Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Times, They Are A-Changin'

I felt really, really stressed out thinking about writing this blog this week.  

I totally self-medicated.  Not with alcohol, but with these amazing brownies one of my coworkers made.  OMGGGGG

If you've read The Middle Flipper long enough, hopefully you have the impression that my goal is to unite not just animal care professionals, but animal lovers everywhere.  I don't stay middle-of-the-road on most topics because I don't have an opinion, or because I'm afraid of upsetting people.  I try to stay neutral on here because I think being approachable and open-minded allows for better conversation, better solutions.

When I saw the news about SeaWorld, it was very early in the morning...before the world of social media exploded with very strongly-worded opinions.  But as I saw the reaction unfold, I felt it would be silly of me to publish this blog just a few days after this huge news and not talk about it.

Disclaimer: The Middle Flipper is not authorized to give medical advice.  This is merely a suggestion.

First, we don't have to agree with SeaWorld's executive management to partner up with the Humane Society of the U.S.  We also don't have to all agree on "phasing out" orcas.  Both of these topics require careful consideration and understanding.  

I also completely understand why SeaWorld employees are deeply upset, considering that this sort of news was broken to them in the way that it was.  This is one of the biggest news stories to affect us in the zoological field.  It's completely understandable why we are reacting the way that we are.  However, we still need to be careful, especially those of us who do not work at SeaWorld.  If we continue to make very emotional, cut-and-dry statements we may unintentionally drive a wedge between us and basically anyone affiliated with SeaWorld, not the HSUS.

Second, we all know that the marine mammal field is changing; not just because of Blackfish.  We provide fantastic medical and behavioral care for the animals we know and love, and are ahead of the game there.  But how many of us would deny our animals a larger or more naturalistic habitat?  How many of us would get excited about new methods of reaching the general public?  Probably a whole lot of us. HOW those changes happen, or how we INTERPRET those changes is going to differ from place to place.  We may not agree with or understand why a particular place chooses a path.

Those philosophers sure can make a point.

Third, and I'm going to put this in caps because it's so obnoxiously true, WE THE ANIMAL CARE PROFESSIONALS SHOULD BE AT THE FRONT OF THIS CHANGE.   NOT the extremists.

So what does all this mean?

If we continue to turn our back on SeaWorld right now in these early stages, when everything is emotional and confusing, we are going to fracture as a collective.   Don't give the animal rights extremists the power to fracture our community.  

We can't all do the same thing, or agree on every point.  And on the precipice of change, scary stuff is going to happen.  I'd be willing to bet that any major, positive change is going to start out seeming impossible or completely terrifying.  What we do from that point on is what really counts.

Everyone does! Because it's scary!

For those of us who do not work at SeaWorld, let's think about the ramifications of making it known publicly that we do not support the company.  Even when we say that we still support the animal care professionals working there, we are basically turning our back on them.  By saying, "Well, your company just made a stupid decision, and may destroy our field.  But we still support you, the people on the ground", we think we're rallying around the right people.  But what we are really doing is sending another message: we are saying, "Wow, so sorry you're going down and the company you work for is evil."

How would we feel if people we respected in this field (at any sphere of influence) started saying how they no longer supported the facility we worked for?  Would we still want to work there?  We'd surely have a major internal battle of "should I stay for the animals? Or do I need to jump ship?"  I know that some of you out there already know this feeling.  

This is where we are going to struggle the most as a field.  We have to stick together.  That doesn't mean we agree on everything.  That doesn't mean we don't piss each other off, sometimes.  It's okay if one facility thinks all dolphin habitats should be 25 acres.  It's okay if another thinks theatrical shows are the way to connect to people.  We shouldn't all be the same, we shouldn't all protect each other just because we want to stay the same.  We should protect each other when a place decides to take a chance, for the sake of improving animals' lives.

My ideal vision in this situation? I want SeaWorld as a whole to know that our field supports them overall.  We support their effort to make a change in this changing world.  That doesn't change the fact that we want to know why they partnered with HSUS.  We want to know what their future plans are.  Inside, some of us may be wary, scared, angry.  But we can't turn our backs, even if some of us are livid.  We just don't have enough to go on, right now.  And the people working at SeaWorld who were just blind-sided need us.


Our collective voices have centuries of combined years of experience with marine mammals.  We, the experts, are the ones who must take charge of the next step of this field.  If we are moving towards naturalistic exhibits, and moving towards managing animals in more naturalistic social groups, then we are the ones who oughta design the habitats.  If we want to change how the general public view the animals in our care, we decide what that means.  And I'll bet many of us have different ideas about the best way to do that.  Some of us may stay two million miles away from anyone associated with an animal rights' group.  Some of us may think they need to buddy up with them.  I don't know what the right path is, but we've got to try to find it (or them). 

But what I know is that if we, the experts, use emotionally-charged voices to publicly humiliate and become irate with SeaWorld, our intelligent, experienced voices are silenced.  If ever there was a chance at bridging the gap between "us" and "them" (the actvistists, in this case HSUS), now is as good a time as any.  We don't want to listen to them when they scream and shout; why would they listen to us if we do the same?  More importantly, shouldn't we as a community model the behavior we want others to use?  Shouldn't we set the example by saying, "Okay, what's the plan, CEO of SeaWorld?  Can we be of any assistance?  We have some thoughts."  I'd much rather have a calm discussion with someone I disagree with and have the hope of coming to a compromise than I would to be completely tuned out, only to watch something spiral into a disaster with the blind leading the blind.

We can't control what SeaWorld or any other facility does.  But we can control what WE, the animal care professionals do.

If anyone can do it, we can!

Trainers at SeaWorld, I read a lot of comments both from you and others that your voices have been silenced.  I can't imagine what you went through with this announcement.  But let me reassure you that you DO have a voice.   Some of you have posted some really inspirational things, saying that even though you don't understand why your facility made the decision it did, you are still going to show up amidst the confusion and take the best care of the animals you love.  I mean, if that's not inspiring, I don't know what is.  You guys are rockstars.

You are experiencing a very massive change.  There is still a lot that has to settle.  And you, by continuing to dedicate your lives and providing fantastic care to the animals, are speaking loud and clear.  You don't need to be embarrassed or ashamed to work at SeaWorld.  You are still working for a company that sets the bar for many facets of animal care and rescue.  You are working for a company that has consistently said, "Yeah, we're good.  But we won't settle.  Let's always try to do the next best thing."  

We are a strong community.  We are a smart community.  We need guidance, support, and creativity.  No matter if you're an entry-level trainer or a curator, you've got what it takes to continue to not just maintain the incredible animal care we provide, but to continue moving this field forward.  Let's rally around each other, even in these times of unsure fear.   Let's lead by our fantastic example.


  1. Hi Cat,
    I have commented on your Blog before and felt compelled to return and see how you felt about the recent decision by Seaworld?
    I am Anti Captivity. I consider myself an Animal Activist but, would hate it if people thought i was extremist!
    I do NOT want to see the destruction of Seaworld! Its Rescue and Rehabilitation program is second to none! This planet NEEDS Seaworld and marine parks like it! I get NO satisfaction from the fact that you and others in your field are feeling stressed, betrayed and anxious about the future!
    I have always believed the only way forward with this issue is for rational thinking, trained and experienced people from BOTH sides to come together!
    There is wisdom in the way you rationalise Cat.Without sounding patronising I am sure there are plenty people in your field who think like you and let me reassure you not all activists are extremist!
    All i want is for majestic, intelligent cetaceans to remain in their natural environment and if possible to RETURN to their natural environment!
    I wish you well.

    1. We need more anti-captivity advocates like you rather than the extremists, even if we don't agree with you on everything :)

    2. Thankyou for that Cassie I appreciate it. As Cat said, its early days yet, try not to despair and ye are the experts in your own field!!

  2. I feel so conflicted right now. I know I need to continue supporting them, and even pursuing my dream, because the whales and other animals are still going to need someone to care for them, but this has been an extremely rough past few days for me. *sigh*

  3. I do not work at Seaworld, however I do work at Busch Gardens as a trainer there. I won't get too into this as for me this is so emotional and personal, but we basically found out about these decisions when the rest of the world found out. We had NO prior knowledge of these decisions. With that said, I really appreciate the support as I'm sure my colleagues at our sister park do as well.
    You hit the nail on the head with the conflicting emotions. Do I stay or go? Today is not a good day for me to answer that question. Time will tell as we get more information.
    My quick advice that I believe our company should had done years ago, is message. Message to your guests like never before. I'm sure we all do, but ramp it up. Stay positive, and as hard as it may be don't bash us, that will only divide us more.

  4. One comment I keep hearing during the debate about animals in captivity is that we should only breed the endangered species when we need to re-establish wild populations. But captive breeding populations of wildlife species are like blood banks – you can't wait for the emergency to happen before you set them up. This is the problem we had with black footed ferrets and Vancouver Island marmots. It took us a long time to learn how to raise and breed them in captivity and as a result we lost valuable genetics from founders that died without breeding. Although both species have been successfully reintroduced, the species' are less capable of adapting to changes in their environment because of that initial loss of genetic diversity while we were figuring out how to keep them in captivity.

  5. I am an animal care professional, but I find concerning the idea that we should stand with seaworld on principle. Not every institution is created the same, giving blanket support across the board while ignoring the criticisms is a dangerous precedent. Seaworld of course is AZA accredited, thus one might look at them more favorably than a road side zoo, but I really believe this is a problem of Seaworlds own making, and the unfortunate result of an animal, despite 30+ years in captivity, has only seen marginal improvement in adapting to captivity. Seaworld at its founding, was always an entertainment venue. With their corporate structure, this fact has reverberated down. Seaworld dismisses any criticism of former staff as disgruntled, and I've even seen them disparage orca researchers and supporters liken any scientist that contradicts them as a 'scientist.' It's one thing to dismiss peta, quite another to deny orca researchers and experts in the field, you need those allies. Seaworld may inspire young generations, but at what cost? Their programming has always been of low level educational value, and at times, misleading (lifespan, dorsal fin collapse, etc). Do we really need to inspire children by performing unnatural behaviors OR are we moving towards inspiring people by letting animals be as they are? By not making them 'do' something for entertainment? Because of seaworld we have learned a bit about orcas, but most knowledge know is just related to capita tut and of no interest to actual researchers. Their breeding program is of zero conservation value...breeding together orcas from different populations, oceans, and ecotypes. From the outset, breeding did not have a clear conservation goal but one to keep tanks full. This is not what a respected zoological institution does. We have stud books and meticulous attention to breeding to maintain genetic diversity. A lot of people blame animal rights activists or blackfish, but the blame should land squarely on seaworld, They have been at odds with researchers and now a huge proportion of the public. They have whales who do not thrive in captivity despite excellent care. Seaworld does not face this head on, instead belittling criticisms as lies and propaganda. I've seen questions they've answered play very loose with facts, to the point where I do not find them a trustworthy organization. I am an animal care professional, but I am also a conservationist and aspiring researcher. Seaworld is at odds with everything I believe in and stand for. They do not deserve my support, they have to earn it. Otherwise, they are an embarrassment to the zoological field. I feel terrible for much of their staff who are dedicated and no doubt love the animals under their care. But dedication and excellent veterinary care cannot solve systemic problems and the reality of the difficulty in holding a large marine mammal in a tank. I believe it is true that it is inappropriate to hold dome animals in captivity, especially large marine creatures like whales (orcas, blue whales, belugas, pilot whales, etc) and large sharks. Animals shouldn't suffer for the spectre of 'education' or 'inspiration' or because it serves the interests of those who feel good caring for them. Orcas are better served conserving them in-situ. The pennies seaworld historically has given towards conservation is not a justification for holding them in captivity. Sometimes being an animal care professional means letting go of situations or models that just don't work. This isn't conceding to animal rights activists, it's bettering the lives of the animals we serve,who should be our priority.

    1. I want to preface this reply (because non face-to-face communication can sometimes be misinterpreted) by saying I'm genuinely curious and this is by no means an attack.

      You said "marginal improvement in adapting to captivity" can you expand on that? I believe they have adapted. So I'm curious why you think otherwise.

      Also, you mention them giving "misleading information" and some of your examples are lifespan and dorsal fin collapse. I was an educator at SeaWorld Orlando and the lifespan we taught to guests was that on average males can live into their 30's and females into their 50's. Which coincides with the average lifespan NOAA provides on their website. As far as dorsal fin collapse, we were taught (and taught to tell guests) that scientists aren't sure what causes it but we believe genetics may play a role. Naomi Rose (who I'm sure you know is one of the biggest opponents of SeaWorld) admitted in a debate with SeaWorld San Diego that it is 100% aesthetic and poses no health concerns. I also don't remember her giving any scientific reasoning for why it happens. I'm curious what information from SeaWorld you believe is misleading. Or, if you have found contradicting information can you share the source?

      Thank you in advance for your response. Personally, I do stand behind SeaWorld (although I'm disappointed and sad with the decision to end breeding), but I would love to understand your stance more and hopefully as a result educate myself more. Whether that be agreeing or disagreeing with you, it's always good to keep learning both sides of an argument!

    2. With dorsal fin collapse the argument isn't whether or not it's aesthetic, it's how they present it. I've heard seaworld staff claim dorsal fin collapse is genetic. Some people have curly hair, others straight. What? We know from scientific literature that less than 1% of whales have dorsal fin collapse. Sea world even misrepresented research by Ingrid Visser. They took her research on a small New Zealand population and applied it to the Southern resident pod, claiming dorsal fin collapse occurs in 25%. This is not true, and her data on abnormalities was mostly on bent, twisted, or partially collapsed fins, not fully collapsed. Fin flaccidity could be in part genetic, but in seaworld, total collapse is likely a pathological condition of captivity. To suggest otherwise and misrepresent research shows me that they aren't interested in actual science. As for "average lifespan," yes if you look at data compiled after 1995 (when captive orcas were dying at 3x the rate as wild orcas), captive orcas are finally meeting 'average' lifespans. Problem is both sides can manipulate data whether you look at average, ASR, median survival, etc. we know orca males have the potential to live 50-60 years based on best available evidence. The problem in zoo animals isn't meeting average lifespans, it's that with lack of predation, medical care and quality nutrition, they are exceeding lifespans. Personally I would not want to see an orca survive 70 years under captive conditions. A highly social and intelligent predator that can swim and dive hundreds of kilometers a day, doesn't belong bobbing along the surface of a tank and performing circus tricks. Even if the shows became less entertainment and more science driven. Even if they were actually appropriate breeding pairings. There is just no ability to replicate a natural social setting. If there is one thing I agree with blackfish on, it is the idea that poor Tilly is a sociopath due to the conditions of his captivity. The aggression they show even to each other is not normal, let alone killing humans. To know and study wild orcas, you cannot with good conscience believe a bare concrete tank is appropriate. Scientifically we don't learn anything of value from captive orcas. Conservation wise, I don't see value in their hybrids. What's left is education, and after seeing videos of most of their programs, I've never been impressed. Not impressed enough to want to see such amazing creatures held in facilities that cannot replicate natural social settings or appropriate space requirements and mental stimulation. Anything beyond that, doesn't matter. I don't care how long they could eventually get them to survive or if they became better at educational programming. I think it's cruel and inhumane. And it looks like a lot of people feel this way, not just fringe activists. I believe if you love animals, you sometimes have to put personal interest aside, and do what's best for them. How whales like Lolita and Tilly live, is painful to bear witness. I don't see a valid justification. 30 years ago the conditions of their captivity may have been acceptable. Now we know so much more about whales, and the emotional lives of animals, especially orcas. Moving forward, I think its not just that they survive, but how they live that is also important.

  6. Lots of good points here. When big changes happen to the earth biodiversity is what keeps life going. The same should go for having a diversity of ideas and cultures.

  7. I don't work in the animal care profession but I am an avid supporter of zoos and aquariums, including SeaWorld and Busch Gardens. One thing I haven't heard much of is the reaction of SeaWorld employees, at any level. I don't expect you to throw names out there, but would it be possible to publish a list of quotes or other reactions from the park employees? Could you also verify how the employees heard the news, as it sounds like they saw the same press releases at the same time the general public did? That would be very useful to this fan who has literally experienced fatigue and nausea off and on the last few days as I try and decide where to go from here, and who to support and how. Thank you. Marty F.

  8. Thoughtful article and comments. I personally think it is a shame to quit all breeding of orcas, as SeaWorld is one of the very best caretakers of marine animals. What you will see is these performances move to other countries (China, Japan, Russia), and American children will be deprived of the awesome pleasure of seeing orcas, etc., firsthand. That is a real shame!

    Secondly, what upsets me just as much is SeaWorld partnering with the AR-led H$U$. Talk about having a fox in the hen house! Obviously, management didn't do their homework on H$U$ and just fell for the dog-and-pony propaganda. That's an even bigger shame!

    1. I am wondering what benefit you see in their orca breeding? They were essentially breeding hybrids...pairings that were between differing populations. The breeding was done not for the conservation of the species but to keep a supply of animals for their tanks. Zoos and Aquariums keep meticulous records on breeding to maintain genetic diversity. To me there is not much value in breeding animals together that do not naturally come in contact with each other in the wild, that are culturally distinct as well.

  9. You're durn tootin' I no longer support the company. And I will do everything in my power to keep that thinking in front of the public. Caveworld's decision ultimately means the extinction of their killer whales, and buying a ticket means you support that extinction.