former seaworld trainers speak out about captivity

Time and time again, captive whales and dolphins have made headlines across the globe pulling the limelight onto the oh-so controversial issue of cetacean captivity.

In 2010 alone SeaWorld witnessed the deaths of three orcas (Sumar 12, Kalina 25, Taima 20) and also the tragic death of one of their trainers, Dawn Brancheau.

In the wild Orca whales are known to live long, healthy lives- males living to be 60+ years old and females up to 100+ years old -and have never been known to attack human beings as they have repeatedly in captivity.

So what’s going on?

Marine parks like SeaWorld will tell you that captivity is “conservation” and that the whales are relatively “happy” and are “ambassadors for the ocean”…

But is this true?

We’re here with former SeaWorld trainers John Jett, Carol Ray, Jeffrey Ventre, Samantha Berg to go in-depth on this important issue.

Blue Freedom Foundation (BFF): thank you guys so much for taking the time to talk to us about your experiences. So, how long did you work at SeaWorld and at which facility?

Carol Ray: I worked at the whale and dolphin stadium for about 5 months before moving to Shamu Stadium where I spent the next 2 years and about 3 months. I went back to Whale and Dolphin for my last couple of months before leaving SeaWorld entirely.

John Jett: I worked at SW 1992-1996 (almost five years). About 4.5 years were spent at Shamu Stadium.

Samantha Berg: I worked at SeaWorld of Florida from February of 1990 to August of 1993. I spent 1 1/2 years at the Whale and Dolphin Stadium, 1 year at Shamu Stadium and 1 year at Sea Lion and Otter Stadium. (I started working there when I was 22 years old.)

Jeffrey Ventre: 8 years at SeaWorld of Florida, at all three stadiums, including Shamu, Whale and Dolphin, and Sea Lion and Otter.

Blue Freedom Foundation:  So, when and what started you thinking that captivity is wrong?

John Jett: The first 10-minutes of the first day I worked was a painful revelation. I began at Sea Lion and Otter Stadium as do many new trainers. I was totally shocked to find the sea lions and walruses living in feces-strewn enclosures (cages) with a small pool of water to swim in. The water was black with feces and the smell was horrific, especially at 6:00am after defecating in their enclosures throughout the evening. My first day on the job at Shamu Stadium shocked me as well. While I was amazed at my fortune, I was also immediately saddened by how relatively small the pools were and how little time most of the whales spent swimming throughout the day. I remember calling my father after my first day at Shamu Stadium and telling him I didn’t think I could continue to work there. I became really good at compartmentalizing and justifying.

Carol Ray: Good question, because for all of my life I’ve questioned it to an extent. I was always conflicted about zoos, for example, even as a young girl. being an animal lover, I’d love the opportunity to see animals; but, also, being an animal lover, it made me so sad to see them confined and living in such unnatural settings with people ogling and bothering them all day. i felt guilty. like many people I’d always been drawn to whales and dolphins and found them intriguing. when the opportunity to work at SW arose, I found myself able to set aside my issues with captivity, essentially with this type of rationalization: “well, the animals are here. who better to care for them than someone like me”. it worked for a while, but I still often found myself feeling the same type of guilt, after work, that i used to feel as a young girl when i left a zoo. i believe that the majority of the trainers have a great love and appreciation for the whales, but I’m now able to see that it’s so misguided. to claim love for these animals and yet to support them being in confinement, it’s a great hypocrisy really.

Jeffrey Ventre: When we repeatedly told customers that flushing out the broken and drilled teeth of the killer whales was “superior dental care.” But we never told the public that they broke their teeth on the concrete and steel enclosures that they were living in. When I noticed that 100% of male dorsal fins, and most of the females were collapsed or significantly bent.

Samantha Berg: I didn’t actually think captivity was wrong until years later. In fact, while I was working at SeaWorld, I never thought there was anything wrong – I saw a lot of stuff that I questioned, but on the whole I felt like the animals were generally getting better care than the people. In fact SeaWorld whales do get the best care in the business, but no captive facility on the planet can possibly offer what killer whales actually need to not just survive but thrive.
It was only after Dawn Brancheau died that I started to seriously think about everything that I’d seen while at SWF and I realized that I had blinders on when I worked there. It was a fun job right out of college and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve only recently woken up to how horrible captivity is for large marine mammals.
Dawn Brancheau was hired 6 months after I left SeaWorld. When I saw what happened to her, I realized that with the level of experience she had (16 years) if this happened to her, it could have happened to anyone. Including people I know who are still at the park and including me if I had still been there. So, I realized it was time to start talking about what I know.

Blue Freedom Foundation: While you were at SeaWorld, did you witness food deprivation being used as a technique to force the whales and dolphins to perform?

Jeffrey Ventre: Yes, food deprivation was used primarily as a means to motivate animals to perform for very important shows, like when August Busch (the former owner) came into the park, or possibly a celebrity.

John Jett: Yes, food deprivation was a tool used for a variety of reasons. Upcoming VIP shows (which were commonly held on Saturdays as I recall) would often elicit from management the order to cut whale bases by ½ for several days prior to the show. (This strategy was often used, for example, when owner August Busch, would visit the park.) Calorie reduction would help ensure the animals were food motivated and would thus increase the likelihood that they would cooperate for shows, etc. Also, if for some reason an important separation would be needed bases would often be cut for one or more days prior. I also remember cutting Gudrun’s base for several days prior to drilling her teeth.

Samantha Berg: While SeaWorld never referred to what we did as “food deprivation” – I certainly was aware of animals being “held back” from receiving their full amount of food – specifically in VIP situations. If a VIP was coming to the park, it was common to hold back on giving the animals all of their food until after the performance. Food might also be held back in order to coerce an animal to perform a behavior (trick!) that they didn’t want to do, such as go into the medical pool and allow the gates to be shut.

Carol Ray: food ‘rationing’, as they’d call it, came into play on certain occasions. generally when there was an important person or group of people coming to a performance or to the park during the day we’d be instructed to decrease food allotments for some animals the day before. sort of for ‘extra’ motivation to put on a great show.

Blue Freedom Foundation: Could you tell our readers a little about your first hand observations of the captive whales and dolphins’ suffering? Perhaps an event that stands out in your mind?

Carol Ray: There are a few events that for me remain vivid in my memory and have haunted me since I left. one is the removal of the ‘original baby shamu’ – her name was Kalina – from the park. she was just 4 years old when we were told that she would be removed from her mother (Katina) and her 2 half siblings (Katerina, Taima), and be shipped to another park. I had serious misgivings about this situation as I was at least aware that the lives of wild orcas revolved around family and social bonds. I thought it was our responsibility to maintain as much of a normal semblance of family life for the animals as possible, and that meant NOT moving babies away from their moms and the only social settings they knew. Very naive of me, to be sure! I was quite unaware of the decisions being made at higher levels, and only later was able to understand and admit that the motivations for higher ups at SW are purely $$$. In any event, the evening Kalina was moved was a gut wrenching emotional scene for me. To watch her and her mother Katina struggle to try and stay together while they were forcibly separated by nets, and then watch Kalina hoisted with a crane, put in a truck and shipped away was simple heartbreaking. But the worst of it was after it was over and I stayed on night duty to do observations. Katina spent the night alone in a corner of her tank, shivering and screeching, crying because of her loss, for the entire night. I cried on my way home and knew that it was the beginning of the end of my time at SW. Other memories that bother me the most involve Kanduke (Duke), our male whale at the time who died in 1990 when I was still there.

Samantha Berg: I was never comfortable with the dolphin “petting pool”. Despite signs all over the place asking people not to throw things in the pool, kids and clueless people would often try to stick objects in the dolphins blowholes. In addition, there was so much lose change thrown in the pool (as though it was a wishing well!) that one dolphin turned completely white and died from zinc poisoning because they couldn’t stop her from eating the money. I know this is a huge problem at marine parks all over the world.

Jeffrey Ventre: Yes, there was a pregnant walrus named Gwen that was not allowed to sleep with Garfield (another walrus) because the management thought that Garfield would hurt Gwen and her unborn baby, even though there was no evidence to support that decision. So… they slept Gwen in a room with no water in it. But the room was filled with feces. The feces caused her to get an infection through a scrape on her skin, and she and the baby died.

John Jett: While I’m not sure about the level of suffering, I did often witness animals being chased, raked, bitten and otherwise harassed by other whales, without the option of escape. Winnie, a docile female at Sea World of Florida, immediately comes to mind (she’s now deceased). Winnie was routinely brutalized by all other whales, including the calves (moms provided protection). On numerous occasions I witnessed Tilikum endure the same treatment, mostly from the smaller and more agile females. Many of the whales were on antibiotics, antifungals, and/or drugs such as Tagamet (Cimetidine) to treat acute or chronic illness. I can’t remember too many mornings where I didn’t stuff fish with some kind of medication.

Blue Freedom Foundation: Have you ever worked with Tilikum? What is your opinion of how he is kept/treated/handled at SeaWorld’s Orlando facility?

(Above: Tilikum has been used frequently in SeaWorld’s “superior breeding program”)

John Jett: Tilikum was one of my primary animals during my last year at SW. Tilikum was kept and treated mostly like the other whales, although we weren’t allowed to enter the water with him, among other general rules governing his interactions. Tilikum is a chronically ill animal, probably as a result of the bore holes in his teeth. His care is likely to be similar to the other animals in this and other respects.

Jeffrey Ventre: Yes, I worked with Tilikum. He is often sequestered from the other animals. Now that he has killed 3 people, the trainers can’t get very close to him. So, in general, I feel for the big fella.

Samantha Berg: I was working at Shamu Stadium when Tilikum arrived from SeaLand of the Pacific. I was not a senior trainer so I was not allowed to work with him directly, but I observed many sessions with him over the time I was there.
From what I saw, SeaWorld only wanted him for his ability to generate more whales. (Sperm donation.) They also eventually incorporated him into the Shamu show for the “splash” segment. Even back when he first arrived, it seemed the females wanted little to do with him unless they were breeding. Although Taima eventually became bonded with him, it seemed like his life was fairly limited in terms of social interactions. John Jett, PhD worked with Tilikum closely for a few years – he can probably speak to this issue better than I can.
Of course, since Dawn died his interactions have been even more severely limited.
As far as I know, Tilikum was sick and on antibiotics at the time he killed Dawn. He was also consuming about 10 gallons of gelatin each day – likely due to the fact that he has been eating dehydrated, frozen fish and is not absorbing nutrients properly and probably has ulcers too from stress. His teeth are worn down to nothing from chewing on the gates and jaw popping – and he has to have his teeth flushed several times per day to keep him from getting an infection from the fish he eats. I would not call him a health, happy, thriving orca.
I think it’s time for SeaWorld to retire Tilikum to a sea pen, maybe with a couple of other older whales that should also be retired. Tilikum won’t likely ever be healthy enough to release to the wild, but he could live out the rest of his days in the ocean under care from from humans but able to experience the natural rhythms of the ocean. That would be a much better fate for him then dying in a steel, concrete and glass tank.

Carol Ray: I did not work with Tilikum.

Blue Freedom Foundation: Are there things that you think SeaWorld tries to hide from the general public?

Samantha Berg: Of course! They do not give the correct statistics for how long animals live in captivity vs. in the wild. See Jeff Ventre and John Jett’s excellent paper “Keto and Tilikum Express the Stress of Captivity” for more information about this. (It’s on the Orca Project’s website and on Voice of the Orcas).
SeaWorld mis-informs the public about dorsal collapse (it doesn’t happen in the wild!), they also mis-inform the public about longevity in the wild and try to make it out like nature is a dangerous place for these animals and they are much safer in a tank.
“Superior dental care” is actually necessary care to keep the whales from getting systemic infections that could kill them. Whales break their teeth on the steel bars that separate the pools and when they “jaw pop” at each other. Read Jeff and John’s paper for a description of a “pulpotomy” – it’s awful and done without anesthesia.
SeaWorld claims their whales are happy because they are breeding and having successful births. You should look at the statistics for the number of stillborns and fetal deaths at SeaWorld to see behind this myth. They breed more frequently than they would ever breed in the wild.
Besides, to insinuate just because the animals are having sex they must be happy is ludicrous. People have sex with each other in prison all the time and that doesn’t mean they are happy!! Likely this is just stress relief for the whales.
Tilikum has been responsible for the death of 3 people so far and over 50% of the whales in the SeaWorld parks carry Tili’s genes. (See the Orca Project for more info on this.)
They call what the whales do “extensions of natural behaviors” when they are nothing more than circus tricks.
They say the whales get “restaurant quality fish” when in reality they get frozen fish that are not actually approved for human consumption. Also, since the fish are previously frozen, they are often lacking in water (significantly dehydrated) and nutrients. In addition, the whale’s diets are not what they would be in the wild. We fed the animals mostly smelt (capelin) and some herring and occasionally salmon and mackerel, but not in ratios that would likely occur in the wild. Also, at least one killer whale, Kanduke, was a transient which means his diet would have likely been other marine mammals. He still got fish.

Jeffrey Ventre: Yes. The fact that captivity causes dorsal fin collapse in killer whales. Yes, the fact that the orcas break their teeth on the steel bars and concrete walls that separate them. Yes, the fact that killer whales live shorter lives in captivity than in the wild. Yes, that working with killer whales is safe 99% of the time (it is not).

John Jett: Sea World is in the business of selling tickets, and they have historically been very good at controlling information and otherwise distorting and obfuscating the facts associated with keeping orcas in captivity. Their public relations strategies are systematic, beginning with PR training employees go through to learn what to say, what to avoid saying, and how to spin captivity questions. SW has been successful at “educating” the public about longevity for instance, citing to the public that wild orcas live much shorter lives than most wild orca researchers agree on. This misinformation is meant to show that their captive animals live about the same duration as those in the wild, which in any objective sense is simply not true. Sea World has also been good at hiding chronic illnesses and questionable animal care practices from the public. For example, until recently few people knew that SW trainers routinely drill the teeth of their captive orcas (the teeth are never filled, and they must then be flushed daily with antiseptic solution). The unfortunate result is that many whales in their care have multiple open bore holes through which bacteria can enter the bloodstream (which might partly explain the many chronic illnesses). They’ve been engaged in this practice since I was employed but it is only now that the outside world is beginning to understand that this is a routine component of life at a marine park.

Carol Ray: Absolutely! The euphimisms they have employees use rather than certain ‘buzz words’ are an example. But otherwise you can see for yourself that their KW literature is inaccurate. They do not want people making accurate comparisons to wild orcas (life span, health issues). The breeding program and details of how early and often (unnaturally so) they breed females is kept hush hush, and they certainly don’t advertise the inbred animals they have. The real scenarios behind death’s of orcas are hidden or ambiguous. Just some examples.

Blue Freedom Foundation: How many whales and dolphins did you see die while you were at SeaWorld? And what was done with their bodies?

John Jett: Not sure how many whales I saw die, but I know that at least Nyar and Gudrun died while I was there. I cannot comment on the number of dolphins. At one time dead orcas were simply buried in a field, until heavy rains and rising groundwater forced a rotting carcass to the surface. I know one trainer who witnessed an orca carcass being cut up into small pieces to be disposed of in the trash. I cannot comment on how bodies are currently disposed of.

Samantha Berg: I saw one false killer whale (Zori) die from a rampant parasitic infection and one dolphin die from anorexia and stress directly related to captivity. Zori’s death was extremely violent – she beat her head on the sides of the pool multiple times and thrashed around trying to get a breath of air. I will never forget her last moments – she vomited a massive amount of blood and guts and slowly sank to the bottom of the pool. One of the veterinarian’s who’d been watching the whole ordeal remarked to the other veterinarian, “Damn, I thought we were out of the woods with that animal.” I heard about the deaths of many other animals second hand. I have no idea what happened to their bodies other than that they were put in a freezer while awaiting a necropsy. After that, I didn’t hear anything else.

Jeffrey Ventre: I watched several animals die at SeaWorld. I’m not sure what happened to their bodies, but was told that they used to bury them on the property.

Carol Ray: Thank goodness it was my day off when Kanduke died.

Blue Freedom Foundation: What lead to your leaving SeaWorld?

John Jett: Many things lead to me leaving. Mostly my exit was a culmination of four years of seeing the orcas in such small tanks, witnessing the painful teeth drilling, the chronic illnesses, and the aggression toward each other. I was also dismayed at the total lack of research being conducted, as this is one factor for me wanting to work at SW in the first place.

Jeffrey Ventre: I was fired for kissing the whale Taima on the tongue during a show. They said that I was unsafe.

Carol Ray: A variety of factors, including as I mentioned above, the difficulty I began having with the industry as well as personal opportunities to travel, and do some thinking about what might come next for me in my life.

Samantha Berg: First thing was I wanted to travel around the country for a while. Second thing was I realized that I needed to go back to school to get an advanced degree if I wanted to have any forward momentum working with animals. But I thought I would return to SeaWorld eventually. I imagined going back to get some kind of architectural degree combined with animal psychology so I could return to the park and do habitat design. I was also considering going to veterinary school and becoming an exotic animal vet. In the end, I ended up on another path and never came back, for which I am very grateful.

Blue Freedom Foundation: Thank you all so much for blogging with us today, it has been extremely informative and educational. We appreciate it.

Be sure to check out their new website “Voice of the Orcas” for important updates and information on whales and dolphins in captivity:

Thank you to Jeffrey Ventre, and for photos.