Cetacean training appeals especially to young people, and in my experience, to young girls who seem to be drawn in by its romanticized exterior. I used to want to be a dolphin trainer. I would watch the Seaworld shows and become so enthralled by the glamorous images that they left in my mind. Hugging and kissing killer whales and dolphins, who could resist? Now I know better, and upon digging deeper into the job requirements, I am very thankful that my childhood “dream” will never come true.
The captivity industry’s “happy family” exterior leaves the audience clueless, and also confident that the animals are truly living fulfilling lives. Many walk away thinking that the trainers have the “best jobs in the world.” But behind the scenes is a different story. Let’s look at a few of the nastiest, down and dirty chores and risks, that are a part of the Seaworld trainer’s job:
1. The Hydration Hose.
In the wild, cetaceans recieve most of their hydration from the live food they eat. But in captivity, they don’t eat live food, they eat frozen food with very little hydration. In turn, the animals are given supplemental hydration. This comes in the form of ice, jello, and in many
cases, the hydration hose.
The procedure begins 5 hours after the animal’s last meal, to prevent vomitting. Trainers must conditon the animals to accept the insertion of a tube down their throats. Water is then funneled through the tube and directly into the stomach. You can view the procedure here.
2. Tooth Drilling
Cetaceans sometimes break and wear their teeth which exposes a hole in the tooth where the pulp is located. The exposed pulp can lead to infection. On very rare ocassions this happens in wild animals. But it most often occurs in captive whales who exhibit stereotypy and ritualistic behaviors linked to bad oral health. Behaviors like chewing on the steel gates, grinding their jaws, or picking paint off the bottom of pools. Paint picking was observed with Loro Parque orcas, but according to Seaworld’s own behavioral profiles Tuar has had issues with this:
“Tuar has exhibited extensive tooth rubbing…and has had his LL1-7 and RL1-7 drilled. Tuar has been seen on multiple ocassions picking at paint at the bottom of the pools.”
As you can tell this leads to cracked, chipped, and missing teeth. When the pulp is exposed, trainers must take a drill to the orcas teeth and remove the pulp in a modified pulpotomy. This is a painful procedure that is done without any form of pain relief or anesthesia.
The whales are conditioned to “accept” the noise, heat, vibration and obvious pain associated with drilling vertically through the tooth column and into the fleshy pulp below. Success is measured by blood spilling out of the hole, in which case it’s apparent the bore is complete. – Former SeaWorld trainer
You may have seen or heard of Seaworld promoting their great dental care by demonstrating tooth flushes to the public. This is something that is presented as though it is an orca’s version of teeth brushing. In truth, these flushes are done to remove any food that could enter into the holes left by these modified pulpotomies. Not only have orcas undergone tooth drillings, they also have their teeth filed down, or pulled, as in the case with Kalina who has had 4 teeth pulled out. You can learn more about this topic here.
3. Semen Collecting and Artificial Insemination
It’s no secret that Seaworld has a breeding program with dolphins, whales and many other
animals. This method came as a result of wild capture becoming illegal. The breeding program can bring up cheery images in the minds of Seaworld supporters: baby dolphins and rambunctious killer whales. But nobody seems to think of the dirty details.
Seaworld’s stud cetaceans are trained to present their genitials to trainers who then procede to masturbate them and capture the ejaculate. The animals are well rewarded for this
behavior and become prized sperm banks for the corporation. You can learn more about the male’s role in artificial insemination here.
On the female side of things, trainers will keep a close eye on the female’s hormone levels by collecting urine and conducting ultrasounds to determine when she ovulates. When the time comes, trainers put a tube into the vagina and insert a camera so that they can see what they’re doing. The semen gets put directly into the womb. Several of Seaworld’s female orcas have been insemiated multiple times but to no avail. Only a couple of orcas have been born via artificial insemination. You can learn more about female insemination here. Some people may say that this is no big deal, after all, livestock, farm animals, and pets undergo this procedure too. Okay, so you are comparing wild animals to farm animals and pets? Also keep in mind that these animals are manually masturbated by human beings. In terms of livestock and pets, the animals are given fake mounts, or even real mates to have sex with, while a human handler simply catches the ejaculate. This is not the case for captive cetaceans. In addition, AI has no purpose for cetaceans except to breed the next generation of performing animal. It is not as though they are doing something good like replenishing wild populations. AI has hardly been seen to be successful.
In 2010, Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by a killer whale. Some people hear of these incidents and think that it is totally outside of the orca’s friendly and easy-going nature. They may believe that it was a freak accident. In truth, trainers are put in harms way everytime they get close to a killer whale. In the spotlight, trainers baby talk the adorable killer whales and treat them like cuddly puppies. Captivity supporters often begin to feel a sense of comfort about their favorite whales…but what is not seen in the spotlight is certainly shocking.
Nearly every killer whale at Seaworld, has experienced at least one behavioral incident. These can range from the seemingly harmless like “mouthing” heads, legs, torsos, etc. to the outright terrifying, like dunking and holding trainers underwater, lunging at them, swimming over top of them, or dragging them into the pools. Even an adorable youngster like Tuar has chomped down on trainers arms and refused to let go. (This all according to Seaworld’s own whale profiles viewed here.)
The aggression doesn’t stop with trainers. A natural pod of animals consists of families with members born into their position in the group. Animals at Seaworlds and similar marine facilities are thrust into unnatural situations where they must create their own “pod.” In spite
of Seaworld’s pushing the image of the happy family, it appears that any attempt to integrate into a pod-like social structure by the whales, has all but failed. Cetaceans in captivity are continuously raked, chased, and bullied by each other. (You may click the link above to learn more about the whales relationships with each other.)
To top it all off a survey was conducted in 2004 which questioned marine mammal trainers, researchers, and caretakers. The survey found that 52% of the 482 people solicited had experienced traumatic injuries sustained by marine mammals. 36% of those were described as being “severe.” And 23% of respondants said that they had gotten skin rashes from working in close contact with these animals.
Not only are Seaworld trainers constantly put into harms way, there are issues in the area of wages, benefits and security that make the job far from worthwhile. (You can learn more about the exploitation of the trainers here.)
Many aspiring trainers select their favorite whales that they want to work with someday, but few know the actual backgrounds of the animals. Including their likes, and dislikes, and whether or not they have been involved in minor or major aggressive incidents (chances are, they have). When you look at the animal profiles, and view the facts, it is difficult to determine why people would choose this job in such a pointless industry. It is very clear that the animals aren’t the only ones that the corporation finds easy to prey on, the trainers are exploited too!