WARNING: Video and content below may be upsetting to some audiences.
There are lots of avenues that lead toward a better understanding of the lives of the marine mammals at SeaWorld. Former trainers who have stepped forward to talk about their work have been key in lifting the curtain. But another indispensable, and eye-opening, perspective comes from former Animal Care workers. Animal Care staff seem to be in the middle of all the action. Rescues. Medical procedures. Births. Deaths. You name it. If an animal needs any sort of help, Animal Care is on the job. It’s tough, rewarding and relentless work, with incredible highs and lows. According to SeaWorld:
SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment™ collectively maintains one of the largest animal collections on the North American continent. We care for approximately 67,000 animals, including 7,000 marine and terrestrial animals and 60,000 fish.
What follows comes from conversations with three former Animal Care workers:
Jim Horton, 52, worked at SeaWorld Florida, Atlantis in the Bahamas, and SeaLife Park in Hawaii and has had a long career working in animal care. He worked for SeaWorld in Florida from 1981 to 1996, and then again from 1999 to 2000, before working on the return of Keiko, the star of "Free Willy," to his native Icelandic waters. Horton has since worked at SeaLife Park (from 2002 to 2004) on Oahu, Hawaii and at the Atlantis resort (from 2004 to 2012) on Paradise island in the Bahamas.
(Photo: Jim Horton working with Keiko, courtesy of Horton)
Cynthia Payne, 40, started working in the Education Department at SeaWorld Florida in June 1992 and quickly transferred to Animal Care where she worked with Horton until she left SeaWorld in December 1994.
(Photo: Cynthia Payne swimming with Beechie and Cecil, courtesy of Payne.)
Krissy Dodge, 34, began her work at SeaWorld Texas in 2004, after getting a degree in zoology from California’s Humboldt State University. She started in aviculture, working with penguins, before moving to Animal Care in 2006. Dodge left SeaWorld in 2006 to move to Humboldt County, California, where she occasionally assists in marine mammal rescues.
(Photo: Krissy Dodge feeding at the Dolphin Cove, courtesy of Dodge.)
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.'
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.
Krissy Dodge: [At SeaWorld Texas] every six months they would do what they called a 'dolphin rodeo.' Those animals weren't highly trained. Basically their job was to take fish from people, so they didn't understand all the husbandry [behaviors], like giving a blood sample. So what they would do every six months is lower the water in the pool down to a foot or so. You have all these dolphins on the bottom of the pool and it was kind of a scary thing even though I think they were probably used to it. But they didn’t like it. And they would sort of flounder and start to panic. and it was our job to basically wrestle them and grab them. So one person was in charge of jumping on the animal, and the other was in charge of coming and grabbing the other side so that they are kind of restrained. And at that point they would be led over to a stretcher which was lowered down into the bottom of the pool. Once the animal was in the stretcher it would usually calm right down. But trying to get them to that point was just a crazy thing. I was thinking, 'Is this really happening?'
The Dolphin Rodeo was not the only challenge in managing Seaworld’s dolphin feeding pools. The feeding pools attract casual visitors as well as dedicated dolphin fans, who come out day after day and get to know all the dolphins. But not all guests behave well, which can makes Animal Care’s work around the dolphin pools difficult.
Jim Horton: We had groupies that would come out to that pool and they would be there all day. A handful of them. And the animals, after a while, would just flock to them because they recognize them, and they didn't even need food. One of them we had to expel because he was fingering the female dolphins. And then licking his fingers. And the females were digging it. The groupies were a problem.
[Note: Other sources have told me about this same problem, how some of the dolphins would recognize groupies who liked to touch them sexually and swim up and roll over in anticipation of what was to come, and how difficult it was for Animal Care staff to detect and police this sort of guest behavior because much of it took place under the water and there was an understandable fear of falsely accusing a guest. SeaWorld was also contacted about this allegation, but they haven't responded. ]
It was also impossible to keep the pools clear of objects, which the dolphins often ingested.
Jim Horton: People were throwing coins in the pools all the time. Idiots. We had one young one year old [dolphin] that turned white. And we thought it was some kind of genetic mutation. The animal died during the day. So we pulled him out and put him on a cart, spraying him with water and rubbing him down so it looked like he was still alive while we were going through park. What we found out was that the white dolphin had a stomach full of coins and rings and jewelry. Everything was perfectly shiny except the pennies. They were the only things that were dissolving.
After 1982, I think, they started making pennies out of zinc and coating them in copper. So it was zinc poisoning. The zinc killed the dolphin. We had another dolphin in there, a young calf, that ate four coffee cans of coins and jewelry. It took six months to get all the coins out of her stomach. There was really a unique invention by Dr. Walsh [a vet]. He was really brilliant. And what he did was he used an endoscope and he ran two plastic tubes along the length of the scope — hard plastic — and at the very end was a little net made out of panty hose. So we’d put a piece of PVC pipe, padded and foamed, inside the dolphins mouth, and he'd put the endoscope in, all the way into the stomach, and behind the pile of coins. [He’d] push on the plastic tubing and manipulate it so the net would extend and scoop. Then we'd retract it and pull the tube all the way out.
We'd do that for about an hour every few days until we finally cleaned that animal out. [It came to] $30-plus, and four completely full coffee cans. The animal’s stomach was completely full of coins. And sharp, pointy stuff, like name tags or brooches. How it did not perforate I have no idea. So then we used that technique on some of the other animals and basically cleaned them all out. They did a spiel before every feeding. Please do not drop anything. There were signs everywhere, but people would still do it. You'd go over to the alligator exhibit and you'd see the alligators cruising around with coins on their backs. People are idiots. It was also a problem with the walruses. We had to wrestle quite a few walruses, because they were impacted. You'd throw the net over them and you’re just hanging on and they are throwing you everywhere. I was part of several walrus surgeries. Baby pacifiers were big. There would be a wad of baby pacifiers and a bunch of paint chips from the pool, and stuff like that blocking the intestine.
Coming Next: In Part Two of this Animal Care series Horton, Dodge and Payne discuss diving in the dolphin feeding pools, the challenge of an irate 700-pound dolphin called Ralph, the traumatic death of an elderly sea lion and why the Animal Care workers left SeaWorld.