How do they do
A collective gasp rose from a crowd of over three thousand spectators as they thrilled to the amazing performances of leaping killer whales. It was another show in Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld. All eyes in the grandstand were glued to the huge animals and their trainers, so no one noticed the wide range of emotions reflected in the face of a man in khakis and a blue shirt who sat in their midst. Each time the crowd exploded in applause and cheers as the animals performed one of their spectacular feats, the man's eyes would sparkle with surprise and delight. At other times his face would cloud over and his eyes assume a faraway look.
Wes Kingsley had come to Orlando to attend a business conference. Since the schedule left room for conferees to relax, play golf, or visit one of the area's attractions, he had decided that a visit to the world-famous marine zoological park would help him forget his troubles for a time.
He was glad he had made that decision. Earlier, along with throngs of other people eagerly crowding the huge stadium, he had taken his seat above the blue waters of the large main pool. Following a welcome and a review of safety rules by an animal trainer, a mysterious fog had begun to shroud the surface of the pool. From behind and above them, the crowd heard the scream of a fish eagle. The mighty bird suddenly swooped over their heads, dove toward the pool, and took a lure from the misty waters. As it flew away, huge black dorsal fins broke the surface, and onlookers caught their breath when they saw monstrous black shapes circling deep in the pool. A wet-suit-clad trainer came through the mists paddling a kayak, to be instantly surrounded by the fins of enormous killer whales.
Following this dramatic opening, the crowd witnessed a series of astonishing acrobatic leaps and dives by a trio of whales -- a 10,000-pound male and two 5,000-pound females. These marine mammals, among the most feared predators in the ocean, waved their pectoral fins to the audience, allowed trainers to "surf" the pool by balancing on their back, and with sweeps of their great tails splashed the first ten rows of spectators with cold water. The roars of laughter, the oohs and aahs, and the thunderous applause attested to the crowd's enjoyment.
Wes Kingsley also found himself entranced by the spectacle unfolding before him. By the finale, when the three finny costars hiked their gleaming black-backed and white-bellied bodies up onto a raised section of the pool to take some well-deserved bows, he had scribbled several entries in a small notebook.
As people exited the stadium, scores of them were still dripping from the soaking they'd happily received sitting in the "splash zone" of the first ten rows. Despite this -- or perhaps because of it -- their faces sparkled with smiles. Still in his seat in an upper row of the emptying stands, Wes Kingsley remained staring down into the pool. Its blue depths, recently awash with great waves but now still, seemed to echo his mood.
After the crowd had left and the place was quiet, an underwater gate opened and a giant black form moved into the pool and began circling it. A trainer came through a door and strolled out onto the lip of the pool, and the huge killer whale immediately swam over to him. "Nice going, big guy," he said, stroking its head. "Enjoy your playtime. You earned it." As the trainer rose and walked along the pool's edge, the whale moved with him. It seemed to be trying to stay as close to him as possible.
The blue-shirted man in the stands shook his head and thought to himself, You'd think that after doing a whole show that whale would hoard its free time. But what does it want to do? Play with the trainer!
A question was forming in the man's mind, a need to know that had been building up in him ever since the start of the show. He had an impulse to go down there and ask the trainer that question, but fear of embarrassment held him back. Then suddenly he got up off the bench and quickly descended the stairs.
"Excuse me," Wes called as he reached the deck of the pool and started toward the trainer.
The trainer looked up in surprise. Then he gestured toward a door. "Sir, the exit is over there."
"I know. But I need to ask you something." As Wes approached, it was evident that he was not ready to take no for an answer.
"Sure," the trainer said. "What do you want to know?"
Pulling a wallet from his pocket, Wes offered two fifty-dollar bills to the trainer. "I'm willing to pay you for the information. What I want to know is probably what everyone who sees the show wonders: What's your secret? How do you trick these animals into performing for you? Do you starve them?"
The man in the wet suit controlled an impulse to react angrily to his visitor's impertinent attitude.
Patiently and quietly he said, "We don't trick them, and we don't starve them. And you can keep your money."
"Well then, what is it? What do
you do?" Wes
demanded. But after a long silence from the other, Wes's manner softened. Realizing he had given offense, he put his money away. "Sorry," he said, holding out his hand. "I'm Wes Kingsley. I don't mean to bother you with this, but I really have to know how you get such a tremendous performance from these animals."
"Dave Yardley," said the trainer as they shook hands. "I'm in charge of the animal training here, so I guess you might say you've come to the right place. The answer to your question is that we have teachers. Would you like to meet one of them?"
Kingsley looked around to see if they were being joined by someone else. When he looked back, Yardley was pointing to the whale. "This is one of our teachers. His name's Shamu. He and all the other whales here at SeaWorld taught us all we know about working with these wonderful animals."
Wes squinted warily. "Come on. You mean to say you've been trained by an animal?
I thought it was the other way around."
Dave shook his head. "Shamu is one of the world's largest killer whales living in a zoological park. As far as who trains whom, let me put it this way. When you're dealing with an eleven-thousand-pound animal who doesn't speak English, you do a lot of learning."
Wes glanced down at the rows of enormous, two-inch-long teeth in Shamu's enormous mouth. "I think the only thing he would teach me is to stay on his good side."
"There's plenty of data to back that up," Dave said. "Killer whales are the most feared predators in the ocean. They can kill and eat anything in sight."
"I guess if he's not learning his lessons, you don't make him go and stand in the corner," Wes ventured.
"That's exactly right. One thing we learned quickly was that it doesn't make much sense to punish a killer whale and then ask a trainer to get in the water with him."
"Not unless you want your career shortened!" Wes exclaimed. Then, recalling the prodigious leaps Shamu had performed in the show, he added, "It's hard to
believe a creature that size could get ten feet out of the water on its own. How do
you get him to perform so well?"
"Let's just say it didn't happen overnight," said Dave. "Shamu taught us patience."
"Shamu wasn't about to do anything for me or any other trainer until he trusted us. As I worked with him, it became clear that I couldn't train him until he was convinced of my intentions. Whenever we get a new whale, we don't attempt to do any training for some time. All we do is make sure they're not hungry; then we jump in the water and play with them, until we convince them."
"Convince them of what?"
"That we mean them no harm."
Wes said, "You mean you want them to trust you."
"You're right. That's the key principle we use in working with all our animals."
Wes took out his notebook and pen and began to write.
"Are you writing an article?" Dave asked. "Or doing research?"
Wes Kingsley smiled grimly. "I guess you'd call it research of a personal nature. I've got to learn some new things myself or else..."
Dave Yardley waited and watched. It's hard for this guy to trust anybody,
he thought. That's what his bluster act is about.
After a long pause, Wes spoke, avoiding eye contact with the trainer. "I live near Atlanta and work for a big industrial-supply outfit. I came to Florida to get away for a few days, using a business conference as the excuse. But over there at the hotel with my manager buddies, all I could think of was how I don't want to go back home to face the same old problems."
Dave was listening with evident interest.
"For a long time I've been having a hard time getting my people at work to perform well," Wes continued, then grinned. "Not to mention getting my kids at home to pitch in around the house and do better at school. When I was complaining to a friend of mine about it, he had a nice way of suggesting that since I was having management problems both at work and at home, we might look for the common denominator."
"What was that?" Dave asked.
"My friend said, 'Did you ever notice, when your life isn't working, who's always around?'
Both men chuckled. "I know I'm not managing effectively," Wes went on, "and I might be about to lose my job. Frankly, I'm getting a little desperate."
Dave was aware of Wes's anxious, almost pleading tone of voice and said, "Let me take you on a little backstage tour. Then we can talk more about this."
Dave led Wes through a gate and over to a training pool where a few feet away the huge black backs and fins of two killer whales were gliding through the clear blue water. Their beautiful bodies exuded an air of calmness, and at the same time the promise of explosive power. As the two men walked from one holding pool to another, the trainer identified each whale by name and supplied interesting anecdotes about them.
"It takes a long time to build trust and friendship with each of...