National Geographic Daily News
Photo of Tilikum, a killer whale at SeaWorld amusement park, performing during a show in Orlando, Florida on  September 3, 2009

Tilikum, a killer whale at SeaWorld amusement park, performs at a 2009 show in Orlando, Florida.

Photograph by Mathieu Belanger, Reuters/Corbis

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published January 16, 2014

With the furor over the documentary Blackfish and the attention it's focused on captive killer whales, much has been made about keeping these powerful predators for entertainment purposes.

The movie garnered Oscar buzz starting last year, but it's been left out of the running for Best Documentary—a major "snub," according to Forbes film contributor Scott Mendelson. (Related: "How Far Will the Blackfish Effect Go?")

Yet for all the ink spilled on the money killer whales generate and whether we should keep them in captivity, we hear less about what their lives are like from the people whose job is to care for them.

Bridgette Pirtle worked as an animal trainer at SeaWorld San Antonio in Texas from 2001 to 2011, and consulted on the film Blackfish. She has since expressed her disappointment with the movie, although she believes that using the animals for entertainment should end.

Pirtle, who now teaches at a dance academy in Texas, shared her experiences working with SeaWorld whales with National Geographic.

How did you get started as an animal trainer at SeaWorld?

They start you as an apprentice trainer. You do a lot of bucket scrubbing and setting up stuff for the real trainers.

The key thing when you're working with animals is the relationship—building up that care and trust.

[SeaWorld] required us to do relationship sessions at least once a week with the whales. Every single day I was over the wall getting to connect with these animals: Understanding the eye contact, the touch, reading the behavior [that] would define whether I would be a good trainer or not.

It left a lasting impression. I think it made me a very strong trainer. I still to this day value the time that I spent with the animals and the relationship that they reciprocated with me.

It doesn't [happen] very often in life to say you had a 6,000-pound [2,721-kilogram] animal take care of you when you threw your arm out of your socket.

What!? Please explain.

The job's extremely physically demanding. If you're hurt, you just suck it up and go. Plus, you love your job so much you don't want to miss out.

We had this element of the show where a trainer would come in on a trapeze. The apprentice trainers were supposed to do it.

[Doing this repeatedly] caused some damage to my shoulder, and my arm would pop out of its socket. For two years I would pop my shoulder back into place and keep going because I didn't want to miss out on any opportunities.

During a Christmas show, I did a hydro hop, which is where a killer whale pushes a trainer into the air.

I came out of the water and my arm shifted wrong. It's 20 feet [six meters] down to the water. When I hit, my arm shifted and I couldn't pop it back in.

[Keet, the killer whale] knew. Normally, when they pick you up, you put one foot on each of their pectoral flippers—it's like their shoulders—and their rostrum is near your face.

He held his left pec forward so that nothing was putting pressure on my right shoulder and right arm so that he could take me to the side of the pool.

How do you know if you've formed a bond with a killer whale?

There are a few things that you look for. The animals let you know whether they find you interesting or reinforcing. It's called discrimination.

With Takara [a female killer whale at San Antonio], the one trainer that I knew, no matter what, she would want to be with was John Hargrove. Hands down.

And you could see with some of the other trainers that worked Takara frequently, she responded to them differently. They would ask her to do something that she had a hundred percent success rate with John, and she would do something different with them—just to see what they would do.

We said that bad trainers relied on the bucket of food. If you didn't have confidence, you would go to this bucket of food as a crutch.

The whales knew that. If they saw you had nothing to offer them except for food, they didn't want it.

What does an average day for a killer whale trainer look like?

If you're a more experienced trainer, one comes in early in the morning, but most would come in around nine.

Breakfast would have already been given [to the whales]. One senior trainer with helpers would get breakfast out.

The rest of the morning would be spent getting urine from the females [to monitor hormone levels], having tooth irrigation [a kind of tooth-brushing] done for the animals that needed it, then we'd have weigh sessions.

Then trainers would go and discuss the day's shows.

Between shows, you'd be doing something fun with the whales. Maintaining old behaviors, teaching new behaviors, having playtime in front of the [pool's] glass.

It's nonstop until you go home. You crash, [but] you can't wait to come back and do it again.

What's the most common misconception about trainers?

I think one of the most common ones that I came across is that you're just the jock of the career world.

Most people think that trainers are just about being cowboys, and that's not it at all. I'd say that at least 90 percent of the trainers I worked with—most of them are still there now—most of them got into it for their love of the animals.

To understand the behavior of a killer whale, to know that each session is different, it takes a lot of depth and understanding of operant conditioning [reinforcing desired behaviors with rewards].

Was it a thrill to do the shows? Of course. But I loved teaching the animals. I loved figuring out how to communicate with the animals, and I loved what they gave back to me.

How often do killer whales perform?

I remember the day I got asked that question. We didn't have any shows that day because all the animals were like, "Eh, I'm not doing this."

You look at them each day, and if they're not into it and they don't want to be part of the show, that's fine. Sometimes you'd see if another animal wanted to be in it. If not, I'd just go out there and talk for 25 minutes. (See "Opinion: SeaWorld vs. the Whale That Killed Its Trainer.")

What happens to the whales when they retire from the stage?

I've never heard talk about retiring a whale. In my ten years working there, I never saw a whale that refused to do shows [anymore]. Shows are a kind of enrichment for them. You've got the audience, you've got the energy, which the animals responded to.

SeaWorld still has an active killer whale breeding program. How many whales do they have?

There are 54 killer whales in captivity. I think 28 of them are SeaWorld animals. (See "Schoolchildren and Musicians Boycott SeaWorld in 'Blackfish' Flap.")

The breeding program should end, and animals for entertainment should end.

What are they going to do with all these whales?

That was a battle I fought in my last year at SeaWorld. It was disappointing to me to see more money spent on parts of the park that didn't benefit the animals. They'd spend millions of dollars renovating a children's play area or revamping the sound system.

But there wasn't enough pool space [in San Antonio].

When you look at the Animal Welfare Act, the parks meet it, but the act is outdated. Killer whales aren't even acknowledged as being dangerous.

I think 12 feet [3.7 meters] is the minimum depth requirement [for the pools]. Tilikum [the whale featured in Blackfish that killed Dawn Brancheau] is 22 feet [6.7 meters] long. Kai was pushing 20 feet [6.1 meters].

They need more space.

Do you think their accommodations affect their behavior?

It can. If you have two animals in a 20-foot [6.1-meter] by 12-foot [3.7-meter] pool, if something social happens and an animal displaces the other, where are they going to go? These animals are extremely socially sensitive.

More space gives them a place to go if something goes wrong socially. (Watch a video of killer whales in the wild.)

If you had to do it all over again, would you do the same things?

Absolutely. I don't regret one moment of working with these animals, for caring for those animals.

I fought against the corporation from within, and now I'm fighting with the corporation a little bit from the outside. But we want the best for these animals.

What I learned, what I experienced, it's made me a better person. What the animals gave to me, it's made me unique. I wouldn't change that for the world.

I have no regrets because that's what [the whales] deserve. They're still going to need people to [care] for them until we come to a point where we stop using the animals as a form of entertainment.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

29 comments
kkkkkk ddd
kkkkkk ddd

MAN DO ANOTHER JOB WHATEVER IT IS BUT HOW DOES ANY HUMAN BEING WOULD THNK OF TRAINING AN ANIMAL? IT IS A MAJOR WRONG. IT IS THE OTHER WAY AROUND, THEY would HAVE MORE RIGHT TO TRAIN US IN THE FIRST PLACE IF WE WANT TO TALK ABOUT TRAINING AND STICKING THIS SICK IDEA AND WORD, BUT THEY DONT DO IT SO WE SHOULDN'T EITHER. THIS IS WHAT IS CALLED THE RESPECT OF NATURE. THEY ANIMALS OTHER LIVING BEINGS PLANTS ROCKS ETC ARE RESPECTING US SO WHY DONT WE DO THE SAME????!!! WHO DO YOU PEOPLE THINK YOU ARE??? SAME AS TRAINING A KID. WTF! NO ONE SHOULD TRAIN ANYONE! THE ONLY THING YOU CAN DO IS TO TRAIN YOURSELF AND THAT IS IT!!!! PEOPLE WAKE UP FROM YOUR MISERABLE REALITY!!!!!

kkkkkk ddd
kkkkkk ddd

MAN DO ANOTHER JOB WHATEVER IT IS BUT HOW DOES ANY HUMAN BEING WOULD THNK OF TRAINING AN ANIMAL? IT IS A MAJOR WRONG. IT IS THE OTHER WAY AROUND, THEY would HAVE MORE RIGHT TO TRAIN US IN THE FIRST PLACE IF WE WANT TO TALK ABOUT TRAINING AND STICKING THIS SICK IDEA AND WORD, BUT THEY DONT DO IT SO WE SHOULDN'T EITHER. THIS IS WHAT IS CALLED THE RESPECT OF NATURE. THEY ANIMALS OTHER LIVING BEINGS PLANTS ROCKS ETC ARE RESPECTING US SO WHY DONT WE DO THE SAME????!!! WHO DO YOU PEOPLE THINK YOU ARE??? SAME AS TRAINING A KID. WTF! NO ONE SHOULD TRAIN ANYONE! THE ONLY THING YOU CAN DO IS TO TRAIN YOURSELF AND THAT IS IT!!!! PEOPLE WAKE UP FROM YOUR MISERABLE REALITY!!!!!

mary smith
mary smith

Who cares about all the other animals in SeaWorld? The dolphins and seals have just as horrible living conditions. Is it because of Blackfish, the fact that an orca drowned his trainer that everyone wants just the orcas freed? 

I think that it's too late to free the animals at SeaWorld now. Their used to being fed- if people freed them, they'd die of starvation! The orcas at SeaWorld don't know that seals are food or how too catch a fish.

My thoughts are that SeaWorld needs to make these animals living conditions better. Maybe live fish the animals can catch, a huge pool that would be very long and very deep. What about SeaWorld not doing any shows?

Let the orcas and the other animals live as normal of lives as possible. Their kids and childrens' kids can live in SeaWorld, too.

Bottom line- give the animals in Seaworld a better life and stop the shows.

We all have our thoughts on this topic, but that's mine.

Jodi P.
Jodi P.

"You look at them each day, and if they're not into it and they don't want to be part of the show, that's fine."  I call BS, its a business, its obvious SeaWorld  is about the profit not about Orca's not into it for the day.


She said it was physically demanding and would injure herself often, what about the whales at night getting raked by other whales, did they not hurt too.


"What I learned, what I experienced, it's made me a better person. What the animals gave to me, it's made me unique. I wouldn't change that for the world."  Has it made the whale a better whale.  I'm sorry but this is very selfish, its definitely made her unique, that she would continue doing it for 10 years.  How can they watch mothers and their babies torn apart and continue to come back to the job?

Shelly Coleman
Shelly Coleman

How dare you overstuffed, intellectual know-it-all's.  I think you all need to go find your little concrete research facility and lock yourself away.  It seems you don't have a clue as to how to explain life in the animal kingdom (be it water or land) to the people who actually may have the ability to influence your greatest enemy (SeaWorld).  I guess you don't care as much about the Orca as you proclaim, otherwise you would work toward change rather than separation.

Have a wonderful day

Alexandra Fletcher
Alexandra Fletcher

There's no dispute that the trainers reap intellectual and emotional benefits from their relationships with these sentient creatures over time, but that in itself should tell us how cruel it is to keep them captive. If their emotional intelligence is at a level to make such bonds and their ability to communicate far super-cedes what the majority of the general public formerly knew, why are we forces them to communicate in the ways the best benefit us? Sure, Bridgette, congratulations your designated whale made you happier, and you told yourself he needed you to assuage your guilt and justify your role.


I'd like to have tiny, de-clawed tiger cubs wake me up in the morning and cuddle all over my bed, then lock them in my room and play with them when I get off work....I'm sure I'd build strong relationships with them over time..I'd benefit greatly. This does not mean I'd ever do this to creatures that aren't designed for captivity. It is simply selfish.


Furthermore, why is everyone targeting BlackFish? I mean, sure, it was the initial lid-opener of the orca scandal, but even without Blackfish, you educate yourself enough and you quickly understand this is barbaric. You can't say oh well, Seaworld rescues turtles so that cancels out their corporate greed in terms of orcas.


And its not just Seaworld, there's a whale in the Miami Seaquarium called Lolita, the first documented capture ever, she is in a tank so small for her size it would make your heartache watching bob between her barriers. There's a lot of work being done to free her so orca advocates go rally for her because she needs voices too.


Bottom line- Our use of emotionally intelligent creatures for entertainment is wrong. There's nothing scientific about whales flipping balls or waving for treats. That is our greed and need for thrills. 


Stop trying to justify this. I don't care about motives for Blackfish or its creators, we all know in our hearts this is plain wrong. And I think Seaworld is paying people off left and right. Dawn's family had an investigation filed into her death that suddenly dissipated and now they are out preaching about the sanctity of Seaworld.........fishy....



Manny Oteyza
Manny Oteyza

I didn't know she consulted on Blackfish? I produced the film and all she did was give us 5 seconds of stock footage.  Nothing else.

Andrea Ally
Andrea Ally

Wow this interview really skirted the issue considering the interviewee was involved in a controversial movie - a fluff piece if ever I saw one.

mary lockhart
mary lockhart

I am very disappointed that National Geographic actually interviewed this person.

Who is speaking up for the Orcas that are kept in captivity? Living in a bathtub is no comparison to living in the vast beautiful ocean with their pods. Boycot Seaworld. Vote with your consumer dollar.

Pat Hedrick
Pat Hedrick

When the comment is made that no one cared about the killer whales until SeaWorld brought them to the public's attention, I am confused. Even if that is true, does that mean SeaWorld earned the right to force them to live in a manner that is cruel? I went to SeaWorld many times when I was a child and took my kids there when they were young. But I was ignorant of the facts. I can't "unknow" what I have learned about the whales' social. familial, and space needs. For myself, I think of God's words to Job, "Where were you when I created the wind?" Who are we humans to allow such cruel conditions for such a beautiful, intelligent, and complicated creature that I believe God created? As to National Geographic: You blew it. We're you confused and thought you were People Magazine?

Jonathan Vance
Jonathan Vance

I can not believe how negative Blackfish was presented. I love SeaWorld and believe they do an excellent job compared to other parks. I found that SeaWorld only has two whales from the wild. The rest were born and raised by SeaWorld which is pretty impressive. Everyone has a opinion about whether the animals should be used for entertainment. But nobody even cared about killer whales until SeaWorld bought them into the light. Seaworld started rescuing animal by a group of college students who cared enough to spend every dime they had to rescue animals. Now to fund their program they started Seaworld and now years later everyone wants to claim their efforts where just for profit. Come on guys Really. I will continue to pray for Seaworld and give them my full support. I would have never experienced animal like these so it gave me the connection to help animals and Seaworld continuing helping all kinds of animals that need help or would die. I think giving help to animals and bringing their needs into the light is very important. Seaworld has alway put animal care at the top of their concerns. Of course no company is prefect but I feel they do a pretty good job or all of us here chiming in would have nothing to talk about and none of us would be here posting.. God bless everyone.

Kali Lama
Kali Lama

Oh my god. I cannot believe you did a story on Bridgette. She has literally done NOTHING for cetacean captivity. Interview Sam Berg, Carol Ray, John Ventre or any of the other ex trainers that actually speak out on orcas behalf. Bridgette is 100% in it for the fame and for getting her name out there. It's clear on her horrible social media behavior bashing Blackfish, the other ex trainers, Naomi Rose and other orca researchers. This really disappoints me to see. I wish you realized who you were working with before you put this article out. By the way, word on the street she's asking for her job back at SeaWorld.

S. Freeman
S. Freeman

Let ask the whales how they feel.  Do they like their trainers?  Do they like people?  We can find out these answers by watching them and not deciding for them. sure its not meant for some animal but some are actually meant to be with us and be our companions

Tzeitel Sorrosa
Tzeitel Sorrosa

All that stood out from this article was Me, Me, Me:

"I have no regrets"

"What I learned, what I experience"
"I don't regret one moment"

What about what's best for the animals and not for the trainer?

How about some empathy and compassion for encasing a creature that normally travels up to 100 miles a day?

Yes the breeding program should end. But also, trainers should work with people and not animals. Animals are not ours for entertainment or captivity.

cathy clarke
cathy clarke

 This article enlightens me nil about why these animals shouldn't be used for entertainment.


Even this former trainer acknowledges she would do it all over again. and supposedly she is against using these animals for entertainment.

Call me stupid, insensitive, and unpolitically correct, but I love going to seaworld Florida. I think it helps connect humans with the animals they share the globe with. You come away from seaworld feeling connected, and wanting to take care of the planet and its creatures.

of course if living conditions for the animals are inadequate, that should be fixed.

who knows, perhaps some of the whales enjoy performing and getting the contact and reinforcement from humans, the same way human actors and sports figures get a thrill from performances.

my cats love living with me and interacting with me. at least they act like it when I feed them. Just kidding, they love to snuggle with me and play with me and each other.

sign me, ignorant

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

@Jonathan Vance What difference does it make how SeaWorld compares to other parks? ALL orcas in captivity have shortened life spans, live in tiny tanks, 100 percent of captive males have collapsed dorsal fins, teeth are destroyed from biting cages, teeth are drilled without anesthesia until blood squirts out, bodies are scraped from fights with strangers because they are not in their natural family groups, live in constant state of stress, suffer from extreme dehydration, sometimes harm and even kill humans which never happens in the wild, babies taken from females (females grieve horribly) by "screaming" continuously for days. How can you possibly know this and still make the statement "SeaWorld has always put animal care at the top of their concerns"? SeaWorld has always put PROFITS at the top of their concerns.

Since you like comparisons, please do some research and compare the life of an orca in the wild to a captive orca. Maybe that will help to awaken empathy and compassion. It's the only chance the captive orcas have.

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

@Kali Lama Exactly right! Very disappointing piece for a National Geographic article. Bridgette says she "wants what's best for these animals". Bridgette wants what's best for Bridgette. National Geographic squandered a golden opportunity to educate people on why it is morally and ethically wrong to imprison these majestic animals. And judging by some of the comments below, education is sorely needed.

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

@Sonja Freeman We've already "decided for them". They live in captivity for Gods sake. What a stupid comment.

Alexandra Fletcher
Alexandra Fletcher

@cathy clarke Cathy, you are correct in that this article does little to explain why these animals shouldn't be used for entertainment, but that doesn't make it right. 


We are talking about 12,000 pound sea mammals, not small felines. 


I was going to explain further....but all I can say Cathy..ignorance is not bliss.

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

Orcas are highly social and extremely intelligent animals. They absolutely should not be imprisoned because you "love going to SeaWorld". How incredibly narcissistic. How would you like to live your entire life in a small cell, periodically having your children taken from you to go live in a similar cell thousands of miles away? I wonder if you would scream continuously for days as the female orcas do when their babies are stolen?

Quyen Le
Quyen Le

@David Seabaugh In fact, because of  the entertainment of the human, more and more the animals are in captive state like the slave. By this, they are trained well that understood like the academic words of this magazine, but it seems to be obliged...  So, giving them back the nature is the best way, I think.

Adam King
Adam King

@David Seabaugh and mostly @ Mr. Vance: I agree with the statement that killer whales and other cetaceans should not be kept or bred in captivity. Until such a time when breeding in captivity is done to sustain populations, you are effectively causing needless suffering of an animal that is highly intelligent for consumer demand only. Sea world is guilty of this, for sure.


However, I live in Australia. Sea World in Queensland does NOT have killer whales. They do have dolphins, which i would argue are also not prime candidates for captivity. But sea World's dedication to the local marine environments (of which several are very significant, even on the world stage), is almost unparalleled. It is also known that the same effort is lacking back home in the US. They command a large vessel that is more often than not engaged in everything from animal rescue (sharks in nets, turtles injured by boats, etc.) to supporting local research teams by providing a diving platform and free access to remote reefs. 


I agree with Blackfish 100% and after hearing the same thing said verbatim from Sir David Attenborough himself while he was here in Brisbane; this issue must be resolved. As for Sea World, I cannot lie and say that they do not contribute to the local community in a positive way, at least in Australia, but their approach is different in the US. Also, Sea World parks are NOTHING like the true research institutes found all over the country. Places like Monterey Bay Aquarium and the National Aquarium in Baltimore actively fund and support research while informing the local community about their efforts by means of putting rare and/or local species on display. Sea World does not inform, but uses animals as entertainment. If you want to see the difference, go to one of the places mentioned above and see what I am talking about (Directed at Mr. Vance above) (And sorry for any spelling/grammar errors, its late and I have had a few)

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

@Adam King Beautifully articulated! As I said, they are conscious creatures (self aware and aware of their environment) who deserve to be free.

Adam King
Adam King

@S. Freeman @David Seabaugh Killer Whales have a level of awareness that surpasses, in some aspects, our own mental abilities. This is evident in the complex formation of their brain, specifically centers for communication as well as emotion. These "facts" are the product of recent and on going studies into the behavior of Orcas as well as their true mental capacity. Unfortunately, these studies have begun long after we have put these animals (and others) into captivity, assuming that they are being accommodated for. We now know that they require a great deal more than we can ever provide.


Studying Ocean species is difficult because of the wide range of habitat that they usually inhabit, the fact that they live underwater - which poses issues, and the lack of funding that allows people to access these remote areas of the sea in order to get direct interaction. It should be known that we know most of what we do about the species from CAPTIVE Orcas. However, glorifying this approach to science (in my opinion) is likened to stating the medical advancements the West gained from taking notes off the Nazis post WW2, are a valuable asset (which did provide some advancement, but by means of absolute atrocity). There is too much grey area when talking about the benefits of captive Orca research; and further, Sea World's approach is not providing any benefit to the scientific community at all. Training an animal to exhibit irregular behavior by using incentives is really us taking advantage of an animal's sentience for our own entertainment. 


"Asking" an animal if it enjoys captivity is a ridiculous notion. Knowing that any being with sentience whom naturally lives over thousands of miles of open ocean in specific family groups is not suited for captivity; that is our moral imperative. And whether an animal "Likes" people is irrelevant. Unlike in scripture, we have NO dominion over the natural world. We are now its care takers because we have assumed the mantle. But we need to respect it, not pillage it for our own benefit.   


David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

@S. Freeman Neither! I think of them as conscious creatures who deserve to be free.

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