Some of what Horton, Payne and Dodge had to say about their work, especially orca and dolphin breeding, appeared last month on Outside Online. Today, they talk about the lives of the dolphins in the feeding pools and the objectionable behavior of some of the guests.
The Dolphin Feeding Pool The killer whale shows at Shamu Stadium are the headline attraction at SeaWorld. But SeaWorld Florida's Dolphin Cove at Key West (and before it a smaller pool that is now used as the dolphin nursery), where guests can watch and feed dolphins, is also a prime attraction. Here is SeaWorld's description of the exhibit: "Dolphin Cove at Key West is one of the largest interactive dolphin pools in the world. Here, you can watch a playful group of bottlenose dolphins both above and below the surface of the water."
However, dolphins have complex social and sexual structures - that include frequent sexual interaction and occasional conflict - that can affect the dynamic in a crowded pool where there is less room to evade or escape one another than in the wild. During feeding sessions at SeaWorld the dolphins are competing for food, and sometimes that means guests get a closer, and more unsettling, dolphin interaction than they paid for, as this girl did more recently at SeaWorld San Antonio or the time a dolphin bit a girl at SWF feeding pool in 2012. Dolphins nipping guests is only one indicator of the underlying realities of the dolphin feeding pool, and Horton, Payne and Dodge explain what it was like to work with the dolphins in that closed environment, as well as dealing with some odd behavior from the guests.
Krissy Dodge: We weren't allowed to give guests the animals' names because if one died they don't want any guests asking any questions. We were told if a guest asks you about a specific animal that died the joke was "tell them they went to Ohio [where SeaWorld used to have a park]." We said the animals are happy here. They get the best fish. The whole thing. We would say the life expectancy here is a lot longer than it is in the wild.
Cynthia Payne: What I remember most about the dolphin pools was that there was nowhere for those animals to go to get away from one another. The center island [of the original SeaWorld Florida dolphin feeding pool; now the nursery pool] took about 30 percent of the pool, so it wasn't much larger than a swimming pool and there was nowhere for those animals to go. And every single person would have their hands on them and try to pet them on their blowholes. My spiel was "Please stop reaching for their blowholes." The dolphins would hate it. There was no peace for any of those animals anywhere. The majority of their feed came from these feeder booths [where guests would pay for a plate of fish to feed the dolphins that came up to them]. A lot of their food came from the public. What a completely stressful situation. The only way to get fed is to let strangers touch you left and right.
Krissy Dodge: The night before a big event or a big park day, such as the 4th of July, they would say ‘don't give [the dolphins] as much food because tomorrow we want them to be hungry and we want them to eat from the guests.' People didn't realize that they shouldn't hold the tray [of fish] over the water. One of the dolphins while I was there figured out that if the kids held out the tray he could take the whole tray instead of just getting one fish. So within a matter of minutes all the other dolphins learned the same thing. They would go up to the guests and grab the whole tray right out of their hand. During this time one of the dolphins grabbed onto a child's hand, and raked [i.e. gouged the skin with its teeth] the whole hand. I was the one that had to talk to the parents and go to management.
In the end the parents were soothed. They were given free park passes. They had one of the Animal Care staff get inside the wall and walk around [the pool] to tell people over and over and over not to put the tray over the pool. For the dolphins it was something new in their environment that we were walking along the pool ledge. They would come up to us and bite our ankles and grab onto our ankles. It hurt, but we weren't allowed to show any reaction because then the dolphins would get a kick out of it and keep doing it. We'd have guests ask, 'Does that hurt?' and we'd say 'Oh no, it's not bad at all. They are just playing.' When really, it hurt pretty bad. Enough to let you know, 'I could really hurt you if I wanted.' Dolphin Rodeo
Taking care of a large group of often untrained dolphins presented some interesting Animal Care issues. The need to take regular blood samples, and to weigh the dolphins, among other routine husbandry practices, was particularly challenging.
Jim Horton: [Before Key West] SeaWorld had a smaller feeding pool. It was a long oval pool with a big island in middle. We had to go in there twice a year and catch every dolphin. And do a physical. The physicals were hard. We would basically drain the pool, about knee deep. [It had] somewhere around 20 dolphins. And we'd have a net or a couple of nets and we would single [the dolphins] out one by one and jump on them. The dolphins never went after us. Some would put up a fight, some wouldn't. It was very random, but you knew who would struggle and who wouldn't ... usually. This was based on age, sex and personality. Some didn't care, to some it was a game, some were unaccustomed to it. Two to four-year olds would always thrash around requiring at least four people to restrain, Older males and females were mellow, even Ralph [a more aggressive male dolphin]. But for human safety, there was a minimum of 4 to 6 guys required to hold the animals stable, and a few animals required as many people as possible. The standard was 2 guys at the head, 2 at the dorsal and 2 on the tail, one guy driving the crane [suspending the stretcher], one guy directing the crane and 2 guys to spread the stretcher from each end.
A highly fractious animal would require us to lock our bodies together with additional staff. Sometimes, we did not have enough people and just did the best we could with what we had. There was always a vet or two on hand and a supervisor calling the shots, but we became a well-oiled machine over time and just a look in your eye to your team and we all knew when we were going to make our move. We got very good at what we were doing and we protected each other and prevented the animals from hurting themselves as well. We knew how certain ones liked to be held. Some animals, it appeared as if it were a game, just to see if they could throw us off, testing their testosterone, usually teenage males. We knew if the animal did throw us off, then he would repeat the attempt in the future, possibly causing injury to us or them, a learned behavior. The ones who were capable of doing it and had a history of getting away from us were the toughest. Some would wait until they felt the team relax just a little bit and then bust loose, sending bodies flying. But this rarely happened as we honed our skills. Occasionally we'd have to get a young calf whose Mom was still in the pool. Mom would do anything trying to get the calf away from us. I broke my nose once on [the vet's] head. I had the calf. He was trying to stop the female from getting to me, and she whacked him. And he went flying and his head went right into my face and knocked me practically unconscious.
We did not mess with calves until they were one year old. But when we did at that age of one year and up, the little ones really put up a good fight as this was something new. So that generally took two to three guys. But then the mothers would come after us in attempts to dislodge the calf. A coordinated effort was required to grab both mother and calf at the same time and hold them very close together, face to face. We would handle only one animal at a time, unless it was a mom and calf. So it was always a battle in that pool and those animals weren't really trained to do much. They did very little. This physical was only done twice a year, on a schedule. It was important to have baseline data (blood values) on each animal to determine possible infection if the animal was acting sick. Animals were also weighed in the stretcher to be certain that they were gaining or maintaining weight. Generally, it took about 12 staff minimum on these days, starting at first light. All of the animals were fed lots of food afterwards. By 10 a.m. and the first public feeding, you would never know that this had transpired based on the animals' behavior. The weights varied from 100 to 700 pounds. Each weight was guessed by us, as the scale was calculating and we got very good at weight judgment. This became a very efficient tool when having to guess the medication dosage for a sick [wild] animal in the field where knowing the weight was very important to the veterinarian.
(Wikimedia) SeaWorld Florida's Dolphin Cove seen through the underwater viewing glass.