We had the opportunity to interview Vicki Putman-Weber, senior killer whale trainer at SeaWorld.

She was born in Albany (USA), and she studied biology at Linn–Benton Community College and Zoology at Oregon State University. She began her career in 2000 as an intern at Oregon Coast Aquarium working with seals and sea lions. Later she worked at Ocean World, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom and finally at SeaWorld San Diego, in California.

When and how did you decide that you wanted to be a marine mammal trainer?

I decided I wanted to be a killer whale trainer after a visit to SeaWorld San Diego when I was 16 years old. I grew up in Oregon and have always loved animals. We had dogs, cats and rodents as pets. When I saw the trainers interacting with the dolphins, whales, and sea lions, the way they do at SeaWorld I was blown away! I had never seen these animals in real life before. I had no idea people could interact with them in that way or have such close bonds with them. I knew in that moment that I wanted to be a killer whale trainer at SeaWorld. I never entertained the idea of doing anything else.

 

What differences and similarities have you encountered during your years of experience working with orcas, dolphins, pilot whales, sea lions...?

My first job in the field was working with seals and sea lions. I really enjoyed working with pinnipeds! They respond to your voice and, unlike cetaceans, can move around on land with you so it was like working with dogs. They are smart and relationship oriented. Working with dolphins was quite different. Dolphins are typically kept in larger social groupings which can both enable and hinder learning. I found dolphins to be more accepting of new people than sea lions. Dolphins form bonds with their care givers but will also work with anyone who steps down to them with confidence. Killer whales are more influenced by social dynamics than the other two species. We had to take the social dynamic of the moment into account with everything that we did with the whales. Social life dictated much of what we could do.

 

Of all the species I’ve worked with I feel the relationship between care giver and animal was the most complex with the whales.

Unlike dolphins and sea lions who can be flighty the whales are not nervous of novel items in their environment. In my experience whales pick up on things much more quickly than dolphins or sea lions. We would often joke that killer whale trainers become lazy because they are able to skip training steps you wouldn’t be able to skip with a dolphin or sea lion. For example, if I’ve trained a whale to do a jump in a certain position in the pool but later, I want them to do the same behavior in a completely different area of the environment all I need to do is ask them the behavior they know, bridge and reinforce it. Then ask the jump again but add a tap in the new spot. Chances are high the whale will get it right on the first try. Attempting this same concept with a dolphin you are more likely to have to back up in your training steps and approximate the jump in the new spot with a target. The whales are also superb at pairing behaviors together easily with little to no help.

 

Vicki con Keet en SeaWorld (San Diego)
Vicki and Keet at SeaWorld (San Diego)

 

What has the time you have spent with these animals in the water meant to you? Do you miss waterwork with the orcas?

 

The time I spent in the water with the orcas was unforgettable. It’s hard to describe the feeling of swimming with such a large and powerful animal. An experience of a lifetime! Getting in the water with a killer whale is the ultimate expression of the time you’ve spent cultivating your relationship with them. It's also a testament to the hours of training by all who came before you to get the animal to a place where you can safely get in and out of the water with them. Swimming with a killer whale is a form of teamwork. Animal and person working together to make something amazing happen. I miss waterwork with the whales immensely. When in the water you are in their world. Being on that level with an animal you care about is, I think, every trainer’s dream. I felt my relationship was at its strongest when I put my trust in them and in their training. The ultimate feeling of connection.

 

Nowadays our profession is very attacked by radical activists, based mainly on disinformation. What would you say to people who reject the existence of zoos?

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I have found it’s best to lead with that conviction when interacting with people who are against zoos. This approach often deflates their anger and then we are more likely to be able to have a calm and civil conversation about the topic. I like to listen to their complaints about zoos without interrupting them. When they are finished, I tell them why I think zoos are important. I try to directly counter their concerns with facts and examples. By doing this I’m not telling them they are wrong but rather offering them a different perspective. At the end of such a conversation people often realize that zoos contribute to important conservation and education. Some people may change their outlook completely. Some people may not change at all. And that’s ok. In those instances, I just smile and say that I respect their opinion but that I don’t share it. There’s no reason to let them get you fired up. Instead offer some resources for them to do some further research about the subject. If they’ve been getting their information from PETA, Rick O’Barry, Blackfish, etc., it’s one sided and biased. I also like to point out the difference between animal rights and animal welfare. Many people don’t understand the agenda of the animal rights movement and are shocked when they learn the truth!

 

What has it meant to you all these years at SeaWorld and what types of research or conservation projects have you carried out?

My time at SeaWorld was very fulfilling for me. Working with killer whales was my childhood dream. I’ve loved so many amazing animals! I’ve witnessed incredible events such as the birth of dolphins and killer whales. I’ve met amazing people who will be lifelong friends. I’ll always cherish the time I had there.

SeaWorld participates in a lot of research and conservation. The company sponsors the SeaWorld Busch Gardens Fund that has donated millions of dollars to conservation projects around the world. SeaWorld also has a respected rescue, rehabilitation and release program and has returned thousands of animals to the wild! I have been involved in several conservation projects during my career.

My role was to train the animals to do the behaviors the researchers needed them to do. In one study we trained our whales to take a hearing test. The researchers wanted to know what their hearing range is. This will help researchers learn if boat traffic and sonar noise interfere with the whale’s ability to hear each other in the wild. We trained whales to wear a heart monitor and to swim both deep laps and surface laps while wearing the monitor. The researchers wanted to see what happened to heart rate during breath hold and during exercise. These are just a couple examples of MANY projects we participated in over the last several years.

 

What future do you think awaits the maintenance and care of marine mammals in zoos in the short and long term? Do you think it will end up being banned around the world? Or will the governments realize that these parks are doing a very important job?

It’s difficult to predict the answer to these questions. I’ve seen the general sentiment towards animals in zoological facilities change a lot during my career. Particularly regarding facilities located within theme parks where trained animal shows occur. Nonprofit zoos seem to not get as much negative attention. Our industry has changed dramatically in the last decade. Canada and France have banned marine mammals in zoological settings. California has instituted a breeding ban on killer whales. SeaWorld took it a step further and terminated breeding of orcas in all their parks. Some facilities, SeaWorld included, have banned some behaviors in shows due to the “image” it portrays to the public. Large travel companies and airlines have cut ties with facilities that house marine mammals.

However, zoos and aquariums attract huge crowds and I doubt that will change soon. According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, over 181 million people visit U.S. zoos and aquariums it accredits every year, which is more people than go to NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB games combined.

Globally, 700 million people visit zoos and aquariums every year, or about 10 percent of the world population. That’s a lot of people visiting zoos! China is an emerging market for huge theme parks boasting impressive zoological facilities and attracting hundreds of thousands of guests.

Will governments realize the important work that zoos and aquariums do? I don’t think governments care. Captivity and breeding bans seem to be politically motivated versus what’s best for the animals. These decisions are often based on misinformation, emotion or local voter sentiment. It will be up to people within the zoological industry to carry our message to the people in charge of making these decisions in the future if we want a different outcome.

They need more education from the professionals in the field about what we do and why it’s important. If we don’t, they will continue to get their information from watching emotionally charged propaganda films funded by animal rights groups. Zoological facilities are also going to have to come together and support each other on these issues.

The more traction the animal rights lies get the more they will keep pressing their agenda. We know their goal is to end all zoological facilities worldwide and it’s up to us to act! The government won’t do it for us.

 

What would you say to a person who doesn’t know how to start and wants to dedicate their life to training marine mammals?

To a person who wants to break into the zoological industry I’d first ask them what capacity they want to fulfill within the industry. Do they want to be a veterinarian? Do they want to rescue, rehabilitate and release animals? Do they want to train high-energy behaviors and perform in shows? Do they want to do research and train animals to participate in it? What species do they want to work with? There are many avenues you can go down within our industry. It’s helpful to be clear on what path you want to take so you can use your time to accomplish that goal.

Although many facilities don’t require a college degree, I always recommend one! Why? It’s a competitive field! Even if a degree isn’t required, you’ll find most people you’re competing with have one, so you’ll want one too! Depending on what area of expertise you’ve chosen you’ll want to study biology, zoology, psychology, animal science or veterinary medicine.

Experience is often needed to land a job within a zoo but how do you get it? Volunteer at a zoo or aquarium while you’re going to school. Do an internship at a zoo or aquarium during the summer. No, these are typically not paid positions…. Sorry. Take a job training dogs or horses. Training is training. Apply for a job at a vet clinic. Join IMATA (International Marine Animal Trainer Association) and go to a conference. You’ll meet people already in the industry and you’ll learn a lot. If you want to be a trainer read books about training such as Don’t Shoot The Dog by Karen Pryor.

Learn about operant conditioning and the lingo that goes along with it. Read books and learn about the animals you wish to work with. Get yourself up to date on conservation efforts and research projects involving those species. If you must take a swim test to work at the facility of your choice PRACTICE what the test entails! Don’t show up to a swim test having never done what is required! Finally, apply to every facility that has the animals with which you want to work. There are many facilities in addition to SeaWorld that has marine mammals. Just don’t give up! I worked at several other facilities before SeaWorld. I swim tested at SeaWorld 3 times before I finally landed my dream job there!

 

Some trainers, over time, end up directing their career to the management and training of other types of animals, or simply change course and choose another profession. What do you think are the reasons?

There is a myriad of reasons people choose a different path for their career. People’s desires and priorities change over their lifetime.

The zoological profession is a demanding one. In my opinion people leave due to four main reasons. Time, money, opportunity for advancement and body pain. Animals need to be cared for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

We work outdoors in all types of weather. Anyone who has worked with animals has experienced working through the night in the rain on Christmas, which also happens to be on a Saturday. You miss holidays, school plays, birthdays, vacations and dinner with your family. It’s worth it because you love your animals. But priorities can change, and you may choose to retire from the zoological field for a more family friendly job. The field, while rewarding, doesn’t pay great. Buying a house or supporting a family might be a challenge on a trainer’s salary. Pursuing a management position could help you pay your bills while still being able to stay within the industry. After dedicating years as a trainer many people find themselves wanting to share their knowledge with the next generation of trainers.

This, in addition to that pay raise, are a couple reasons that people get into management. Getting a management job sounds great but one of these positions must be available. Management jobs don’t open very often so opportunity for advancement can become stunted. Lastly, this is a physically demanding job! You might find at some point your body just can’t do it anymore. This is another reason for leaving the field.

 

So many years surrounded by these incredible animals must have allowed you to tell a thousand stories. Could you tell us some anecdotes that you remember especially?

I have many great stories! One that always stands out was when Shouka came to SeaWorld San Diego from Six Flags Marine World. Shouka had lived either alone or with a bottlenose dolphin for about 10 years at Marine World.

When she came to us at SeaWorld she hadn’t seen another killer whale for a LONG time! After her arrival, we transferred her from the transport crate to our medical pool to give her time to acclimate. After a period, we gave her access to one of our back pools, which is much larger than the medical pool. Getting her into the larger pool required Shouka to swim through an open gate, which she was not keen to do. We asked her several times in different ways to come to us in the other pool, but she said no thanks. As a team we discussed different options of how we could convince her to move. We decided to bring Corky, our 50-year-old killer whale into the back pool. We hoped Corky’s presence would entice Shouka to leave the med pool.

Corky is a laid back and accepting animal. Because of her temperament she is usually the animal we use for introductions like this. We allowed the two some time to see each other and eat next to each other with the gate closed between them before opening it. When we opened the gate Corky came into the med pool and sat next to Shouka. Shouka did not seem phased at all to see a giant killer whale next to her after 10 years! We asked Shouka and Corky to leave the med pool together, hoping Shouka’s desire to be with Corky would encourage her to leave but nope! Shouka was still hesitant to swim through the open gate and into the larger pool.

We tried many different scenarios to get Shouka to move but she wasn’t interested in leaving the security of the med pool. At this point it seems that Corky has figured out what we were trying to accomplish! On her own time while not under behavioral control Corky swam into the med pool, squeezed her huge 8,500-pound body UNDER Shouka and carried Shouka out of the gate and into the larger pool!!! Once through the gate Shouka immediately swam under Corky in the position that a calf would swim under its mother. It was one of the most amazing moments I’ve ever witnessed as a trainer! I don’t know if Corky knew what we wanted to happen or if she simply wanted Shouka to come and swim with her, but it was an amazing moment to watch.

 

Thank you Vicki for sharing your time and experience with us, we wish you the best in your future, both personally and professionally.

Thank you very much to WeZooit for the opportunity and keep it that way, good job guys!smile

 

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