Search Results for: seaworld

Life and Death at SeaWorld

In a recent piece for Outside, Tim Zimmermann spoke at length with three former animal care workers about their experiences at SeaWorld. Animal care workers, who are responsible for the health of mammals at marine parks, are privy to the best and worse that goes on, with unique access and responsibilities. In the excerpt below, Zimmermann quotes from the journal of Krissy Dodge, a former employee at SeaWorld San Antonio, as she recounts the birth of a baby beluga:

Sept 17, 2006. Sunday a week ago I had whale watch from 12am–7:30am. Siku the beluga was due at any moment. An hour into it I thought I saw a small amount of blood. I didn’t see any crunching [flexing by the mother] though, and kept watching. I saw more blood and half of the tail flukes come out. I was so excited I started shaking. I immediately called my supervisor and he arrived in 10 min. After everyone was called I got into my wetsuit in case I was needed to get into the water.

When the calf was half way out, the supervisor told us to surround the pool so if the calf went around, it wouldn’t bump into walls or flop out of the pool. The calf was born and I watched it take its first breath. It seemed to be doing OK. It was very exciting for me. I almost wanted to cry. Of course I didn’t since no one shows any emotion in our dept.

I stayed watching until I was off at 7:30am. The next day I found out that the calf was not nursing and had to be tube fed. He didn’t take it well. To do it, someone had to jump in and catch it, swim it over, then a tube was shoved down its throat. A few times milk and blood was being expelled from the blowhole. It was decided on Friday to make an emergency move of Siku and calf to a back pool. Apparently when they got into the water to move the calf, it died in a trainer’s arms. I found out it died as they were bringing it back to 72 [the necropsy room] on the back of a cart.

I had to help in the necropsy. It was my first one and was indeed traumatic. To be the one to see it being born and also the one to cut it up was really difficult. When it was finished I walked to the zoological building to get a shower. I was still taking it all in and trying not to cry. A coworker was there and asked how it went. I said it was ok, but difficult being my first one. She said, “Oh don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. Soon it won’t even phase you.” To have this job, the only way to do it is to become hard and desensitized to everything. This job is so difficult. Not just physically, but emotionally. It’s made me question who I am and what I believe in. I’m ready to move on. This chapter needs to be closed.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

SeaWorld’s Most Rewarding and Traumatic Job

Longreads Pick

Animal care workers, who tend to the health of mammals at SeaWorld and other marine parks, have unrivaled access to the animals—and the challenges of captivity. They are on the front lines of the debate over marine mammals in captivity, and their stories are fascinating and deeply troubling. Here, three former employees go on the record about their experiences.

Source: Outside
Published: Aug 19, 2014
Length: 34 minutes (8,603 words)

The Strange and Dangerous World of America’s Big Cat People

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Rachel Nuwer | Longreads | March 2020 | 28 minutes (7,033 words)

You can listen to our four-part “Cat People” podcast series on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

It’s a gloomy April afternoon in rural Oklahoma, and I’m sitting on the floor of a fluorescent-lit room at a roadside zoo with Nova, a 12-week-old tiliger. She looks like a tiger cub, but she’s actually a crossbreed, an unnatural combination of a tiger father and a mother born of a tiger and a lion. That unique genetic makeup places a higher price tag on cubs like Nova, and makes it easier, legally speaking, to abuse and exploit them. Endangered species protections don’t apply to artificial breeds such as tiligers. Hybridization, however, has done nothing to quell Nova’s predatory instincts. For the umpteenth time during the past six minutes, she lunges at my face, claws splayed and mouth ajar — only to be halted mid-leap as her handler jerks her harness. Unphased, Nova gets right back to pouncing.

With her dusty blue eyes, sherbet-colored paws, and prominent black stripes, Nova is adorable. But she also weighs 30 pounds and has teeth like a Doberman’s and claws the size of jumbo shrimp. Nova’s handler, a woman with long brown hair who tells me she recently retired from her IT job at a South Dakota bank to live out her dream of working with exotic cats, scolds the rambunctious tiliger in a goo-goo-ga-ga voice: “Nooooo, nooooo, you calms down!” Nova is teething, the handler explains, so she just wants something to chew on. The handler reaches for one of the tatty stuffed animals strewn around the room — a substitute, I guess, for my limbs. In that moment of distraction, Nova lunges. She lands her mark, chomping into the bicep of my producer, Graham Lee Brewer.

“Ooo, she got me!” Lee Brewer grimaces as he attempts to pull away from the determined predator. Nova’s handler has to pry the tiliger’s jaws open to detach her. After the incident, the woman conveniently checks her watch: “OK, you guys, time is up!”

I paid $80 for the pleasure of spending 12 minutes with Nova, but I’m glad the experience, billed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, is over. On our way out, we pass more than a dozen adult tigers yowling and pacing cages the size of small classrooms. Nearby signs solicit donations. You are their only hope. Sponsor a cabin or compound today! In the safety of our car, Lee Brewer rolls up his sleeve, exposing a swollen red welt. “Look at my gnarly tiger bite,” he chuckles. “I tried to play it off but I was like, this fuckin’ hurts!”

It’s not the first time I’ve seen this world up-close; I spent the better part of eight years investigating wildlife trafficking around the world. During my travels, I visited farms in China and Laos where tigers are raised like pigs, examined traditional medicine in Vietnam, ate what I was told was tiger bone “cake,” and tracked some of the world’s last remaining wild tigers in India. Almost everywhere I went, tigers were suffering and their numbers were on the decline because of human behavior. Until recently, though, I had no idea the United States was part of the problem. Read more…

Still Waters

Participant, Killer Films

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2019 |  9 minutes (2,330 words)

About halfway through Dark Waters, after corporate lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) has agreed to hear out farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), after he has seen that hundreds of cows on the Tennant farm have died, after he has connected this to their town’s water system, after he has linked that to the chemical company DuPont, after he has tied that to PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acid), after he has found that PFOAs are a man-made forever chemical that can cause tumours and that the company that runs the town is effectively destroying everything within it, after all of that he’s about to sit down his pregnant wife (Anne Hathaway) to explain it to her when she looks at him square in the face and says, “I’m not listening to this.”                          

That should have been the tagline for the movie. It should be the tagline for the world. Dark Waters’ largely ignored release mirrors the larger apathetic response to the climate crisis as a whole. And yet a number of critics who saw it threw away their nonstick pans (PFOA is used to create Teflon), proving the film had the power to spur people on to some kind of action. But if it’s that effective and that timely — show me a global corporation that isn’t hoarding power and destroying the planet — why is no one talking about it? Why did only two movies seem to grab all the column inches over the past few weeks: Marriage Story, a movie about Noah Baumbach’s (sorry, “a couple’s”) divorce, and The Irishman, a movie about an aging mobster? Surely the planet has greater reach being, you know, where we actually live? 

That seems to be the problem. Dark Waters is not just about one plutonium plant (Silkwood), a single nuclear power plant (The China Syndrome), or even a Catholic church abuse conspiracy (Spotlight), it’s a story about systemic corruption that courses through the entire world. As the film’s director, Todd Haynes, told the New Yorker, “There’s no silver bullet, no magic solutions.” No one wants to listen to that.

* * *

Environmental films have been around almost as long as films themselves, and our responses to them have varied as much as our responses to the natural world. Pare Lorentz’s 1936 short The Plow That Broke the Plains, about how aggressive farming created the Dust Bowl, was actually sponsored by the U.S. government. But then World War II ended and America got richer, which meant a lusher population if not a more fruitful landscape. Lorentz wanted to keep making political movies (and what are environmental films if not political), but no one was funding them — one of the most popular films of the 1940s was called The Best Year of Our Lives. Then, in 1958, a woman named Olga Owens Huckins noticed that ten of her favorite birds had died after a DDT mixture was sprayed around her home and alerted her biologist friend Rachel Carson — she responded by writing Silent Spring.

With the 1962 arrival of Carson’s opus on pesticides — the DDT mosquito spray turned out to be killing Huckins’s birds, poisoning marine life, and was possibly also carcinogenic to humans — Americans awoke to the world around them and its abuse by corporate America. The Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970 (not to mention Earth Day) to sate their concerns, while activist groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth sprouted up, outcrops from the era’s wider counterculture movement. This was an epoch in which regular people speaking truth to power could actually be heard. In 1976, All the President’s Men was one of the top five highest grossing films of the year and it remains the high-water mark of whistleblowing movies, while 1979 remains one of the best years ever for overtly political filmmaking in Hollywood. That year both Norma Rae, the Sally Field starrer about union activist Crystal Lee Sutton, and The China Syndrome, about the safety coverup at a fictional nuclear plant, competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. For the latter, Jack Lemmon won Cannes’ best actor for his role as the plant’s shift supervisor, and for the former, Field won the best actress Oscar. Both films were critical and commercial successes. It didn’t hurt that the nuclear power industry accused China Syndrome of mendacity, only to be hoisted on its own petard less than two weeks after the film’s premiere by the Three Mile Island nuclear partial meltdown and radiation leak in Pennsylvania.

But the 1980s came along and activism turned into consumerism. The average American now wanted reassurance, not revolution. So they reverted to conservatism, they pushed the government to deregulate, and instead of paying taxes, they watched their money pile up around them as they stayed indoors watching MTV, only trekking to the movies for escapist blockbusters. They were encouraged to buy and buy and buy, spending rather than questioning. If there was disaffection, it wasn’t with the corruption of higher powers so much as the corruption of their own psyches. In the midst of all this, Silkwood was released in 1983, with Meryl Streep playing another whistleblower. Despite its star power — Streep being Streep, Cher getting serious, Kurt Russell going dramatic — the film didn’t have the same success as its predecessors. Audiences now preferred ghostbusters and gremlins and Indiana Jones, an archeologist who unearths fortune rather than failure.

In the following decade, going to see a movie about the planet usually meant going to see an action movie with an non-man-made threat — asteroids were a favorite. From Deep Impact to Armageddon to Dante’s Peak to Volcano, these were movies about nature attacking us rather than the other way around. It speaks to how out of touch they were that Disney executives of all people, part of the corporate community that helped mold Hollywood into an action-hero-centric fantasy universe, would think that Michael Mann’s studious 1999 slow burner The Insider, about Brown & Williamson Tobacco’s attempt to silence whistleblowing biochemist Jeffrey Wigand, would have the same traction as All the President’s Men two decades prior. Despite its seven Oscar nominations, it didn’t land a huge audience.  Circumstances were different for Erin Brockovich, the film about an energy corporation poisoning a California community that came out a year later. Julia Roberts was one of the biggest stars in the world and though she wasn’t playing a superhero, the story presented her as its clear heroine with the enemy an equally clear corporate entity (Pacific Gas and Electric) negligently harming a specific location. The film is shot warmly, the dialogue is colorful, and the narrative is propulsive. Most important, it has a happy ending. The road to Erin Brockovich’s $2.5 million bonus at the end of the film led to an Oscar for Roberts and $256.3 million in worldwide box office.

That was the last time a big screen eco-thriller saw that kind of fanfare, the dissipating attention coinciding (after September 11th) with dissipating attention to nature as a whole. A Gallup poll graph tracking Americans’ interest in environmental protection versus economic growth from 1985 to 2019 shows the former steadily decreasing to a trough around 2011 — the aftermath of the great recession of 2008 — before it starts increasing again, while the latter is almost its mirror opposite. So the more people focused on the economy, the less they did on the environment and vice versa. It’s telling that the media’s favorite climate movie of the past two decades is The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich’s 2004 B-movie in which a series of weather events coalesce into a new ice age (he had it the wrong way around). More of a grab at cash than epiphany, the Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle is essentially nightmare nature porn, the money shot a hero conquering climate change. Unfortunately, the real story is a lot less euphoric. “We’re all participating in the climate crisis — if there is an enemy, it’s us,” Per Espen Stoknes, author of What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, told the New York Times in 2017.

An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 film of former vice president Al Gore’s 2004 global warming slideshow, sort of tried to get that across. Despite its dryness, audiences seemed to have some thirst for an updated climate checkup and upon its release, it broke box office records, got standing ovations, and won the Oscar for best documentary. It has been credited with rejuvenating the environmental movement, though the aforementioned Gallup graph questions how much it actually did. This wasn’t like Blackfish, where it was clear SeaWorld was to blame, or Super Size Me, which could point the finger at McDonald’s. Who do you hold accountable for global warming? As Stoknes said, “It’s hard to go to war against ourselves.” 

More than a decade elapsed before Sir David Attenborough shocked his audiences by finally changing his tone from wonder to dread in the Netflix series Our Planet. “I would much prefer not to be a placard-carrying conservationist. My life is the natural world,” he told TIME. “But I can’t not carry a placard if I see what’s happening.” The natural historian was able to piggyback climate change awareness off an established brand in the way HBO miniseries Chernobyl would later riff on the 1986 disaster everyone knew about. Proving that television seems to be more hospitable to climate content, the latter dominated the discourse for weeks. Part of that was the arrestingly horrific first episode, but much of the talk also heavily associated the worst nuclear disaster in history with Trump. “We look at this president who lies, outrageous lies, not little ones but outstandingly absurd lies,” show creator Craig Mazin told the Los Angeles Times. “The truth isn’t even in the conversation. It’s just forgotten or obscured to the point where we can’t see it. That’s what Chernobyl is about.”

Dark Waters isn’t so different. Though it’s based on a lesser-known disaster, this one is farther reaching. The film adapts the 2016 New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich about Bilott suing DuPont on behalf of thousands of West Virginians and Ohioans affected by PFOA (the company settled for nearly $700 million in 2017), so the events it dramatized are more recent and the ties to those in power more direct than Chernobyl would be. “I hope that the movie starts to spur bigger conversation about who our government is actually working on behalf of,” Ruffalo, who is also a producer on the film, recently told Fast Company in the rare bit of mainstream coverage. Instead we were too busy trying to figure out how autobiographical Marriage Story was or whether Martin Scorsese was right about Marvel movies not being real cinema. When Haynes’s Dark Waters was covered, the question was not why this stylish auteur had made this ambling eco-thriller, but why he hadn’t made anything else. A master of deconstruction, Haynes had in fact denatured the genre beyond its basic elements — the company, the chemical, the casualty, the turncoat — to create a film that echoes the futility of our current circumstances. Bilott isn’t a hero; he’s a human being who sees a fellow human being destroyed by a corporation, who is himself destroyed by trying to help. Every advance is only an inch, every setback a foot. When he finally, after years, uncovers the truth, when he proves DuPont has in fact poisoned people, there is no happy ending. DuPont simply rejects reality and refuses to accept responsibility, forcing Bilott to file no fewer than 3,535 personal injury lawsuits.

Haynes was inspired by Silkwood and All the President’s Men, but the world we live in is now DuPont’s. This is a year in which only 65 percent of polled Americans believe in prioritizing environmental protection at the risk of economic growth, in which the latest climate talks ultimately came to nothing because world leaders would rather quibble over technicalities; a year in which six of the top 10 grossing films were made by Disney, in which a movie like Dark Waters actually increases the stocks of the company it calls out because, as the president has proven time and again, being honest about how awful you are is more rewarding that not being awful at all.

* * *

“Here’s the thing: for many of us, climate change isn’t a disaster movie, it’s a kitchen sink drama,” climate scientist Kate Marvel wrote in Scientific American earlier this year. And though we’ll watch kitchen sink dramas, we prefer our humdrum slogs toward justice illuminated by big stars, or at least a romantic plot. Climate change is too relentlessly depressing; we need some kind of hope so that it doesn’t all seem so impossible, or at least distracts us from the allure of giving up. But I can’t think of anything less hopeful than denial. I can’t think of many things more depressing than the woman sitting next to me scrolling through her phone during our screening of Dark Waters while Bilott described how a company had put so much PFOA into the world that she almost certainly had some of it inside her body — maybe the critics who watched the movie and just wondered why Haynes hadn’t made another lesbian melodrama; maybe the wider audience that continues to go to the movies and conduct the various other aspects of their lives without focusing on the largest scale of all because it’s too abstract compared to an unpaid bill or a sick relative; maybe the part of that audience that could actually change things and doesn’t, like that scene in Dark Waters where Bilott holds up a picture of a baby with a congenital deformity and DuPont’s CEO, while affected, ultimately does nothing. As Haynes explained to The New Yorker: “There’s no way to just end corporate greed and corruption. But there are steps to take, and we just have to keep taking them.”

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

The Suprising History of the Ball Pit

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Despite my personal aversion to ball pits everywhere (don’t people pee in them?!), what started out as a response to child-abduction fears in the 1970s remains a hugely popular play activity among children and adults alike. At Vox, Elena Goukassian reports on how the ball pit — a staple piece of equipment in indoor play centers — was born in the safety-conscious 1970s, long before helicopter and lawnmower/snowplow parenting became a thing.

While Ontario Place launched McMillan’s serendipitous career in playground design, contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the site of the very first ball pit (although it would house one later). According to McMillan, that honor belongs to the ball crawl he installed in 1976 at SeaWorld Captain Kids World in San Diego, another of a handful of theme parks McMillan designed — his most famous being Sesame Place on the outskirts of Philadelphia, which opened in 1980, complete with a giant, ball pit called The Count’s Ball Room. (80,000 plastic balls… mwa ha ha ha ha.)

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The Dolphin Trainer Who Loved Dolphins Too Much

Ashley Guidry with Sandy, a wild-caught bottlenose dolphin, at Gulf World.

Tim Zimmermann | Longreads | April 2015 | 25 minutes (6,193 words)


Panama City Beach, Florida is set on the alluring waters of the Gulf Of Mexico, in northwestern Florida. It’s a town of cookie-cutter condos and sprawling outlet malls, built almost entirely on the idea that blazing sun, a cool sea, white sand beaches, and copious amounts of booze are an irresistible formula for human happiness (or at least a pretty damn good time). Everything about the place—from the ubiquitous fast food, to the endless chain stores, to the Brobdingnagian miniature golf courses—is designed to anticipate and then slake the vast and relentless array of human desires.

Prime among the entertainment offerings is Gulf World Marine Park. It sits on Front Beach Road, the main drag that parallels the seafront, and promises sun-addled or bored families a respite from the nearby beach. By day you can swim with dolphins (“guaranteed”) or watch them perform the standard flips and tricks in a show pool, check out the sharks and stingrays, or watch the sea lions act goofy. By night you can watch “Illusionist Of The Year” (it’s not clear who made the designation) Noah Wells unleash his “Maximum Magic.” “It’s Always Showtime At Gulf World” says the marketing department. And that’s true: The entire place shuts down for only two days a year (Thanksgiving and Christmas).

Gulf World is not SeaWorld; it’s much smaller, less expensive, (though a family of four will still fork over $96 just to get past the gate), and there are no killer whales. But it is more typical of the 32 marine parks that keep dolphins and do business in the United States, and it’s these local parks which happen to house the vast majority of the captive dolphins (according to Ceta-Base, which tracks marine parks, there are currently some 509 dolphins at marine parks in the U.S.; about 144 are located at SeaWorld). If SeaWorld is the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey when it comes to marine mammal entertainment, Gulf World is one of the many small, local carnivals that do a pretty decent trade out of the limelight. And Gulf World happens to be where Ashley Guidry—a brassy blonde with minimal experience, and a simple application accompanied by a Polaroid—happened to land a job in April 2001, at the age of 27. Read more…

Death of a Salesman

Longreads Pick

On the genius of Cal Worthington, the legendary Southern California car dealer and TV pitchman who died Sept. 8 at age 92:

“Worthington’s long-running series of self-produced spots never deviated from a formula. The slender cowboy—six foot four in beaver-skin Stetsons and a custom Nudie suit—always preceded his hyperactive sales pitch with a gambol through the lot of his Dodge dealership, accompanied by an escalating succession of exotic animals. Originally it was an ape, then a tiger, an elephant, a black bear, and, finally, Shamu, the killer whale from SeaWorld—each of which was invariably introduced as Cal’s dog, Spot. Not once did he appear with a canine. The banjo-propelled jingle (set to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”) exhorted listeners to ‘Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal,’ a catchphrase that became the basis for the most infamous mondegreen in Golden State history. To this day, Pussycow remains a nostalgic code word exchanged among Californians who came of age in the era before emissions standards.”

(via The Browser)

Author: Sam Sweet
Published: Oct 10, 2013
Length: 6 minutes (1,553 words)

Blood in the Water

Longreads Pick

When killer whales perform a behavior correctly, they are “bridged” (often with a whistle sound, in essence signaling “well done”) and then receive reinforcement in the form of a reward, such as a fish or a playful rubdown. When they don’t perform correctly, the trainer reacts with a three-second neutral response and withholds the reward. This is known as a least-reinforcing scenario, or LRS. Repeated failed attempts—and the corresponding lack of reward—can sometimes lead to a frustrated killer whale. “The question the trainer has to constantly be asking is: Is this animal mildly frustrated but still has the ability to stay with it and work through the problem?” explains Samantha Berg, who worked as a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando’s Shamu Stadium in the early 1990s. “Or have I gone beyond this animal’s limits and it’s time to cut the losses, take a break, and start over?”

Source: Outside
Published: Jul 18, 2011
Length: 29 minutes (7,373 words)