Samantha Berg Interview
Robin: What years did you work at Sea World and what inspired you to become a trainer?
Samantha: I worked at SeaWorld from February of 1990 to August of 1993. Many things inspired me to want to be a trainer, but I think it was back when I was a little girl watching TV programs like the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom that I remember wanting to swim with dolphins.
Years later, I graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Animal Science, and realized I didn’t want to go to Vet School immediately out of college, so I started thinking about other things I could do with my degree. I sent my resume to every zoo and aquarium and marine park in the country and got an interview at SeaWorld - so that’s where I went.
Robin: There are so many unsettling moments in this film and such complexity when you educate yourself more on what's happening. What prompted you to leave?
Samantha: My main reason for leaving was that I felt I could make more of a difference in the lives of the animals if I went back to school for Veterinary Medicine or if I could use my behavioral knowledge gained at SeaWorld and combine that with a degree in Architecture or Facility design. I realized back then that the SeaWorld vets were still practicing “frontier medicine” and there was still a lot to be learned about keeping marine mammals healthy in captivity. I also felt that although SeaWorld’s facilities were the best in the world, they were still woefully inadequate for the needs of some of the animals - I thought we could do a better job giving the animals more of a normal life.
Most of the things I know about the animals I actually learned in the past three years since Dawn died. So, while I’d like to say that I left for moral reasons, I am actually more outraged NOW than I was 20 years ago. Knowing what I know now about the limited lives of killer whales in captivity compared to the lives they leave in the wild (that goes for all of the large animals at SeaWorld!) I would never have taken a job at SeaWorld in the first place.
Robin: I remembered during the Q&A, you mentioned losing friends (on Facebook) when you began to speak out on the film. I find it interesting how when you become active in animal well being, what's right your coined "activist" with this odd idea of crazy people. For myself, I found so many are kind, gracious and truly are the greatest heroes to help these animals. What has your experience during this
Samantha: Yes, I’ve found that everyone I’ve met since I became involved in the anti-captivity movement has been kind, and caring and generally wants the best for the animals. Most so-called “activists” know way more about the animals than I ever did while I was a trainer at SeaWorld, and I am still learning from so many people about the animals that I thought I knew.
Interestingly, SeaWorld calls anyone who thinks they know more about how their animals should be taken care of than they do an “activist”. So, while I was working at SeaWorld, many prominent scientists were referred to as “activists” as well. In the past few years, I have been honored to meet and work together with esteemed marine mammal scientists such as Dr. Naomi Rose, Dr. Lori Marino and Dr. Ingrid Visser. These three woman have dedicated their lives to studying marine mammals and their findings cannot be discounted by calling them “activists” and thus dismissing their life’s work as SeaWorld often tries to do.
And, by the way, as far as I am concerned, an “activist” is simply someone who takes action. So, I have no problem with the term at all. It is SeaWorld who uses the word “activist” as a derogatory term - and their employees have been basically brainwashed to see “activists” as crazy outsiders who are trying to bad mouth SeaWorld because they don’t know how great the whales actually have it in captivity. I think “Blackfish” does a great job of showing that nothing could be further from the truth.
Robin: For those who have not seen the film, the idea of Sea World educating has become a joke when it's truly about the entertainment at the expense of the harms on these animals in captivity. Could you confirm the actual sizes of their tanks and also the drilling of their teeth?
Samantha: I don’t know the actual sizes of all the tanks - but I can tell you that all the killer whale facilities were built in the mid-80’s to early 90’s. Orlando was finished in 1985, San Diego in 1987 and Texas in 1989 or 1990. So all the facilities are outdated. Also whales are routinely kept in the med pools for various reasons besides husbandry issues - and those pools are only about 15 feet width by 30 feet long and 8 ft deep. Of course the other pools are much larger, but take Tilikum, for example, the largest animal in SeaWorld’s collection. Only two the pools in the Orlando facility are deeper than he is long.
As far as the tooth drilling is concerned, here’s the deal: SeaWorld says the whales are receiving “superior dental care,” but this is not the case. In actuality the whales break their teeth by chewing on the steel bars of the gates that separate the pools and they also “jaw pop” at each other during dominance displays due to the unnatural/artificial social groups at SeaWorld. One a whale breaks a tooth, they are subjected to a procedure called a “pulpotomy” whereby the broken tooth is hollowed out with a drill, the drill goes down to the bone and this is done without anesthesia. Then the whales teeth need to be flushed several times per day with a modified water-pik type tool to make sure “food plugging” doesn’t happen. If fish gets stuck in their teeth it could cause an infection that would lead to severe illness or death. You can read more about this in Dr. Jeffrey Ventre and John Jett’s excellent paper, “Keto and Tilikum Express the Stress of Captivity” http://theorcaproject.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/keto-tilikum-express-stress-of-orca-captivity/
Robin: I giggled during the film where Sea World trainers on staff were explaining the bend dorsil fin as natural. Again, what these animals need and in the wild is so abruptly imprisoned while at sea parks. Could you elaborate on the attacks the Orcas have sharing the same pool as they are pulled from their own pod and not in a natural environment at all. Especially, Tilikum who has really gone through a beating.
Samantha: It’s pretty simple. SeaWorld is constantly changing the composition of the social structure at all three Shamu stadiums, either by moving whales around in the pools at the stadiums or moving whales from one park to another. They separate moms from babies if they feel it is necessary and they are mostly focused on trying to get the best show possible - it’s not about what’s best for the whales. (It used to be about breeding animals but now there is an artificial insemination program, so they can just move sperm around instead of actual whales.)
While I was at SeaWorld, they had Icelandic whales in with animals from the Pacific Northwest and there were transient animals in with residents. These whales speak different languages and have different customs” and are almost different species. It’s like putting a bunch of people together from different countries in a small house and expecting them to get along.
The social situations are so unnatural that they ultimately lead to aggression amongst the animals. Killer whales are a matriarchal society and we know that, at least in the case of Pacific Northwest Whales, males spend about 70% of the time within a couple of body lengths of their moms, and they never leave their mothers pods, for life. Therefore, males gain their social status from their mothers. Tilikum was taken from his mom at about 2 1/2 years old and he has spent the rest of his life since that abduction as one of the least dominant animals in the SeaWorld social structure. So, he has been brutally attacked by the females for his entire life in captivity.
Robin: The scenes of hunting and capturing the Orcas for captivity are horrific. When did that change? When did Sea World begin in the in captivity breeding program and share with our readers how that process is and especially how it's so unnatural for the killer whales.
SeaWorld was ejected from the state of Washington in the 1976 (you can learn more by watching “A Fall From Freedom” or Frontline’s “A Whale of a Business” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/whales/etc/cron.html
) Very soon after that, SeaWorld started capturing whales in Iceland. Although SeaWorld no longer captures killer whales from the wild, the drive fishery is still active Taiji Japan (watch “The Cove” ) and although SeaWorld doesn’t get animals directly from there, other facilities do. Also, other countries, like Russia still capture killer whales from the wild.
Also, Morgan is worth mentioning here. Morgan, a female Killer Whale, was found sick and alone off the coast of Norway a few years ago, and she was moved to the Dolfinarium Harderwijk in Holland, a facility that has had an alliance with SeaWorld for many years. Once it was determined that Morgan was not a good release candidate, despite objections by many scientists and whale experts, Morgan was then relocated to Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. All the whales at Loro Parque are owned by SeaWorld, and their training is supervised by SeaWorld staff. Morgan will now become, by default, a SeaWorld owned whale, and any progeny produced will be the property of SeaWorld.
The captive breeding program is presented by SeaWorld as a much more humane way to perpetuate the species in captivity, but in reality it is horrific for the whales in other ways. First of all, 54% of SeaWorld’s whales are genetically related to Tilikum, an animal that has been responsible for the deaths of three people. Second, SeaWorld breeds their animals much earlier than they would ever have babies in the wild. Most wild killer whales would have their first calf in their teens and then at about 5 year intervals. SeaWorld routinely breeds their female whales at 6-7 years old and then they breed them again as soon as they begin to ovulate again after pregnancy. Given that the size of the facilities are not growing, one would have to assume that SeaWorld may be intending to sell these whales to other parks around the world.
Finally, an “artifact” of the captive breeding program is that there is a killer whale named Kshamenk living by himself in a rundown facility called “Mondo Marino” in Argentina. He is miserable and aggressive and he was captured illegally, and yet he still remains in captivity because facilities all over the world need his sperm to perpetuate the captive killer whale gene pool. You can learn more here: http://keiko.com/alert3_history.html
Robin: Recently Osha cited Sea World again. Could you share with us what has changed since the film opened?
The citation received by SeaWorld was for the fact that SeaWorld had been ignoring the judges order from the first citation that required that trainers interact with animals from behind a protective barrier. SeaWorld is arguing that a “slideout” area (with 4-12 inches of water) or a stage platform is “equivalent” to a barrier as far as trainer safety is concerned, but OSHA doesn’t agree. See this article from Tim Zimmermann and accompanying video for more on this subject: http://timzimmermann.com/2013/04/25/trainer-corner-john-hargrove-on-drywork-risk/
Robin: You mentioned in the film that what happened to Dawn could have happened to any of you while training. It was frustrating that Sea World still speaks on it as trainer error. It has to be so difficult for those of you who worked with Dawn and also other trainers to have to hear this 'spin'.
Samantha: Although I didn’t work with Dawn and I didn’t know her personally, it is still difficult to hear Dawn being blamed for her own death. In fact, this is one of the reasons I felt I had to speak up about what I know. In reality, Dawn’s death was the inevitable result of many decisions that lead to her laying down next to Tilikum after the Dine With Shamu Show on February 24th, 2010. I think of her death as being a train wreck that happened in slow motion over 40 years. I think, given what we know about how unsuitable killer whales are for captivity, and also given how many serious injuries have occurred at SeaWorld over the years, the only thing that is surprising is that it took so long for a trainer to be killed at SeaWorld. But I do see it as inevitable - it was NOT an accident. Once Keltie Byrne was killed by Tilikum in February of 1991, Tilikum should have never been given the opportunity to get so close to another person ever again. But it happened two more times. This is terribly wrong.
What I loved is that the film honored Dawn and showed such care and sensitivity that these attacks did not have to happen and they way Sea World handled it after the fact is infuriating. Yet, these gorgeous sentient beings are so evolved, so much more emotionally attuned in spirit that those years of captivity are intolerable. I feel very sad for Tilikum and others and especially those mother Orcas and their calfs torn from them. Do you ever find moments where it hits you so hard in the heart out of nowhere, even though you've been fully engaged in this message for almost a year now?
When I watch “Blackfish,” , there are two moment for me when I always cry. One is when I am telling the story about my first time doing waterwork with a killer whale. Not just out of nostalgia, but because I recognize and feel a huge amount of emotion about what I thought I was there to do and what I was actually doing in terms of participating and condoning killer whale captivity. Although it was my dream to swim with killer whales, I know it was absolutely not the killer whale’s dream to swim with me, or any other human for that matter.
But the scene that really wrenches my heart is watching a baby orca being taken from its mom during the Penn Cove Captures off of the coast of Washington State. Every time I see the picture of young whale in a net being lifted out of the water and opening its mouth to cry for it’s mother and its family, I am reminded of scenes from the Holocaust where families were torn apart - never to be reunited - for no rhyme or reason. To know the babies are being taken from the moms, and to understand the damage this does to all the individuals in the pod - not just to the mom and the baby - and to further know that this is a “for-profit” decision to line the pockets of a multi -billion dollar company that will promote their entertainment shows as though the captive animals are somehow ambassadors for their brethren that will teach people about how to care for the environment is severely messed up. We can’t do what we did to these magnificent creatures and then try to play it like the end result justifies the means.
Robin: So many have been moved by this film, including me. Yet, often you can feel helpless. I'll be adding links to sites like yours, Voices Of The Orcas and others. But, what advised do you give to those out there who really desire to help and make a difference?
But the main thing, first and foremost is to NOT buy a ticket. But don’t just refuse to go to the shows, also write letters to let SeaWorld know why you are not going. There’s power in numbers, and if the public refuses to support SeaWorld and the rest of the captive marine mammal display industry by voting with their dollars, then the companies will be forced to change their business model. It’s as simple as that.
There are only 45 killer whales in captivity at the moment. We could very easily phase out the shows, put the whales on birth control and figure out which ones are good candidates for release and which ones will need to live out their lives in some variation of human care because they are too sick or too old to be completely released. For example, Lolita, a Southern Resident Orca now living at the Miami SeaQuarium, has been in captivity for 43 years but she is in good health, and her mom is still alive in the wild. Since we know where her family lives she is an excellent release candidate.
For animals like Tilikum that fall into the second category, they could still be able to return to the ocean by retiring to a sea pen - basically a cove with a net across the front so that the animals in the pen could experience the natural rhythms and sounds of the ocean but they could still be watched over by veterinary staff to make sure they are in the best health possible. Although most of the animals living in SeaWorlds collection have been born in captivity, and they don’t have pods to return to, they still could be moved to a sea pen environment, rather than having to live out their lives in a sterile tank.
And it’s good to remember the Keiko story, Keiko is the whale who starred in the 1993 movie “Free Willy. (see the movie “Keiko, The Untold Story” http://www.keikotheuntoldstory.com/
). Until the movie “Free Willy” came out - Keiko was living in a tiny pool in Mexico with water that was way too warm for him. He suffered from a skin disease and he was 2000 lbs underweight and severely out of condition. After people saw “Free Willy”, children around the world started collecting money to send Keiko back to the wild. Eventually, with the help of several angel investors and the Ocean Future’s Society and the Producers of the film and countless other volunteers, Keiko was able to to return to the wild and he died in Norway after swimming there from Iceland (1,000 miles!) on his own. It is incredibly inspiring that we humans working together were able to change the destiny of this one animal, and I believe we can do it again with as many of the whales as possible.
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