Exclusive Interview #3: Former SeaWorld Trainer Samantha Berg and the Perils of Orca Captivity (part 2)
Last month, The Orca Project was fortunate to have spent some time with Samantha Berg, M.Ac., L.Ac., Dipl.Ac., a former SeaWorld animal trainer, for an information-packed interview where we discussed the hidden culture of orca trainer safety, her time at SeaWorld Orlando, working alongside belugas and killer whales as well as Tilikum’s arrival in Orlando. Samantha shared her experiences of viewing wild beluga whales along the Alaskan coast and also explored the topic of polar bears, both in captivity and in the wild. If you missed Part 1, you can see it HERE.
Today, Samantha joins us for Part 2 where we’ll take a look into SeaWorld’s secretive breeding program and uncover the “educational” value of marine mammals on display. We’ll also go into the details of why SeaWorld’s proposed safety improvements will not work, and take an explosive, in-depth look at what happened the day of Dawn Brancheau’s tragic death. This is an interview you will not want to miss!
TOP: Welcome back to part 2 of our interview with former SeaWorld Trainer, Samantha Berg. It’s nice to talk with you again, Samantha. Last month, we touched on several topics, including your experiences of working with marine mammals at SeaWorld and your perspective on wildlife up in Alaska. We thank you for your insight! Today we’d like to dig a little deeper into SeaWorld’s proposed safety improvements as well as their “educational” programs. And later, we’ll take a close look at what happened on the day of Dawn Brancheau’s tragic death. But first, we’d like to talk a little bit about SeaWorld’s breeding program. As we know, Tilikum has become the primary breeding stud for orcas in captivity. With the relatively small number of killer whales housed in marine parks, it’s alarming that Tilikum’s genes are so prominent in the population. Thanks to the help of our friend Wendy Cooke, we’ve been able reconstruct Tilikum’s family tree:
TOP: At The Orca Project, we are aware that your undergraduate training at Cornell University was in animal sciences. Can you comment on the ethics and continued use of Tilikum as a breeding stud for SeaWorld?
SAM: Sure. At Cornell University, I learned quite a bit about the meat and dairy cattle industries while studying animal sciences.
The bull cattle being used as breeding studs had to go through years of genetic testing to be accepted into the breeding program. I believe this is standard practice in any reputable breeding program for animals such as horses or dogs.
There are two parts to any successful breeding program. The first is the collections and insemination aspect. The second, more important part is thorough genetic testing through multiple generations to ensure that the semen being used is not passing on unwanted traits or genetic defects to future animals.
(You can read more about this topic HERE from The Orca Project)
Since SW is limited by the small number of captive male orcas in its collection, it’s not like any genetic testing they could do would be meaningful. They have the whales they have, and they are forced to use those whales for breeding. The whole point of a legitimate breeding program is not just to make MORE animals, but to strengthen and diversify the gene pool, thus producing animals that are more resilient, more resistant to disease, and which display the specific kinds of traits that are considered to be desirable.
For dairy cattle, that might be greater milk production or percentage of butter fat in the milk. For dogs it might be temperament, speed or agility, smell acuity etc. For animals intended to live their lives in captivity, you’d think the breeders would be concerned about the temperament and health of the whales in their breeding pool.
Tilikum has sired many calves that either died prematurely, or ended up having health issues. In two cases, Tilikum’s sperm resulted in stillborn calves that caused their mothers to die as well. Not only that, but Tilikum has also clearly demonstrated aggression towards humans on at least 3 occasions that resulted in death.
Speaking of aggression, there is one whale in the SeaWorld collection that is related to both Tilikum and Keto, the Loro Parque whale who killed Alexis. Kohanna’s recent calf, Adan, is Keto’s son and Tilikum’s grandson.
Why would anyone consider breeding an animal that has demonstrated extreme aggression towards humans on numerous occasions? Especially when they know without a doubt that this animal’s progeny will likely continue to interact with humans?
SeaWorld is producing more whales, but there’s no regard for the health of the whales that they are creating or for the safety of the trainers that will interact with those whales.
Fourteen out of twenty-five whales living in SeaWorld’s collection (56%!) are currently carrying Tilikum’s genes. I think you could say that SeaWorld has created more of an “inbreeding program” which jeopardizes the health of their population and their human trainers.
In my opinion, continuing to breed Tilikum is unethical based upon his known aggression towards humans, the number of stillborns he has produced, the two breeding moms that have died giving birth to his calves, and the lack of genetic diversity it perpetuates in the SeaWorld gene pool. Not only is it unethical, it is down right irresponsible. No reputable breeding program in any other animal industry would continue to use this animal as their main breeder considering this information.
TOP: Sam, it is known that you’ve provided at least one written statement to OSHA regarding Sea World’s intention to use “spare air” as a new safety measure. Can you briefly tell us what spare air is, and why SeaWorld would be looking into using this technology? Also, explain briefly why it wouldn’t work.
SAM: “Spare Air” is a term that refers to gear that could be given to trainers to give them access to additional air (oxygen) to prevent them from drowning in the event they are trapped in a pool underwater – either due to an accident (hitting their head and falling in a pool) or due to an animal actively preventing a trainer from exiting the water, as in Keltie, Dawn’s and Alexis’ cases.
Here is a summary of why this technology is impractical for SeaWorld orca trainers:
1. Spare air requires trainers to carry additional equipment and gear which could give the whales something else to grab or bite.
2. At Shamu Stadium in Orlando, the pressure at the bottom of the main show pool is double the pressure at the surface. A trainer taking a breath of compressed air at the bottom of the pool could be at risk of a lung over-expansion injury if a whale decided to take them rapidly to the surface without giving the trainer enough time to exhale. So, spare air could actually kill a trainer instead of save their lives in the event of an attack.
3. The sound of the equipment could agitate or excite the whales, causing unpredictable behavior in an already unstable situation.
4. Killer whale attacks are often fast and violent. Although Keltie’s official cause of death was hypothermia and drowning, the autopsy reports from Alex and Dawn clearly show massive amounts of physical trauma. Therefore, spare air would not have saved Alex or Dawn, and spare air wouldn’t do anything for hypothermia either.
5. In Keltie’s situation, trainers tried to throw her a life ring and she couldn’t get to it because the whales kept her away. I believe that trainers tried to throw Dawn a spare air canister as she resurfaced following the initial take-down… but they were unsuccessful. But even if all three trainers went in the water with scuba gear on or with a smaller spare air canister with mouth piece and regulator already on their person, they likely wouldn’t have been able to access it. View any of the YouTube videos that show the speed and violence of a killer whale attack, and it quickly becomes obvious that the trainer is able to do very little that the whale doesn’t want them to do.
6. Captive whales have been known to ingest objects in the pool either accidentally or intentionally. Kanduke, a male killer whale at SeaWorld had a navigation buoy in his stomach which was found after his death. Nami, the Japanese killer whale who recently died in January 2011, was found to have 180 lbs of rocks in her stomach. Spare air equipment could endanger the lives of the whales if they swallowed a tank or a hose.
The video below from 2004 depicts what happens when a killer whale decides to break from its training. Incidentally, the whale attacking trainer Steve Aibel is Ky (Kyuquot). Ky’s parents are Haida and Tilikum. Haida participated in Keltie Byrne’s death along with Nootka IV and Tilikum.
TOP: Sam, you once told us that your biggest regret at SeaWorld was presenting false information to the young kids that came to SW for education shows or with their families. Can you expand on that comment?
SAM: As I said before, I know a lot more about killer whales in captivity and killer whales in the wild than I did when I worked at SeaWorld. Part of my job at SeaWorld was to narrate “educational” shows for school children visiting the park.
The educational shows differed from the regular shows in that there was a little less spectacular behavior (trainers jumping off of whales) and more time spent teaching children about whale anatomy, habitat and “fun facts” such as “how many pounds of fish does Shamu eat in one day?”
The facts I was trained to present to the children were made up of only the biased information that SeaWorld provided. So, if someone wanted to know why one of the killer whale’s dorsal fins was bent, I would be instructed to reply that killer whale dorsal fins are often bent in the wild. Of course we now know that some dorsal bending does occur in the wild, but complete dorsal collapse (as discussed in a recent paper published by former trainers Drs. John Jett & Jeffrey Ventre) is nearly exclusive to captivity.
The statistics I was told to provide about the lifespan of captive killer whales vs. wild killer whales were also false. (Again, see John and Jeff’s paper for more on this topic)
Even more ironically, after Dawn was killed, I was asked to speak at a local high school about what happened at SeaWorld, and I was only able to tell the children what I knew from when I worked there. I didn’t do any independent research prior to giving that talk, because I assumed the information I had from SeaWorld was accurate. This assumption turned out to be a grave misjudgment on my part. I wish I could go back and tell those kids the truth.
To learn more about this topic it’s worth reading an interview by Frontline with Susan Davis, author of “Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the SeaWorld Experience”. Davis details how every aspect of SeaWorld parks from landscape to concessions to educational material is carefully researched and commercialized to present just the message the company wants to present. Davis suggests that the “education” that one might receive from one of SeaWorld’s shows is equivalent or possibly not as good as the average library book targeted for third graders.
SeaWorld’s “educational” programs are nothing more than a thin veil behind which all of the less savory aspects of the captive marine mammal industry can be found hiding. I actually feel a fair amount of shame when I think about how much misinformation I participated in disseminating over my time at SeaWorld. My hope is that I can use the knowledge that I’ve gained since that time to set the record straight.
TOP: Sam, at The Orca Project, we heard rumors of a “huge demonstration” that was being planned on the anniversary of Dawn Brancheau’s tragic death. Apparently some folks from Jacksonville were planning on coming to SW dressed in wet suits with blonde ponytail wigs. Did you hear of these plans?
SAM: Yes I did.
TOP: Although we understand the message, what does this say about the public’s general understanding of how Dawn was pulled into the water? What are your thoughts on this?
SAM: When Dawn was killed, SeaWorld’s first report to the news media and the public was that a trainer had slipped or fell into the pool and drowned. Only later, after witnesses on CNN and various local outlets began to speak out, did the story evolve. The media and general public are still not informed of what I, and the other former trainers, regard as the truth.
SAM: Dawn’s safety spotter, Jan Topoleski, reported to the Orange Country Sheriff’s department that he saw Dawn’s hair floating on the water into Tilikum’s mouth. However, witness reports of the initial takedown raise a question of whether Jan was watching closely, and saw it. Witnesses have also reported that he lost valuable seconds by not sounding the pool alarm immediately. So there is reason to wonder how clearly Jan saw the grab, if at all.
SAM: I, along with 5 other former SeaWorld trainers, have reviewed the video evidence of Dawn’s last moments with Tilikum. We all agree the most likely explanation is that Tilikum actually had Dawn’s arm in his mouth before he rolled and took her underwater. So, it was an arm grab and not a ponytail grab.
TOP: So, why does SeaWorld still promote the “Pony Tail Theory”?
SAM: There are several reasons why making this distinction is important to SeaWorld:
1. It gives SeaWorld an action they can take to remedy the situation: No female trainers are allowed to wear their hair down – hair must be kept in a bun or cut short. This gives the appearance that SeaWorld is effectively addressing the problem and mitigating the dangers of working with Tilikum and all other orcas.
2. A ponytail grab seems less intentional. People who don’t know anything about killer whales and how they feed in the wild could make the assumption that Tilikum didn’t actually INTEND to grab Dawn, but somehow the accident of her ponytail drifting in his mouth or touching his nose stirred up some kind of instinctual feeding behavior and he grabbed her. SeaWorld is trying to confound the issue by suggesting a reflex type “feeding frenzy” more akin to sharks, not whales.
3. The ponytail theory allows SeaWorld to blame Dawn for being careless and letting her hair drift in his mouth. However, anyone who has worked with killer whales can review the video of Dawn’s last session with Tilikum – and it will become more obvious that the answer as to what happened is more complicated than a simple, instinctual behavior.
4. Finally, if Dawn was grabbed by her ponytail, then it would be reasonable to assume that she could have died right away due to a broken neck from the violence of being whipped around by her head. However, witness statements indicate that Dawn re-surfaced at least once following the initial take-down and that she was likely alive for at least 1- 1/2 minutes into the attack. Thus the scalping that is reported in the ME’s report (which is also the supposed evidence FOR the ponytail grab) probably occurred AFTER Dawn died, not before. I think the idea that Dawn was alive and fighting for her life for this amount of time is likely an image that SW does not want to have people contemplating.
TOP: Based on what we know from the evidence (including witness statements) and after reviewing the video of Dawn’s final interaction with Tilikum, in your opinion, what is the more likely scenario that triggered the attack?
SAM: In the video from the Dine with Shamu show, Tilikum is performing well in the session to start off, but then Dawn “loses” his attention and he starts giving her mediocre responses to her requests. (To view a second by second transcript of Dawn’s last session with Tili, click “HERE” )
For some reason, Dawn continued to work a session with an animal that was not responding well and with minimal food (fish) at her disposal. There is reasonable speculation that VIP’s were in the park that day and it’s possible they viewed the regular Shamu Show “Believe” just prior to the “Dine with Shamu” show. The “Believe” show was interrupted due to social disturbances between the whales. While this social unrest likely played a role in agitating Tilikum, the presence of VIP’s could be an explanation as to why an experienced trainer like Dawn didn’t give him a break. (*see Note 1 below re: VIP’s)
Ultimately, Dawn did put herself in a vulnerable position with Tilikum, but she (and others) had likely done this hundreds of times before with management’s blessing as can be seen in the following photos:
SAM: This time Tilikum decided that pulling Dawn in the water with him was more rewarding than anything else that was going on. Keep in mind that we now know Tilikum had an elevated white blood cell count when he pulled her in, and may not have felt well.
In the final image of Dawn and Tilikum’s interaction before the camera shuts off, it appears that her arm is already in Tilikum’s mouth. He has probably closed down on her arm while she was rubbing his tongue – a behavior known as “tongue tactile”. But instead of calling out to the spotter, she is quietly giving him a “neutral response” hoping that Tilikum will open his mouth and let go. Jan Topoleski likely didn’t see that this was happening and, in the end, possibly offered a story that sounded plausible so it would not appear that he wasn’t paying attention.
TOP: In a little more than a year, at least 5 orcas have died in captivity… (4 at SeaWorld parks, including the stillborn calf of Taima) along with 2 young trainers. Do you see anything positive that may come out of all of this tragedy?
SAM: Yes. Since Dawn’s death last year, the topic of killer whales in captivity has been in the media more frequently than at any other time I can remember. Already 7 ex-SeaWorld trainers have stepped forward to highlight the brutality, isolation, over-breeding and other wrongs that were perpetrated on these animals for the sake of commercialized entertainment. Many more ex-trainers will likely come forward, and we welcome them (*see note 1 below), as the accumulated evidence demonstrates beyond a doubt that these magnificent, intelligent and highly social animals do not belong in tanks for the purpose of entertaining people.
I think that the recent deaths and tragedies have started a chain of events that will be viewed from some vantage point in the future as a kind of “Rosa Parks moment” for killer whales.
SAM: I recently saw a preview of Stan Minasian’s movie, “A Fall From Freedom”, which examines the captive killer whale industry (**see Note 2 below for more info). In the movie, Ric O’Barry, former animal trainer for the television show Flipper, is interviewed about how he would like to see marine parks evolve and change in the future. O’Barry points out that the Monterey Bay Aquarium has 1.8 million visitors per year and manages to provide a highly educational experience for its guests without having any live whales on display. Instead, the aquarium has life sized models of many different types of whales.
In the interview, O’Barry also references the 1997-1998 rehabilitation of a sick grey whale at SeaWorld of San Diego. People came from everywhere to view and support SeaWorld’s efforts in treating AND releasing an animal back to the wild. This generated plenty of income for the park. SeaWorld and other marine parks have the potential to do a great service by helping to rescue, rehabilitate and return animals back to their natural environment.
In my opinion, the only conclusion that can be drawn from the overwhelming amount of evidence that has been collected here at The Orca Project and all over the internet, is this: We must stop capturing more killer whales, stop breeding killer whales in captivity, work to release any animals that are healthy enough to survive on their own, and retire unhealthy, un-releasable animals (like Tilikum) to sea pens where they can live out their life with their companions in a much less stressful environment.
TOP: Thank you Samantha for speaking with us today. This concludes our interview. Try to stay warm in Alaska! :)
If you missed Part 1 of our exclusive interview with Samantha… you can read it HERE.
*NOTE 1: If anyone reading this interview has further information regarding the topic of VIP’s in the park on the date of Dawn’s death or at any other time, please comment or write directly to The Orca Project. This information can be passed along to the proper authorities. Also, if you are a trainer, former or otherwise, and would like to speak out, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. We welcome your insights and any information you provide can be done so with conditions of anonymity.
**Note 2: The theatrical release of Stan Minasian’s newly-cut film “A Fall From Freedom” is being aired on PBS stations nationwide begining in June 2012 with all new footage. Check your local programming schedule or contact your local PBS affiliate to request that they show this amazing film. The complete uncut (80 minute) version is now also available FREE online for viewing any time! Click HERE to watch!
“This film documents the tragic history of the industry where the killer whale, beluga whale and dolphin are torn from their close-knit families in violent and often illegal captures. We witness footage of trainer injuries caused by killer whales driven to violence by the stress of captivity, contrasted with the mesmerizing social interactions and herd camaraderie exhibited by these gentle and peaceful animals in their ocean kingdom.”~ linktv.org
The Orca Project has previewed this film, which is a MUST SEE for anyone who wants to learn the truth behind the captive marine mammal industry. Thank you to Stan Minasian and EarthViews Productions for bringing this important feature to the public!
On June 8, 2012 Samantha was a guest on the Sam Simon Radio Show talking about SeaWorld, orcas and the OSHA ruling. The show streamed live and is probably one of the most in-depth and informative interviews on the topic of killer whales since the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. You can listen to the incredible 45 minute interview any time HERE. And for another guest appearance on the Sam Simon Show, Samantha joined author & journalist Tim Zimmermann of Outside Magazine HERE. Both interviews are well worth a listen!
And be sure to check out our other former trainer interviews:
For more information and exclusive content, visit Samantha Berg’s page HERE at Voice of the Orcas, a new website created by four former SeaWorld trainers, sharing a common philosophy to provide a voice to those without.