This week, trainers from around the world will arrive at SeaWorld for the International Marine Animal Trainers' Association conference. The event is likely to draw controversy, as the Chicago-based IMATA has come under recent fire for its policy allowing trainers to participate in the violent Taiji dolphin hunts.
A change in this policy is long overdue. But as a former trainer myself, I can attest that IMATA's stance is symptomatic of a much deeper culture of turning a blind eye to cruelty - one that runs throughout the marine park industry, including SeaWorld.
For 12 years, I worked alongside Smooshi, an 800-pound walrus, as a marine mammal trainer at Marineland. In that time I saw a lot of bad things, from repeated animal neglect to mass graves.
Even though the conditions were shocking, nothing could have prepared me for the cult-like work environment that rewarded employees for staying quiet in the face of clear cases of abuse.
If you speak out, there's hell to pay.
I found this out the hard way. When I blew the whistle on Marineland's dodgy practices, they sued me for $1.5 million. And I am just one of 15 whistleblowers, along with others from parks like SeaWorld, who finally said enough is enough.
Though it may look fun from the outside, working as a marine animal trainer is a tough gig. I loved Smooshi like family and wanted to protect her, but I also knew I was part of the problem.
When she first arrived at Marineland in a small wooden box, Smooshi was just 18 months old. The vet came to take her blood for a health check and she was terrified. She ran to me looking for help and we instantly bonded.
The two of us became inseparable. Smooshi would follow me around the park and bark incessantly when she couldn't see me. Television shows like Jimmy Kimmel even ran stories about us, with the headline "Walrus in love". I did worry about Smooshi and the other animals' living conditions, but my concerns were ignored by management.
Even though I was paid to look the other way, the realities of captivity were difficult to ignore. At times, the water was so caustic with chlorine it caused blindness to the animals and gave Smooshi chemical burns. I'd run my hand over dolphins and watch as their skin literally flaked off. Six of the park's seven seals were blind or had serious eye problems due to the high levels of chlorine.
Some days there would be mysterious bloodstains on the floor I'd have to mop up, no questions asked. One time I even found myself in a mass animal grave, digging up Kandu, a wild-caught orca from Iceland, because his necropsy wasn't done properly the first time around.
Another cruel aspect trainers are forced to look the other way on, is how wild animals are collected. Marine parks often promote their animals as "rescues" when really they are deliberately captured from the wild and stolen from their families. I am guilty of shying away from this reality myself, because Smooshi didn't come to Marineland as a rescue walrus. She was captured in the Black Sea in Russia.
Since leaving the park, I can see the truth: Smooshi should never have been in captivity in the first place. Capturing marine animals like walruses, beluga whales and dolphins is a violent and cruel process. And putting them in sterile, unnatural environments is torture, even with the so-called "best" care there is.
It's terrible how many marine parks and trainers are still involved in the wild capture of marine animals, even though reaction to movies like Blackfish and The Cove show the general public clearly don't agree with it.
Perhaps the most shocking thing is that the peak body for trainers in the United States, IMATA, still actually allows their trainers to be involved in the Taiji dolphin hunts. This is one of the most controversial wild capture operations in the world, yet IMATA gives its trainers permission to participate and select dolphins for sale to marine parks.
For many young people, a job at a marine park is an all-access pass to touch and play with animals. It's a reward every young child wants - until they learn the truth.