The Animal Trainer Union
My starting wage at Sea Life Park Hawaii was $8/hour. My starting wage at SeaWorld Orlando was about $11/hour. I worked weekends and Holidays. I worked early mornings and late nights. At Sea Life Park, I was asked to clock out and continue working more times than I can count. And I was so happy I couldn’t believe it.
I loved working with those animals. It was a privilege. I would’ve paid them to let me care of the animals, and I was excited to spend Christmas, not with my family, but with those animals that I love so deeply.
That being said, there is no question that this passion of animal care professionals is being exploited by facility owners who have no clue what goes into caring for animals. SeaWorld is not one of those facilities.
In my experience, SeaWorld treated their trainers incredibly well. In fact, I have very little qualms about how they treat their trainers. They offer amazing health benefits, they make sure they clock out on time, truly respect their staff, and more importantly, put the safety and well-being of their staff and animals before anything else.
Of course, there is room for improvement – particularly when it comes to fairness of pay.
(Un)Fairness of Pay
When I worked at SeaWorld, many trainers working with killer whales got paid $5/hr more than me while I worked with dolphins, false killer whales, and pilot whales. This additional $5/hr was considered “hazard pay” as they were working with orcas which were considered more dangerous. However, that “hazard pay” was instituted when trainers were in the water with the orcas. Now, those trainers were “dry” meaning – they were not the water with orcas. Yet, they were still getting this extra $5/hr while I was in the water 6 times a day with dolphins. Even trainers who were in the water with false killer whales (a separate species of whale) or recently rescued pilot whales were not granted this hazard pay. Even more confusing, trainers who moved from working with killer whales to working with dolphins kept their hazard pay, while trainers who moved from dolphins to killer whales maintained their current pay.
Did the trainers care?
Not really. At least they didn’t care enough to do anything about it.
It was occasionally brought up by the training staff. Some trainers rolled their eyes on the idiotic justification brought down from management and then everyone went back to work. Everyone went back to work because we loved our work, we loved the animals, and we weren’t in it for the extra $5/hr.
But does that make it right? Is it right to pay this person more to do the same job as another person? No, it is not.
The problem trainers face in today’s job climate, and the problem they have always faced, is the supply and demand of jobs. Thousands of people want to work with animals. Yet, there are only a few jobs available. This gives the company an incredible amount of power to dictate unfair or low wages, difficult hours, laborious work, and essentially zero job security.
To add fuel to the fire, you are hiring a staff of animal lovers. People who willingly and lovingly put the animals first. This allows companies to use and abuse their staff without the staff even realizing they are being used and abused. They are blinded by their love for animals and the privilege they have of being allowed to care for them.
So, should animal trainers unionize in order to demand fair wages, reasonable hours, and an hour for lunch?
If you are in this for the money, reasonable hours, and an hour for lunch, there are plenty of other jobs out there for you. So, leave this profession now – because you are not welcomed.
However, should animal trainers unionize for other reasons?
Why Animal Trainers/Keepers Should Unionize
The industry is moving from shows to interactions. People will pay lots of money to fulfill their dream to swim with a dolphin or sea lion. Facility owners know this and are taking advantage. In fact, Arizona will soon be home to a new aquarium and dolphin interaction facility, and plenty of other facilities are including animal interactions to boost revenues and combat declining ticket sales. This can be dangerous.
A businessman in another state (or another country, for that matter), receives a piece of paper that tells him that one dolphin and one trainer can interact with 5 guests for 30 minutes. Each guest pays $100 for this experience. The trainer is paid $10/hr, so during that interaction the trainer makes $5, and the company makes $500 (of course, there are a zillion other expenses to consider, but let’s make this simple for demonstration purposes). They do 5 of these interactions a day and have 10 dolphins. They always book up, in fact, they have to turn people away, so every day the company brings in $25,000.
($500 X 5 Interactions) X (10 dolphins) = $25,000
The businessman wants to make more money so he figures he can add 2 people to each group and make an additional $10,000 per day!
($700 X 5 Interactions) X (10 dolphins) = $35,000
His investors and partners are thrilled and so is the businessman.
Months go by and they want to make more money, especially because they had a very slow holiday season. So, the businessman decides he can just add 3 more people to each group and do 2 more interactions every day.
($1,000 X 7 Interactions) X (10 dolphins) = $70,000
Wow! He just doubled the company’s revenue. Everyone is thrilled. They are making so much money that outside companies want in. So, the dolphin interaction company sells to the highest bidder. These new owners don’t know anything about dolphins and only have one goal – to increase profits.
So, they look at tons of paperwork and account statements to figure out how to make more money. They cut the trainers pay, get rid of the highest paid trainers, and yep, you guessed it, add 2 more people to every interaction and add another 3 interactions each day! Now, they are making $120,000 a day AND they decreased some of the labor costs.
($1,200 X 10 Interactions) X (10 dolphins) = $120,000
Financially, this is great.
For the trainers and more importantly, for the animals, this is not great.
Dolphin Welfare is the Priority
What is the only constant in the equations above? The number of dolphins.
Interactions CAN be a very positive and reinforcing experiences for the animals. I’ve seen it first-hand. However, when money starts to trump animal welfare, the interactions can become aversive. There is a fixed cost to care for a dolphin (i.e. they must eat every day, there must be a vet on staff, the water quality must be perfect, etc). You cannot get rid of those costs. So, in order to make more money you need to bring in more money. More money means more interactions. More interactions means less time for trainers to conduct training, exercise, and play sessions. More interactions means less time to develop new enrichment programs for the dolphins. More interactions means more time with guests who can be unruly and obnoxious. Yes, more interactions means more money, but that’s about it.
Not to mention that the trainers (the ones who are left after the buyout) are getting more work piled on them and are making the same wage (or less).
The trainers see that this is not going well for the animals (or the trainers), and they take their concerns to management. Management takes those concerns to the businessmen, and the businessmen say, “if you don’t like it, quit.” That message is relayed back to the trainers and because they love these animals, quitting is not an option.
And THAT is why we need a union.
If a company is going to care for animals, the animal’s care needs to be the priority. If you are unable to turn a nice profit (which I completely believe you deserve) while properly caring for these animals, perhaps you are in the wrong business.
A professional animal keeper union is needed, not just to protect the animal care professionals but more importantly, to protect the animals.
I am not advocating a balance between profit and animal care. I am advocating tipping the scales to favor animal care.
Animal Welfare > Profit.
How Do You Create A Union?
Stop. Before you get all riled-up and go create a union, first make sure it is needed. For example, if my SeaWorld co-workers told me that they were going to unionize I would’ve told them to knock it off and shut up. SeaWorld takes great care of their animals and their staff, and if you’re pissed about a $5/hr discrepancy then go work somewhere else.
Unfortunately, there are tons of facilities who do not deliver the same level of care and those facilities should be targets.
Currently, there is an animal trainer/handler union in Hollywood. I would suggest reaching out to them to see how they may be able to help you and your co-workers unionize. Here are some thoughts to consider when unionizing.
1. Make Reasonable Demands
Cultivate a list of demands you and your staff need in place in order to give the best possible care for the animals. They must be reasonable. For example, if you ask for $350/hr pay and that the facility should close for three months in the Summer, you are not being reasonable.
Explain how these demands actually help the business. If you cut down the number of guests in an interaction, how does this help them? Perhaps having less people makes for a better interaction and they can charge more money? Maybe you mix it up and have one interaction with 9 people and another interaction at a higher price for 2-4 people. This variety would be great for the animals and still deliver profits to the business.
These are demands. Not requests and not suggestions. This is important. I am assuming you have already requested what is needed for the animals, and they did not deliver. If that is the case, theses requests have become demands and there will be consequences.
2. Give a Reasonable Time Frame
To make meaningful change often takes meaningful time. Make sure you have a realistic timeline associated with these demands. And there must be a timeline.
If there is no timeline, there is no incentive for the business to adopt these changes or get back with you at all.
The timeline does not need to be all at once, meaning, you can list some of your demands that should be completed in 30 days and list another demands that need to be completed in 6 months.
Give dates. Be specific. And explain how you came up with these due dates.
3. Make The Consequences Very Clear
This step is very important… and up for debate.
On one hand, if you tell the company that all of your training staff will quit in 6 months if these demands aren’t met, then they know they have 6 months to replace you.
On the other hand, if you tell the company you will all quit of these demands aren’t met, they are more likely to consider acting on these demands because the job of replacing an entire training staff is timely and costly — two things business hate.
There can be other consequences than quitting. Your refusal to work overtime because interactions run too long with too many people. Your refusal to complete interactions with more than X amount of people.
Again, I am not advocating creating a union for the training staff. Essentially, I am creating a union for the animals. They deserve to be protected and not get trumped by money.
4. Be Ready For Backlash & To Act On Your Promises
The company may get so angry that they fire you right there on the spot. The company may hire a lawyer and start to feed you lines (or lies) about how you can’t do this, and these demands aren’t reasonable, and they need more time, and actually how this is worse for the animals… blah, blah, blah.
Believe me, they have a better lawyer than you, and they are better at negotiating. So it is crucial that you are prepared for this combative interaction and that you are ready to act on your promises.
When push comes to shove are you really able to leave those animals if necessary? Are you ready to be without a job?
Carefully consider all of this before acting. But more importantly, consider what taking no action will mean for you and the animals you love.