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

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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

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