Tag Archives: whale trainer

Does SeaWorld Discriminate? Have You Seen a Minority Whale Trainer?

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

While the world watches and waits to see what will happen to the hundreds of dolphins who face slaughter in Taiji, Martin Luther King’s words of compassion and personal responsibility remind us that society will never be just if we don’t make an effort to right wrongs when it is in our ability to do so.

Even as SeaWorld sits mute on the annual dolphin slaughter, they also remain mute on their failure to represent persons of color in their high-profile trainer line up. Until recently, when people learned how miserable the whales can be in confinement,  becoming a whale trainer seemed to be a glamorous job, one that every child had the right to dream about.

Unless your skin was dark.

How often have you seen a minority trainer among SeaWorld's elite?
How often have you seen a minority trainer among SeaWorld’s elite?

According to Death at SeaWorldthere was only one African-American trainer, although I can’t verify if he was among the elite whale trainers or whether he was involved with the comical seal shows. SeaWorld doesn’t disclose information on its hiring and recruitment programs.

Jeff’s friend and confidante Samantha Berg was not about to give up her job either. She
loved working at SeaWorld, though she did feel out of place with her dark curly hair and the
only Jewish surname in the department (there was one African-American; the rest were white
and decidedly gentile). Nearly all the other female trainers were tall, fair-haired and willowy.
gentile). Nearly all the other female trainers were tall, fair-haired and willowy – except for one
other dark-haired New Yorker, of Italian descent, who worked at Sea Lion and
Otter Stadium. When Sam was transferred to the stadium, the two became great friends. They
both thought it was pretty funny they had been hired at all,
Two months after Dawn died, the Department of Labor cited SeaWorld parks for
employment records that showed a “disparate impact” on African-American and Hispanic
applicants. As a result, the company was required to contact nearly 1,000 qualified applicants
578 who had been denied employment and either offer them a job or a portion of the modest
settlement mandated by the government.

What makes this a painful fact is that SeaWorld has not problem pandering to children as can be seen with the Mattel SeaWorld trainer dolls – yet the reality is that minority children will come to believe that there is no place for them as equals at SeaWorld. That is the pain of prejudice at work.

Reality.
Reality.

Fantasy.
Fantasy.

From an article I wrote in 2011:

When I was looking through the witness reports on [trainer] Dawn Brancheau’s death, I noticed that witness after witness is listed as white. Of the 41 witnesses that were employed at SeaWorld, 3 were black. It looks like two of those were employed in the restaurant, though it is hard to be sure, and none were listed as trainers. None identified themselves as Asian or Native American.
That is less than 7%. The black population of Orlando is 27% (reference). Because SeaWorld has proven itself to be excruciatingly indifferent and obtuse about their statistics, I didn’t even bother trying to contact them this time, but the pictures, and the evidence don’t lie.
It is time to diversify or to face dwindling attendance by people who don’t see themselves represented fairly, and if SeaWorld can’t recruit minorities willing to go in the water with dangerous animals, then it is just another clue that whole segments of our population don’t relate to those circus acts. Instead, SeaWorld could hire people of all races and physical ability to reconstruct livable habitat for the animals and to figure out a way to make money from keeping the whales in sea pens instead of tanks.

It is not just the animals who are hurt at SeaWorld, prejudice and racism leave scars on the lives of those who are made to feel not good enough by prejudice in all its forms.
As SeaWorld celebrates 50 years of being in business, they appear to be celebrating 50 years of business as usual, even though they need riot police to protect them from what most people feel are unfair and unkind policies, as was shown in the recent Rose Parade fiasco.
It is a new era, one that SeaWorld just can’t seem to adjust to quickly enough, which is a shame given all the good they could do with their resources.
Why was a blond child chosen as iconic of SeaWorld?

Killer Whales Perform Tricks by Watching Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb on Big Screen TV (not a joke, even though it is Sunday Funnies…)

What is amazing about this is that the trainer claims that this is a real event – the whales correctly interpreted the big screen to perform the tricks.
Smart animals!

Sunday, June 12, 2011
Kathie Lee and Hoda Train Killer Whales on ‘Today’ (VIDEO)
By a show of hands, who among you thinks it’s a good idea to get Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb together with some killer whales for a training session?
We can’t see you, but we’re guessing anyone with their hand up is not a “safety first” kind of person. Friday on ‘Today’ (weekdays, 7AM on NBC), Gifford and Kotb got to train killer whales, but they did it remotely by TV.
With their images hovering above a whale tank and a little help from an actual whale trainer, Gifford and Kotb got four killer whales to do a few tricks. They spun in a circle and got them to splash and turn.
Gifford got a little distracted looking at an image of herself on the screen. “Gee, I need to lose some weight,” she said.
The big finale was a touchdown signal that sent the whales swimming in formation before they lept up out of the water together. It’s good to know that just like us, whales will do anything they see on TV.

Former SeaWorld Trainers Launch Interactive Website

Carol Ray

Jeff Ventre

There often comes a time when we have to make the tough choice between staying and going; when we realize that our dreams have taken a sudden shift, or when life circumstances change out from underneath us – we find ourselves giving up careers to stay home with the kids, passing up job promotions, downsizing our homes, going back to school, or leaving unhealthy relationships.
It was no different for each of these four former SeaWorld trainers. Each one reached a point where they could no longer justify being part of an industry that cloaked mistreatment of animals behind the guise of entertainment. Each one chose to leave.
Samantha Berg

John Jett

They went on to establish themselves in new careers, yet none could shake the feeling that  something needed to be done to help the whales they left behind. And one by one, they began to speak out.
And to speak for the whales.
Now they have launched Voice of the Orcas,  a thoughtful website that presents videos, taped interviews, photos, testimonials, research papers and more. Their website shines a laser on what happens to whales in captivity below the surface of the glitzy shows.

The captive orcas now have a voice, and it is a compelling one.

SeaWorld’s Training Methods; Why Trainer Injuries Are Inevitable

Imagine yourself in a walled enclosure, alone, frightened and confused.  You don’t really understand how you got there, and never in your life have you been away from your family.  There is nothing to do, just the featureless walls of the pool, and no way out.  Eventually some strange being throws you a big mac, fries and a coke because that is what they think you eat.  They stare at you, their mouths move and make weird sounds which have no meaning, and everyday is the same at first.  Then they come with the big mac, but won’t give it to you.  You wait.  You get frustrated, you run around, and finally you try to jump up and get the food, when a whistle sounds and the being throws the big mac down to you.
After a time or two you figure out that you have to jump, the whistle blows and your dinner comes…except then the beings only give you a bite, and you have to work harder to get the rest.  Then you have to do a jump, run to the left, another jump, run to the right to get your bite of food.
Eventually you learn to stick your arm out so they can take your blood, then you have to let these beings ride you around.
But you are smart, it gives you something to do for at least part of the day, and for the most part the beings don’t hurt you.  But neither do they understand your needs or your moods, and not all the beings do things the way you are used to and it is confusing.
In essence, that is the process that whales and dolphins go through when they are trained. There is a whole science behind the method, and in order to be a good trainer you must have a skill set that is completely irrelevant to whether or not you are able to swim, dive, and perform in the water shows.

Courtesy InsideFlorida.com

What is very important to understand is this: the ‘trainers’ you see swimming with the whales and pirouetting around the pool perimeter only need to be able to comprehend the basic principles of training; they are performers and athletes, as are the whales.  Both the whales and humans are trained to work together to amuse the public and to make money for SeaWorld, but  there is no guarantee that either has the ability to interpret the nuances of behavior required to keep the humans safe.
To complicate the situation, when animals are trained it is inevitable that all kinds of behavioral patterns are acquired that were not intended, for instance one whale might think he is supposed to make sounds while doing the trick, while another one doesn’t.  If a trainer doesn’t notice or care, what you really have is two different tricks.
On the other hand, one whale might decide that the precise angle of a trainer’s arm is important, and if another trainer doesn’t do it exactly the same, or if any trainer changes day to day, it can confuse the whale.  Enough of that, and the animal can become frustrated and refuse to perform.  And a frustrated animal is a dangerous animal, no matter how kind they are.
An example that is more familiar to most of us is that of horses – many elite riders know nothing about daily horse care, and have no clue how to train horses.  They are gifted, trained athletes – yet they can get into serious trouble if their horse is in pain, frightened or out of control.  Even the most famous horse trainers, such as John Lyons, will not get on a horse that is signalling that the horse is not in a good mental state.  It is just too dangerous, and one of the first things horse owners are taught these days is how to “read” the horse’s body language, and when to walk away or risk a wreck.
But when it comes to whales, “reading” their body language is tricky, and next to impossible if you are in the water with the commotion of the shows.  So trainers rely on other trainers and ‘spotters’ to let them know how things are progressing, but even that is a judgement call and the trainers are under enormous pressure to complete their performances.
There is too much that can go wrong, too much that each trainer doesn’t know about previous events that might set a whale off – for instance, maybe a trainer accidentally slipped and covered a whale’s blowhole when they surfaced in an earlier show…this may be enough to make the whale resist doing that trick in the next show, and get ticked off if he is forced.

Alex Martinez was killed by another of SeaWorld's Whales two months before Dawn Brancheau.

The whales also get upset if they feel they have performed correctly and are not rewarded, so if they tilt a bit in practice with no trainer aboard and it gets rewarded, but that same tilt causes the trainer to fall off later and the whale is not rewarded, this is confusing and frustrating to the whale.  Many people believe that this what caused a killer whale belonging to SeaWorld but living in Loro Parque, Spain, to turn on his trainer and kill him just two months before Dawn Brancheau was killed at SeaWorld, Orlando.
(See Blood in the Water).
It is very easy for trainers to fall into the trap of believing that because they love the whales, the whales love them back.  Maybe so, maybe some whales, maybe some whales for some people, or maybe not at all.  Killer whales are benign in the wild, but unpredictable in captivity, and their attempts to communicate or discipline trainers can be deadly, no matter what feelings we have for them, or they for us.
As long as these whales are kept in unnatural situations without stable companions of their own species, people are going to get hurt, whether by accident or on purpose.

Want to be a Whale Trainer? What Your Life is Worth, Part Two.

In part one of this series we looked at the salary a whale trainer makes at SeaWorld:  after five years someone starting after February 1st, 2011 can expect to make $18 to $21 per hour  (it is slightly higher for trainers hired previously because they get a hazardous job bonus of $5.00 per hour, but SeaWorld changed its mind and is no longer offering the bonus – probably because it is a tacit admittance that the work is dangerous). The job is demanding and dangerous, and the trainers have no union to back them up.  Powerless to negotiate appropriate salaries, the trainers put themselves at risk anywhere from once to as many as six times a day, in essence getting paid just $26.00 each time they enter the water.

Humans rely upon the kind nature of killer whales to endure their lives in captivity, but it is a dangerous practice.

Not only is this job hazardous, but when the trainers are not in the water, SeaWorld keeps them busy with all sorts of menial tasks, as one former trainer shares:

Early shift starts at 5am or 7am depending on what was needed usually one person in at 5am to break the night watch person and another at 7am to help with buckets  – making up fish buckets, stuffing vitamins and medicines in fish and scrubbing fish room and cleaning up and setting up for first show, feeding animals their medicated fish – maybe a short training session before the first show.

Mid-morning shift starts around 9-10 – does the first show, then training sessions throughout the day – those of us not directly working with animals would be on cleaning duty, practicing show lines on stage (AV people could give you a tape to watch which you could then go over with another trainer), lots of cleaning, scrubbing algae off of pools, shuttling SCUBA tanks to the fill station.
.
Also setting fish buckets out for shows and retrieving and scrubbing used fish buckets.  Really, it was all about the buckets – I definitely inhaled my share of cleanser .  🙂

I did a lot of physical training on my lunch hour – running, lifting weights, stretching etc. The job is very physically demanding even if you weren’t doing waterwork in shows every day, so most people did their best to stay in shape so as not to get injured.
It was common to work a late shift, leave the park at 10-11pm and have to come back for an early shift then next day.  So trainers could often be sleep deprived.  Generally the newbies were on the “bucket scrubbing” shift and the seasoned trainers worked the later shifts, but sometimes they needed more people around for various reasons, so our schedules tended to vary.

Injuries are rampant, and under-reported.  One source said “To this day, despite over 100 aggressive incidents, permanent disabling injuries and even death, Sea World is continuing to allow its animal trainers to work in close proximity to a now obvious danger”.

Photo courtesy 'Occupy SeaWorld'

Add to the lousy pay the fact that the trainers are pressured to keep silent about what goes on, and even to be callous towards the conditions the animals are forced to endure, as this photo reveals.  Sources report that few if any of SeaWorld’s trainers have seen killer whales in the wild, where the whales live peacefully alongside humans, where the whales remain with their families for much, if not all, of their lives.

Being a whale trainer turns out to be a low paying, high risk, embarrassing job that looks glamorous until you are involved.

Want to be a Whale Trainer? What Your Life is Worth, Part One.

Size comparison

See OSHA Goes After SeaWorld for background information and trial updates.
As the day grows closer for SeaWorld’s continued court case against the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), which found them guilty of negligence in the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau last year, several ex- SeaWorld employees have stepped forward to share their experiences. Although they are willing to have their names revealed, it isn’t relevant for the point of this article and in no way do I wish to create problems for them, so the final decision was to keep the sources anonymous for the time being.
As these former trainers relayed their experiences, I found my stomach turning at the thought of the danger that faced them daily, the low wages, and the lack of benefits that they accrued. Worse yet are the stories of how SeaWorld covered up injuries.  Killer whales are huge animals, so any mistake made by the whale or trainer in which the timing is off for a stunt can result in serious injury, and that is if the whale is cooperating – if they are not, it can get worse, and quickly.
Dawn Brancheau and Tilikum

So how much do the trainers get paid? When you consider that these people are elite athletes, required to free dive to a depth of 30-40 feet and to stay trim and fit, that they must be confident in their ability to communicate with the whales and to know how extricate themselves from danger, you would assume that they made a lot of money, like most other professional athletes.
Not so.  Not even close.
Senior trainer pay (after five years of service) at Shamu Stadium for trainers that were employed as of February 1st is only $23 an hour in Texas and $26 in California. For new hires with years of experience, that pay will not apply and they will only get $18 per hour in Texas, $21 per hour in California. The highest pay grade, Senior 1, is $26-$27 an hour in Texas and $29-$30 in California (and $5 per hour less for new hires).
The trainers have no union. SeaWorld has managed to keep their trainers from organizing.
No job security. What happens when they get too old, too injured, gain or lose too much weight?  What about pregnancy and parental leave?
The job seems glamorous and attracts young people at an age when they are not too concerned about their future, yet within a few years they may become parents, realize that they are risking their lives for low wages, and decide to move on…to what?
How safe are trainers even out of the water?  Dawn’s death, in which she was dragged into the water by the killer whale Tilikum, shows that trainers are never really safe when they are within reach.  This video shows a dangerous encounter that could have had a similar outcome:

Next: What the job really entails

SeaWorld / OSHA – Videos to Help You Understand What is Going On: It is all About Keeping People Safe From Harm and Exploitation.

“Last August, The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued citations to SeaWorld for apparently placing profit above employee safety following the death of Mrs. Brancheau who was brutally killed by Tilikum, a nearly 12,000 pound (5,443 kg) killer whale (Orcinus-orca) on February 24, 2010. The citations, included fines totaling $75,000 for safety violations including the maximum $70,000 penalty for the “Willful” act of knowingly placing its employees at risk, a charge that has major implications beyond the monetary value, which is not substantial for the multi-billion dollar marine park”.(The Orca Project)
On Tuesday, November 15, 2011, the hearings in which SeaWorld is contesting the ruling by OSHA will continue, held over from the initial hearings in September. Below are two videos which will refresh your memory and bring you up to date on this landmark case. Journalist Tim Zimmermann has written a powerful article on the death of another trainer which occurred just two months before Dawn Brancheau was killed, and his insightful article will give you more detailed information on how quickly things can go very wrong for the trainers:

Too many trainers have been injured (some severely), and now with two deaths since Dec. 2009 (Alexis Martinez followed two months later by Dawn Brancheau), it is time for marine parks to be honest with themselves and with the public about what actually goes on between whales and humans in a marine park pool.
This is directly relevant to an ongoing dispute between SeaWorld and OSHA, which says that for trainers to be safe SeaWorld either has to stop performing with them in the water or implement intrusive safety measures that in themselves would change the nature of SeaWorld’s popular and lucrative shows. SeaWorld has flatly rejected this conclusion and is fighting OSHA in court. (Zimmermann)

News following Dawn Brancheau’s death:

Interview during the trials in September:

Random video of a trainer being threatened/charged by a killer whale…this happens all too often.

Trainers are expected to put their lives at risk for a low wage:

We do not have salary data for this specific career but we can provide average wages for all careers in the category of Animal Trainers
MEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE: $31,110
MEDIAN HOURLY WAGE: $14.96
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics 2010 wage data external site and 2008-2018 employment projections external site. “Projected growth” represents the estimated change in total employment over the projections period (2008-2018). “Projected job openings” represent openings due to growth and replacement. http://www.mymajors.com/careers-and-jobs/Whale-Trainer

Express your support for the trainers – go to Occupy SeaWorld to find out how you can help keep the trainers from having to put their lives in danger.

Both of these trainers were killed two months apart, in two different amusement parks.