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.
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 ...
Lying Is a Requirement of the Job
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You're a Product, Too
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?
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.
"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 ...
Working There Rips Your Body Apart
My day would start as early as 4:30 a.m. in the fish house, and in addition to loading several tons of fish (dolphins eat a lot), you need to completely sanitize the entire room several times a day with a harsh compound comprised of abrasive chemicals and the tears of interns. After about three days of scrubbing buckets, picking scales off of steel surfaces, and ripping apart frozen fish, my hands started to look like wads of hamburger and baby teeth.
A dolphin's second-favorite food.
While you may know that a wetsuit is great for insulation, most people aren't going to realize that it can be pretty harsh on your body. This is why so many surfers tape their nipples before suiting up: It's the only way to keep those tender little nubs from getting sandpapered off. And it didn't help that we all shared the wetsuits -- and that some of us liked to go commando.
The chafing eventually gets so bad that trainers end up slathering diaper-rash cream all over their bodies before they clock in. All that water, sun, and friction ends in a much less sensual way than you would expect any combination of those three words to achieve. And speaking of the sun, did you know that shit causes cancer? Your whole day involves milling around in the water with no shade -- I knew a guy who had been there 15 years and gotten reconstructive surgery on his nose three times because the sun had damaged it so badly.
"This time, make it look like a whatsitcalled. One of those fish with swords."
So yeah, remember all those happy, pretty wet folks from that image search earlier? Picture stripping that wetsuit off of them and finding just a big quivering lump of athlete's foot spilling out like melted Jell-O. It's a goddamn Carpenter film up in your drawers.
The Guests Are Drunken Lunatics
The majority of guests are ... well, I don't want to say "terrible people," but they are normally good folks who just emptied their bank accounts to bring their entire family down to Florida (on purpose!) just to visit a baking hot zoo that's been advertised like it's a freaking amusement park. Then we gave them free booze. That's like an instruction sheet on how to build an asshole.
Step 3: Surround the subject with silly, easily mocked victims.
Yes, in many cases, the alcohol is comped. My park made the spectacular decision to offer an "all-inclusive package" that roughly translated to "come get shitfaced and ride some dolphins!" Which ... sounds pretty awesome, at first. The reality is less so.
Some guests were heavily inebriated parents who had given up control of their children to the wild, while others would flirt with the trainers in full view of their spouses, and others just wanted to find a semi-secluded spot to bone in the water. I'm no prude, but for the love of God, please keep your drunken canoodling ass away from the wild predatory animals that I am in charge of protecting.
"Tell me more about this ... blowhole of yours."
When I was working in the aviary, a big caged-in exhibit filled with exotic birds, my job was to hand out cups of food to the guests passing through and educate them about the wildlife. Next to me was a tawny frogmouth -- an owly-looking bird that sits perfectly still most of the day.
So I was standing there, explaining something awesome to a kid with eyes as big as saucers (easily the best part of the job), when a guest walked straight up to the bird, squinted his eyes in confusion, and shoved him off his perch as hard as he could. Down went the bird, out flipped me. I would later be reprimanded for cussing at a guest, but the drunken guy walked away like nothing had happened, free to dick his way through the rest of the animal kingdom.
Animals Are Even Grosser Than You Think
You know who is way into masturbation? OK, no, don't raise your hands. We're talking about animals here, remember? Animals are huge fans of freeing willy.
That's why seals are always all lubed up.
Walruses in particular like to jerk it, and I knew trainers who had to, on multiple occasions, swim through a rich, foamy latte of walrus semen. One was just getting in the water to train when a walrus decided to empty the old chum bucket. After he finished ... well, she had to continue working through it, because she was an animal trainer, and being a trainer sometimes means taking a bath in interspecies jizz. They tend not to put that part in the recruitment pamphlets.
But this wasn't some weird crush the walrus had on his trainer or anything: He got off on public masturbation. Seriously, he'd do it in front of guests because they would -- without fail -- start applauding, and he loved that shit. Exhibitionism fetishes aren't limited to humans.
They told him that if he kept masturbating, his tusks would fall out, but did he listen?
Quick aside: You want to know what maggot feces tastes like? No, you say? Please, God, I'll do anything not to know that, you say?
Don't get a job at SeaWorld.
Since lizards and birds eat maggots, we used to get these gigantic tubes of them for feeding. For a while it was my job to pop them open and act as a grub delivery man. When you pop the tubes open, there's always a big puff of sweet-smelling powder that utterly inundates you -- your arms, your face, up your nose, and even down your throat. And that sweet, sweet powder, my friends, is the poop. Maggot poop.
Maggot poop tastes sweet, like honey. Good luck unknowing that.
JF Sargent once touched a dolphin in the wild, so suck it, SeaWorld. He's also on Twitter and Facebook. Chitinous Radula no longer works in animal training.
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