The Ethics of Working for SeaWorld (repost)

*reposted from June 28, 2007* - My understanding about the orcas/killer whales held at SeaWorld has changed substantially since I wrote this post.  I will be writing a follow-up in the near future to address some of what I say below. Click here for the original with comments.
A long while ago I decided to apply for a trainer position with SeaWorld, and lo! - I actually made it through the first round of cuts. They invited me to come for a personal interview and swim test. It was the swim test that intimidated me the most. I had to be able to free dive to 30 feet. No problem. I had to be able to swim the length of a pool underwater. Again, no problem. But I also had to swim 250 feet in a certain amount of time, a little over a minute, I think, and do a graceful dive off a 6 foot board.

Problem. When I swim, I am neither fast nor graceful. It's the result of twelve years of scuba diving. We divers are accustomed to swim very quietly with our hands at our sides, controlling every movement with a flick of the fin, able to dart forward or backward or hover in one place effortlessly, like a fish. Subtlety and slowness are key, because it lets you maneuver into tight places and glide alongside underwater creatures without alarming them. (Try swimming quickly into a school of fish and see how many are still there when you stop. Answer - none.) I take my time. I see things. This is the way I swim.

Take my fins away, and I am about as subtle as a cat in a bathtub. I thrash and flail and generally feel that I'm not actually going anywhere, like I've gone from being a dolphin to being a Lincoln Log. And since breathing is not much concern to a diver, I still haven't figured out that whole business about taking breaths during a stroke. It has something to do with timing, I think - breathe in when your head is above water, breathe out when it's underwater- but I never can get the order quite right. My version is - don't do anything while your head is above water, breathe in when it's underwater, cough and sputter, repeat.

I won't even begin to describe how I look when I try to dive off a board. (Picture a skydiver who has just realized his parachute isn't working...) Again, we scuba divers just strap on 50lbs of equipment and fall over the side of the boat in a giant splash. Sadly, my splash is about the same size even when I don't have the equipment. My dive method would best be described as "cinder block."

So there was that holding me back from the interview, the idea of making myself look like a drown victim in front of the other applicants, who were probably still eating glue and crayons when I was first learning to scuba. I had plenty of time to practice the speed thing, and the grace thing, if I wanted to. And besides the complete humiliation factor, I could at least go and have a lovely behind-the-scenes tour of SeaWorld, meet a few trainers, perhaps cuddle with a dolphin. The tests were to be held early - freakin' early - in the morning, before the park opened, so I would have a free ticket for the rest of the day in Sea World. Not bad, right?

Oh, the curse of principles.

The more I looked into what SeaWorld embraced, the more I realized that I would not be happy working for them, and I've never fancied humoring interviewers for a job I didn't actually want. Perhaps I passed on a fantastic opportunity, but here is the line of thinking that led me there.

I visited SeaWorld as a kid, and loved it. Loved it then, loved the concept of it even as I began researching what it would be like to work for them. Man and whale, coexisting in peace and cooperation as an example to the world... That was my childhood depiction of the place. But now, after doing much research, it seems to have changed to - man and whale, coexisting in a corporate driven illusion as a means to great gobs of money.

I ask myself, is this disenchanted adult cynicism, or a grasp of reality that comes with age and learning? It's a bit sad, either way. My inner debate about SeaWorld echoes the same qualms I have about all zoos and aquariums, after being both tourist and keeper, and boils down to three cons and two pros.

1. Wild Capture - Captive breeding cannot sustain the number of whales SeaWorld needs. Up until 1995, whales were being caught from the wild, sometimes using tremendously unethical methods (ie explosives). Although the current policy states that they no longer will acquire animals directly from the wild, they continue to purchase wild-caught whales from international water parks, supporting the trade.

2. Captivity - The orcas at SeaWorld average a lifespan of 20 years, compared to 60 years in the wild. Boredom is an issue, as well as aggression.

3. Glitz - SeaWorld presents its prized orcas in a display of flash and glamour that is as far removed from a natural experience as a bear on a bicycle. Their new show takes place in a stadium with three massive video screens and a sound system that blares the type of music you'd expect in a "Best of the NFL" montage. There are the prerequisite (and forced) "magical moments" that involve some lucky audience child bonding with Shamu (who is thinking, "Feed me the fish already!") and the overly perky trainers hamming it up. (Do they get to wear ear protection, or do they just go deaf from the ridiculously loud music?)

Seriously, the only way I think I could ever be like one of those trainers would have to involve either some sort of head trauma or drugs. For the interview, I was required to memorize and, in a showman's voice, say, "I’d like to introduce you to a special pair of whales. This is Sandy, and right next to her is her baby, Cassie. Cassie was born right here in this pool just a year and a half ago. I was fortunate to be there when she was born. That was a long but very exciting night. Since then, Cassie has learned a lot from her mom and the rest of the whales in her family. She’s currently learning how to jump like her mom, who is one of our most spectacular jumpers. And even though Cassie’s not quite ready to match her –you’ll see that she tries. Now diving to the bottom of the pool and speeding into a jump well over three times her body length, here’s the amazing Sandy… and baby Cassie!"

Woo! Gaaag! I tried practicing it in an ultra-perky voice, and... yeah. It was equivalent to swallowing a handful of pixie sticks while watching the Teletubbies in a television store. Gag. And yet the showmanship of SeaWorld mirrors much of the Hollywood culture of Southern California, which (have you been to a movie lately?) is a wee bit out of touch with the rest of the world.

Okay, enough of my heckling. Now the Pros.

1. Education - People who come for an ADD day of cheap thrills and expensive souvenirs might actually walk away learning something. Heck, they might even change the way they live for a day or two. (One less pop can ring in the ocean!)

2. The Child Factor - Now I've come full circle. I loved SeaWorld as a kid, slept with a stuffed dolphin underneath a wall hanging of Shamu, played with whale toys in the bathtub. The park help build a love of the sea that continues to this day. Though I struggle to see it now, at age 8 the man/whale interaction was magical. So maybe I was a one-in-a-thousand kid, the kid who wanted to touch the stingrays more than see a show with fake pirates. I'm sure there are plenty of kids walking out of the park today who still find that unscripted magic, and remember it.

Therein lies my puzzlement. So many good things, so many iffy ones. A corporation run by Anheuser-Busch, using beer money to help fund worldwide conservation and research. Is it mitigation? Is it a good organization with questionable practices, or a glutinous entity that tries to gloss over its financial priorities?

In the end, I decided that my, er, shortcomings in swimming, my disdain for fakiness, and my obnoxious hangups with ethics were enough to make me say, "No thanks, artificial corporate-driven... I mean, SeaWorld." (Cheery smile and wave.) But who knows? Maybe my perspective will change again some day.