Wednesday 02 December 2015 | 0

Interview with Albert Lopez

December 2014. Albert Lopez, the former trainer of orca Ulysses and dolphins of the Barcelona Zoo and the Dolphinarium of Oltremare, reveals to Muriel Arnal the behind the scenes of these detention centres of slavery...

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Muriel Arnal: One day, you decided to "look yourself in the mirror" and stop your activity as a trainer. This is particularly courageous and your testimony is essential to support our fight. I deeply thank you for revealing what happens behind the scenes of these centres. What you know about Ulysses is eminently significant in this respect...

Albert Lopez: Yes, I remember, Ulysses stayed alone in the Zoo pool with a dolphin for 12 years. I was alone too. Because I was young and the other employees of the Zoo didn’t like the animals. That's why we had made connections. The first year Ulysses arrived, he was badly injured by the dolphins. A male dolphin attacked him and bit him very badly and as a result Ulysses was dying. He remained prostrate, without eating, in great suffering. Every day I went into the water, at his side, to treat him. This is how we became friends; we remained friends throughout his detention in Barcelona.

M.A.: Why did this dolphin attack Ulysses? A dolphin does not behave like that in the wild. Is it promiscuity or the stress of captivity?

A.L.: These attacks were understandable because when the orca arrived in the pool, the dolphins who were detained there were very scared. The male dolphin beat Ulysses and hurt him very badly. Afterwards Ulysses only stayed with the female dolphins but they were always on their guard with him. One of them had a baby, named Inuk. She became even more aggressive with Ulysses because she was afraid, she was constantly watching Inuk. When Ulysses and Inuk were playing and Inuk was hurt a little, he would go back to see his mother and she would then bite Ulysses. Inuk is the first dolphin born in the Zoo and has survived more than two years; the others did not survive because their mothers did not know how to teach them how to eat. Inuk, he was educated by Ulysses who took care of him and taught him how to eat fish. Ulysses was very small when he arrived, he grew up with the dolphins, he was not aware that he was an orca. He thought he was a dolphin. In the following years, he stayed with a dolphin named Nereida. They bonded, but it was Nereida who decided. Throughout his detention, Ulysses never hurt the dolphins. He was very sweet. Every morning he was waiting for me. I was going to see him directly, talk to him and play with him.

M.A.: Your relationship with Ulysses is established, it seems to me from those crucial moments...

A.L.: Ulysses saved my life twice. One day, I was repairing equipment at the bottom of the pool. I had not taken flippers, so to be more comfortable when working. And I had weighted myself with too much weight. When my bottle was empty, I could not get to the surface. At that moment, Ulysses came next to me, showed me his dorsal fin which I grabbed. And he brought me to the surface. That was the first time that he had adopted such behaviour. A few days later, I had to go back to continue the repairs. I had put on flippers and carried less weight for ballast. As I was going down to the bottom of the pool, Ulysses bit me gently on the thigh twice. I did not understand why immediately. A colleague then told me, he does this to warn you of the danger and ask you not to take any risks. So I put down all of my equipment and went into the water, in a swimsuit, and we played. Ulysses was reassured. After this episode, Ulysses has never tolerated it when I wear flippers or even a mask. He has systematically removed my mask with his mouth. He tolerated only the swimsuit, nothing else. Every day, after the show, I stayed playing with Ulysses. It was outside of my job, I did not give him food like during the show. There was no training or submission. He was free to play if he wanted to. And if he did not want, he expressed it. But he always wanted us to play together!

M.A.: Do you think where Ulysses is today he continues to play with humans?

A.L.: No, at SeaWorld playing with orcas when not giving them by food is absolutely forbidden. Moreover, it is now forbidden to go in the water with them because some orcas are in such suffering that they have lost their minds and can kill their trainers.

M.A.: All human beings who have created a relationship with cetaceans remain profoundly marked for life...

A.L.: Yes, this relationship was very strong, too strong. Like the loving relationship that you can have with an animal. Ulysses was my friend. I thought of him every moment because unlike a dog we could not be together all the time. I was at the Zoo seven hours each day, but the rest of the day Ulysses was alone. I had a life outside, he was left alone with Nereida, without doing anything, without being able to swim or move freely, locked in this concrete pool with its over chlorinated and acidic water, which burned his skin and his eyes.

M.A.: What you have said makes me think of a dog or a cat that is left alone in its cage day and night, week after week out, through the holidays, isolated and unhappy...

A.L.: Yes, it's exactly like that for "working" dogs, dogs are locked in cages all their lives. When you cannot be with your dog, it suffers; it was the same for Ulysses.

M.A.: To return to Ulysses, did he receive food outside of the shows? Was he taking medication?

A.L.: Odysseus ate 60 kg of fish a day. Like the dolphins I fed him 5 or 6 times a day to make him less bored. Ulysses and the dolphins took vitamins and medicines to protect their stomachs from stress-related diseases of captivity. Ulysses had an abscess on his tail that was not healing and worsened two or three times a year. It was disabling for him. So he had antibiotics. In Barcelona, we did not use tranquillizers. In Italy, where I worked afterwards, they gave the dolphins hormones to calm them down; I tried to stop this procedure.

M.A.: Have you seen Ulysses?

A.L.: A year after his departure, I went to SeaWorld to see him. But this company has very strict rules. I could not swim with him and I could not see him very well, it's not possible to have interactions without going into the water with him. I could see him on the internet because he is filmed live with a webcam but I do not look at it because it hurts me too much.

M.A.: This would be the same for most of us to be separated from a beloved companion and, moreover, one that is detained in conditions of mistreatment. It's unbearable ... Do you remember specific situations that could be behind your courageous decision?

A.L.: When I first started working at a Zoo at the age of 18, the first thing I was asked to do was to kill a dingo. When I asked why he had to be killed, I was told there were no facilities for him. At that time, I then realized that a Zoo is a commercial enterprise that locks away and exploits animals. So I stayed to try to change that, for the animals. With dolphins, the first thing that I was taught by the supervisor was to hit them on the back with a stick to move them from one pool to another. I offered to teach the dolphins to move without hitting them, but the instructor told me it was easier to hit them. I was able to do that for the dolphins, to teach them to move from one pool to another. I was able to stop the hitting. But one day, I understood that I could not change things, so I stopped this job and I decided to join the associative movement to close dolphinariums and Zoos.

M.A.: What do you think of the way humans treat cetaceans?

A.L.: To say whether whales are intelligent or not, one should have the same intelligence as they do, intelligence that makes it possible to compare. We do not have it. And humans have committed many crimes, never whales. I deduce that they are smarter than us, humans that is. Cetaceans live on another plane because they have evolved in the sea. Orcas, like bottlenose dolphins, have a very developed social behaviour, similar to that of humans.

M.A.: But its behaviour without the violence which is not apparent in humans...

A.L.: Yes, exactly.

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