Sunday, December 4, 2022

‘Know a wolf by its howl:’ Inside the tactics of Busch Gardens’ trainers

Trainer Jennifer Lafountain holds an eagle named Lincoln at Busch Gardens Williamsburg March 22.
Trainer Jennifer Lafountain holds an eagle named Lincoln at Busch Gardens Williamsburg March 22. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

A young bald eagle surveyed his surroundings, acutely aware of a light March breeze, before seizing small chunks of fish in his beak.

Just six pounds, the eagle nervously rustled his wings as a golf carts whizzed by his perch, snatching up new pieces of fish after each cart turned the corner.

Trainer Jennifer Lafountain held the eagle, named Lincoln, awarding him small pieces of fish when he stayed calm. Lincoln, who was found with an eye injury and is blind in that eye, is training to become comfortable near golf carts, Lafountain said.

Lincoln is one of at least five dozen domestic and wild animals that live in Busch Gardens Williamsburg, a SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment company.

In the wake of several years of bad press and dropping stock values for their parent company SeaWorld – revolving around a documentary called “Blackfish,” which criticized SeaWorld’s treatment of captive orca whales – Busch Gardens officials assert they provide above and beyond care for their animals in captivity.

“I don’t think anybody is perfect, but I certainly feel, through the 20 years, I’ve had to experience the people I’ve worked with and the animals I’ve been fortunate to take care of, that at the end of the day, we’ve done the best we can,” Zoo Manager Tim Smith said.

The park maintains a focus on educating the public about wild animals, encouraging wildlife conservation and providing high-quality care to their zoo animals, Smith said.

Fallout from ‘Blackfish’

Despite SeaWorld’s unfavorable reputation following the release of the documentary “Blackfish,” Smith said he believes the parks are providing high-quality, species-specific care.

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.’s stock has dropped by 44.53 percent since July 8, 2013, just over a week before the July 19 release date of the film. On Thursday, the stock was valued at just $18.29 per share.

“Blackfish” tells a story of Tilikum, a performing SeaWorld orca who has been accused of killing several people, including two trainers, while in captivity, according to the film’s website.

When asked about the impact of “Blackfish” on park attendance at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment spokeswoman Aimee Jeansonne-Becka said SeaWorld companies’ performances are not separated out by individual park.

“I would also note that orcas are specific to the SeaWorld parks,” Jeansonne-Becka said.

Since 2004, Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks have donated over $14 million to wildlife conservation groups, Smith said.

Becoming a zookeeper

For Smith, managing the zoo and caring for animals is personal. Smith grew up with animals on a dairy farm and has worked in SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks for almost 20 years.  

“I’ve been around animals my entire life,” he said. “It’s something within me.”

Busch Gardens keeps domestic and farm animals such as cows, sheep, horses and chickens, but also keeps wolves, eagles, exotic birds and birds of prey.

Education is a key part of all Busch Gardens shows and exhibits, Smith said. Trainers consistently provide guests with useful facts for real-life situations and dispel stereotypes associated with wild animals.

In an effort toward transparency and an immersive experience, Busch Gardens guests can also go on several animal-related tours, including a wolf training close-up, the “ultimate animal insider” and a “zookeeper experience,” Smith said.

“Some guests might stick around for a few hours after a show and ask questions,” wolf trainer Suzy Poffinberger said. “We are here to answer questions and educate the public about wild and domestic animals.”

Busch Gardens follows animal care standards set by the SeaWorld Entertainment’s company, as well as other care standards set by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Representatives from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums did not return a request for comment. 

Busch Gardens is subject to regular inspections at the regulating agencies’ discretion, Smith said.

For some animal rights advocates, regular inspections and care standards are not enough to outweigh the damage caused by captivity. 

“There are invariably problems with confining and displaying animals for human entertainment, as even the best parks can never meet their most basic requirements for a good life,” said Catie Cryar, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “They never have the lives that nature intended for them or get to be free.”

A trainer’s philosophy

On the morning of March 22, a grey wolf named Kitchi came on stage with alert ears and a stiff tail. The stance signaled tension in the animal, according to its trainer Suzy Poffinberger.

Poffinberger has worked for SeaWorld companies, starting as a dolphin trainer, for over sixteen years.

Kitchi scanned the empty audience seats of an amphitheater with keen yellow-brown eyes, sniffing various logs on stage. It was the wolf’s choice whether his trainer would join him on the platform. 

Ninety-pound Kitchi smelled the air while his trainer, Liz, waited for his invitation behind a closed door. After several moments exploring the stage, Kitchi stood on a small stump on the far-right of the stage, inviting Liz to join him.

In only a few minutes, Kitchi demonstrated Busch Gardens’ overarching animal training philosophy: Understand the animal’s behavior, don’t force any acts and never punish them.

Trainers use the same “positive reinforcement” philosophy for wolves, birds of prey, tropical birds, eagle and other show animals, various trainers said Wednesday. With positive reinforcement, trainers acknowledge and reward positive and successful behaviors, and ignore negative ones.

Noticing his behavior, the trainer on stage gave Kitchi time to explore the stage and unwind before attempting to interact with him, Poffinberger said.

“As trainers, they have to base their actions on the animal’s behavior,” Smith said.

Trainers use the same “positive reinforcement” philosophy for wolves, birds of prey, tropical birds, eagle and other show animals, various trainers said. With positive reinforcement, trainers acknowledge and reward positive and successful behaviors, and ignore negative ones.

Poffinberger, who is able to identify each of Busch Gardens’ six wolves by howl alone, said she learned most of her wolf-related knowledge through on-the-job training, although she has worked with various animals most of her life and done her own research.

“I say when it comes to most animals, you’re not going to learn everything just out of the books. You’re going to learn most of it hands-on,” Poffinberger said.

The Williamsburg amusement park’s zoo staff consists of 11 full-time employees, and up to 50 during the busy season, Smith said. Most trainers are educated while on the job, though many also have college degrees and previous experience in animal care.

A trainer will not have free contact with a wolf – or any other animal – on their first day, Smith added.

Trainers also work to engage and exercise animals. For eagles, that means perch sessions – similar to humans doing box jumps – where they fly from the ground to the arm of a trainer. For wolves, they are given materials to engage both their bodies and minds, such as burlap bags filled with sheep’s wool or peanut butter-filled toys.

From the wild to the park

While Busch Gardens in Williamsburg acquires many animals from breeders in the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment company, many are from rescues and rehabs.

The amusement park’s five eagles, Lincoln, Franklin, Abigail, Penny and Martha, are rescues and unlikely to survive in the wild due to permanent injuries.

“I’d love nothing more than to have them in the wild,” Smith said of Lincoln the eagle, who is blind in one eye.

Smith said rescues are always an option when the park is looking to add animals.

Another star attraction, Boise the gray wolf, is also a rescue. Hikers found Boise dehydrated and emaciated on a trail in Idaho, mistook him for a puppy and took him to a vet. He was temporarily housed at Zoo Boise, and then sent to Busch Gardens for a permanent home, Smith said.

Smith said company leaders consistently have conversations regarding the welfare of the company’s animals, their role at Busch Gardens and their lives after retirement.

And if the animals are not comfortable with shows or contact with the public, zoo staff will look for a “better fit” within the company, such as breeding programs or different environments. Moving an animal within the company is the first priority, although sometimes animals will be rehomed to other zoos or rescue groups.

Smith said there is no “cookie cutter design” for how animals are placed within the company or rehomed at retirement. Each animal’s best fit is decided on a case-by-case basis, he said.

“It’s not done in a vacuum,” Smith said. “We decide with the team what’s best for the animals, and we’re pretty passionate about it. Every case has to be looked at independently.”

Fearing can be reached at sarah.f@localvoicemedia.com.

A trainer works with a gray wolf named Kitchi March 22 at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg.
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Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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