Sunday, March 24, 2013

Another Former SeaWorld Killer Whale Trainer Steps Out of the Shadows

Bridgette Pirtle, the interview before she flipped back to becoming a SeaWorld spokesperson. That story is covered, here


On September 28, 2012, at Voice of the Orcas, we received a moving and thoughtful letter from a recently retired  killer whale trainer from SeaWorld of Texas.  In the past three years we've been contacted by several former and current trainers; most supportive of our advocacy work, and some opposed; but when it came to speaking on the record, folks generally weren't willing to step up to the plate. 

Bridgette Pirtle started working in the animal training department at SeaWorld of Texas in 2001, and was a senior trainer from  2008 until the spring of 2011, at Shamu Stadium.

She told us, "I have struggled with finding the right words and the right way to step forward. In the end, just saying 'I'm ready to talk' and standing up as a voice for those who have been ignored for so long, is enough."

She added, "Those ten years I worked as an animal trainer were more valuable than I could have ever imagined and in a way in which I never expected."

We were stoked to speak with Bridgette, and you might be too. Our connection was strengthened when we former trainers merged recently in Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival. 


... another former insider with the courage to speak out and with the common experience of having worked directly with orcas at SeaWorld. Additionally, she had many years of experience and could shed light on events that occurred behind the scenes and after the tragedy on February 24, 2010. 

Bridgette Performs a Hydro Hop 
While at SeaWorld in Texas, Bridgette worked directly with the killer whales Keto, Taku, Kayla, Haida, Ky, Winnie and Tekoa. She did waterwork with Keet, Unna, Tuar, Takara, Halyn, and Sakari. A clip of her waterwork, such as in the photo, appears in the film Blackfish

Below are a few questions that we hope will introduce Bridgette. We are honored and pleased to have her voice added to ours. It takes courage to stand up. We applaud her courage and hope you will too.  

Follow her on Twitter at:  

VOTO: How long did you work for SeaWorld?  

BP: I worked at SeaWorld [Texas] for a grand total of 14 years.  Taking out my romp [in another department] from 1998-2000, I was in animal training from March 2001 through mid-March 2011.  I started at Shamu as an apprentice, transferred as a part-time associate to Interaction Programs in Sept 2002 before ending up back at Shamu as full time trainer in Jan 2005 until I resigned in 2011. 

VOTO: Who was your favorite orca, and just a sentence or two why? 

Fave orca... You are seriously gonna make me choose?!?!  

For the love!  

Tuar and I were a match made in heaven.  I was high energy, a bit goofy and willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the whales and he responded well to my creative approach to training using lots of secondaries in the form of visuals and playtimes.  He was my first killer whale relationship focused on building up to waterwork.  My interactions with him were consistent.  

Whether our session was dry, waterwork, show, learning, or even husbandry; I trusted him and he was a whale I could rely on to give me as much information as he could, behaviorally...  Tuar was the most fun to work with.

Halyn was the first killer whale I saw being born.  For the first few months of her life, I was there doing night-watches and around the clock bottle-feeds.  During the first week of her life, we had lowered a back pool to about 4 ft of water and lined the walls with tubes from the water park to act as bumpers.  

I was snorkeling near one corner watching her swim when she just stopped and watched me too.  I don't think I could hold my breathe that long ever again, but just having those couple of minutes of  having this tiny whale make eye contact with you and stay there with you was unreal.  I was the first trainer to give her the bottle and some of my first behaviors I trained with killer whales were teaching Halyn. 

In the last few weeks of her life, I tried to be there with her as much as possible.  I was one of the trainers in the water holding her before she passed away.  

Halyn was an animal that really started to open up my eyes to the reality behind what my job was really asking me to do.  

Bridgette Pirtle at the No Name Saloon in Park City, Utah, January 2013
If Kayla had been around experienced mother whales, would she have rejected Halyn? 

Trainers talked about what a cool experience it was to get the chance to hand raise a baby whale.  I loved that little girl, but that was the beginning of me realizing that my thoughts were evolving.  

I had an obligation to do everything I could for her, but I was also the reason she was in this struggle for her life to begin with.

VOTO: What was it like to see Blackfish and hang with the other trainers at the Sundance Film Festival? 

BP:  After coming forward... I wouldn't have imagined getting the opportunity to join alongside [everyone] in Park City.  I am grateful to be given the chance to be a part of something this amazing.  I am optimistic that seeing how the same influential voices that inspired me to stand up for what is right are now working to inspire others to speak out.  Because of this film and the work of Voice of the Orcas, Tim Zimmermann, [and others] an entire audience is seeking to understand the truth and reality of what captivity really represents. 

VOTO: What effect do you think the film could have in regard to cetaceans in captivity? 

Bridgette is a former Senior SeaWorld Trainer that opposes Captivity
BP: Blackfish has thrust the topic of the morality and necessity of [keeping] cetaceans in captivity into the spotlight. I loved Gabriela's response in a Q&A about how she brought her children to the parks but the whole time couldn't really quite understand why she didn't feel right about it. The film reminds the audience that this unsettling feeling is still one that needs to be addressed. SeaWorld PR has always been very strategic in filling the mainstream with stories of new roller coasters, new park acquisitions and gaining "Franklin the Turtle" as a new marketing tool for children. 

It's easy to forget about the internal conflict many have in regards to seeing the animals in these small confinements, with "leaning" dorsal fins, exposed pulp cavities and rake marks and scarring over their entire bodies. Blackfish encourages the audience, without coercion, to confront those internal conflicts... and decide for himself or herself whether it is socially or morally acceptable to continue to house these social beings in  sterile, tiny environments, in the name of entertainment.

VOTO:  We saw that you read the WDC article "Blowing the Whistle." Was that the primary reason you have stepped forward; or just an example of how your thinking has evolved?

Bridgette with former SeaWorld Trainer John Hargrove & Blackfish Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite 

"Blowing theWhistle" was one of the first articles that helped me realize the potential I had in really making a difference for the animals I care for. Tim Zimmermann's writing [also] had a profound impact on shaping my thoughts towards the industry and helped me to really put into perspective the reality of... SeaWorld. 

Bridgette kisses a killer whale 
The attention and care I found within his articles was more respectful towards the memories of Dawn and Alex than anything my own company was doing. The business aspect of the animal training field had begun to disillusion me just a couple of years into my career. By the time I was familiar with these articles, I was already trying to fight a hopeless battle against the powers-that-be. 

"Blowing the Whistle" showed me that I wasn't alone in my feelings. It also helped me to realize that by continuing my association with the park, I was only enabling exploitation of the animals. 

The decision to leave is a process that at one point included attempting to return to take care of the animals, but, ultimately, the strongest voice for them would have to be [from] outside the gates. 

6 Ex SeaWorld orca trainers are supporting each other & opposing captivity
Y'alls story reminded me that, as much as we care for those animals we worked with, the best thing we can do for them is share the truth of what our job really entailed. 

"Blowing the Whistle" reminded me that there was more potential of me receiving the support and regard I needed to change things for the betterment of the animals outside of the career. It also helped me to realize it was the animals I cared so much for as opposed to the job I once thought I loved.

The message I'm hoping to help spread is that these are incredible animals; hearing the stories each of you had to share reminded me that the dream job was a fairy tale. My dream was to [actually] do something for these animals. I am grateful to have the support of some amazing individuals that worked hard to carve out the path I have chosen to walk ahead of me.