What Qualities Would Save a Trainer From A Killer Whale Attack?

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2011-07-19-Screenshot20110719at4.22.29PM dawn brancheau alexis martinez killed two months apart
Both Dawn Brancheau and Alexis Martinez were attractive, atheletic, experienced trainers – yet they died two months apart at the jaws of two of Seaworld’s whales, Alexis died in Loro Parque, Spain, and Dawn died at Seaworld . Their looks, talent, intelligence, and experience were of no use when the whales decided to attack – yet Seaworld continues to argue against OSHA’s ruling that the only way to keep trainers safe is to put barriers between them and the orcas.  Writes Takepart’s David Kirby:

Eugene Scalia, the son of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, once described as “an absolute bulldog” and Wall Street’s “secret weapon,” will argue SeaWorld’s case against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. in a battle that began with the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, killed by the orca Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010.
At issue was whether trainers should be barred from swimming in the water with killer whales, performing tricks with them, or being in close proximity to the whales while onstage poolside or in the slideout areas where trainers often hug, kiss, and cuddle the ocean’s top predators.
In their briefing before the appeals court this time, Scalia and colleagues argued that the entertainment conglomerate “brings profound public educational benefit,” but notes that “Interacting with nature is not without risk—not when mountain climbing or kayaking, not when sailing or swimming in the ocean, not when visiting our national parks. On rare occasions, killer whales can be dangerous. SeaWorld has taken extraordinary measures to control that risk. But it cannot eliminate it while facilitating the interaction between humans and whales that is integral to its mission.”

Yet the industry has a different take. According to an article at Marine Mammal Trainer.com, Can You Become a Trainer Without The Degree?, the answer is that education counts less than an ability to perform and to look good for the camera.

If you think about it, the people who started in 1964 are now running the companies you want to work for. Since they grew up in that culture, they are probably more willing to accept the graduate with an Economics Major.
Another reason it is possible to gain employment without a psychology degree is that it acts as only one of the deciding factors. Marine mammal trainers will always have to know how to train marine mammals. A degree in psychology can help them with this. However, more and more often we are seeing the role of the marine mammal trainer include dancing, acting, speaking, and acrobatic skills. A psychology major cannot help you with this. This degree also can’t help you if you don’t look the part! Marine facilities hire people who are physically fit and look good when their face is on the jumbo-tron. With public perception being a key factor in the company’s bottom line, a background in the arts, a nice physique, and beautiful face may prove more appealing than a piece of paper that says “BS in Psychology.”
There is also no consistent correlation with good animal trainers and psychology degree holders. Understanding animal psychology and behavior often occurs outside the classroom. In fact, we believe that the best type of learning is hands-on. 

This is a recipe for disaster, no matter how you look at it. Seaworld is fighting tooth and nail to put people back in the water with animals that can’t be kept happily in captivity, and the basic criteria for doing so is based more on looks and theater than on animal behavior training.  But ultimately, if a killer whale decides to attack and kill someone, that person is toast.
The industry has relied upon the generous nature of the whales to keep people safe, but as we have seen, that nature has been tested to the breaking point.  There is no safe way to have people in the water with these animals in the confinement of captivity.

Wild orca Molly with her mom (Photo by Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research)
Wild Killer Whales have never killed a human. (Photo by Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research)


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