Blowing the whistle
Four former SeaWorld trainers have banded together to publicise the truth of life at SeaWorld parks, particularly focusing on captive orcas. The summer issue of Whale & Dolphin, WDCS's supporter magazine, carries the first of a two-part interview with the ex-trainers. It will be concluded in the autumn issue, but in the meantime, here are some further views from two of the ex-trainers on the sad life of an orca in captivity.
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Former SeaWorld trainer, Jeff Ventre starts by comparing the life of a captive orca to that of a wild one:
'The life of a captive orca is much different from their free-ranging counterparts,' says Jeff Ventre. 'Young orca females are bred at much younger ages and become pregnant much more frequently in captivity. Because calves are often shipped away from their mothers and put into new social hierarchies at different facilities, this causes social strife and infighting. Animals that come from different places have to battle their way into and up the social ladder. When they are in separate pools and the steel gates separate them, they jaw pop at each other and break their teeth on the steel bars. I believe that the 'disharmony' associated with moving animals from park to park has a price, and leads to more aggression, broken teeth, and higher mortality rates, mostly associated with poor dental health.'
'Captives don't often choose their mates as they would in the wild,' he adds. 'These days, artificial insemination programs are in full swing at most marine zoos. Morgan is an example of an animal that was placed into a new social structure at Loro Parque and has nowhere to run. In nature, having the option to flee from danger is an effective coping mechanism. That option doesn't exist in captivity.'
So how would a typical day for one of these orcas pan out? Samantha Berg provides the details:
'A typical day for a SeaWorld orca starts shortly after the first trainers arrive on site - usually 5am or 7am when I worked there. The early trainers are responsible for making up the fish buckets (dividing hundreds of pounds of fish into multiple buckets precisely weighed out according to each orca’s ’base’ or daily food intake). If there’s nothing else going on at the stadium, the early morning trainers will feed the orcas their ’vit fish’ or ’med fish’ which is fish stuffed with vitamins and medications. The orcas may get a short training session or they might just get some food while the trainers look them over to make sure everything looks OK for the day. Sometimes certain husbandry behaviours are required - such as a urine sample, or tooth flushing or checking on some previous medical issue that needs to be followed up on - so a veterinarian might be present to evaluate certain animals. The rest of the day is divided into different types of ’sessions’ which SeaWorld labels ’PLESR’ sessions - playtime, learning, exercise, show, relationship. This may have changed since I was there as far as the actual wording is concerned, but the idea is to keep things interesting and dynamic for the whales so they don’t do the same old thing over and over. In reality, they are pretty much doing the same thing over and over. Throughout the day, animals are asked to ’sep’ or separate from each other into adjacent pools - mainly to set up for training sessions or different show sequences. Each segment in the show could be performed by different whales - so some whales need to be moved from the front pool to the back while others will need to move the other way. Animals are not only rewarded for performing tricks for the public, they are also rewarded for correctly separating and following trainers’ directions.
'Daytime sessions often include time for new trainers to practice their skills in the water (although that’s not happening right now because trainers aren’t allowed in the water) or on dry land. If there’s a new show in the works, whales may be learning new show routines or modifications of tricks or new tricks. The day is generally planned out in detail by the senior staff, so over the course of the day animals will get their food little by little until the last training session or show. Sick animals or animals that can’t perform for some reason get their food throughout the day for training sessions in the back pools.
'At the end of the night, after the last show, any leftover food will be fed to the animals and then they are pretty much left alone for the entire night (10pm-5am) while a night watch person is on staff to monitor animals respirations and watch over the stadium. Compared to the lives of wild killer whales, captive orca whales lead incredibly boring, monotonous lives. When they are not ’working’ (doing shows, training sessions, husbandry behaviours) animals often spend long periods of time ’logging’ or surface resting. This is pretty much what they do at night - although sometimes there’s random vocalisations on the hydrophone, but usually it’s pretty quiet in the evening.
'Sometimes orcas will swim slow circles around the pool. If someone approaches an orca in the front show pool, the orca will often ignore the person if they don’t have a food bucket - unless the person is a trainer that they recognise.'
You can read part two of our explosive interview with these four ex-SeaWorld trainers in the autumn issue of Whale & Dolphin which is out in August. If you are not already a member or a whale or dolphin adopter – join today, from just £3 a month, to receive your copy every three months.
Samantha Berg: Sam worked at SeaWorld Florida for over three years from February 1990 to August 1993. She now owns an acupuncture centre in Alaska with her husband, Kevin.
Carol Ray: Of Carol’s three years at SeaWorld (1987–1990), she spent approximately 2.5 working at Shamu Stadium with orcas, and 6 months at the multi-species Whale and Dolphin stadium. She is currently the owner and director of three pediatric speech therapy clinics in the Seattle area.
Dr Jeffrey Ventre: Jeff is a medical doctor who specialises in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. He worked as a trainer at SeaWorld from 1987–1995, spending seven of the eight years with whales and dolphins.
Dr John Jett, John worked for SeaWorld for four years in the early to mid-1990s. He grew disillusioned with killer whale captivity pretty quickly. He was dismayed by the fact that no real science was occurring despite what he was led to believe. Being forced to attend PR seminars to learn what to say was also a big red flag. He currently works as a research professor with an interest in waterway management issues.