6 Awful Realities Behind the Scenes at SeaWorld

A few years ago, I began working as a dolphin-training intern at SeaWorld Orlando. After half a decade of volunteering at every backwoods animal shelter and zoo I could find, as well as building my entire academic career around this possibility, I was finally reaping the benefits of my labors and working my dream job, so I lived happily ever after.

Or not.

By the end of the summer, I had seen enough to make me leave the field, throwing away a five-year career and my childhood dreams forever. Why? Well ...

#6. Lying Is a Requirement of the Job

Hongqi Zhang/Hemera/Getty Images

Despite its best efforts to look like an amusement park, SeaWorld is still a zoo. And in a zoo, animals get sick, get old, and die. But since this was SeaWorld, we couldn't afford to let the guests see animals get hurt, any more than Disneyland could let guests catch a glimpse of the high-functioning meth addicts that run the It's a Small World ride.

vidguten/iStock/Getty Images
"It's the only way to stop their voices."

For example, we were opening a new exhibit at my park that involved us quickly moving a ton of sharks and stingrays, dashing them across the park and dropping them in new homes with virtually no notice, because management needed the exhibit opened fast for "media day."

It might be weird to think of sharks and rays as emotionally delicate, but they are: They were extremely stressed out by being moved to a new home, and having a tidal wave of loud strangers with flashy cellphones crash through the very next day didn't help much. The rays started beaching themselves -- hurling their bodies out of the water and onto the sandy artificial beach at the edge of the tank -- in a desperate attempt to escape.

Nathan Schepker/iStock/Getty Images
It's just like when humans can't take it anymore and dive into a pool to die.

Of course, we can't tell the starry-eyed guests that the adorable critters are literally killing themselves to get away from their peering tourist faces, so we told the guests they were giving birth. This wasn't little Billy's terrifying first glimpse of death and corporate apathy, it was the miracle of life! And forever after, Billy will wonder why he associates suicide with the sea.

This kind of stuff is the reason SeaWorld locks its employees' social lives. No pictures can ever be taken at work without express permission of management, and you're never allowed to discuss what you do at work with other people -- even family and co-workers. Our social media lives were monitored closely. Even if this article were totally positive, writing it would probably get me blacklisted if I still worked there.

Federico Rostagno/iStock/Getty Images
From the park and from the entire ocean, for all the world's seas are their domain.

And no one ever challenges these rules because from day one they own you and they know it: It is made abundantly clear that if you have an issue with the way things are done, there are a thousand other people out there who would sell a kidney for the chance to take your job, and if that happens, your days of jacking off dolphins are over. At least on a professional level.

#5. Animals Die for the Bottom Line


My part of the park dealt with guests who had paid to swim with dolphins. If the dolphins weren't feeling it that day, or they had been overworked, or something had gone wrong with an earlier encounter, well, fish ain't free, dolphins. Time to take one for corporate, Flipper. When management did finally decide that our dolphins were getting overworked, they buckled and agreed to add some new hires.

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To be paid for by cutting the existing employees' dental plans.

Are you picturing adorable dolphin interviews, all wearing little ties and squeaking out what they consider to be their strengths? Maybe you should look away; this part will do your pure, innocent heart no good. They just grabbed a baby dolphin and started prepping for his "interactions." That meant separating him from his mother and moving him into an all-male dolphin pod that afternoon. He died that night.

You might say "these things happen," only no, they officially don't. The media never found out, partly because even employees of the park weren't allowed to discuss it among themselves. If you didn't see it happen, you never found out how this baby dolphin died -- even though, as a trainer, that kind of information could be vital to your job. Was this the start of a dolphin plague? A tragic hoop-based accident? Sea rage? What do we need to change to make sure it doesn't happen again? Nobody knew. Any questions had to be directed to management, to be answered by someone who wore a tie to work instead of a wetsuit.

Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Not even a wet tie.

I'm not saying that SeaWorld is an evil place, but I am saying that some animals shouldn't be held in captivity. That's the core issue, and the one that they'll do anything to spin an argument away from. SeaWorld recently "set the record straight" with this letter, talking about all the conservation and animal rescue work they make possible. But the issue isn't (and has never been) whether they're also doing nice things on the side; that's like hitting a hobo with your car and cheerfully explaining that, for every homeless person you run down, you donate six action figures to Toys for Tots. The issue is that you can't provide enough stimulation or space to keep these animals mentally and physically healthy -- it fosters aggression in their behavior and makes the job dangerous and the situation inhumane. It isn't right; these creatures are too smart.

#4. You're a Product, Too

Anthony Ong/Photodisc/Getty Images

At the time, getting this job was the greatest moment of my life. Working for SeaWorld meant that I had been chosen out of hundreds to work at the most famous and highly regarded institution in the world. This was because of my experience, skills, and expertise. Right?

Zurijeta/iStock/Getty Images
Or was I grabbed as a baby and prepped for my "interactions"?

Not really. SeaWorld is an entertainment industry, and as such, hiring is every bit as soulless as casting a reality show. The fact that I screwed up the interview process (and boy, did I ever) didn't end up mattering because I looked the part, and my personality seemed marketable. One senior trainer I spoke to explained that she had never trained an animal before: She got the job not because of her expertise, but because she looked good in a wetsuit and was dating a trainer.

Don't believe me? Go look up pictures of SeaWorld right now. Spot any ugly orca trainers? No? Only beautiful people spend their lives studying oceanic sciences and marine biology? Not one Oddjob-looking dude in history has been qualified to work with the animals? Seems a little suspicious.

via Orlando Sentinel
"I love working with okras!"

As documentaries like Blackfish have shown, this field is goddamn dangerous. I worked with dolphins, an animal whose first priority is being a huge dickbag all day every day. Putting someone in charge of "training" them armed with nothing more than a few bits of trivia they can parrot back to guests is stupidly unsafe. Most of the trainers, at their best, ended up working to maintain animal behaviors that better trainers taught the animals first, because that was all they could do.

But I didn't care. Living that life was utterly intoxicating: People wanted to take pictures with me and asked for my autograph, and little kids acted like I was a superhero. I worked with the most incredible animals in the world. In fact, I was so intoxicated, I didn't even notice all the blood congealing around my nipples. Because as it turns out ...

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