Experiences That Matter: A Conversation with Chris Bellows, Retired Vice President of Zoological Ope

Since being established in 1964, SeaWorld parks have connected millions of guests with animals and educated them about marine life. SeaWorld's animal care professionals helped revolutionize positive reinforcement animal training in zoos and aquariums. The company has also rescued over 31,000 animals. No one understands why SeaWorld is special more than Chris Bellows, who worked at SeaWorld San Antonio for the first thirty years of his history. Bellows retired in August 2018 as Vice President of Zoological Operations at SeaWorld San Antonio, the youngest and largest Sea World park. Here is his story.

@ Chris Bellows

Chris Bellows’ relationship with Sea World began with a summer job at SeaWorld Orlando, which quickly turned into more. “It opened up my fascination with marine life,” he remembered. “I saw how they cared for animals and engaged people with wildlife.” The experience had such an impact on Bellows he changed his career track in school from becoming an engineer to working with animals.

@ SeaWorld

In 1983, Bellows joined the animal training staff of SeaWorld Orlando. “The first animals I worked with were river otters,” he recalled. “You had to think very fast and stay on your toes when working with them. I then went on to work a lot with pinnipeds and cetaceans.” Additionally, Bellows got experience with nonaquatic animals such as zebus, birds and dogs in a show about conditioning and training animals through positive reinforcement. Bellows became fascinated by the animals he worked with and gained immense hands-on experience.

@ Chris Bellows

In the mid 1980s, it was announced that SeaWorld would be building a new park in San Antonio. Bellows was soon asked to be on the opening team. “I moved to SeaWorld San Diego to assist with training people and selecting animals for the new park,” he stated. “SeaWorld San Antonio brought people from all the parks together to get it up and running.” Bellows would help develop the staff and animal care procedures for the new park. He has been at Sea World San Antonio since the park opened in 1988.

@ SeaWorld

SeaWorld San Antonio is the largest of the SeaWorld parks. It also has a distinct feel from the other parks. “We have a flair from the San Antonio community,” Bellows stated. “All three parks take on life complementary to the area they are in and have a chance to work with the local community.”

@ SeaWorld

To Bellows, animals are and always will be the heart and soul of SeaWorld. “The zoological department is the heartbeat of Sea World,” he articulated. “It is the core of what SeaWorld is. We’re about inspiring people to learn about animals and their environments. We want everyone to get involved and engaged.” He also views working at the park as a continuous learning experience. “A common fiber has been learning,” Bellows reflected. “I learn something every day. If you have that attitude you’ll have fun.”

@ Sea World

While at SeaWorld San Antonio, Bellows has gone from head animal trainer and behaviorist to supervisor to curator to Vice President of Zoological Operations, a position he retains today. He has long had an interest in positive reinforcement training, a philosophy largely influenced by Sea World trainers. “Well back into the 70s, places like SeaWorld started to discuss and share positive reinforcement training,” Bellows elaborated. “IMATA (International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association) started and that was all about training and conditioning animals through positive reinforcement.”

@ SeaWorld

The positive reinforcement training and focus on animal behavior started by marine mammal trainers would soon influence management of terrestrial animals in zoos. “Terrestrial keepers began going to IMATA meetings to learn,” Bellows said. “Then ABMA (Animal Behavior Management Alliance) started for zoo animals. Marine mammal trainers helped the zoo community do wonderful things and the welfare of animals has gotten better as a result.”

@ SeaWorld

Bellows commented on how the unique challenges of working with cetaceans such as orcas and bottlenose dolphins and the need for trust-based relationships with them sped up the development of positive reinforcement training. “It is so important to have good relationships with these animals,” he articulated. “That comes from positive occurrences. The relationships our animals and trainers have are awe inspiring. You watch our specialists make connections and relationships with our animals and it is a thing of beauty.”

@ SeaWorld

In no area of SeaWorld San Antonio is this more important than with its iconic orcas. “Orcas are socially motivated,” Bellows explained. “We have 17 orca trainers, most with 5+ years-experience with them. We have people specialize in different areas as we want to keep consistency but we also encourage our staff to expand their responsibilities.”

@ Sea World

When Bellows became Vice President of Zoological Operations for SeaWorld San Antonio in 2009, he knew he wanted to first and foremost support his animals and staff. “My old boss said he had the greatest job in the world because he learned from his staff,” he elaborated. “My job is helping people coming up become better than me.”

@ SeaWorld

Bellows acknowledged diversity and evolution is essential to SeaWorld maintaining its success. “It is important that we provide a diverse experience,” he reflected. “We want to provide something for all members of the family- animals, rides and other immersive attractions. I’ve seen Sea World change from theatrical shows to educational presentations. We have engaging, fun, conservation-themed presentations.”

@ Sea World

“We also want our guests to learn something and do it, even if it is as simple as turning off a light switch or unplugging a charger,” Bellows continued. “We launched our Park to Planet campaign as we want to inspire guests to save animals in the wild and get them engaged and thinking locally. We want them to be more conscientious about boating and using plastic. We want people to have a great time but we also want to make sure they change.”

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in 2016, SeaWorld San Antonio opened Discovery Point, one of the largest projects in its history. It not only doubled the size of the dolphin habitat but created an immersive experience for animals and guests alike. “For the first time, Discovery Point lets you immerse yourself into the dolphins’ environment,” Bellows remarked. “It has gorgeous viewing above and underwater.” It was designed to give guests a similar experience to what they would receive at Discovery Cove in Orlando.

@ SeaWorld

@ Chris Bellows

Another major addition to SeaWorld San Antonio was the opening of Aquatica San Antonio (SeaWorld’s waterpark) in 2012. It featured animal experiences such as a stingray pool through a tube. Recently a large aviary was added to the park. “There are 30 species of birds in there,” Bellows noted.

@ Sea World

A growing initiative at SeaWorld San Antonio has been the park’s rescue efforts. “We have become much more engaged in animal rescue,” Bellows stated. “We are 2.5 hours from the coast but we collaborate with the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network on dolphin rescue. I’m on their board and it is the only organization permitted to rescue animals on the Texas coast.” The park has also been heavily involved in sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation. “Texas had the largest sea turtle cold stunning ever this winter so we sent a boat and team out to help the turtles,” Bellows added.

@ SeaWorld

@ SeaWorld

Of course, Sea World San Antonio is actively involved in the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. “We engage in the conservation fund and try to raise funds and bring awareness to this terrific organization,” Bellows said. To date, the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund has granted over $16 million.

@ Sea World

SeaWorld has worked to balance entertainment and conservation. “We balance rides and animals,” Bellows commented. “We always look at ways to get families engaged. We’re doing a Sesame Street parade and Electric Ocean for those reasons. The ride we put in last year is all about rescuing and rehabilitating animals with educational videos in line.”

@ SeaWorld

@ SeaWorld

SeaWorld San Antonio has recently provided a home to a particularly noteworthy animal. “We just took in a rescued, non-releasable Cook Inlet Beluga whale,” Bellows stated. “It was deemed non-releasable because it is a nutritionally and socially dependent animal. Several organizations including the Alaska Sealife Center, Georgia Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, Vancouver Aquarium and Sea World rehabilitated the beluga before Sea World San Antonio was selected as a permanent home for the calf.”

@ SeaWorld

Chris Bellows is determined to see SeaWorld San Antonio, and SeaWorld in general, succeed in the future. “We need to continue to tell the story of our animals and their counterparts in the wild," he concluded. "We also need to share the dedication and commitment of our staff. In the future, we will all have to engage people through the guest experience. Zoos and aquariums are a key to the long-term health of wild species and wild places.”

@ Grayson Ponti

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti