Hey there everyone! I’m Kaylin Williams and I recently asked Mark Simmons, Former senior killer whale trainer for SeaWorld, appeared in the film ‘Blackfish’, and authors of ‘Killing Keiko’ (Coming out in August) a few questions.
KW- At what age did you realize that you wanted to be a SeaWorld animal trainer?
MS- “I was 17 when I first visited a SeaWorld park. I knew instantly.”
KW- How would you describe the care and research SeaWorld applies toward their Killer Whales?
MS- “Second to none. Over the course of an amazing career (thus far) I’ve had the opportunity to consult for nearly 30 different facilities and research organizations worldwide. I have never seen anything yet that matches the level of sophistication, commitment and resources that are put into animal welfare in the SeaWorld parks. Other than the wealthiest one percent, I doubt there are many people that receive the same benefits and dedications of professionals who help to ensure a happy, healthy life as the animals receive at SeaWorld.”
KW- What do you think it MEANS to BE a SeaWorld animal trainer?
MS- “Most of us are familiar with animal/human relationships. Whether that’s having a pet or the many and varied ways we engage animals throughout our society. But working “with” an animal in a positive reinforcement atmosphere where relationship is the coveted “Pulitzer Prize” is a remarkable and truly indescribable journey. A pure relationship, cultivated in a positive and stimulating environment removes the barriers between animals and people. It is not threatening, it is not punitive; it is most certainly not domination. It is working together toward a common goal, helping each other, trusting each other and building on that bond over time. I have never been more enthralled with animals than when working with them in this capacity – and that’s true of rescued animals we’ve returned to the wild as much as animals in our daily care. Though the program goals may differ, the tenants of learning and behavior are the same. It’s a level of relationship I wish everyone could experience at least once in their lifetime.”
KW- What are you doing currently to get the truth out about SeaWorld Parks?
MS- “I don’t expressly support SeaWorld in any direct way. I advocate the continued development of zoological sciences as a whole. We are now facing the brunt of a century of industrialization – persistent ocean contaminants. Everything we do (and have done) ends up in our oceans. Think of the ocean as a giant air filter for the earth ecosystems. I believe “conservation” is what we do today that will benefit our grandchildren and their children. But nothing we do now will stop the tidal wave of destruction yet unfolding. Evidence abounds all over the world’s oceans that we are now facing tropic collapse starting with many well-known and higher order apex predators. That’s a very scary situation. I’ve seen it first-hand, and the peer-reviewed science is there to provide ample testimony to this fact. If we have any hope of preserving a species, it will require proactive environmental assessment and the knowledge and expertise, financial resources and public “will” to carry out these measures. The vast majority of these resources come from the zoological field. Now is not the time to back away from our zoological expertise. It’s an asset that belongs to the public as a whole. Now more than ever we will need to rely on that asset to help treat and salvage what we can. The conversation on animals in human care has taken place in a vacuum, emotionally charged by sensational films like Blackfish (void of context). If there’s any hope of preserving a species, wild or not, we’ve got to start focusing on real threats.”
KW- What is your view on ‘Blackfish’ and the affect it’s had on the public?
MS- “Blackfish is a film produced by people; people with their own ideas, agendas and machinations on exploiting the animal/human bond. There are simply too many fallacies and too much disinformation in the film to adequately dissect in the scope of this response. Nonetheless, I would categorically say the film has become a profound public disservice toward the future of marine life conservation and preservation. I would also note that these high profile exotic animals attract public attention and the “profits” or “donations” (whichever term you like best) that come along with it. It’s important to remember that money plays a role on both sides of the proverbial table. In the zoological field, it pays for unbelievably complex and advanced care as well as the conservation programs that support marine species in the wild.
KW-What changes do you think SeaWorld needs to apply to the care and display of their animals, if any?
MS- “While I have not worked at SeaWorld in more than 15 years, I am not aware of any programmatic changes that I could offer. Like many others, I’d love to see new habitats established that incorporate all the best modern technology has to offer, but if I know SeaWorld, I suspect we’ll see precisely that in the not too distant future. However, it’s important to realize that the characteristics of an animal (or person’s) environment, does not alone define quality of life. To inject a little humor here, “bigger” is not unequivocally better. More important is that the animals’ receive a constant flow of positive novel stimuli in their day to day lives. Social change, physical exertion, mental challenge (new learning) and variety are the spices of life. As we saw with Keiko, and other animals given the choice, once they have a bond with humans, it’s strong enough to outweigh access to a wild environment.”
KW- Do you think waterwork behaviors with Killer Whales should return to shows again?
MS- “A resounding “Yes.” Whether in shows or another capacity, the ability to interact bodily and directly with the whales is a favored form of stimulation and enrichment (for trainers and the animals). Remember, Tilikum (who was responsible for the only death in a SeaWorld park) was not raised in the SeaWorld system. He was never taught human-whale water etiquette. Worse, he has an abusive history in his past life and one of the results is the aberrant possessiveness of foreign objects in the water; a dangerous combination. Judging the safety of killer whale/human water interaction on the basis of one highly unique outlier (Tilikum) is an injustice to the many other whales in SeaWorld parks. Between my wife and me, we represent nearly 23 years of killer whale waterwork, thousands upon thousands of in-water interactions. In that time, neither of us ever had one single incident to speak of. When you watch Blackfish you’d think a trainer couldn’t survive a week at SeaWorld. I watch Blackfish and I can’t reconcile the world they portray with the world I know intimately. It’s a shame that most do not have this frame of reference and therefore fall victim to heavy-handed artistic license (to put it mildly).”
Mark also added, “I’d also caution against delineating “shows” as having any bearing on this topic. Shows are nothing more than another type or variety of interaction between the whales and trainers. They are immensely rewarding experiences for the animals – in fact, by association the show pools are the most popular “hang out” for the animals even in their private time. From my own experiences (and allowing a little interpretation here), I’d go so far as to say many of the animal’s love “showing off” for audiences. Yet there’s a much more important function of shows. We live in a society that invests billions in entertainment. From NFL, NBA to NASCAR and Hollywood; entertainment drives our attention. Imagine if marine life conservation and animal awareness were entertaining. Imagine if it were not.”
KW- Do you think moving these whales to a sea pen is a good idea?
MS- “Every environment, wild, sanctuary or man-made has its positives and negatives. If the ocean was the pristine environment like we all want to believe, I’d say create a habitat wherever you please (but the ocean is not pristine and that’s another topic for another day). It’s not the environment that alone defines quality of life. While the size or characteristics of an environment can be factors in determining quality of life, they are secondary to other important psychological, social and physiological needs. This is a complex topic that MUST include an understanding of each animal’s learning history (its ontogenetic history). Imagine you were raised in a high-rise apartment in the city. You had a wonderful childhood and stimulating lifestyle. All of a sudden I decide that you’re better off in the country. So I pull you away from that which you know and plop you on a hillside. There, now you’re happier now, right? My point: The book of life cannot be judged by its cover, and quality of life is not so simply defined.”
KW- What gave you the inspiration to write “Killing Keiko”?
MS- “Keiko’s story is powerful, but not for the reasons that most would assume. It’s a love story, a story of overcoming the impossible, a hope-filled story and a heart-breaking story. It’s also a lesson far too valuable to leave in the dark. But I guess my inspiration was the experience and the journey itself. When I talk to my colleagues, who also worked on the front-lines of the project, we all have at least one thing in common: Keiko left a permanent mark on ,each of us. I truly didn’t have much choice in the matter, the book wrote itself in my head over many years. Putting it on paper was a release. And in the end, I hope it honors Keiko and the people who poured their hearts out to ensure Keiko’s life.”
KW- What do you hope people take from the book as a whole?
MS- “That’s tough to answer without giving away the pinnacle of the story. I’ll leave it at this – I hope we learn to collaborate. I hope we (as a society) realize that there is no separation between zoological and wildlife management. One might support one, both or the other. Agreeing to disagree is okay. But common ground has to be found. I hope we recognize that we have the public will to do what needs be done, but that we remember emotion alone is not a tenant of good stewardship. I hope Keiko’s story reminds us to invest in relevant expertise and critical thinking to guide the way.”
I’d like to thank Mark Simmons for talking to me about the conservation, protection, and preservation of marine life. I’m so excited for the book to come out! I highly recommend pre-ordering it right now! Go preorder ‘Killing Keiko’ at killingkeiko.com and to find out more about the animal welfare and care being put towards all animals in SeaWorld Parks at seaworldcares.com Thank you!
*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/