Training killer whales as dancing partners is a sensitive business, hovering somewhere on the cusp of science and art. Trainers say it takes the eye of a ball player, the intuitions of a psychoanalyst and, occasionally, the nerves of a fighter pilot.
Communication between animal and trainer occurs through a private vocabulary of gestures, posture, a quick sweep of a fin. A sudden leap or a sharp bump might signal affection or aggression. A trainer who misinterprets may fall dangerously out of step.
“You need to be able to read your animals, to see if anything is bothering them,” said Karen Pryor, an animal behaviorist and longtime marine mammal trainer. “Killer whales, if they get angry, the white of the eye turns red. You never want them to get that angry.”
Sea World of San Diego for 20 years has pioneered in the personal approach to training captive killer whales, using psychological techniques to choreograph the extraordinary whale ballet that is the symbol and centerpiece of the giant marine park chain.
But in recent weeks, it has become clear that something is terribly awry. A young trainer remains hospitalized after being virtually crushed by a killer whale. In the aftermath, a rash of other trainer injuries has come to light, including 14 in the past five months.
Suddenly, Sea World has banished its trainers from the killer whale pools. It has banned all contact between whales and trainers or the audience. And its parent company has abruptly fired the park’s top officials in charge of animal care and training.
The park president, also fired, is suing the company. Animal rights groups have begun picketing outside the park. And last week, William Jovanovich, chairman of Sea World’s parent company, let it be known that he would happily unload the entire chain, for the right price.
The fault, Jovanovich made clear, lies within Sea World: He blamed park management, supervision and the way trainers and whales have been trained. Others have blamed corporate demands on the park as chain rapidly expanded.
In a series of interviews in recent weeks with current and former Sea World employees, former Sea World trainers, and specialists in psychology and animal behavior, Sea World’s troubles were traced to a concatenation of causes:
The killer whale show has evolved over the past 15 years into a highly ambitious affair--an array of increasingly elaborate and frequent performances demanding exquisite timing and teamwork by both the animals and the trainers.
The park has grown enormously since its inception in the mid-1960s, spawning a nationwide chain with a fourth park scheduled to open in Texas in May, 1988. Each year has brought new attractions, new crowds and new shows. Whales are flown from park to park and managers face a host of new challenges in supervising the expanding network of trainers.
Many of the more experienced trainers have left in recent years, citing low pay, internal politics and pressures that come with growth. Relatively inexperienced trainers were left to execute complicated tricks developed by trainers who had spent 10 to 20 years on the job.
Meanwhile, tension among the whales in the San Diego park increased recently. With the new park planned, Sea World had been eager to expand its stable of 12 killer whales. Blocked from capturing in the wild, the company had turned to breeding in captivity.
Toward that end, it had opened a new whale pool five times the size of the last and had brought to San Diego a pair of adult whales from Marineland, the Palos Verdes park that Sea World bought and then closed. Bringing in the new whales--a longtime breeding couple--may have encouraged breeding but also increases tension and the likelihood of unpredictable behavior, trainers and other experts say.
“It sounded to me like things were getting progressively more and more out of control,” said Dennis Kelly, a professor of marine biology at Orange Coast College and a longtime observer and critic of Sea World. ". . . It was obvious that Sea World was trying to do too much, too fast, in an unpredictable situation and with a flawed training philosophy.”
Against that backdrop, the Nov. 21 accident occurred.
John Sillick, a 26-year-old trainer with less than two years’ experience, was riding on the back of a female killer whale during a show, when Orky, the five-ton male brought from Marineland, leaped from the pool as part of the performance and landed on Sillick.
The crushing blow fractured Sillick’s pelvis, thigh and ribs. One month later, he remains hospitalized at UC San Diego Medical Center.
Cause of Accident?
HBJ has investigated the accident, but has not released its conclusions about the precise cause.
One source within Sea World said there had been sexual activity involving the male whale shortly before the show, introducing a complex variable into the equation. He likened conducting a performance under such circumstances to riding a mare in season in the presence of a stallion.
Others blame trainer error or inexperience, which they in turn blame on top Sea World officials and Jovanovich, chairman of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Management policies in hiring and training, they charge, indirectly placed whales and trainers in danger.
But Jovanovich, at least in part, has blamed the training methods that psychologists and trainers say was one of Sea World’s contributions to the field. In a press conference earlier this month, Jovanovich concluded that the so-called Sea World method had failed.
So far, Jovanovich has been the only company official to speak in detail about the troubles at Sea World, which, in his press conference, he traced to “negligence” by top park managers, accusing them of failing adequately to supervise the whale show.
Company officials declined even to discuss the park’s training methods.
“The organization is in flux and we are also looking at some of our approaches to training,” explained Jackie Hill, the park’s spokeswoman (who was also briefly suspended for speaking about the accident to the press). “We just need time to sort things out.”
By all accounts, training killer whales is a tricky undertaking.
The killer whale, orca, is the largest and fastest member of the dolphin family. Males can grow to 31 feet in length and weight four to five tons. Females are somewhat smaller. Orcas are highly intelligent and social. They communicate through a broad language of social signals including sounds, postures, gestures and patterns of movement.
A slap of the tail or head on the water or a twisting leap can be expressions of anger or frustration. Cuffing, striking and “raking” with the teeth can be used to signal annoyance. A simple bump may be an expression of either affection or aggression.
“Guessing about the motives of animals is like batting in professional baseball,” Tim Desmond, a long-time Marineland trainer, once wrote. “A great hitter hits safely 30% of the time, but someone who gets a hit only 20% of the time is dropped from the team.”
The ideal qualifications for a training job, therefore, are a complex mix.
Supervisors say the best trainers have some background in marine biology or psychology. They have a lifelong love of animals and are sensitive and intuitive. They are also athletic, attractive, poised in public--and willing to work for little more than minimum wage.
Chris Harris began at age 16 in Sea World’s food service department. After six years as a trainer, he says he was making $6.10 an hour in 1985. Vic Charfauros got his start dressed as a pirate being shot out of a volcano during an aquatic show. Jonathan Smith started work in 1985 at $5.05 an hour.
The work can be emotionally and physically draining. Trainers have compared it to roping steer or flying fighter jets. Bruises are the norm, even in shows that don’t entail Sea World’s acrobatics. Trainers say it can take a good five years to become skilled.
“It’s like a chess game,” said Karen Pryor, an author and animal behaviorist who began working with porpoises in 1963. " . . . That’s what keeps people in there when it’s raining and you have fish scales under your fingernails.”
“Not only do you have to know your animal, but your animal has to know you,” said Desmond, who now works as a consultant for zoos and aquariums. “A personal relationship is necessary--some kind of personal bonding between the animal and the trainer.”
A trainer’s own mood, too, can disrupt communication.
“There’s a rule of thumb in the department,” said Sonny Allen, marine mammal training director at Marine World Africa USA in Vallejo. “If you’re upset, hung over, have personal problems or don’t feel good, don’t go near the animals.”
The consequences of poor training can be severe, scientists say.
Animal behaviorists say providing adequate stimulation and allowing the animals some control over their environment can play a central role in health and longevity. Also essential is avoiding stress, which can make the animals subject to a variety of diseases.
Fish for Tricks
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the captive killer whale industry was young, training techniques were relatively crude.
The basic principles were those of operant conditioning, in which desired behavior is “reinforced” with rewards. The reward was food and all good behavior was rewarded. Fish for tricks, some observers have called it.
But trainers at Sea World realized that system was unnatural. They say they were running the risk of turning the animals into spoiled children, unable to cope with small frustrations and perhaps prone to tantrums that could disrupt a public performance.
So they gradually shifted to a less predictable system and expanded the rewards used for reinforcement. They began replacing the traditional fish with toys, games, interaction with other animals and tactile stimulation, such as rubdowns.
The idea was to keep the animals guessing.
“In an oceanarium, where public visits are the norm, it’s important that you have some degree of reliability in performance,” said Bruce Stephens, a Sea World trainer from 1970 until 1985. “The higher the state of the motivation, the more varied and interesting the reinforcers, the higher the level of performance.”
The animals’ tricks, or “behaviors,” expanded accordingly. The trainers began to vary the sequences, directions and where tricks were performed. Gradually, the trainers began spending more and more time in the water, playing and performing with the whales.
Out of simple rides around the pool evolved elaborate acrobatics. Trainers took to riding on the whales’ snouts and swimming underwater with the whales. Leaps, dives and spectacular feats seemed to grow naturally out of the growing bond between the trainers and whales.
“It evolved into a situation where there was much more personal contact, personal relationship with the animals,” said Vic Charfauros, who worked at Sea World for 19 years. The key, he and others said, was the relationship between trainer and animal.
“When you train an animal, you build up a history with that animal over a long period of time,” said Desmond. " . . . Very important in any training situation is this one-to-one familiarity.”
Worked With Orky
As an example, Desmond referred to his work with Orky, the male killer whale he trained at Marineland for seven years--the same whale that is now at Sea World and was involved in the accident that injured John Sillick.
Once he was mature, Orky dominated his mate, Corky, to a point where she would not work and would even refuse to eat, Desmond said. Although Desmond was able to train Orky to allow Corky’s participation, he opted in the end to overlook some expressions of dominance.
“If a mature animal sees some situation as a threat to its dominance . . . you had to give ground on that,” said Desmond. " . . . In my experience, you just swallow a little pride. It’s a subtle set of compromises.
“I allowed that stuff to stay because it gave them a way to express their social interactions in a way that didn’t mess up our shows,” he added. “It’s my opinion that when the animal has some control over events in his environment, I think it’s less stressed.”
Sea World’s successes in the early 1970’s brought growth--a new seasonal park in Ohio in 1970 and a year-round one in Orlando, Fla., in 1973. In 1976, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich bought the parks, now one of the nation’s largest amusement park chains, second only to Disney in number of visitors.
The training expertise once concentrated in San Diego became spread between Florida and California. And the number of trainers increased steadily, creating new management challenges in a business that had never been practiced on such a broad scale.
“There’s subtlety in training,” said Desmond. “I think that one of the risks of larger systems is that many times, it’s a demanding subjective process and trainers can get way out of line in everyday activities. . . . As a supervisor, I found it very, very difficult to supervise.”
In 1985, David Butcher, a longtime San Diego trainer who had gone on to supervise training in Florida, took over training at all the parks. According to former trainers, Butcher, who could not be reached for an interview, attempted to standardize the system and imposed practices that alienated some veterans.
“It was arbitrary, and it made it confusing for the animals,” said Chris Harris, who left that year for a job at Marineland. " . . . We had the old motto of, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Why change the environment of a happy, healthy animal?”
Many of the experienced trainers quit or transferred to other parts of the park. Some went to better paying jobs at Marineland or the San Diego Zoo. Others went on to work in marine mammal research for the Navy or set up their own consulting firms.
Vic Charfauros, now a sea lion trainer at the zoo, left in 1985 after 21 years at Sea World because of cuts in employee benefits, he said. Charfauros said only five of the estimated 27 trainers with whom he worked in 1985 are still working in the killer whale show.
“They had to hire a whole bunch of rookies,” said Harris. “The experienced trainers had to do the shows and didn’t have time to spend with the rookies to get them to be good. . . . Some of those would quit. . . . Then you’d have poorly trained rookies training rookies.”
Some trainers and observers say the performances visibly deteriorated.
“When the behavior started to deteriorate, the trainers lacked the skill to repair the behavior,” said R.H. Defran, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University who helped train trainers at Sea World in the early 1970s.
“So they would have these exotic shows where animals were starting to deteriorate in their behaviors, the show must go on, they had no time to retrain. . . . I mean, this would naturally place enormous pressure on the animals and enormous pressure on the trainers.”
The real risks would arise if something began to go wrong.
“For example, you wouldn’t want to put an inexperienced person in the water by himself,” said Harris. “Because if something goes wrong or an animal starts to misbehave, at that point it’s really a touch-and-go situation.
“An experienced trainer will see a problem coming long before an inexperienced trainer,” he added. “If I’m working with an animal and I see a look in his eye that I’ve seen before, he’s going to try and pull a fast one.”
Jonathan Smith, a 19-year-old business major at Point Loma College in San Diego, was hired in November, 1985, as a trainer in the seal and otter show. He figures he got the job because he was athletic, a strong swimmer and was able “to speak well on a microphone.”
Smith described his training as “learn-as-you-go.” After one year, he was transferred to the killer whale show. Within about one week, he was in the water with the whales, he said. Among the trainers working with him, some had less experience.
On March 4, 1987, Smith was injured during a performance when two whales took him in their jaws and repeatedly dragged him 32 feet down to the bottom of the whale pool. After some two and a half minutes, he managed to climb out and collapsed backstage, Smith said last week.
He was hospitalized for nine days with bruised kidneys and ribs and a six-inch laceration in his liver. There was only a brief newspaper account. It quoted Butcher as saying, “These guys were playing and got a little carried away and bumped into Jon.”
Smith’s lawyer said he is contemplating a lawsuit against Sea World. But so far, neither Smith nor any other trainer in recent years has taken legal action against the park, according to records on file in Superior Court.
Injuries to other trainers followed. Last summer, Jovanovich asked park managers for a “white paper” on training methods. Jovanovich now contends he was misled by the authors of the white paper about the extent and severity of the injuries.
After the Nov. 21 accident, Jovanovich ordered his own investigation by a team of four HBJ executives. That group unearthed 14 injuries in the previous four months, including a number of neck and back injuries.
It also found that three of the five trainers conducting the show at the time of the accident had no more than three months’ experience. Sillick, after a year and three quarters, was the most experienced person, and there was no supervisor nearby.
“The fact-finding by our committee showed that there was negligence,” Jovanovich said. " . . . It showed that three of the trainers had such meager training, it was a wonder they could even perform the most elementary aspects of their positions.”
Jovanovich suspended Butcher, park president Jan Schultz and zoological director Lanny Cornell, the park’s longtime zoological director and a well-known figure in the world of captive marine mammals. The company is currently discussing severance with the three former managers.
Also as a result of the accident, Jovanovich has prohibited trainers at all the parks from going in the water with the whales, and has barred the direct human contact that has been central to killer whale training at Sea World.
Some trainers suggested that decision--especially if linked to a return to the more rudimentary training practices of the past--might be the ultimate disservice.
“I think it’s a shame for the animals,” said one former Sea World trainer, speaking anonymously. “They’re used to that contact. It’s part of their environment. How would you feel if you could go about your daily routines but nobody was around? Think about it.”