SeaWorld’s Training Methods; Why Trainer Injuries Are Inevitable

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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.


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.

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