Orcas, or killer whales, have been kept in captivity since 1961, and there have been books and movies made about them and how cruel it is to use them for our entertainment. As I read Death at SeaWorld (and watched Blackfish), I started to think about the similarities between horses and orcas in “captivity.”
Both are large, potentially dangerous, and used for entertainment and sport. Both have caused injury, both have caused death, and both are highly intelligent and (seem to) experience emotions and moods.
The only difference I see is that horses have been domesticated for 5500 years, which is far more than the 50 or so years that orcas have been kept captive. Somehow, I feel like the domestication, and perhaps usefulness, is what’s saving horses from being “liberated.”
Our horses, like the orcas, are kept cooped up in small stalls, while feral horses can travel 65-80 km daily for food, water, and shelter. To rid their energy before riding, we make our horses run in circles around us in a little pen.
Horses can get “moody” and “off.” Sometimes they’ll refuse jumps, buck for no reason, or refuse to slow down while trotting or cantering. So we blame the rider, trainer, or the weather. Orcas can be like that too, refusing trainer orders or protesting in their guttural language.
After I was flung off my pony and broke my clavicle rather terribly, I couldn’t do much of anything but sit in my room all day. I still can’t ride, but I can lunge and groom as long as I’m careful. The pony that bucked me off didn’t seem crazy, guilty, or dangerous whatsoever, and I felt no fear or trauma while looking at him. I was injured so severely that my bone was in danger of impaling through my shoulder and I required a two-hour surgery, and something like that sticks in your mind.
Huge controversies came up and multiple rules were put into place when the first orca injured its trainer, yet when I was injured by my pony my friend was instructed to keep riding him because he “shouldn’t be allowed off that easy.”
I don’t think my pony’s intentions were to hurt me, just like I think that killer whales don’t really want to kill us. But if I were stuck in a cubicle, working for hours with little to no rewards, I would probably go a little nutty and stir-crazy.
During my first session as an ASIT, which was two weeks long, the Juniors from Tennessee fell in love with me. Or rather, with my tail.
They were aged six to seven and were very, very tiny. I’m rather small myself, so it’s always a strange experience being in close proximity with people smaller and shorter than me.
The first few days were chaotic, as both species (the children and my ASIT buddy and I) had to adapt to each other. Once the children discovered that I had a furry, gray wolf tail, they went crazy chasing me around the cabin while the other ASIT’s sat and chatted with the counselors.
There were 16 little girls and 4 counselors in the cabin, but there was maybe four or five of them that really got attached to me. One in particular, Lucy, that always insisted on holding my hand or hugging me whenever we saw each other during the day.
In all my 17 years, I’ve never had such an experience with children before. The strange innocence they have, the unintended ignorance, and the pure annoyingness they have from time to time. In the weeks I was an ASIT, I’m pretty sure I erased dozens of children’s fears of snakes and arachnids. I had to make sure kids didn’t run on the pothole-ridden field, teach them the safe way to hold a snake, and to make sure nobody turns a turtle upside down.
While my group of Tennessee girls left and new girls came, my job as an ASIT stayed the same. Watch the children, watch the children.
A 14-hour workday is not easy for anybody, especially not for teenagers aged 15 to 17. You have to, have to, follow the rules, or risk either being asked to leave camp or be demoted back to being a camper, which, speaking from experience, is a rather sad experience.
Being an ASIT gives you a lot more freedom. You don’t have to sign in and out during free time whenever you want to walk around camp, you’re allowed to have your electronics (phones and/or laptops), and you don’t have to be under constant Counselor supervision.
But with great power comes great responsibility. We, the ASITs, know more than campers, and often know more than Counselors too. During Morning Rounds, it’s our job not only to clean and water the animals, but to check for sick or dead animals. It’s usually and ASIT that discovers a dead or dying animal first, even before any Animal Specialists. Following that job is having the responsibility to not let any campers (or gossipy Counselors) know that an animal had died. Usually, a short “oh Dallas went to the vet” is enough to quiet a kid down.
ASITs are aged 15-17, so often times campers that are 17 years old won’t want to listen to a 15-year-old ASIT. “Threatening” them with a Counselor works most of the time, but some campers can be stubborn. Some rules are tough, annoying, or seem meaningless to the Camper and the ASIT too, but it’s there for a reason and ASITs do everything they can to keep campers and our animals safe.
The most frustrating part of being an ASIT may not be the hard physical work but dealing with animals and people who just don’t understand why things are they way they are.
Then there’s our mold problem…
We were hiking across the Yukon on what was only a five-day trip. When I got lost and separated from the group, it was already day three. While searching for them I heard things splashing in the river – it was a large group of salmon flopping up the stream. But that wasn’t all. There was a bear standing there with his mouth opened, catching the fish in his mouth.
I was spotted. The bear set down the freshly caught fish on a rock and ran off. By that time the sun was setting and I had to set up camp. After making the fire, I remembered that my food was in Joe’s pack. So I decided to go and grab the fish the bear left behind. It was enough to hold me over for a while.
In the morning I packed up and continued hiking to the final destination, hoping I would run into my friends. I hiked five miles noticed something in the fields. It was the bear again. I knew it was him from his whitish fur. You could tell he was old and his face seemed strangely welcoming. I sat from a distance watching it until it got distracted by a bird and he chased it around, running off into the woods. As I was hiking, I decided to make a detour and go see what he was doing in the fields before he left. I discovered he was eating at a bush of berries. I didn’t know what the berries were, but I knew the bear lived after eating them and I would die if I didn’t. I didn’t eat them right away. Instead, I collected them in case I had no alternative food options.
Shortly up the trail I ended up in a third encounter with the bear. But this time the bear was hurt. He had a long deep gash along his neck – he was dying. I sat down next to him and began petting him and gave him water. I ended up giving him all of my water. Most of it I used to clean the dirt from his wound. I pulled out my first aid kit and used everything I could. I had to bandage him with ankle wraps because he was too big for anything else. Rather than finding my friends, I felt like it was my obligation to help this bear.
The only thing I did to take care of myself was make a fire. I gave every scrap of food and drop of water I could to this bear. From my little knowledge of bears I was able to determine that he was a grizzly bear. I never realized how peaceful and beautiful they really are. They have soft fur, pointy ears, wet black nose and solid brown eyes. They’re magnificent creatures, far from a beast. But that didn’t change the fact I could become its meal any second.
The next morning, day five, was the worst of them all. The bear was on his final hours and was mad. He wouldn’t let me help him at all. He just lay there ghoulishly and moaned. I had to just watch and hope that somehow he would push on. As it became afternoon he stopped moaning, just breathed heavily. I walked over and hugged him. I didn’t let go for hours. Not until I heard dogs barking and lights coming from several places. It was a rescue group. Before I could say anything I was in a helicopter.
I woke up in a hospital and there was a Alaska state trooper sitting next to me. The first thing he said was “You know, you saved that bear.” I smiled. That was the first thing that I wanted to know. They said they were bringing him to a zoo in San Diego. That was his new home, because he was too old to be in the wild. My face lit up. I looked back at him and told him “I live in San Diego!”.
A full day of being an ASIT starts at 7:15am and goes to, on a bad day, 9:30pm. Which is nearly 14 hours of work and “work.”
Morning rounds are the first thing we do every day, even before eating breakfast. After breakfast we clean our ASIT lounge and then head off to morning courses and classes
An ASIT tradition is that we take about 10 minutes to put on our shoes.
Courses are week-long commitments that can range from Riflery to Adopt-an-Animal. Classes are just for an hour. Seniors (ages 12-17) have courses in the morning and Juniors (ages 7-12) have classes in the morning, and ASITs are split up to assist with classes and courses.
Sometimes, assisting can mean you’re an extra pair of eyes and you get to join in with the class. Sometimes, assisting can mean teaching the campers how to be safe with the animals.
ASITs usually help with Junior classes and courses, as younger children in general need more supervision. Some classes and courses, like the Jungle or the Habitats, require more supervision because of special animals.
Our lemurs and large (4 foot long) lizard enclosures, for example, need extra supervision, as they can be slightly dangerous or more sensitive as, say, a ferret or parrots.
We have lunch and Free Time for about two hours, as well as Leadership Training, which is basically talks about enthusiasm or how (or how not) break up a fight between campers. After Leadership, Seniors have classes and Juniors have courses, and basically the morning is repeated.
Dinner, then free time, then we have Evening Activity. Activities, like the Bug Hunt and the Fashion show, require the ASITs to prep for it, which could be clearing out 20 tables and 200 chairs or simply spreading out around camp and hiding. Sometimes ASITs have to help clean up after Evening Activities, like putting the tables and chairs back or cleaning up water guns and balloon remains.
Curfew can be from 9:45pm to 11pm depending on how many ASITs we have and how well we’re behaving. Though, after a full day, most ASITs want to sleep by dinnertime.
This summer, I spent a grand total of eight weeks at summer camp. Yes, the same summer camp, but this time I was not a lowly camper.
I was an ASIT.
An ASIT. Animal Specialist in Training. We, 11-25 of us, wake up at 6:45 a.m. to feed, water, and clean the enclosures of over 300 different camp animals. There are four areas; the Barn, the Animal Learning Center (ALC for short), the Jungle, and the Kennels.
Barn people take care of the Inner Barn, the Back Pastures, the Nursery, the Bird Nursery, and the Creepy Crawly Room.
ALC people take care of the Habitats, the Small Animal Room, the Reptile Room, and the Cat Room.
The Jungle and the Kennels are their own areas.
I worked (I PAID TO WORK) as an ASIT for 6 weeks, meaning I worked in every area at least once. My pride and joy, where I wished I could sleep at night, was the Reptile Room. I memorized the meals of 7 reptile species in under three days. My greatest moment was walking into the ALC Kitchen and the lead Animal Specialist planted herself in front of me and said “just the person I was looking for! I need you to feed the reptiles!”
Chuckwallas, Mali Uromastyx, Green Iguana, Leopard Tortoise, Plated Lizards, Blue-Tongued Skink, Bearded Dragon, Leopard Gecko. For the sake of my own pride, I listed the reptiles (minus the snakes) that we took care of. For the sake of time and space I won’t write down their meals.
Given the time, I assure you I would have memorized all the meals for the animals. I didn’t really try anyways until the last week.