After six months working as the head animal trainer at the Cayman Turtle Farm, Amy Souster quit because of the conditions in which turtles and other animals were kept at the West Bay tourist attraction, she said.
The big project the Turtle Farm wanted her to work on, which she said she learned about after arriving on island, was a scheme to train turtles to give tourists rides in the water.
In interviews with the Cayman Compass, Ms. Souster described the conditions of the animals she worked with and how proposals to improve life for the turtles, sharks, fish and birds at the Turtle Farm were allegedly mostly not carried out when she left in 2013.
A turtle named Myrtle
Ms. Souster, a U.K. national, replied to an advertisement for the “Cayman Turtle Park,” she explained by phone from Cornwall, where she now works with a gray seal rehabilitation program. She started work at the Turtle Farm in October 2012.
Her former partner had trained green sea turtles in St. Thomas to come to tourists and let them scrub their shells with brushes.
“It’s something they do naturally, and they liked it,” she said. And that’s about what she expected in Cayman – to teach the turtles something simple and fun for tourists that the turtles would enjoy.
She said she discovered that Tim Adam, Cayman Turtle Farm director, and other leaders at the attraction wanted her to develop turtle rides.
“I physically laughed,” she said, “I kept waiting for them to say they were joking.” But they weren’t. A former trainer had already started working on the idea with one turtle, a female with about a 2-foot diameter shell, she said. The turtle’s name was Myrtle.
“I thought it was a ridiculous idea,” Ms. Souster said.
“We had proven that it was possible,” Mr. Adam said in an interview last week. He said earlier training had taught the green sea turtle to approach tourists and allow them to hold on to her shell and give rides.
He said the idea was to have two shows a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, when six visitors could take turns being pulled through the water by the turtle.
The Turtle Farm later abandoned the plan, but Mr. Adam and Ms. Souster gave different accounts of why they stopped working on the turtle ride attraction. Ms. Souster said she pushed to change the minds of people at the Cayman Turtle Farm, citing an investigation at the farm at the time by World Animal Protection, then called the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
Mr. Adam said the program ended because the turtle that would potentially be used for the rides introduced salmonella into the public swimming area, and it became too hard to clean.
“It wasn’t the right time to do it,” Mr. Adam said. Nevertheless, he said, “It was so cool to watch, and the people loved it.”
More than turtles
Ms. Souster’s descriptions of conditions for animals at the Cayman Turtle Farm have been confirmed through farm records, on and off-record interviews with current and former employees and documentary evidence, including photographs and Cayman Turtle Farm board meeting minutes.
She told the Compass, “I was continually bombarded with more issues regarding the general welfare of all of the animals at CTF. I watched the farm workers fishing out the daily dead baby turtles from the nursery tanks.”
In the years since, the Turtle Farm has made some reforms, recently introducing lettuce and other more varied food for tourists to feed to turtles beyond the grain pellet diet they receive.
The farm has also started installing shade structures above turtle tanks in the tourist area, and Mr. Adams said the facility will also put shade over the commercial food production tanks, kept separate from the more than 200,000 visitors who pass through the park annually.
“The daily grind of watching the suffering, the turtles being grabbed out of the handling tanks by the swarms of tourists, scrabbling to get to the surface for the same pellets, the huge wounds on their bodies, I felt utterly helpless to stop their suffering,” Ms. Souster wrote in a separate email to the newspaper.
She said, “I don’t quite understand why the situation was as dire as it was.”
Two nurse sharks at the park while Ms. Souster was there continually ganged up on a third shark. “One was basically being eaten by the other two,” she said.
Of her six months as the head trainer at the Cayman Turtle Farm, she said, “It all kind of went downhill pretty quickly.”
Some of the workers at the farm had good intentions and wanted to take good care of the animals, but, she said, there was a “lack of education on welfare” and some workers at the farm did not understand issues around animal welfare.
“A lot of the staff did express concern,” she added, “but nobody was willing to make a stand.”
She said her concerns were met with a sentiment of, “This is what people come here to do, they come here to get their picture with a turtle. I walked away thinking I’d let myself down and let the animals down.”