatures in the wild. By any means your not doing anything to protect them most zoos dont give a shit about the well being of this wild animals. Most zoos do charities to get credits so they can get wild animals from all around the world. And you think you are helping plz, people just make me sick.

  23. Thank you. I worked with Orcas for 5 1/2 years. As a former animal trainer I’m glad people are standing up for the professionals who care for orcas and all animals. Our world needs Zoos, Aquariums and Animal Parks for education, research, rehabilitation and conservation.

  24. This article was fantastic. This is the sort of thing I have been trying to explain to people for months now. People watch a show on television and all of a sudden they are experts on something I’ve been doing as a career for over ten years. I have no problem when people honestly want answers or are genuinely concerned, but when everyone starts yelling to “free the whales” it just gets frustrating. Those are the people who have no idea what it would mean to release a captive animal into the wild. SeaWorld has also gotten a lot of flak on the internet about how they are a for profit company, but of course no one mentions how that profit allows them to donate 9 million dollars towards conservation and to do research that would only otherwise be funded by government grants that are next to impossible to get outside of universities. I digress, it was a wonderfully written article, it’s much appreciated by those of us in the field who have that passion for our job that makes it more than a job. Thank you!

  25. I worked for Sea World for 12 years. I was not a trainer or animal care specialist. We took care of the water and worked closely with the trainers and keepers. I can honestly say that they are extremely dedicated people. They do eat, sleep, and breathe their chosen profession. Every precaution is taken to prevent injury to the animals as well as the people. If animal became I’ll, we all worked together to help it get better. If it became injured (which could be fatal in the wild), again everyone pulled together to help heal the animal. The whales, dolphins sea lions and other animals become part of your family, as much as a dog, cat or parakeet. Although having a 3000lb whale crawl up on your lap might not be as much fun.

    People talk about “making” them perform tricks. No one makes a killer whale do anything it doesn’t want todo. These animals are highly intelligent, for the animal kingdom. The behaviors that we see in the shows are all behaviors that they do in the wild. The only ” trick” is getting them to do it when asked. If the animalswere left to just swin around in the tanks they would get bored, just like any teenager without a video game. How does a trainer being pushed thru the water on the nose of a whale equate to something it would do in the wild? Have you seen the videos of whales in the wild playing with each other and their prey? Would a whale live longer and be happier in the wild? Who knows? Whales have only been being studied for the last 40-50yrs. Research done in these parks is essential to the survival of their species. If performing a few “tricks” is what it takes to raise money to keep the animals alive as well as to pay for all the animal rescues, I’m sure the whales don’t mind.

  26. Non-domesticated animals in captivity is a subject that I am not an expert on. I’m an avid backpacker, fisherman, hunter, and dog owner. I have several friends who are in the veterinary practice and wildlife photography, and relatives in conservation and zoo keeping. I listen to what they all have to say, and I’ve not heard nor seen compelling arguments or evidence to condemn or condone, wholesale, all animal handling and animal keeping. I’ve read plenty of evidence of poor practices, and seen some circus animals handled in ways I felt was at least questionable. I’ve also seen evidence of well cared for animals.

    But, I see a slight irony in the article. The author points out that animal handlers choose a dangerous profession because it enriches their lives. I do the same — some of the places I backpack and kayak are dangerous. I’ve found evidence that I’ve been hunted by a mountain lion. In the remote areas I adventure, a fall could mean a broken leg and death. But it is living life. The author also indicates that animals are just animals, that you can’t blame them. Here’s the irony — the article states, “These animals are not demeaned or mistreated and are not yearning for freedom. They have plenty of space, excellent nutrition and fabulous lives.” Most are born in captivity and don’t know what “freedom” is; they yearn for it as little as wild animals yearn for captivity and a life of luxury. I think that phrase and “demeaned” and “fabulous lives” are evaluations from a human perspective and are as much irrelevant as many PeTA arguments against confinement. (Mistreated is objective — it can be evaluated that animals are not treated with cruelty and are cared for in a healthy way — I do not disagree with that.) It is, however, unnatural. I’m not using that term as a condemnation by any means, but simply an objectively; wild animals don’t get vaccines or have such limited environments.

    While the educational and research value of animals in captivity in the past is unquestioned, and in some species the breeding programs such facilities maintain are of immeasurable value to give endangered species hope of survival, part of me wonders: what of the future? While it is neat to see animals close up, it is nowhere near as magnificent as seeing them in their natural habitat, which, as filming techniques and camera equipment continue to improve, is continually brought into our homes in high definition with greater quality and regularity.

    Myself, if I had the money, I’d forego SeaWorld not because of an ethical issue, but because I’d rather see a pod of orcas in the wild, behaving naturally, not doing what someone trained them to do. That’s just entertainment. Sure, entertainment that takes great skill, but still entertainment. And I highly doubt that there’s anything a SeaWorld show could educate me about which I couldn’t get from some reading and conversation with a wildlife expert. And if I was willing to put in the effort and money to go to SeaWorld, I’m sure I could spend that same effort to find an expert, preferably with PhD as a suffix to his or her name who could spare some time to share some of their knowledge. I guess I wonder if there’s a way to move forward with the practices of zoo keeping and animal handling that can keep up with the home-theater experience, and perhaps integrate more of the best qualities of actually seeing animals in the wild have to offer over zoos (whether it is seeing them in person, or on a screen).

    Well, article appreciated. It made me think.

  27. Very well written and so very, very true! I just wish all PETA and all the celebrities that have been so negative about SW and animals in captivity in General would stop and think for themselves instead of following whoever talks the loudest . If I were an animal, I would much rather be fed, protected and given medical attention when needed than be one of the millions of homeless and/or abused animals in the world. Their efforts and money would serve better to help those animals than to protest zoos and other facilities that provide the best possible care for the animals they house.

  28. I don’t agree with a lot of the authors viewpoints. Those whales aren’t “sharing” their world with you- they’ve been forced into your world. Your joy is a selfish joy. These animals should be free in the ocean. Please don’t act like you’re doing them a favor by feeding them and giving them a glorified bath tub. They are frustrated and bored that is why trainers get hurt or killed. They play your silly games and do your tricks because they have nothing else to do. Your joy comes at these animals expense. No matter how you feel or how much they play with you they are living a life that goes against their very DNA. You also stated they are being preserved. I preserve pickles and jams. To sit on a shelf and use at a later time. Sad. We agree on one thing… When a trainer gets hurt or killed toying around with one of these whales and getting joy from it… I won’t feel bad for you. I feel bad for these innocent animals. These whales are the victims, never the humans. They should not be in captivity to begin with. My heart breaks for them. No matter how pretty their cage is or how good their food is. I’m not an animal activist. I’m just a person that doesnt appreciate you glorifying what you do and trying to distract people from the real issue. If a person gets attacked or killed by a whale it should be in the ocean. Shame on anyone involved in animal cruelty no matter how it’s disguised.

  29. Holy Crap, this article was written over three years ago and there’s current comments on it!

    I’ll add my $.02. First my qualifiers: I’ve worked in the zoological field for over twenty years, and I’ve worked with animals in zoos, the wild, and in wildlife rehabilitation. Furthermore, there is hardly a zoo in North America where I don’t know at least one person, and I know a lot of people from Sea World, and Sea World Orlando. In other words, I think I can say a few things about animal care/training in Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) zoos.

    With that qualifier out of the way, I feel this article uses a lot of hearsay, and it fell flat with me on the second paragraph. I don’t recall any animal trainer I know saying that they stayed up until late hours of the night discussing things related to the death of animal trainers after this event. Most of the people I knew were saying things like “damned tragic, but the discussions I remember centered on how exactly did it happen.” Although, there was general respect for Roy Horn’s words after he was bitten on the neck by Montecore, on an overall level, Siegfried and Roy are usually mentioned with contempt among a significant percentage of people in North American zoos for their promotion of white tigers, just sayin’.

    I also had problems in the third paragraph: the discussion of this “all-consuming passion” of animal training the author mentions. Again, I’ve known more than a few animal trainers in my career, and have even had them as room mates. I only know one with that level of passion, and in my view, she was borderline psychotic, and over the next twenty years or so, I fully expect to hear about her in the news for animal hoarding. Most of the animal trainers I know have a few to several pets, whom are important parts of their lives, but for the most part, they don’t go overboard on things in that regard. These animal trainers, spend their off-work time going to the movies, watching TV, shopping, and doing all the things everyone else does. Their conversations reflect this, “that movie was great last night, our beach trip was fun, etc…” Yes, there is a lot of news on their animals, but for the most part, nothing over the top.

    I also have to comment on this:
    “These animals are not demeaned or mistreated and are not yearning for freedom. They have plenty of space, excellent nutrition and fabulous lives. The only people who believe these animals have bad lives are people who have little experience with them and are forming their opinions based on uninformed sentimentality–people with genuine expertise quickly learn that these animals have excellent lives.”

    My reply: Do you even lift?

    In case you don’t know that meme:

    The author paints an idyllic picture of animal care in zoos. No zoo is a utopia, and without hesitation, I say the following: Every zoo I have worked at, from the crappiest non-profit to well-funded operations, I have information on them that would be PR toxic. The reason I’ve never gone public with any of this is most of what I’ve seen was either beyond control of the zoo staff, such as tiny crap exhibits or holding areas that would cost huge sums of money to renovate, or animals dying from conditions related to ignorance of their behavior, physiology, etc…). For the most part (emphasis on the word “most”) zoos were aware of the problems and were at least trying to address them as best as they could. My two main problems with zoos were:
    Problem Number 1: A profound lack of animal knowledge by those involved in zoo animal care.
    Problem Number 2: A profound lack of awareness for Problem Number 1.

    Finally, there is blatant propaganda shown by the animal rights community regarding zoo animal care, but it’s a two way street, there is also blatant propaganda by zoos regarding their animal care. Take everything you hear with a grain of salt from these organizations.

  30. Thank you for writing this, you have spoken well for all of the trainers and handlers out there that share your passion.. I have worked with large cats for over 30 years. I have known many trainers who have been killed by they animals they loved. Yet, I have known thousands more , like me, who have no injuries doing what they love. I look forward to each day, living a dream, doing what I love. What a gift, I have said more than once to all my friends and anyone who would listen, if I die tomorrow do not mourn for me. Celebrate a great wonderful life filled to the brim with God’s blessings , God’s animals and endless days of a loved life.

    I have lived!!! Because I have loved!!!

  31. To the person who wrote this , I want to say thank you! I’ve been saying the same thing the whole time. I choose to work with animals and yes I am aware of what can happen. Any animal can be dangerous but I love my job and I love being with animals. Everyday I look back on my life with them and I am living a dream life.So please don’t change my way of living because you think it is unsafe. I choose this not you.To be truthful I would love to work for Sea World as a Trainer or a Veterinary any day.

  32. 1. No one really blames the trainers for much of the cruelty that happens to animals in captivity. They blame the folks implementing the business model — even in the nonprofit organizations. Many of the senior managers and VPs in the larger zoos and aquaria earn 6 figure salaries and work hard to make sure we buy our $3 sodas at the concession stands and $10 stuffed orcas from the gift shops. Make no mistake: these are businesses first and foremost. Anyone denying that is either painfully naive or just lying to you. Education comes second. Many times a distant second.

    2. The notion of collecting scientific data at places like Sea World so it can be used to inform how species behave in the wild is disingenuous. Most zoologists and biologists will tell you that data collected from animals in captivity is not relevant to wild animals. They don’t use it. (Side note: I currently work at a Research I university and collaborate regularly with leading conservation biologists and marine scientists.) The data collected at zoos and aquaria is for other zoos and aquaria. It is published predominantly in zoo/aquaria journals and is presented at conferences to help other zoos and aquaria keep animals alive longer in captivity. The organization that perhaps best tries to walk the line between real-world conservation research and running an aquarium is Monterey Bay in California.

    3. The concept of anthropomorphizing animals is a slippery slope for keepers and aquarists. I’m surprised Roland decided to say that 80% of the animals he has worked with have “enjoyed” performing. It’s a tough argument to get behind. Aside from the fact that it’s a made up statistic (meaning he’s estimating, not that he’s completely fabricating numbers), it’s also in contradiction to some his points in the original post about how we can never really know precisely why animals do things. (Note: I’m all for anthropomorphizing, despite what my senior aquarists tried to educate out of me. If you read When Elephants Weep, you’ll find the authors make a cogent case for it based on simply believing in evolution. Humans did not spring out of nowhere, nor did our emotions. It is reasonable to assume that other animals have highly evolved emotional systems, too.)

    4. Jean’s and Roland’s answers to Why We Train Animals to Perform are nice tries. But no. Just no. Tricks to help be able to draw blood better? Come on.

    5. Finally — and I want to remain civil as I respect the effort to communicate and really appreciate this post — but the responses that are: Why don’t you help starving children? or Why don’t you go do something about the animals in the wild? are, frankly, insulting. First, it’s not an either-or. Who says people can’t do both? Second, I believe that the time and energy spent on 21st Century animal menageries would be much better suited to direct efforts on conservation and education in the regions of the world where these animals are threatened. Not in downtown Orlando to help drive up tourism dollars. That’s why I really like Rob K’s response above.

    Thanks, all, for the time and consideration.

    • Just out of curiosity, how do you think you would get blood from an orca if they weren’t trained to let you do it? Those husbandry behaviors you denigrate are essential to being able to take care of these animals properly. Without training for husbandry behaviors (and those include blood draws, presenting various body parts for examination or ultrasound, giving urine or saliva sample, allowing grooming) most large animals would need to be anesthetized for any medical examination or treatment. Most of my experience as a vet is with big cats and hoofstock, but I can tell you that anesthetizing those animals is not fun and can be dangerous for everyone (animal and human) involved. Much better for everyone if the whale is trained to present his tail and let you draw blood, or the rhino is trained to urinate on command, or the gorilla to present her belly for a pregnancy ultrasound.

      • I agree that these training measures make our lives easier/safer to do what we want to these animals. I also agree — particularly after having been around a few deaths due to prolonged anesthetizing (one for a tooth cleaning for a small mammal) — that putting these animals under is dangerous and more of a guessing game than any of us would like. My answer is simple: I would not have orcas in captivity. After all, how much vet care to they receive in the wild? And yet, according to recently reported data, their lifespans are actually longer out there (see data from NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory).

  33. It has been many years since I took care of and trained elephants and all that us who worked there were in contact with them daily. There were different reasons we chose to work with them but one common one was our connection to them, love if it pleases. Did they love us, doubt it, did they choose to be at the zoo, no, but there we all were. Each attempting to satisfy our needs, albeit from different angles. Almost weekly we heard criticism from visitors feeling we should free these great beast but this was a futile discussion . What seemed to us and management was how best to reduce stress and boredom which often times lead to destructive behavior for man or beast.. The loss of this young trainer is a terrible thing,did she know the dangers? Probably, I will never know, but perhaps in the pursuit of a closer connection with her partner she forgot he was a whale.

  34. This is a well written post. I commend you for the thought you put into your words. I think the core issue though, is not whether people understand animal trainers. Even the (much debated) movie put no fault on trainers, and in fact, portrayed them as caring individuals. The core issue that should be discussed is do these large animals (whales, elephants etc) belong in captivity. I think anything– movie, blog, news article, etc, that makes us question and think about what we are doing is a good thing.
    Tillikum cannot be released into the wild.He would not survive and there has yet to be an adequate “halfway house” that works for this species. My opinion (and it’s just that, an opinion) is that neither should he continue to be used to produce more whales–SeaWorld has a genetic bottleneck on their hands. Their determination to produce more whales in the face of that speaks volumes.
    But to your post, no one doubts the trainers are dedicated, devoted people. While I believe as you do, that the job has risk inherent in it, we can make it safer. Protected contact makes the most sense, for the most people.
    Sorry this response is all over the place, not enough coffee yet. But I do applaud you for your very thoughtful post.

  35. Hi, thank you roland for sharing your opinion, but I have to respectfully disagree with you on some important points. Please note I am in no way a hippie or a supporter of PETA, just a person who believes all inhabitants of earth deserve the same amount of respect. I will use SeaWorld as a model for orcas in captivity in my statements below.

    1. “Animal training is not a job, not a hobby, not an interest. It is an all-consuming passion.”, I don’t doubt the love that animal trainers have for orcas in captivity, but ultimately this is not where the problem lies, it is with the park management. Though it is the animal trainers who take care of, interact with, and perform with the whales, it is the management who “owns” the whales and ultimately decides their fate/purpose. To a trainer the orca they work with is their friend but to management the orca is nothing more than an “asset”, a tool to be exploited for money. Granted I realize it would be unfair to paint all the suits in management with the same brush, but if they truly had to same level of compassion for these animals that trainers possess, why don’t they choose to focus more on their rehabilitation efforts rather than their amusement parks? After seeing the movie Blackfish it is easy to think of SeaWorld as an evil animal hating entity, but that is also an unfair assertion because of the good SeaWorld has done in the field of whale rescue and rehabilitation. According to a SeaWorld statement, their program has rescued over 23, 000 marine animals since its inception. This is no small feat in any way, and not to take away from that accomplishment but why does SeaWorld not focus on animal rescue over their theme parks? The motivator is money. The animal trainers love the animals but the suits up in corporate love cash.

    2. “Why is it that when people die in automobile accidents we do not seek to ban cars? Or when people die on mountains we do not seek to outlaw mountain climbing.” Cars and Mountains are both inanimate objects incapable of thought or emotion. a person driving a car is in no way “exploiting the car”, likewise, a mountaineer is not “exploiting the mountain”. When an accident happens in a NASCAR race, the idea of people protesting for “rights of the vehicles” would be downright absurd. It comes down to the fact that SeaWorld, and other similar marine entertainment parks are using living animals to generate revenue. A whale is not a car or a mountain, a whale is a living entity capable of thought and emotion, and as such should be treated with the utmost respect. When a tragedy occurs in which an animal trainer is harmed or killed, the outcry is to prevent the exploitation of these animals that may have lead to the incident. I have no problem with SeaWorld’s rescue efforts. I understand animals sometimes need to be held in captivity or “protective custody” for certain reasons such as medical or re population purposes, but using them in a circus show is the definition of exploitation. Although SeaWorld tries to assert that their whales perform natural behaviours during the shows, leaping out of the water to touch an object or supporting a “surfing” trainer on his/her back are not natural behaviours. These behaviours are taught to the whales through the incentive of food.

    3. ” Few people actually work with animals or experience them firsthand: and it is much easier to blame, condemn, and legislate out of existence something you do not understand and that does not directly affect you.” It is not the actions of the whale that is condemned it is the exploitation of these animals by park management. Sure most people don’t have first hand experience with whales, but many people do know how it feels to be exploited. For example, not many of us have experienced being a child labourer, and if you put moral considerations aside, a child labourer working in a distant land does not directly affect your life (key word here is directly), but does this make child labour any more right? No, we still condemn child labour and legislate it out of existence where possible, because though we have not experienced what they have gone through directly, we are all to familiar with the feeling of being exploited.
    4. “Nearly every species of animal can be superbly maintained in captivity where they are enabled to live rich lives that are longer and more comfortable than in the wild”. Current studies show that female whales in the wild live to about 50 and males to about 30, and some male whales have been observed to live to a maximum of 60-70 years and some females as long at 80-90. Few captive whales make it past the age of 35, with most male whales dying in their teens or 20s. The mortality rate of whales in captivity is 2.5% compared to those in the wild. You state that animals live rich lives in captivity, simply having your basic needs met does not mean the animal leads a rich life. Much like humans, whales need enrichment through interactions with their natural habitat. Think about how absurd your statement becomes when you put it in more relatable terms. If a person was put in a glass box, but given all the food and medical treatment they need, sure they will survive but that life is hardly enriching. Enrichment means much more than having your basic needs met, self actualization and a sense of belonging to a larger ecosystem than your immediate surroundings are key factors to an enriched life. Whales are by nature social animals, and even have a more developed part of the brain that handles emotions in humans. SeaWorld asserts the whales get all the social interaction they need in the artificial pod they have created, but we all know social interactions are not as easy as putting a few animals of the same species in one place. Pods artificially created by humans are not the same as whale pods in nature. Evidence of this can be found through comparisons of whale behaviour in captivity and those in nature, for example, certain behaviours such as calf rejection are rare amongst wild orca whales, but is observed more frequently in captive orcas because they are forced to give birth before they could learn the proper social behaviours that are needed to take care of a calf, leading to rejection or injury. Orcas in captivity also show more extensive rake scars and wounds than those in nature.

    5. “Each species, and each individual animal, is endowed with a well-established range of behaviours and rarely acts in conflict to these” Yes this may be case for animals with lesser mental faculties, but the mistake here would be to apply the same logic to more mentally endowed animals, such as whales. Studies have shown that whale intelligence can rival that of humans. Orcas have been known to exhibit unpredictable human like behaviours, such as mourning for the loss of their calf. Studies have shown that whales are capable of self awareness and individuality. Performing circus tricks for the enjoyment of humans is not in the range of natural behaviours for a whale. It is extremely arrogant of humans to think we can neatly categorize all animal behaviours, especially those of higher order animals.

    6. “leave those of us who love animals to make our own well-informed decisions about how to balance our safety with our passions.” If only it were that easy. In a perfect world the only people who should make decisions on behalf of the welfare of an animal are experts who have a passion and strong relationship with them, but this is not a perfect world. Do you truly believe that the Management at SeaWorld is concerned primarily on the health and well being of the animal they own and not the profits created from their parks?

    7. “We love these animals completely, even when their nature does not accommodate human society” This statement directly conflicts with your previous statement that all animals can live a rich life in captivity if we cannot accommodate their nature how can they live a rich life? Animals evolved based on their natural habitat and this is where they belong. Trying to fit whales into our society is like a toddler trying to fit a triangular block into a square hole, no matter how hard you try it just will not fit. Human’s natural sense of curiosity has led to some remarkable discoveries but where do we draw the line to separate morally acceptable ways to fulfil our curiosities?

    Respectfully Yours,


  36. I love this article. And I agree with it. People think that because they watch a documentary that they are experts about the subject. That’s not making an opinion on your own, it’s called being brainwashed. They use clips to control how you feel about a subject. Don’t let people tell you how to feel. Why don’t you go see it yourself? Do your own research. And if you really do love animals, then you should help those in need. Dogs are beaten, burned with cigarettes and left to die on the streets of Mexico. Maybe PETA could use all of the money that they waste on attacking SeaWorld and actually save lives in Mexico. Who do you think needs more help; a dog dying on the street, or a whale with a great diet, lots of love and a healthy life? It breaks my heart that the world is so messed up not to know the difference.

    • Feel the need to jump in here and correct you: I’m not a huge fan of PETA but they do A LOT to help suffering dogs and cats, including offering free spay and neuter services through mobile vet clinics, as well as respond to reports of mistreated pets across the Tidewater region of VA/NC (where their headquarters are located).

      • They also do a LOT to harm cats and dogs, including euthanizing 90% of the animals that enter their shelters, and routinely stealing (and killing) pets. Make no mistake, PETA is at its core anti-pet ownership, despite their efforts to fool the unsuspecting public with their less objectionable actions…

  37. You’re conflating sympathy for human trainers with sympathy for the non-human animals in captivity. That’s sneaky stuff. Having worked in the zoo & aquarium field for several years, I can certainly agree that there are super-talented people committed to the jobs that they do. There are also plenty of lazy jerks who do the bare minimum to stay on payroll — just like anywhere else.

    But a rather under-reported side to all of this is the sheer number of unnecessary animal injuries and deaths that occur while behind-the-scenes. From irresponsible and ignorant collecting techniques of animals in the wild to barely-rigged animal transport systems from beaches to highways to tanks/cages, to quarantine/parasite/injury/disease treatment in captivity to captive animal nutrition and the realities of non-natural food prep/feeding to enclosures and confinement to enrichment to animal encounter shows to live animal feedings to animal outreach programs to dealing with obvious signs of animal stress to animal husbandry to the exchange of animals from organization to organization — I could go on — you’re glossing over a LOT of key factors here and effectively revealing the single-most damaging thing about all zoos and aquaria: you’re making this about YOU.

    The arrogance and hubris essential to maintaining zoos and aquaria are rampant in this piece, well-intentioned though it may be. I’m sorry. I read it. I try to be open-minded as I still have plenty of friends working in the zoo world but I cannot agree.

  38. Your words were like music to my heart. I have tried for years to explain this to the public. You said it wonderfully. I can not say enough that it is not the right of any extremist group to misinform the public in attempt to save us from ourselves, while profiting and putting the existence of animals at risk. Why is it so difficult to understand that animals can bond and enjoy life with humans. I have seen amazing bonds between animals and man. An animal that is captive raised only knows captive life, and his life can still be full. They are loved and cared for by many humans who sacrifice and dedicate their lives. I find it very sad that Dawn’s passionate career has been turned to one of shame by extremists. I believe the only reason why we are not kept from jumping from planes, driving race cars, etc., is because there are no activist groups to profit from such sensationalism. One might suggest that Tillikum reacted due to distress or a response to unhappiness, however one could also as easily suggest that it simply got carried away while playing, and did not realize that Dawn would die. Who could ever truly know or suggest that Tilikum reacted with human emotion. I appreciate your courage to express yourself in such controversy. Thank you for your heartfelt testimony.

  39. I wonder what the equivalent size of a dog cage would be compared to that orcas cage. Most people would be appalled to keep a dog full-time in a tiny cage that it can barely turn around in. So why would we think it is okay to keep such an immense marine mammal in such a tiny enclosure? I have worked in zoo and aquarium conservation and education departments most my life. I also spent years as an animal behaviorist and trainer. I know the bond between humans and animals. I have felt the bond. It is undeniable. I am not an animal extremist. I am simply an educated animal trainer and conservationist that knows we owe these animals more than a tiny pool/enclosure to spend its long life in. Sea World has made millions upon millions of dollars at the orcas expense. They can afford to build a larger, more appropriate enclosure for its “cash cows.” The same goes for countless animals in other zoos and aquariums worldwide.

  40. This was a great write-up! Exactly what I keep trying to explain to people — you worded it so perfectly 🙂 … Seaworld & other zoos have done SO MUCH for wildlife & the environment that many aren’t even aware of…. I find anyone who works with animals so interesting (I just love to find out more!); thank you for the amazing work you do! 🙂

    for those stating “the ends do not justify the means” – thanks to Seaworld’s research on breeding, a wild orca pod on the brink of extinction has now almost fully recovered; on top of that, they have successfully rescued & rehabilitated over 28000 animals! They do this at their own cost & by choice; animal traners, carers, & vet staff have missed christmas with their families just because a sick animal arrived — please do not accuse them of not caring, because this is true dedication (and not just by Seaworld but all those in the profession as a whole — all reputable zoos & aquariums do amazing work)…… Also, it would not be realistically possible to release a captive-bred animal: I liken this to abandonment & causing unnecessary suffering… An orca (or other species) that is born in captivity views it’s world as “normal”, they know no different. From birth they have bonded with humans, have been fed daily, had the luxury of water which is clean & contains nobtoxins, get enrichment daily, have never had to learn how to avoid predators or toxic foods, had injuries & other ailments tended to instantly by a vet, and consequently never had to *suffer* struggles in the wild…… Now, don’t get me wrong, some individuals of some certain species have been successfully rehabilitated; but this does jot apply to all, and cetaceans are one of those more complex species (asside from that I still wonder how *humane* it is to do this to any captive-born species)….. The last captive orca they attempted to rehabilitate successfully passed all tests in his transitional pool — he caught fish, he learned to survive, got stronger, was at optimum health, he was also wild-born; and yet, when finally released into the wild, he starved, showed no interest in other orcas, tried seeking out homan company, got sick and died — anyone who argues that this animal did not suffer is very naive…… I do NOT work in this industry (although I do read A LOT of animal science & have studied it at degree level) — but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that he had been captive for too long & should never have been released……. It breaks my heart that his death was a direct result of pressure from the activists — DESPITE him already being tested & deemed unsuitable for release by professionals, the activist propaganda persuaded the public to push for his freedom, they emotionally blackmailed them with lies & twisted “facts” — not because those activists cared for that orca, but because they wanted donations & a win; that’s it!…. They still to this day proudly preach their success in freeing him, yet ironically fail to mention his subsequent death; a result of ignorance, arrogance, individuals who failed to read the science / truth, & activist lies / manipulations……….. And for the record, PETA has never funded any conservation projects, wildlife rescues, etc — they are also directly responsible for the deaths of over 35000 healthy animals (at least, the ones they documented), as well as been found guilty in a court of law of faking videos (they actually paid for animals to be tortured on film), falsifying information, & hiding evidence……. After finding all this out, I know who I trust! (route through the dark depths of google & you’ll find it; it takes effort bypassing all their propaganda though — they did well burrying this information by flooding google results; just keep looking is all I can say)…… Once again, not everyone who supports peta is a bad person; when I was misinformed & young, I also supported them… Once I began to question things, and researched, I soon left… I regret every penny they got from me.

  41. I both agree and disagree with your article. I’ve worked in a zoo with passionate keepers and trainers who only want the best for the animals they care for. As a biologist I am familiar with animal behavioural traits in captivity. But I think you’re over simplifying the issue. I would never question the dedication of keepers to their animals. And I am aware accidents like the one you describe can happen and are never the fault of the animal. My issue with zoos is that despite the care of the zookeepers, zoos are at the end of the day businesses who want new products and exhibits to get more people through the gates. The bigger zoos in th US are known to have bought wild caught animals when breeding programs haven’t supplied enough animals. While keepers try their best to provide optimum nutrition and enrichment activities, I have seen first hand the effect captivity has on wild caught animals including birds or prey and large carnivores. I truly believe some animals shouldn’t be kept in captivity, namely large cetaceans. Animals who naturally range hundreds of kilometres in large social groups should not be kept in pools. No amount of enrichment and toys can make up for the loss of the family structure these whales naturally live in. I know first hand keepers and trainers love their animals but I’ve seen how this love turns in to unintentional anthropomorphising of the animal. I support zoos in their goals of education and conservation but some animals should not be in captivity because what we perceive as meeting their needs will never truly be adequate.

  42. […] Fonte: When animal trainers die […]

Leave a Reply to Rick Piper Cancel reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>