Jillian Thomas was feeding a dolphin at SeaWorld Orlando when it partially launched out of the water and grabbed the girl's hand. Now a former SeaWorld trainer is reaching out to the 8-year-old.
Last month Thomas was feeding the dolphins at Dolphin Cove when a marine mammal lunged toward her during the feeding and grabbed her hand. The dolphin was attempting to get the paper tray of fish that Jillian was holding at the time.
The attack left four puncture wounds on the young girl's arm and was captured on video by the girl's parents who wanted to warn other parents of the dangers of feeding wild animals. The video soon went viral and Jillian's story was picked up by mainstream media.
Many reports applauded Jillian for being concerned about the dolphin and for expressing a desire to become a SeaWorld trainer one day. But a former SeaWorld trainer reached out to the young girl in the hope that she would reconsider her decision.
Copyright Samantha Berg
Samantha Berg performs with the dolphins during a SeaWorld show.
Samantha Berg worked as an Animal Trainer for SeaWorld of Florida for 3-1/2 years from February of 1990 until August of 1993. Berg worked alongside SeaWorld’s beluga whales as well as the killer whales of Shamu Stadium.
Berg now works as a licensed Acupuncturist and is a member of Voice of the Orcas, a group of former SeaWorld trainers who have banded together to reveal the truth behind one of the most popular marine mammal entertainment parks in the world.
Some of Berg's letter appears below:
My name is Samantha Berg, and I used to be a SeaWorld animal trainer. (That's me in the photo,) In fact, just like you, it was my dream when I was your age.
I saw the video of what happened to you at SeaWorld when you were bitten by one of the “petting pool” dolphins. That’s a very scary experience, and I’m glad you are OK.
I also saw that you still want to be a dolphin trainer. I’m impressed that your injury hasn’t frightened you away from your dream. But I want to tell you a few things about captive dolphins and about what it was like for me working at SeaWorld.
One of the first things I learned was that we had to say things to the visitors every day that we knew weren’t true about the health and well-being of the animals – probably some of the same things you heard when you were a visitor there. We could only tell them certain sugar-coated facts about the animals – things that SeaWorld wanted them to know.
Copyright Samantha Berg
Berg worked with a variety of species during her time as a SeaWorld trainer.
But did you know, for example, that the dolphin who bit you was chronically food and nutrition deprived? Dolphins at SeaWorld are fed a diet of dead, frozen fish that doesn’t provide the nutrients and water that they need to stay healthy.
Many of them get sick or irritable and develop behavior problems. All the animals at these marine parks need to take extra vitamins that are stuffed into the gills of their first fish of the day. And many of them are on antibiotics, anti-fungals, anti-acids and even anti-depressants.
Did you look closely at the animals in the “petting pool”? You may have noticed that they are all covered with lines in their skin known as “rake” marks. This comes from dolphins attacking each other with their teeth. In a tiny blue pool, there’s nowhere for a dolphin to run and hide, so they fight with each other more often – just like you might if you could never get away from some of the other kids at the school playground. I once saw a dolphin starve herself to death because she was bullied by other dolphins to throw up her food. She lost so much weight that she died despite the efforts of the veterinary staff.
And did you ever wonder how the dolphins got in captivity in the first place? When you’re a bit older, ask your parents if you can see the movie “The Cove” featuring former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry. The movie goes behind-the-scenes to a place in Japan where dolphins are captured and separated from their families. The prettiest and youngest of them are sold to marine parks around the world, and the rest are brutally killed. Their meat is even fed to school children.
All of SeaWorld’s original animals were captured from the wild, but whales and dolphins don’t thrive in captivity. So SeaWorld is working right now with the Georgia Aquarium to bring in 18 wild beluga whales who were captured in Russia, so they can breed them, too.
Copyright Samantha Berg
Berg with the SeaWorld dolphins.
Once they’re in captivity, the dolphins and whales learn that if they want to be fed, they have to perform or be viewed or touched by visitors every day of the year.
They never get time off and they never get to retire. All of SeaWorld’s dolphins die in captivity. None of them will ever see the ocean. And most of them die while they’re still quite young. One of the worst things for me was seeing animals I loved dying while they were still young.
Berg worked with Dr. Lori Marino, one of the world’s top experts on dolphin intelligence and self-awareness to suggest other avenues for young Jillian to follow instead. These ideas -- which include studying dolphins and whales in the wild, can be viewed on the blog: Earth in Transition.
Why did you reach out to Jillian?SB: I reached out to Jillian because these are some of the things I wish I had known about captive dolphins and whales before I decided to work with them in captivity. If I had known back then what I know now, I would never have taken a job at SeaWorld. When I was Jillian's age, I believed SeaWorld's propaganda that the only way to study dolphins and whales was in captivity. I wish someone had set me straight back then.
What do you hope to achieve with the letter?SB: I wanted Jillian to know that her experience was completely preventable and didn't have to happen. However, more people will continue to be bitten and attacked as long as dolphins are held in these artificial, woefully inadequate environments at amusement parks, aquariums and swim-with-the-dolphin programs
I also wanted her to know that while our culture values people who don't let adversity or mishaps get in the way of achieving their goal, in this case, her determination to be a dolphin trainer despite a dolphin bite is misguided.
The lesson she should take is that dolphins do not belong in captivity in the first place. And if she takes a career as a dolphin trainer she is perpetuating the idea that captivity is acceptable for large intelligent marine mammals.
Berg also told Digital Journal that it is imperative that people understand how and where these animals are sourced from. Just two days ago over 100 bottlenose dolphins were driven into a Cove in Taiji, Japan, and netted off from the ocean. Thirty-two animals were selected for a life in captivity to be sold to marine mammal parks around the world. The remainder of the pod is still being held and could be slaughtered later today for their meat.
Berg explains in her letter that many of SeaWorld's animals were captured in the wild, and that SeaWorld has sourced some of its animals from Taiji. According to David Kirby, author of Death at SeaWorld, SeaWorld refuses to outwardly condemn the Taiji dolphin drives. In this article posted at TakePart.com, Kirby wrote:
Three years ago, after the release of the Oscar-winning film The Cove, MSNBC reported that SeaWorld "refused to condemn those who still buy from Taiji.” Company spokesman Fred Jacobs, "likened such purchases to a salvage operation that prevents some animals from being killed."
"We stopped [buying] and have not resumed, not because we are ashamed, but it was not something that we cared to be involved with any more," Jacobs said.
By purchasing these dolphins, US marine facilities provided the drives with the financial incentive needed to continue the hunts.
In a Frontline special on PBS called "A Whale of a Business", Jim McBain the Director of Veterinary Service at SeaWorld Inc., answered questions about the animals that SeaWorld acquired from drive fisheries:
In our collection right now, we have false killer whales. And three of the animals came from drive fisheries, one of them came from a drive fishery that went to the Indianapolis Zoo on a permit, the animals now in our park on a breeding loan. We've had two offspring from that group, so there's six total ... over the years there have others that have been in part of the collection, sure, that passed away.
When pushed directly for a concrete number of animals acquired from the Taiji drives, Bain finally admitted, "There's been 15 total. 'Course that information is public information through the National Fisheries Service. It's not like it's a secret that SeaWorld has."
And while it isn't a secret acknowledges Berg, and the information is available through the Freedom of Information Act, "it isn't information that the average person would take the time to unearth," she said, "nor is it information that SeaWorld would voluntarily share with its visitors."