A note from Ken Ramirez
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.
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.
As 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.
There 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.
Ken 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