Interview | Bridgette Pirtle – Former Senior Killer Whale Trainer at SeaWorld

BridgettePirtle

Guest post By: Kaylin Williams be sure to follow her on Instagram: @Blessedbytheorcas

Hey there everyone! I recently spoke with Bridgette Pirtle/Davis, former SeaWorld San Antonio’s Senior Killer Whale Trainer who was even involved with the ‘Blackfish’ campaign, and asked her a few questions about her work with SeaWorld and other animal welfare topics. Here’s what she had to say. 

KW- At what age did you want to be a SeaWorld trainer?

BP- “I was three years old when I decided I was born to be a “whale rider.” My family had taken our first big, getaway vacation together to Orlando and that was the first time I saw killer whales. The first interaction I experienced was a simple learning session in between shows. Standing in the empty stadium, I watched the trainer feed Namu, Shamu and Baby Shamu. That moment shaped my dreams and aspirations for decades to come. Everything I did revolved around my love for the animals, my passion for the job and my dream of becoming a SeaWorld killer whale trainer. Just fifteen years following that first interaction, I would be living my dream of being a SeaWorld animal trainer.”

KW- How would you describe the care and research SeaWorld applies toward their killer whales?

BP- “SeaWorldʼs care and research is the pinnacle of the industry. I was fortunate to be a part of several different research projects throughout my ten years there. From visual acuity to respiratory capacity, there was ample opportunity to add to our knowledge of killer whales through the research projects made possible by facilities like SeaWorld. Since I was young, the most impressive contributions to our understandings of the cetaceans all came from zoological facilities like SeaWorld. One of my favorite revelations is one that came recently from a SeaWorld park. Because of their dedication to research, we now know that killer whales are capable of learning different dialects of communication. That’s unbelievable.”

She also commented on SeaWorld’s Killer Whale care,“As far as care, you will never meet anyone more dedicated to their job than the trainers and zookeepers of SeaWorld. Each and every day centers on providing the very best for the animals in their care. It is a responsibility that, as a trainer, you take to heart. There is not a moment in your life that you are not prepared to drop anything you are doing to answer to the needs of your animals. The passion and love for the animals fuels a trainer’s drive to do the best and give everything they can to the animals each time they step poolside.”BridgettePirtle

KW- What is your view on ‘Blackfish’ and the effect it had on the public?

BP- “‘Blackfish’ is very selfish and misinformative. It’s an egocentric, misguided representation of what a few mislead individuals feel would be best for the animals they used to care for. As a whole, the film manipulates its viewers through craftily edited footage that is mostly outdated. Quick cuts from out-of-context show clips from decades ago mislead an audience to believe aggressions occurred, when the reality of the situation, no aggression took place. It’s deceiving enough to fool even experienced former trainers like myself. Even I fell victim to its message initially. I was grateful that I learned to ask the right questions and that is when the truth was revealed to me. These former trainers were mostly inexperienced and outdated. Their limited perspectives from their minimal time working at SeaWorld were misrepresented.

As far as their contribution to understanding modern day safety protocols in killer whale training, their contribution is absolutely irrelevant. To have anyone argue that what they experienced decades ago is relevant now is arrogant and quite ignorant as well. On top of having a very limited understanding of killer whale training, you have a manipulative representation of killer whale researchers who are more accurately “activists masquerading as scientists.” (I’d like to give the credit to Eric Davis of Unofficial SeaWorld Podcast for that description. It’s very appropriate and very accurate.) Longevity estimates are manipulated. Contradictions are prevalent throughout the film. All of these faults are disguised within clever edits and a beautiful soundtrack. At its very core, the film was exploitive. In pursuit of superficial Hollywood success, ‘Blackfish’ further exploited the lives of Dawn, Keltie and Alexis all to perpetuate a radical activist agenda that would spawn a movement that supports actions that represent a death sentence to animals.

Overall, it’s scary to see so many people look to ‘Blackfish’ as factual. It’s anything but a fact-based documentary. It’s opinion-driven, fueled by outdated experiences and contrived scientific studies. Events recalled by former trainers are exaggerated or, even worse, fabricated. It is a tool of animal activist propaganda that takes advantage of a mainstream audience that lacks the knowledge of a more appropriate and current depiction of animal training and zoological facilities operating today. This, in turn, encourages those within its gullible audience to leap for the “‘Blackfish’ bandwagon” before they truly have a well-grounded, accurately depicted understanding of the issues at hand. ‘Blackfish’ is misleading in that it takes you on this journey that focuses on Dawn, how she was an inspiration in so many ways throughout her life, and you are lead to believe that now, this anti-SeaWorld, anti-captivity spin zone that has materialized in the weeks following the films’ release is a part of Dawn’s story. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The film exploited the positive impact and the lasting impression Dawn had on the lives of so many animals and people by twisting it into an egocentric, self-serving purpose of promoting the activists’ disorganized and irrational ideas of rehabilitating the animals. It’s important to approach such discussions as captivity pragmatically.

I truly believe that once the audience lifts the wool from over their eyes and begin to take responsibility of their knowledge and understanding of the issues and ask questions that reveal the truth stripped by the emotional ploys of the film, they will realize again, like the sad saga of Keiko, that Blackfish is yet another manipulative tactic by animal activists attempting to gain mainstream support for their poorly-founded, extremist ideas that serve to spell a huge setback in the area of animal welfare.”

KW- What changes do you think SeaWorld needs to apply to the care and display of their animals, if any?

BP- “My favorite thing from my years of being an animal trainer was enrichment. Playtimes and relationship sessions were integral to establishing strong relationships with your animals. I’ve recently seen and heard of some of the amazing additions to the areas that really serve to show a dedication SeaWorld has for giving the animals the very best. Animals are enriched with sessions that involve touchscreen interactions that serve to provide an even deeper understanding of the mental capacity of these creatures. The facilities are continuing to evolve to provide cutting edge safety for both the trainers and the animals.

The most impressive part of these recent additions is that they are being incorporated into the animals’ areas in a way that also provides environmental enrichment. Fast-rising false bottom floors not only allow trainers and killer whales to interact safely, but the floors itself can be used as environmental stimulation that adds a valuable layer of enrichment for the animals. The actions I’ve seen SeaWorld take are amazing. They truly do have the animals’ and trainers’ care and safety forefront in their minds.”

KW- What are you doing currently to get the truth out about SeaWorld?

BP- “I’ve always been very open and honest about what I’ve experienced these past couple of years. I believe that by sharing firsthand knowledge I acquired during my brief involvement with the film will reveal a more appropriate depiction of what honestly motivated those involved in making the film and what continues to motivate them now. It’s all very self-serving. The strongest examples of animal welfare experts are those dedicating their lives to the animals each and every day. They are sweating in wetsuits, not parading on red carpets.I honestly believe that, by sharing my experiences from my ten years at SeaWorld, I can use these experiences as a way to encourage others to take the same path and dedicate their own lives to caring for animals responsibly. Being with the whales at Sea World was the best time of my life. Those pictures represent a culmination of a dream that started when I was 3 years old. I loved the whales and continue to love them. I will never be anything less than proud of my time at SeaWorld and the things I accomplished with the whales. It was a magical time that allowed me to live my dream and share it with others.

I realize I won’t please everyone, but have come to value speaking the truth in love.

I want to lay out my core beliefs in regards to animals & human life:

• Both are to be highly regarded and respected

• We are stewards of this earth & the animals left to our care

• It is possible to have animals in captivity with doing harm

• Captivity does serve a purpose in educating the public

• Waterworks is a connection between you and the animal that can only be felt when experienced

• Though my opinion may differ from others I will respect that opinion without criticism or judgment (Well, that’s my prayer with God’s help. Forgive me when I fail.) The reality is that, by sharing my story through whatever means available (whether it be social media, local newspapers or even Fox News), I can hopefully help contribute positively and constructively to a healthier and truer image of what it means to honestly and selflessly care for animals, and have their best in heart and mind as it pertains to their welfare.”

KW- What do you think it means to be a SeaWorld trainer?

BP- “It’s the culmination of a dream that began when I was three years old. It’s an honor and a privilege that very few get the opportunity to be a part of. Being a trainer is about genuine passion, selfless sacrifice, and endless dedication each and every day. I will never be anything less than proud of my time at SeaWorld and all the things I accomplished caring for the animals. Being an animal trainer, you are blessed with an opportunity to not only live out your own dream but also to share that dream with thousands of others and hopefully inspire them to pursue the same dream of devoting their best to caring for the animals.”

KW- Do you think that waterwork behaviors with killer whales should return to shows?

BP- “Simple answer to a complex question… Yes. Here’s why- I believe that maintaining a positive reinforcement history with waterwork desensitization is in the best interest for the safety of both the animals and the trainers. One of the most important concepts within behavior modification is maintaining a strong reinforcement history of a myriad of different behaviors within various contexts. This includes waterwork behaviors in a variety of different interactions, including show performances. I believe SeaWorld is doing a wonderful job in applying these behavioral principles to the best of their ability within the recent constraints given by the OSHA findings. Taking the government out of the equation, SeaWorld has always been at the top of the industry when it comes to safety within its killer whale training program. SeaWorld’s trainers literally wrote the book on the most successful and effective methods of operant conditioning and positive reinforcement. That being said, I side with SeaWorld in that slowly and safely re-introducing waterwork in many different contexts, including shows, would be in the best interest of creating the safest working environment for both the animals and the trainers. By the government establishing these requirements that restrict waterwork interactions to a non-performance context, it is creating opportunities for discrimination to occur that increase risk factors rather than minimize them.

I believe that the training staff at Shamu Theater can safely and successfully re-integrate waterwork behaviors within multiple contexts that will benefit the animals by improving the quality of hands-on care that the trainers are capable of providing as well as significantly improving upon the safety of both the trainers and the animals.”

KW- Do you think moving the whales to a sea pen is a good idea?

BP- “Absolutely not. It’s more like one of the most misguided, horrible ideas ever on so many levels. These ideas being introduced haphazardly to Congress are done so on a whim to capitalize on this so-called “‘Blackfish’ effect” without thorough thought or consideration to what’s truly in the best interest of the animals. These so-called animal welfare acts are in all actuality a death sentence for the animals they involve. Bills are being presented in a way that seems more like incomplete sentences in their attempt to tell the masses that whales need to be released, even though they don’t know exactly the who, what, when, where, why or how of the situation. It’s again a very egocentric way of force-feeding their radical activist agenda to the gullible masses without any legitimate rhyme or reason. Sea pens would compromise the safety and well-being of not only the animals, but also the trainers.

The sad reality of the situation is that this isn’t the first time that our generation has seen such a gross misrepresentation of animal welfare. Keiko is an excellent example of how attempting to release an animal at any cost causes more harm to the animal than good. I, personally, am very much looking forward to reading Mark Simmons’s book, ‘Killing Keiko’. I am certain it will provide much needed insight into what truly happened during the attempt to release the star of Free Willy once the message of the project’s activist influence took precedence over what was in the best interest of the Keiko’s well-being. With Keiko, we have a disheartening example of what extremes these self-proclaimed scientists are willing to go to, all in the arrogant pursuit of proving their point. I certainly pray that society sees through this and steps forward to prevent such a sad chapter of our history from repeating itself.”

KW- Before we go would you like to add anything else?

BP- “My first steps into Blackfish were truly honorable. At that time, I was lead to believe that this film was being created with the intentions of accomplishing a positive change for the animals I cared for during my career at SeaWorld while honoring the memory of Dawn and the powerful impact she had on the lives of the animals and so many people. Initially, I hoped to speak about opportunities to provide something even greater for the animals and how I felt SeaWorld could make a more powerful impact on the lives of both the animals and the trainers.As I started to form these connections amongst those involved with the film, I began to feel prompted to compromise my own core values that centered around my love and respect for the animals in order to fit into the agenda of Blackfish.

My conscience began to bother me as I felt a disconnect between my core beliefs and that which I was saying and doing to fit into the agenda of the film.I began to learn how to ask the right questions, and with them the inconsistencies within the stories entwined in Blackfish were revealed to me. Slowly, unsettling answers revealed that the message of Blackfish was no longer one of hope and inspiration. Instead, I felt it shift towards frivolous accusations and fabricated stories in a craftily edited attempt to paint SeaWorld as evil. My message of truth, respect and opportunity was absent as the film’s message had morphed into one that exploited two tragic losses in the interest of perpetuating an activist agenda.”

She also added,“I never intended on becoming involved with a film set on villianizing SeaWorld. Being with the whales at SeaWorld was the best time of my life. During my association with the film, I was operating in a fluid environment, filled with uncertainties and conflicting emotions and values. In the past few months, I have returned to my own core values. The relationships I had with the animals and my time at SeaWorld were integral in instilling these values of honesty and respect within myself. By no longer compromising my own experiences and beliefs, I hope to better represent a more respectful role that not only speaks out for the animals, but also those of SeaWorld being unfairly criticized as they continue dedicating so much while caring for the animals. These trainers sacrifice every day to give their best and they deserve to be viewed as compassionate heroes. The ten years I spent caring for the animals represent the culmination of a dream that started when I was 3 years old. I will never be anything less than proud of my time at SeaWorld and all the things I accomplished caring for the animals. SeaWorld blessed me with an opportunity that not only allowed me to live my dream of connecting with and caring for the killer whales but also to share that dream and inspire others to pursue the same.”

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I would like to thank Bridgette Pirtle/Davis for speaking with me about all the amazing things SeaWorld does and how ‘Blackfish’ had a misleading masquerade of fallacies to meet an activist agenda. Thank you for reading. Always remember that you can’t always see the silver lining, doing your research is a big part of learning and becoming educated on what SeaWorld really strives to do.

*Thank you to every avid SeaWorld supporter that is here to spread awareness! Please read The Truth about SeaWorld Parks, The Blackfish Backlash

Business inquiries: If there is anything you want me to be involved with, rather it be a class, workshop, internship, article or interview or anything please contact me through Instagram: @Blessedbytheorcas

Check out another article by Kaylin Williams  for Kyle Kittleson: marinemammaltrainer.com/seaworlds-history/