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Exclusive: SeaWorld Animal Care Vets On Diving With Angry Dolphins And A Traumatic Sea Lion Death

Earlier this week, former SeaWorld Animal Care workers Jim Horton, Cynthia Payne and Krissy Dodge spoke about the lives of the animals in the dolphin feeding pools, and some of the challenges involved in managing their care. Today, they talk about diving in the pools to try and keep them clear of anything the dolphins might swallow, the dilemma of dealing with an irate male dolphin at Seaworld Florida named Ralph, and Krissy Dodge tells the story of Eric the sea lion, and how his death prompted her to quit SeaWorld.

Diving With Dolphins

To try and keep the dolphin pool clear of objects that might injure or sicken the dolphins, Animal Care workers wearing scuba gear would dive the pools regularly. Not all the dolphins would welcome human visitors into their underwater world.

Jim Horton: Ralph was the king. He was 720 pounds at his highest weight if I am not mistaken. He was in charge of that pool, and we started diving the pool at the end of the day to get all the coins and the jewelry out. Sometimes twice a day, if it was bad. And Ralph was not digging that too much. We used a pony bottle, and a small regulator, which would give you twenty minutes of air. We'd go in and [the dolphins] wouldn't be under any sort of control. Maybe they'd be feeding when we first went in but the food would be gone [quickly].

(Ceta-base) King Ralph

The young calves would maybe grab your flippers and drag you back. That was kind of fun, though the number one rule was never to react. You didn't want to reinforce it so we would never react to any behavior. We'd just ignore the animals totally. But Ralph would really mess with you. He'd get in your face and be jaw popping really hard. He'd be 6 inches from your face slamming his mouth shut with 200 pounds of force. It would sound like firecrackers going off underwater. You could tell [he was coming]. He'd start vocalizing really loud, and you'd go 'Oh lord, Ralph is getting worked up.' He'd get right in your face and scream and vocalize, really, really loud. Or he'd grab you by the head and pull you around. He'd lay on top of you. It was scary but I wasn't scared, if that makes any sense. I knew he was not going to kill me because I don't think anyone has ever been killed by a dolphin.

I was sort of the senior diver at the time. I had to talk to a lot of the younger people to teach them not to show fear, to not let [the dolphins] know you are afraid. It got to a point over a period of about a year where I was the only one allowed to dive with Ralph. It came down to that because he was chasing people out of the pool. And once he knew he could chase you out of the pool, he'd easily chase you out again. I made it my mission not to be backed down by Ralph. I'd sit there and he'd sit there right in front of me and scream and scream. I'd take my regulator out and scream right back at him. And we'd just sit there and scream at each other, face to face. [I was reacting] because he wouldn't let me leave. He wouldn't let me do anything. He was right there screaming at me. I was trying to show dominance over him, and that I wasn't going to tolerate it. He grabbed me by the head a few times.

One time I heard him screaming in there. This was the coolest thing I had ever seen. He would be completely upside down. Vertical with his head facing forward, swimming straight up and down like an upside down seahorse, swimming forward and screaming at the top of his lungs. It sounded like an elephant. Everyone else was minding their own behavior in a real tight group when Ralph was at it. It was the weirdest thing I had ever seen. Maybe it was because those were all his women in there. Maybe he was pissed that I wasn't getting out of the water.

[Note: Horton was so struck by this screaming behavior that in April 1992 he recorded the noise Ralph was making. You can listen to it here.

Jim Horton: One time Ralph got so all over me and in my face, grabbing me and pushing me, that I popped him in the jaw. And I never did that again because he beat the crap out of me. It did not have the intended effect. He bit me. He had his mouth all over me, head to toe, and ran me into walls. I was like, 'Okay, I will never do that again.' [Note: Horton understands that in telling this story people who don't know him, and know how much of his life he has devoted to caring for and saving animals, might misconstrue or misinterpret his actions. But despite this concern Horton wanted people to understand how difficult (if not impossible at times) Animal Care work could really be, and he stressed to me that this wasn't at all a casual choice. He faced a true dilemma with Ralph, and needed to try and figure out a way to somehow back him off so he (Horton) could do his job. Horton was reacting to a bad situation, created by Ralph's aggressiveness in the feeding pool and the need to be able to dive into it to remove objects that would harm, and potentially kill, the dolphins if they ingested them. This dilemma in some ways perfectly captures the deeper dilemmas of Animal Care at a marine park, as Horton goes on to explain.]

Jim Horton: It wasn't just a knee-jerk reaction. That moment was thought about over a long period and many sleepless nights of trying to figure out a way to come to a mutual understanding with him and it was delivered as a type of experiment. Everyone knew what I had been going through with Ralph, no one else was brave enough to go in with him and we all learned from him and those experiences. I sure learned my lesson. Once the Key West exhibit opened and pool design was improved and made more natural, with more room, Ralph did not bother people.

Cynthia Payne: When you dove in the dolphin pool you felt as immersed in stress as you did in water. It was that stressful of an environment. You could just feel it. This was not good.I remember the very first time that I dove with Jim. Jim said, 'Whatever you do, don't look them in the eye. Just look down. They are going to ram you, but just look down.' I remember thinking these animals have to be so stressed. I was scared.

The very last time I swam with the dolphins I swam with Beechie and Cecil. I had asked to jump in as a kind of last thing before I left SeaWorld [in late 1994]. And Beechie and Cecil would not let me out of the pool. I yelled for Jim because they wouldn't let me out. I remember understanding very clearly that they were in complete control. It was like a sexually aggressive thing, just pure aggression. To say like 'Fuck you, there is nothing you are going to do unless we want you to.' I remember very clearly thinking I don't know if I am going to get out. They were pushing me really hard with their rostrums. I was bruised. Jim had to pull me out. He thought it was hysterical, but I was scared to death. I was thinking ‘that's not funny.' Requiem For Eric

On November 26, 2006, the death of a 23-year-old sea lion named Eric prompted Krissy Dodge to quit SeaWorld Texas. Since leaving SeaWorld in December 2006, Dodge has never publicly spoken about what she witnessed with Eric (though she did tell family and close friends about it at the time). But she did keep a journal of her experiences at SeaWorld, and recorded the details of Eric's death about a week after the event. Here, for the first time and with the help of her journal, Dodge recalls Eric's death and her departure from SeaWorld.

Krissy Dodge: The main thing that made me feel like, OK, I can't do this anymore, was one of the sea lions in the feeder pool, named Eric. He was sick; we noticed one day that he wasn't eating. He was very old. He had been there his whole life. He was blind. But he was very recognizable and everybody loved him, including all the guests, because he was very vocal and had a turned-up nose.

It all started around mid-November, and after two 2 days of not eating Eric was moved to the back area to be monitored. He went downhill very quickly. One morning I went to check on him and his eyes were horribly sunk in and mucus was coming out of them and his nose and mouth. He was extremely dehydrated. He was given fluids and antibiotics. He just laid limp, he had given up. Fluids were continued for 4 days, each day getting worse. On Sun, November 26th when I came in, I knew he was going to die. He had trouble moving and was in a lot of pain. He had chewed a big hole in his left hip.

We went to give him fluids and Eric began to go into convulsions. His head was shaking involuntarily. All of a sudden he arched his back into what they call the ‘death arch' and he laid down and stopped breathing. He had no pulse. We thought he had died. Several people left to get ready for the necropsy. I stayed with him. He then started breathing again and I felt a pulse in his neck. The decision was made to euthanize him. But Eric's body was not taking the poison. Even though it was injected into his heart, he didn't die. Eric was taken to necropsy anyway. He was hoisted onto the truck, taken to the necropsy room and laid on the floor. He was still breathing. I figured we'd just wait for him to die, but I was wrong. What happened next I will never forget. A scalpel was used to slit his throat [note: presumably to cut the carotid artery and bring about a quicker death]. Because his heart was beating the blood came pumping out and splashed onto the floor. As he was opened up for the necropsy and the skin was pulled away I could see his heart pumping.

I couldn't believe what was happening. He died. He died a horrible death and I was part of it. After this, the other side of my brain kicked in and I was able to finish the necropsy. All that was found was old age. What's ironic is that as an animal was dying, I heard the music of the Shamu Show. Thousands of people were watching Shamu do tricks while we, unseen and unknown, were slitting the throat of a sea lion.

My co-workers had become so desensitized. I was told ‘You'll get used to it, soon it won't even bother you.' Why would I want that? I cried all the way home that day. I was traumatized. I put in my two-week notice. I had dreams about Eric's death for years after and couldn't tell the story without crying. It was a horrible experience.

[Note: Asked about Dodge's account of Eric's death, SeaWorld VP Of Communications Fred Jacobs responded: "No part of the account is correct. The sea lion was an old animal with a serious illness and a poor prognosis. The well-being and quality of life of all of the animals in our care is SeaWorld's primary concern and euthanizing an animal based on quality of life is truly a sad event, particularly for those SeaWorld team members closest to it. The decision to euthanize an animal and the reasons for it were no different in that case than what occurs in veterinary practices across the U.S. every day. Our veterinarians follow AVMA standards as well as the established procedures and guidelines from our accrediting bodies, always with significant deliberation among zoological professionals. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible and offensive to the hard working, professional men and women of our animal care team who work at SeaWorld for one reason: their love and passion for all animals. ... Euthanasia is a very serious matter and is contemplated only after significant deliberation among our veterinarians and our other zoological professionals. We view this, as all veterinarians do, as a quality of life matter. The process is always conducted according to veterinary best practice and would not involve anything like what you've described." Efforts to contact other SeaWorld Animal Care staff who were present for Eric's death were routed back to Jacobs, who declined further comment. Calls to others present in the necropsy room (now retired) were not returned.]