Hazel McBride has taken the needed step in sharing the truth surrounding the animal training community. She has recently written a book, I Still Believe – The Truth is Not as Black and White as it Seem.
Current and past animal care professionals need to share their stories. Their stories of rescuing animals in need. Their stories of spending countless hours rehabilitating those animals back to health. Their stories of sending them back to the wild – the most important part of the job. They also need to share their stories of caring for animals who are unable to be released back to the ocean, where they belong.
Nobody is arguing that animals belong in the wild. They do! Future animal care professionals need to understand that. However, we live in a world where animals live in a variety of human managed environments – from preserves, zoos, aquariums, and facilities. These animals need to be cared for properly.
The extremist groups wanting to close down all zoos and aquariums are unknowingly advocating for the death of thousands of animals and preventing future generations of wild animals in need from getting the care they deserve. Who will be there during the next beaching? Who will be there during the next oil spill? Who will be there when yet another species is brought to near extinction. Accredited zoos and aquariums are able to build wild populations of animals. These facilities act as the frontline to animal rescue and are the last hope for animals most in need.
However, some self proclaimed “pro cap” individuals are advocating for the other extreme – taking healthy animals from the wild in the name of “education, conservation, and researching.”
Stop. That’s ridiculous.
There is a middle ground. That middle ground involves supporting the facilities that properly care for their animals. This logical middle ground is going after facilities that are, in fact, not properly caring for their animals – either helping them reach proper standards or moving those animals to a facility that can.
Being a logical animal advocate means looking at all sides and then choosing the best plan for the animals.
Don’t choose the action plan that makes you feel good.
Advocate for the plan that makes the most sense for the animals of today and the animals of the future.
Please enjoy this beautiful writing and much needed insight from Hazel McBride.
Killer Whale Trainers are Heroes
…and heroes always win.
By: Hazel McBride
When I decided that I wanted to pursue a career as a killer whale trainer, it was during a time where trainers were viewed as legends. Respected for being able to form incredible connections with the oceans top predator. Fearlessly diving into the water beside them in a glorious display of trust and communication. People would line up in their thousands just to catch a glimpse of this amazing partnership and children would watch wide-eyed, wishing that one day, it could be them.
It was a time where trainers were rightly viewed as experts in animal care and people trusted that they knew what was best for the whale’s they were responsible for. Honestly? It was an easy time to be a trainer. All you had to do was smile and wave at the audience and allow the obvious bond between yourself and your whale do the talking for you. Pulling on that wetsuit must have felt like the easiest thing in the world. Walking out to that stage with your head held high, full of pride as you reached for your bucket.
How times have changed.
Now, pulling on a wetsuit feels like you are slipping into armour, there to protect you from whatever slanderous names you had been called the night before on social media. We force ourselves to hold our heads up, keeping faith that we at least, know the truth. That bucket we are carrying doesn’t feel anywhere near as heavy as the weight of responsibility we now carry on our shoulders.
Being a trainer in the modern world is anything but easy.
Animal trainers dread the inevitable question when you are out with friends or family, or perhaps sitting down in your airplane chair as you fly alone. When someone finally turns to you and asks
‘What is it you do?’
You laugh awkwardly, even cast a glance around at your family to see if one of them will do you the favour of answering for you. Realising that they are all conveniently otherwise occupied, you take a deep breath and resign yourself to the fact that you might spend the next half hour of this dinner party engaged in a heated debate, and end up downing one too many tequila shots out of frustration.
But before you dive headfirst down that rabbit hole, you have a choice.
You can choose to tell them the truth. That you are a dedicated animal care professional who, today, spent the first hour of the day cleaning sea lion poop off the floor, walls and later on your own hair. That you have a Master’s degree in animal behaviour or a double major in marine biology and psychology, so yes, you are in fact ‘qualified’. Even if you clocked them wearing Sea Shepherd merchandise the second you sat down in seat 14C, or heard them reference a PETA article in conversation earlier, or noticed that they were loudly choosing the vegan option at dinner. You can still choose to tell them the truth, even though you know it will do nothing to help your blood pressure.
Or, you can lie. I know plenty of trainers who have simply given up and bare-faced lied about their line of work to save themselves the hassle. This often happens after a bad experience. Either they have been kicked out of a friend’s wedding reception for upsetting Great Aunt Patricia, after she told you she wouldn’t be caught dead visiting a ‘whale prison’ but then proceeded to gush about her recent trip to a wonderful tiger ‘sanctuary’ during her dodgy trip around Asia. In other cases, I have heard of trainers being refused a lease on an apartment after the landlord saw their job description on their paperwork, essentially leaving them with nowhere to live by pulling out at the last moment. The worst one I have ever heard? A vet clinic refusing to treat the pets of marine mammal trainers. A vet refusing a sick animal medical care because their owner dedicates their lives to caring for animals? You can’t make this stuff up! Completely mental!
The third option you have, if the situation allows it, is just to be vague. Gloss over it, give a quick one word answer and proceed with ‘An $800 Amazon bill last month? Of course your husband is overreacting Karen!’ and down your glass of red wine in victory at having avoided THAT conversation yet again.
Come on fellow marine mammal people, that’s just not who we are is it?
Instead, we take a deep breath, a large gulp of our alcoholic beverage of choice, and proclaim ‘I am a marine mammal trainer’. I think you get bonus points if you openly admit to being a killer whale trainer, especially alone on an airplane when you are literally backed into a window seat, and sometimes the cabin crew just cannot get you that £6 bottle of miniature vodka fast enough.
I have lost count of the number of times I have had THE conversation. The one that begins with THE question, followed by THE answer.
Then the judging of the other person’s reaction. The eyebrows go up, they slowly sit their drink down, they cross their arms and lean back in their chair and you know what is about to happen. You’ve seen it coming from a mile away. You close your Game of Thrones book and set it down on the tray table in front of you, secretly glad that you don’t need to keep reading because no-one told you that the books were even more confusing than the TV show.
But you have an advantage, this is the first time they have ever had this particular conversation, but you have had it at least 37,926,163 times (and that was only in the last few weeks).
Now, there are varying ways in which this interaction can go.
You get the people who are open minded about it, who ask a few polite, expected questions, and then calmly continue the conversation in another direction. Perhaps they comment about how lovely it must be to live in such a warm sunny place (Never heard of mosquito season, have you Karen?), or they ask how long you are home visiting family for.
Then you get the people who simply cannot fathom what the hell you are talking about. This happens a lot when I am home in Scotland. The concept of being a killer whale trainer is so far removed from people’s realities that they simply don’t understand what you are talking about. My Dad’s friends simply brush it off with a skeptical ‘Are ye now hen?’ and totter off down the Bingo hall for a whisky and a Tunnocks Tea Cake.
Then you get the people who settle into the argument like your Grandad in his favourite armchair after Christmas Dinner.
You see the grit and determination on their faces, finally they have a real-life in the flesh marine mammal trainer in front of them and they are going to savour it. The conversation may get heated, it will definitely cause you to hold in multiple eye-rolls, and may leave you wanting to bang your head against the wall. But what it won’t do, is change this persons mind.
Unfortunately, these types of people have already made up their mind about what a killer whale trainer (or any type of marine mammal trainer/zookeeper) is like, long before they met you. Don’t take it personally. They are a product of propaganda and sensationalist media.
Talking to people like this can be like talking to a brick wall. Your family, also seated around the same table at the wedding reception, had started off watching you both like you were two star tennis players in the Wimbledon final, but now Uncle Sam has wandered off to the bar with a crick in his neck, Cousin Anna is taking snapchats and your Mum has her head in her hands, wondering once again why you had to bring it up.
But we get into these types of debates because we care. We care so much that it hurts. We care so much about the animals that we want to defend their lives, and our own, whenever we can. Being a trainer is so much more than a job to us, it is a part of who we are. When people attack zoological facilities and everything they stand for, they are also attacking everything we believe in.
Because I do believe it. I truly believe, with 100% of myself, that zoological facilities and the animals in our care, are the key to safeguarding the future of the natural world. For inspiring every single person who walks through our doors to make a necessary change in their lives. To conduct research that will eventually help to protect our animals’ counterparts in the wild. To conserve the natural environment by using our profits to help conservation charities and by encouraging our visitors to do the same. Finally, to educate the future generation so that they will have a better world to inherit.
Being a trainer in the modern day means being prepared to take all of this extra responsibility on. It means doing the job while being attacked online, bullied in person, or even receiving death threats.
For some reason people no longer believe those most qualified to judge the well-being of animals in zoological facilities. They seem to think that we are just random people that got handed a wetsuit with no idea of what it even means.
The majority of us are scientists with Masters Degrees, even PhDs! A lot of us have years of collective experience volunteering at animal shelters, or for research organizations. We had to grind to get this job. It took years of dedication, commitment, time and energy to get to where we are now. And we should be PROUD OF IT!
Hell, I am proud of it! I refuse to lie about who I am or what I do, because the minute that I think there is a reason to be ashamed of it, then I shouldn’t be doing the job anymore. I have worked too hard and been through too much to give up now.
Hell, I am proud of it! I refuse to lie about who I am or what I do, because the minute that I think there is a reason to be ashamed of it, then I shouldn’t be doing the job anymore. I have worked too hard and been through too much to give up now.Hazel McBride
It is easy to criticize and judge from behind a keyboard. It is easy to buy a sweatshirt and hashtag ‘empty the tanks’ on every post. But if we take away your keyboard, can you still call yourself an activist? Trainers are the ones on the ground every single day, out there in the real word, making a real difference to the lives of animals of every species. And we are ready to share that part, the real part, of our job with anyone who will listen.
Sometimes, the dinner party conversation goes well. Sometimes, you end up showing the stranger on the plane all 375 photos of your otters playing with their jello balls. Sometimes, a little girl comes up to you with her cuddly toy killer whale and says that she wants to be like you when she grows up. Sometimes, someone leaves your show with a whole new respect for the natural world.
It may feel like trainers slipped from being heroes to zeroes. I think that the opposite happened. A decade ago, you didn’t need the same level of courage to put on that wetsuit and stand up for what you believe in the way you do now.
The controversy and adversity of the past years has made us into heroes.
And heroes always win.