On Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, I spoke briefly with Craig Thomas, assistant curator of Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld Orlando. The five-minute interview took place near the performance pool following a packed-house showing of the One Ocean killer whale show. Before we spoke, several SeaWorld orca trainers demonstrated to our group of bloggers how urine and blood samples were “voluntarily” taken from the park’s orcas, who are trained to respond to signals from the trainers when it is time to extract fluids for testing.
DadScribe: There’s not really an easy way to ask this question, other than to ask it. As I say, I’m an animal lover and I’ve been bringing my kids to Busch Gardens for years, and we’ve come here before. So, I don’t have any kind of agenda when I ask you this. What effect has Blackfish had on you and what you do here?
Craig Thomas: Certainly, following the accident in 2010, we took a good look at all of our safety policies. And we did make some changes. But the care for the animals and our commitment to them is every bit as strong, if not stronger. So, it’s different, but it’s still rewarding and it’s still enjoyable. I still enjoy sharing them with people.
DS: Everywhere I go when I’m at SeaWorld, I think about Dawn [Brancheau, the trainer who was killed by the killer whale Tilikum in 2010]. I hear the PETA people, and I hear the push back from SeaWorld, and I think, ‘Where’s Dawn’s voice in this?’ How much of her legacy is something that is with you guys every day?
CT: Well, you know, she was a dear friend of all of us, and of course we all remember her and her contributions here. That’s never very far from our thoughts. As far as what we do going forward, that’s an individual choice. Our commitment has been strengthened. I don’t know if I’d be comfortable speaking for that impact, other than to say it was a terrible loss and from it all we’ve been strengthened.
DS (note: Brancheau was killed by Tilikum during a ‘relationship’ session designed to strengthen the bond between orca and trainer): I would imagine that [the relationship sessions] are always in flux, you change the way you do things to improve them, as any organization would. But did that occasion of her death change the way the relationship sessions are done at all?
CT: It just changed the way that we do them. As far as the quality of them, I don’t believe it did change them. The way we approach the whales, and some of the safety guidelines that came out of it are a little different. But I think that overall, the relationships and the way we build those relationships is essentially unchanged.
DS: We understand what you do, and that everyone here is committed to that. And yet, there still is the cognitive dissonance and the outcry after what happened and about keeping animals of any kind – whales, dolphin, lions, armadillos … imprisoned. My son wants to be a veterinarian, and he loves the idea of working with animals in the wild. I know that there’s so much conservation and rescue that goes on through SeaWorld. And yet, there’s still trying to reconcile that thought with what’s going on [at Shamu Stadium]. What can you tell people about that?
CT: I still think it’s a minority of people that are making most of the noise, of the detractors. I think most people are very reasonable and still understand the commitment that we have here and the impact that we make here, and the millions of people whose lives have been changed in a positive way, and the millions of children who saw Shamu the Killer Whale and later wanted to take care of animals. That hasn’t changed. There’s a lot more noise. But again … it’s still the same minority of people making most of the noise, and I still think most people understand and get what we do and support us strongly.