Ex-SeaWorld Employee: 'If You Speak Out Against It, You’re Fired'
SeaWorld's work culture is almost as troublesome as its animal care, according to one former employee.
Sarah Fischbeck joined SeaWorld San Diego in 2007 as a water quality diver. During her six years with the company, Fischbeck worked across the park's departments, regularly diving with the animals and performing maintenance on the different exhibits.
The Dodo already reported on Fischbeck's account of SeaWorld's animals, which included allegations of orcas ripping skin off each other and in-fighting among the dolphins. But she spoke out about SeaWorld's work culture as well.
According to Fischbeck, SeaWorld was obsessed with secrecy. Departments were encouraged not to talk to each other; if anything went wrong, the people who saw it were put under gag orders. Injuries or accidents to animals and people were covered up.
"When we heard about animal sickness or injuries, it was the trainers talking about it before they were gagged," she said.
The trainers also had little to no say over what happened to their animals, despite being the ones to work with and care for them. All decisions were made by corporate - and so all decisions ended up being financial ones.
"The trainers, they give their advice, they give their opinions, but at the end of the day it's not trainers, it's corporate," she said.
In one incident, Fischbeck entered the back of the Arctic exhibit to find one of the trainers crying. Corporate had just announced that they wanted Ruby, a beluga who had a series of disastrous pregnancies, to be bred again, and the trainer knew she could do nothing to stop it.
"If you speak out against it, you're fired," Fischbeck said. "They would instantly be fired. There's no question. They'd lose their job."
In a statement, SeaWorld said Fischbeck's allegations were "a complete distortion of the facts."
"If this employee had concerns, he or she had a variety of ways to express grievances, file complaints and/or report concerns," Aimée Jeansonne Becka, senior director for corporate communications at SeaWorld, said. "This includes the ability to report anonymously using a toll-free hotline or a website - both hosted by a third-party administrator. We encourage all employees to voice any concerns that they have."
But former SeaWorld trainers John Hargrove and Dr. Jeffrey Ventre both independently confirmed Fischbeck's account of the company culture, and said that SeaWorld regularly retaliated against employees who spoke out.
The polar bears
When corporate made decisions, it wasn't always best for the animals, Fischbeck said.
In one instance, a trainer was working with the polar bears when she neglected to follow the lockout procedure, leading to a potentially deadly encounter. "For a split second this trainer was put in a room with a polar bear," Fischbeck said.
SeaWorld responded in part by forbidding trainers to work as closely with the bears - they used to interact with them from behind barriers, but now interaction was limited, Fischbeck explained.
On one hand, that was a plus for safety. But on the other hand, that meant the lonely bears lost what little stimulation they had - and the psychological effects showed.
"The trainers freaked out because the bears started regressing, and doing those repetitive [stereotypic] behaviors," she said. "And once they start doing that they don't stop."
The polar bear exhibit is also stocked with guns, Fischbeck said. If a bear were to escape, SeaWorld trainers were told to kill the bear rather than wait for a tranquilizer to take effect, she said.
"They're actually trained to kill their polar bears," she explained. "Once a month the trainers go to shotgun practice ... and in the trainers' room they'll post, like, who has the best target practice."
In many cases trainers were as ill-prepared to make decisions about their animals as corporate was, said Fischbeck, who noted that success at SeaWorld had very little to do with education, qualifications or other traditional metrics.
According to Fischbeck, success at SeaWorld was based more on how you looked and less on what you knew. "If you weren't attractive, you were not in the show or stadium," she said.
At one point, two male employees were plucked from the diving program to become dolphin trainers without any experience.
"They had no degree," she said. "Like one owned a parrot and that was his animal experience. The other one walked dogs. But they were both attractive; they were charismatic. They put them in a wetsuit and they were trainers."
Another employee was highly knowledgeable, but because she was wasn't exceptionally attractive she was kept in the back, Fischbeck said.
"She wanted to work at Rocky Point, she wanted to work at the stadium, she knew more than any other blonde bimbo there," Fischbeck explained. "[But] they don't have their best and brightest out on the floor. They have who's cute."
Fischbeck said a similar thing happened at the Arctic exhibit, where the more experienced trainers were the older men who'd been working at SeaWorld for decades but, again, were kept in the back.
"They're not doing dolphin shows," she said. "They're in the back bottle-feeding the animals because they don't look the part."
The inexperience showed. One day, Fischbeck was walking by the tank when she stopped to say hello to a favorite dolphin. A trainer stopped her, incorrectly explaining that dolphins can't hear speech and that's why the trainers use whistles with them.
Shortly after, Fischbeck saw another trainer in the back speaking to the dolphins and asked whether or not they could hear her. The trainer said of course they could. "It was amazing," Fischbeck said about the lack of knowledge.
Many of the trainers believe everything they hear from SeaWorld because the old contingent has been there for decades, she said, and never had any previous experience or exposure to independent research. All they know is SeaWorld, and what SeaWorld's told them.
"They believe what they're doing is right because all of their training is from SeaWorld," she said, explaining that some of the senior trainers have been with the company since the 1970s. "Those are a lot of people in the shows, in the propaganda videos."
There's a similar pattern among the younger staff, many of whom have been elevated to training positions without any experience or education, Fischbeck added. Like the older staff members, all they know is what SeaWorld's taught them.
"They wholeheartedly believe in it because that's all they know," she said.
SeaWorld's secretive management policies were perhaps best highlighted during the release of "Blackfish" in July 2013 - Fischbeck would voluntarily leave the company that December.
"We actually had a collective meeting before it came out telling us to say it was fake," she said. Employees were also instructed to tell everyone that SeaWorld loved its animals, and to dissuade family and friends from seeing the film.
"They were feeding us lines," she added.
The entire response was "extremely hush-hush," she said, which naturally made her curious. When the film was released, she went to see it in theaters.
"It just blew me away ... like, this isn't false," she said. "I didn't see one thing that was false."
To read more of Fischbeck's account, click here.
Editor's note: This post has been updated to clarify Fischbeck's quote about animals who are bottle-fed behind the scenes.