A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

SeaWorld Putting Trainers Back in Water with Killer Whales

moreton-bay-dolphins-ina-asmann-073112Since the day six-ton orca Tilikum dragged his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, into the pool, savaged her and killed her, SeaWorld has kept all trainers out of the water. Now they’re starting the slow process of putting humans and killer whales back together in the water. It’s a risky business.

A judge has upheld the decision of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requiring trainers to stay out of the water during public shows, but humans are still allowed in the water for the purpose of “veterinary care and husbandry.”

SeaWorld gives several reasons for re-starting what it calls the “water desensitization training,” including that getting trainers back into the water “contributes to team member safety and proper care” for what they call “our” killer whales.

I asked two former trainers, Samantha Berg and Jeff Ventre, what’s really going on here.

Samantha Berg: The OSHA verdict makes a clear distinction between show and non-show water work. That leaves a big gaping loophole for SeaWorld to argue that husbandry, exercise, learning, playtime and relationship sessions are not shows. If that’s the case, they can open the stadium for people to watch and not call it a show.

Jeff Ventre: There will likely be groupies hanging out if they leave the stadium open. It will be interesting to learn whether they leave the stadium open, or not.

S.B.:   From a Shamu trainer’s point of view, water work is the ultimate goal. It’s the carrot that keeps everyone doing their jobs. I personally couldn’t imagine working at Shamu stadium, standing out in the sun day after day in those stifling hot wetsuits, knowing that I would never get in the water again. I’m sure that it has fueled unrest in the ranks.

How does the desensitization training work?

J.V.: With a completely naive animal, it begins with feeding an animal for “accepting” a trainer’s legs in the water. Then, accepting a whole trainer in the water. Then, perhaps, touching an animal from the water. Then, perhaps, riding an animal around the perimeter, and having the trainer falling off. After the trainer falls off, the animal is rewarded for continuing its perimeter swim. This “desense” training works well in practice sessions, but as Judge Welsch pointed out [at the OSHA hearing], it doesn’t work reliably when a killer whale decides to go off behavior.

S.B.: Very experienced animals probably don’t need to go through a refresher course in water desense procedures, but it certainly makes sense to reinforce water desense with the younger animals.

J.V.:   Plus SeaWorld gains the perception that they are taking measures to make the environment safer for the trainers. It also helps the company deal with restless trainers who are currently losing the faith, and unsure whether their childhood dream of swimming with a captive orca will ever be fulfilled.

SeaWorld is also putting other safety measures in place.

S.B.:   Yes, and I’m wondering how they are going to deal with the fast-rising floor [another new safety measure in case an orca drags a trainer underwater]. I can imagine that working with the fast rising floors will be highly stressful for the animals AND the trainers, so it’s hard to say what the benefit would be to practice.

But if they don’t practice, how will they know it works? And after seeing the 2006 Ken Peters video [in which orca Kasatka repeatedly drags Peters under and then lies on top of him at the bottom of the pool], I’m even more concerned about the floors. What if the floor came up while Kasatka was on top of Ken?

J.V.:   I also tend to believe there is a bit of company ego involved here. This sends a certain message of defiance to OSHA and the anti-captivity community.

S.B.:   I think it will be a little harder to attract and keep killer whale trainers, but the lack of water work has not impacted their bottom line so far. But I do think [the killing of Dawn Brancheau and the OSHA ruling] will lead to more pressure to stop orca shows as the public starts asking more questions. Meanwhile, these whales are worth so much money that SeaWorld can probably keep up substantial income by selling sperm, shipping whales out to other countries and continuing with some modified version of the show.