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October 21, 2013

A note from Ken Ramirez

Recently, an independent documentary-style film debuted in select theaters across the country focused on the unfortunate 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. Through creative editing, Blackfish attempts to “expose” SeaWorld’s supposed negligence in areas from employee safety to animal welfare through allegations made by a handful of former trainers depicted in the film. Some of the emotional-evoking claims about animal care and training practices conveyed in the movie no doubt leave the audience feeling conflicted and confused about the moral and ethical validity of orcas in aquariums and marine parks.

While these types of films are typically funded or fueled by animal activist groups that do not support the existence of public institutions such as ours, I always welcome the scrutiny and conversations they prompt as it gives us the opportunity as mission-based organizations to demonstrate the kind of world-class care we deliver day-in and day-out for these species and bring to light the significant responsibility we take in our work each day in the best interest of animal welfare.  

However, when concerns are brought forward – whether by movies or news headlines – that stem from a one-sided view of assessing dolphins and whales thriving in human care, I do feel compelled to share some of the decades of unique insight and perspective I’ve gained throughout my career as a trainer and through my ongoing involvement within the international marine mammal community to help bring clarification to the misinformation out there. I’d like to share a few of those thoughts with you here.

Ultimately, it all comes down to one basic principle: Nobody cares more about the well-being and welfare of animals than those of us entrusted with their care.
Dr__BillAs someone who has devoted more than 30 years to caring for and training animals, I know first-hand the unparalleled dedication and passion that goes into the work trainers do with animals, as well as the pride we have in our organizations’ collective efforts that ultimately contribute to the preservation and survival of these species in the wild. I’ve had the privilege of travelling the world to “train the trainers,” serve on international boards committed to providing leadership and guidance for best-practice techniques, and have even written a comprehensive manual on how to positively train animals from all walks of life. I can confidently say without equivocation that the common theme across the globe for why we do what we do is this: our purpose is strongly rooted in a deep love for these animals and a dedication to provide them the very best care.

Training is an essential part of enhanced animal welfare.
Lisa_TakakiThere are so many misconceptions about training, most stemming from early circus acts and traditional dog training. These antiquated styles of training lead people to believe that animals are “forced” to perform. But that is not how modern positive reinforcement training is used in the zoo and aquarium world. In fact, training is an essential part of good animal care that actually enhances the quality of the animal’s lives – it is as important as good veterinary care and good nutrition and most importantly, allows us to build strong relationships of trust that enhances our ability to provide outstanding medical care with the animal’s cooperation. Often there is a great deal of discussion about the value of shows in the zoological world, and whether shows are an appropriate way to display marine mammals. While I feel that shows provide a great educational vehicle for exposing the more than 182 million guests who visit our facilities each year to the natural behaviors and wonder of these animals, and have personally experienced them as a great first step toward connecting our guests with the living world, it is important to understand the other benefits that a show provides to the animals themselves. Whatever the type of show, well-trained animals are provided with great mental and physical stimulation and have the opportunity to interact with trainers with whom each animal has developed a strong and trusting bond. Training is a noble, important, science-based profession that deserves respect and recognition for the quality of care it enables zoos and aquariums to provide.

Transparency drives our desire to educate, inspire and do what’s right.
As the controversy about animals in zoos and aquariums takes on different forms, the public is bombarded with “facts” and statistics from every side of the argument. Questions about longevity, happiness, illness, educational value and impact are raised and debated. When dealing with ethical organizations, the facts presented almost always have some basis in truth. For me and my colleagues at Shedd, we would never release information that was not thoroughly vetted and researched before being found to be credible and true. I would hope this is true for animal activist groups as well such as The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). But statistics are usually hard to interpret without context. Many of those who argue that animals should not live in a zoo or aquarium often use information that may have been true 25, 30, or 40 years ago – but I’m proud to say that the marine mammal community in the United States, and around the world, has changed dramatically since that time. While I am confident we have the science on our side as animal welfare experts, our community must continue to do what we can to ensure that everyone who cares for animals has the highest ethical standards.

In closing, I am proud of our profession, of the care we provide at Shedd Aquarium and of the amazing work performed by our organization and other like-minded organizations in the best interest of both the species in our care and the living world. I am passionate about the benefits of good training, exceptional animal welfare, and the role that reputable zoos, aquariums and marine parks can provide. I am proud to be a trainer, an educator, an environmentalist, and a conservationist – and I stand by the work we do each and every day. We will always strive to remain transparent in a best effort to educate, inspire and build and maintain trusting relationships with the public and animals for which we are accountable to. If organizations like Shedd are going to thrive, we must be able to hold up to the scrutiny the outside world casts upon us. I only request an equal voice and an appropriate platform to share our perspectives.

With respect,

Ken Ramirez
Ken_RamirezKen Ramirez is the Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Training for Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. As a passionate caregiver, he is entrusted to oversee the well-being of the more than 32,000 animals that reside at Shedd through its world-class animal care.
• Past President and Current Advisor, International Marine Animal Trainers Association (IMATA)
• Past Board Member, Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network
• Past Board Member, American Cetacean Society
• Author, Animal Training: Successful Animal Management through Positive Reinforcement (1999)
• Adjunct professor for graduate course on Animal Training at Western Illinois University since 1997



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My daughter and I have visited SeaWorld and Epcot and done behind the scenes tours. And yes, trainers love the animals and care for them as best they can, but the point is, the pools these animals are kept in are not big enough, and they are kept isolated. It is not how they were meant to live.

Whales and dolphins do not belong in aquariums. If you can't care for them in an integrated tank that is large enough to mimic their natural habitat, you should not have them at all.

So you stand behind the assertion that these intelligent mammals are "content" and it is ethical to confine them in tanks? That they have the same or better quality of life in an artificial environment than in the ocean? That, given their intelligence, they do not get psychotic or frustrated being in this controlled environment? You can honestly answer "yes" to all the above???

I fail to see the educational value of dolphins jumping in unison with music. I know that dolphins (Orcas are of the dolphin species, right? ) are very family orientated, lead by the matriarch. How is that conveyed in the parks across the globe? Most people do not know that simple yet most important fact about dolphins. I believe marine mammals need our help BUT we don't have to "own" them to provide care. I think a wild Orca with their family is a more magnificent sight and educational experience that marine parks cannot duplicate. I also feel strongly that marine parks should come together once and for all, denounce Taiji Japan. You cannot say you love the dolphin species and turn a blinds eye to Taiji Japan. I urge you to watch a livestream of the hunt. There you will see REAL education of the dolphin species. And Imata trainers are a big part of the problem instead of being a huge part of the solution. It is a shame the Imata trainers don't have a real love for the marine mammals in their care. These are not our pets... They are what we share the earth with! I look forward to having a conversation with you.

This was so informative. Hoping that this shared to cnn who is airing the documentary.

"Ultimately, it all comes down to one basic principle: Nobody cares more about the well-being and welfare of animals than those of us entrusted with their care"...

Nobody? How about those who DON'T capture them from their natural environment for a life of constricted imprisonment, forced to perform? I think those people care WAAAY more! I can acknowledge that you make a horrible life a bit less horrible, but there's no way any compassionate, sentient, and empathetic soul can condone this.

You do not debate that wild animals are better off in their own natural environment than in being captured and in captivity, regardless of the level of care and nurturing by trainers. Marine mammals would never chose the emotional stress of being held in captivity.

Thank you for an excellent and thorough perspective on a complex issue. Keep up the great work you do.

I fail to see how any of this provides a suitable argument against the points raised by Blackfish: your key points here are that the trainers absolutely love what they do and truly care for the animals - true! And also supported by Blackfish, the film never claims they don't. Second point; training and shows are vital to captive animals and good forms of enrichment and stimulation. Again, also a point supported by Blackfish - of course an animal in such an environment would need this!

Blackfish's main point, if you missed it, is that these animals don't belong there in the first place because it doesn't matter how 'scientifically based', ''first class' or 'educational' it is....it is not good ENOUGH for these animals. Companies such as SeaWorld may provide the 'best' care in the world but that's hardly an amazing claim when that in itself is still working out to be generally detrimental for the animals in its care. It's like you're trying to polish a turd.

Zoos and Aquaria are important institutions and will probably become even more important in a few decades.
Some argue, we don't have to put them into tanks as there are many opportunities to see them in the wild.
But as cetacean watching is growing, so the impacts are.
Animals are harrassed and chased and have little time to rest because people want to get close!
Another point is, that cetaceans are widely seen as 'non-human persons'. They are not. They are animals. Such as pigs, rats, horses. They aren't any 'better' than other animals living in zoos.
Seeing dolphins face to face when I was little, helped me to develop my love for this species, provided by dolphinariums.
I'm working in cetacean conservation but I don't exclude captivity here, as I believe, when we go on polluting the oceans, sadly, such institutions will be the last places where cteaceans can be seen...Yes, some dolphinariums are crappy and the animals suffer but this is not the case with institutions which contribute to scientific research. Animal activists should deal with more severe problems, such as the situation in the worlds oceans where more species are affected (such as sharks but unfortunately, sharks aren't cute...).
People should get an own impression and not repeating what Mr. O'Barry is preaching in TV shows and magazines...

Just my two cents.

Thank you for writing this. I have become a better person professionally and personally solely due to the knowledge I gained from facilities like these. My experiences with these facilities has inspired me to further educate others about the importance of maintaining a healthy environment for all animals. Without these types of places, my passion would not have been able to grow as strong as it is today.

I don't think anybody will argue about the care you provide. The problem is that they're there in the first place. What did not sit well with me is when top facilities talk about how they hold high standards for care and welfare of the animals is a priority, and then partner up with facilities that provide substandard care and/or environments for their animals such as Miami Seaquarium in your instance and Mundo Marino in Sea World's instance. It just makes it seem like those high standards stop at the doorway for the sake of having a new baby to draw a crowd in.

Mr. Ramirez, you don't address one of the most disturbing concepts we are learning about with this documentary, which is how animals are taken from their families and native habitats for no other reason than humans' education, entertainment and profit. Do you have animals in your facility that were captured from the ocean in this way?

Why do you have to care for them at all?
Why do you have to train them at all?
Why can't you just leave the Killer Whales in the ocean where they belong?

The film Blackfish clearly shows that Killer Whales are very intelligent and social animals.

And you can clearly see the tactics used to control these animals.

They separate the Alpha Male
They separate the young from their mother which breaks up the family structure that these animals clearly rely on.
They put different types of Killer Whales together so its harder to form a bond between each other like they normally would in the wild.
Then they clearly withhold food from the animals and make them do 5 or 6 tricks in a row before they offer the 12,000 pound animal two little fish.

I mean you can clearly see this happening! In the film!

You saw SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau their best trainer manipulate the animal with a bucket of fish! Right before she was killed! I mean come one ...are you saying that's a lie? That it didn't happen!

Thank you for your question, GH. In my original post I had tried to address every concerning aspect of the film Blackfish, but found my comments running far too long – so I only ultimately focused on what I thought were the most current issues. Your question about the way animals are acquired is a good one. The film Blackfish depicts a terrible process in which killer whales were collected in 1970, it is one of the most troubling portions of the film. The collection in the film took place more than 40 years ago, before the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and long before our knowledge and understanding of these animals was as advanced as it is now. Nobody in the United States acquires animals in this manner today. In fact, very few marine mammals are brought in from the wild unless they are from rescue and rehabilitation programs where animals cannot be returned to the wild and need homes in an accredited zoo or aquarium. We have many rescued animals at Shedd as this is an important focus for our program. Additionally, many of Shedd’s animals were actually born right here at Shedd. We have one of the most successful beluga whale breeding programs in the world; our youngest calf just turned one year old this year, while one of our oldest, who is now an adult, just turned 14. Our animals have helped biologists and researchers in the wild better understand important conservation issues and assisted in shaping legislation and practices to improve the lives of animals in the wild. These are the types of advances, dedicated care, and critical contributions that are not discussed in the film.   

Ken, i appreciate what you are trying to say and what you do for the animals that already have no choice.

What you are saying is not true about animals being caught. They may not be caught directly in waters within the US, but these animals were caught in the wild. And it's my understanding from following this case, that some of these 18 belugas were destined for Shedd.


And even though this fell through, thanks to NOAA, for making the right decision, these animals are likely still held captive in temporary holding pens. And until the captors or those in charge make a decision regarding their fate.

Thank you for the thoughtful response, Mr Ramirez. It's comforting to hear that that kind of collection is mostly in the past, but footage from Taiji indicates that dolphins are still being collected in such a way, even if it is illegal for them to be imported into the US (thank goodness.) That continues to disturb me, but I do recognize the valuable place aquariums and zoos have in conservation and rescue. Thanks for the information.

Well spoken Mr. ken Ramirez. Im very proud what I do every day! Unfortunantly there is allways ignorant people, with closed minds, that simple cannot understand that everybody which love animals they love them and they protect them because somewhere in the past they were in a Zoo. The Zoos give the oportunity of every single children in the world poor or rich to now the beauty of our natural world and sensibilize them to protect the planet when they grow up! You only love what you see, you only protect what you love!

Something Mr.Ramirez fails to mention is that aquariums do indeed take cetaceans from the wild on a regular basis in other countries -- with no U.S. protective laws in place.

So, in the USA aquariums that need new genetic material for their breeding programs, and to increase performing animal stocks, invest in 'rescuing' more cetaceans into captivity.

However, they also attempt to 'import' these animals from other countries because they can't just legally capture them in the USA.

For example, Shedd Aquarium, Sea World, and the Georgia Aquarium recently attempted to import 18 wild caught beluga whales from Russia -- the permits were denied by NMFS.

Also, in places like Taiji, Japan and the Solomon Islands, the slaughter of dolphins is economically supported by live captures for sale to foreign aquariums.

I cannot help but notice that most of the people here have raised much more valid points than Mr. Ramirez. Are you sure that you don't just think you have a "cool" job so you sacrifice some of your ethics and sense of right and wrong to work with these mammals? Maybe the rest of us love them enough to not tolerate them being trapped in an unnatural life. And I have a grand idea. If Sea World's main purpose is education and not to profit off the misery of these animals, how about they left everyone in for $5 and let us learn whatever it is they are trying to teach us. I guess that human beings are the masters of the universe and can exploit any other creatures???

Can you explain the connection between the Shedd and Monsanto? How the belugas' natural environment of the St. Lawrence River is being polluted by related companies? Such hypocriscy!!!! You and the Shedd claim to be "helping" the belugas??!! Sad. And explain the Shedd's desire to gain wild caught Russian belugas please. It is all about $$. Period.

I'm enormously disappointed in your response. You've dodged several important issues, in my opinion. Please know that I will not in future support the Shedd in any way. I did not have that position before I read this piece. Not well done, at all.

I too am surprised and disappointed in your response.

I have seen you speak on a handful of occasions and have deep respect for you and your point of view on this issue, but this note is lacking and unfair.

If you are going to call Blackfish "creatively edited"or insinuate that you disagree with the arguments they present, then you need to speak to those points.

Blackfish raises several issues:
- tanks that have not been enlarged or improved
- Tillikum being alone most of the time, --young orcas being separated from their mothers at developmentally too young an age
- orca health problems caused by captivity
-ethical issues of breeding Tillikum who is not a behaviourally healthy animal,
water work safety
-unnatural groupings of orcas causing aggression which has at times been fatal - the lack of any educational component in SeaWorld shows.
-misinformation about orcas presented at at SeaWorld

SeaWorld was given the opportunity to present their side in this documentary and declined. Here you are speaking out against Blackfish, but not addressing the issues raised and lumping them in with PETA? That doesn't seem like a fair comparison.

The one point you make , nobody caring more about the whales than those caring for them isn't contrary to the message of Blackfish. I'm sure those who train and care for the animals love them, the issue is those making billions off of them, not the $20/hr training staff.

I hope very much you will take the time to actually address the issues raised in the movie Blackfish. You are one of the few experts who are qualified to do so.

If you can't speak to the specifics of SeaWorld, address the issues of large cetaceans in tanks and the issues that aren't SeaWorld specific.

The bottom line is, these beautiful creatures do not deserve to be captured and contained for our entertainment and profit. Giant whales in small tanks is nothing less than criminal.

I visited Shedd with my family this summer. We stood in line in the blazing heat for 2 hours, paid an insane amount for what we all thought was unimpressive. A few weeks after we got back, I saw Blackfish in the theater, and at that point I realized how terrible it was that we paid to see you put those poor creatures on display. While I was at Shedd I spent time looking at the beluga whales and I couldn't help but feel sorry for them, they looked upset, and all they did was swim around in circles.

The thing that draws people to support Blackfish is that it focuses on the animals, not the trainers. We know the trainers and vets care for them, thats obvious. But it's the whole idea of taking them out of their natural habitat and using them for entertainment.

Whales and dolphins are some of the smartest creatures on the planet, some believe they are more intelligent than humans. So why does society think its ok to take these magnificent creatures and put them in glass tanks? I don't want to raise my children in a society that has no problems with that, I don't want them to grow up thinking that's normal. It just doesn't sit well with me.

Sea World is not a zoo, nor is it an aquarium. It is an attraction - an amusement park. It lacks the education value of zoos and aquariums.

The Sea World I grew up with was in Aurora, Ohio. Seriously? Marine mammals living out their lives in captivity in Ohio? As a free human being, I couldn't live out my life in Ohio.

But, please, feel free to go live in a jail in a cell for the rest of your life, against your will, and having have committed no crime.

As said above, there is nothing you have said above that refutes the points that the film made for me.

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