‘Exclusive’ Interview with Sam Berg from Blackfish movie

BLACKFISH BLACKFISH_Film_Poster

 

We are privileged to have the following ‘exclusive’ interview with Samantha Berg an ex SeaWorld trainer who features in the movie.

Q1. When did you become a trainer of Orcas and for how long was your career with these shows?

I was an animal trainer at SeaWorld for 3 1/2 years – I worked at the Whale and Dolphin Stadium for 1 1/2 years, Shamu Stadium for 1 year and I worked at Sea Lion and Otter Stadium for a year.  I started in February of 1990 and left in August of 1993.

Q2. As a former trainer at SeaWorld when did you start to think it was not right to keep Orcas in captivity?

Although I saw a lot of things that I questioned during my time at SeaWorld, I’m embarrassed to say that I was still genuinely proud of my time at the park.  It was Dawn’s death in 2010 that woke me up – and I started thinking about my entire experience at SeaWorld from a different perspective.  Now I realize, we had no business keeping these amazingly intelligent, highly social animals in the equivalent of a bathtubs for their entire lives and forcing them to perform stupid circus tricks for fish.

Q3. What was it that made you finally decide it was not right?

After Dawn was killed, I became part of a group of ex-trainers, animal activists and journalists that was started by Tim Zimmermann, author of “Killer in the Pool” the Outside Magazine article that inspired Gabriela Cowperthwaite to make “Blackfish”.   I worked with the two former trainers in Tim’s article, Dr. Jeffrey Ventre and John Jett, Phd., back in the 90’s and once we reconnected and started talking about our experiences at SeaWorld, it became clear to me that things were not what they seemed to be.  All of us had lied to the public during the years that we were there about the whales lives in captivity, and many of us believed those lies (I still believed some of them!) and didn’t question the truth until years later.
Dr.’s Ventre and Jett have authored several papers about killer whale captivity, their first one is “Keto and Tillikum Express the Stress of Captivity” which is available on the Voice of the Orcas Website along with a paper they wrote about killer whales at SeaWorld dying from mosquito bites.  You can access both articles on the Voice of the Orcas science page:

Voice of the Orcas is a site hosted by four former SeaWorld Orlando trainers including Dr.’s Ventre and Jett as well as Carol Ray (who owns three Speech Therapy Centers in Seattle)  and myself.

Q4. Do you feel this applies to all cetaceans, sea lions and seals in captivity

Yes, large cetaceans, seals and sea lions all suffer terribly in captivity.  Plus, they are made to perform like circus clowns for their entire life in places like SeaWorld.  There is nothing educational about keeping animals like this in captivity. People can learn about these animals in the wild and on the internet.   The argument that the theme park industry commonly uses is that people need to see these animals up close and personal in order to care about them.  I would counter that no child has ever seen a dinosaur in person yet kids all over the world know and love dinosaurs.  :)

Q5. We have read that there have been hundreds of accidents over the years at SeaWorld.  Did many of these involve trainers with Orcas?
The list of accidents you are referring to is available here:

All of the incidents referred to in the movie and on the site above involved orcas.  However, plenty of accidents occur between trainers and other marine mammals.  I personally know trainers who have been bitten by sea lions and otters, and many trainers have been injured while performing with other smaller whales and dolphins.  Dolphins in particular tend to get aggressive once they are sexually mature, and many trainers have been beaten up by bottle-nosed dolphins.  I know one trainer who lost her spleen due to an accident with a false-killer whales.  She was doing a “foot-push” towards the stage and didn’t get enough height as she jumped up and slammed her abdomen into the stage.  Things happen all the time at all of the stadiums.  But accidents that are not witnessed by audience members or are not caught on camera often go unreported.  The culture at SeaWorld is “blame the trainer” – because if the accident is the trainers fault, then then animals are not dangerous, it’s just that the trainer made a mistake.  So, if you know you are going to be held responsible for an accident and that you might be demoted or moved to another part of the park due to your mistake, that keeps people silent a lot of the time.

Q6. Is any form of punishment used in the training of Orcas?

Technically SeaWorld uses only “positive reinforcement” which means animals are rewarded for doing the correct behaviour with primary reinforcement (food) or secondary reinforcement (a rubdown, a toy, another behaviour, ice, a hose, changing up something in the environment etc.).  When an animal makes a mistake, they are given an “LRS” or least reinforcing stimulus – which is basically a 3-second neutral response.  However, since animals work for their food, I would make the argument that food deprivation IS a form of punishment.  And, in fact, during days when there would be VIP (very important person) shows – meaning there was a special guest in the park – trainers would often be told to hold the animals at “half their base” until after the show. Keeping animals hungry so they will perform better is a subtle form of punishment.  I would also argue that keeping animals that routinely swim 80-100 miles per day in a space equivalent to about 1/10,000th of their normal range on a daily basis is also a form of punishment.  Finally, due to space requirements for shows and a variety of other reason, animals can be kept in the “med pool” for extended periods of time.  The med pool is the smallest pool in the stadium with a bottom that raises up for husbandry procedures.  But keeping an animal the size of Tilikum – 12,000 lbs and 22 feet long – in a pool that is about 15 feet long by 10 feet deep is definitely punishment.

Q7. Do the people at SeaWorld have any formal qualifications that show that they understand the animals lives in the wild.

SeaWorld trainers do not need formal qualifications.  Although some of us did have college degrees.  The requirements for the job were basically that one needed to be a strong swimmer, have some stage presence and look good in a wetsuit.  While I was at the park, I saw no actual science being conducted other than what was necessary to keep the animals alive so they could continue to perform.  I knew so little about the lives of wild killer whales while I worked at SeaWorld that I am still embarrassed to this day that I believed everything the company told me to say about the whales.

Q8. Do you feel we will see an end to Orcas in captivity?  If yes, how long do you think it will take before this happens.

Yes, I do feel that movies like “The Cove” and “Blackfish” will ultimately move us towards a world where it is unacceptable to keep killer whales in captivity.   As for how long that could take, while I’d like to see it happen in the next 5-10 years, probably 20 years is more like it.   Some of the animals at SeaWorld are too sick to be released and will have to be cared for in some capacity as they live out their lives.  Also, places like China and Dubai are ramping up to build more and more facilities for captive cetaceans, so even if we see the end of orca captivity in the US we may have another battle to fight overseas.

Q9. In a few words how would you describe the Blackfish movie.

“Blackfish” is several movies in one.  It pulls back the curtain to look behind-the-scenes in the captive marine mammal industry and also explains how a top SeaWorld trainer could be killed by a whale that supposedly loved her.   The movie tells the story through the eyes of former SeaWorld trainers as well as people who were involved in capturing whales.  Because you get to see through the eyes of former employees, it’s hard not to empathize with both Tilikum’s tragic situation as well as with the trainers who just wanted to do the right thing for the animals.

Q10. Why would you recommend people support this movie?

Once people see Blackfish they will never be able to support places like SeaWorld again.  I see the movie is a metaphor which will cause people to not only about how we treat animals in our culture but also how we treat other people in our society.   The only reason killer whales are in captivity is because someone decided to do it, and nobody objected.  Then money entered the equation.  But if we really look objectively at the evidence, it’s clear that it’s time to set things right.  It’s time to end the shows and be done with this embarrassing chapter in our lives. Think of the message we would send to future generations if we are the ones that say, “this is no longer acceptable.”

Q11. What could the public do to help?

Voice of the Orcas has a “Blackfish Landing Pad” with ideas of what to do to help captive killer whales after you have seen the movie.  Here’s the link:

The good news is that there are only 45 killer whales in captivity worldwide, so this is solvable problem.  If we all work together, we’ll see significant change in our near future.

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Blackfish – video review via The Guardian

In UK and Irish Cinemas from 26the July

A mesmerizing psychological thriller with a killer whale at its centre, Blackfish is the first film since Grizzly Man to show how nature can get revenge on man when pushed to its limits.

Update.  Last week on the 11th November The Born Free Foundation held a screening with Q&A with Sam, where we met Sam, Will Travers CEO of Born Free Foundation and his mother Virginia McKenna OBE a founder of the charity.  Sam also did a Q&A with Will Travers which is on YouTube Blackfish: Will Travers, OBE interviews former dolphin trainer Sam Berg

 

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