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Blowing the Whistle

Blowing the Whistle

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Published by jmventre
Four former SeaWorld trainers have now banded together to reveal the truth about life behind the shows at SeaWorld. Here is the first of our exclusive two-part interview, three of them
provide Whale & Dolphin with their shocking insights.
Four former SeaWorld trainers have now banded together to reveal the truth about life behind the shows at SeaWorld. Here is the first of our exclusive two-part interview, three of them
provide Whale & Dolphin with their shocking insights.

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Published by: jmventre on May 15, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Summer 2012
n February, afascinating newwebsite waslaunched.
Voice of the Orcas 
is‘devoted to providing a voice tothose without’, and it containsinformation, background andblogs on the still ongoing practiceof keeping orcas in captive arenasfor human entertainment.Combating this practice is notnew, but this website has an edge.It’s been compiled, not by lifelonganti-captivity campaigners, butby former trainers at SeaWorlditself. Jeffrey Ventre, Carol Ray,Samantha Berg and John Jetthave all spent time teaching tricksto captive animals, beforebecoming disillusioned with theirtrade and leaving to pursue newcareers. As a result, they have acombined unique insight into
Four former SeaWorld trainers have now banded together toreveal the truth about life behind the shows at SeaWorld. Hereis the first of our exclusive two-part interview, three of themprovide
Whale & Dolphin
with their shocking insights
orca captivity, and want to shareit. Theirs is a perfect tale of captorturned freedom fighter.‘The only regret I have is that ittook me so long to find thecourage to get involved,’ saysCarol. ‘The whale and dolphinrights’ groups and activists werethe people I wanted to be able toalign myself with, and I wasafraid they would think I was ahypocrite for having worked inthe industry in the past.Thankfully, that has not been thecase.’ Samantha agrees: ‘Yes, Iwas initially hesitant to speak outand I’m no longer sure why. Partof that is likely socialconditioning about not wantingto stick my neck out and callattention to myself. Also, I
genuinely liked most of the people
I worked with and consideredmyself to still be friends withsome of the people who are still atSeaWorld. It didn’t seem right tosay anything out of respect forthem. Now I realise that thepeople still there can’t sayanything – even if they know thetruth – for fear about their jobs.It’s up to those of us outside theindustry to speak up and say asmuch as we can to create morepublic awareness.’Back in 1987, when Jeff andCarol first joined SeaWorld,public awareness of the issues of orca captivity was virtually non-existent. ‘Working with them isthe obvious draw to wanting to
become a trainer,’ says Jeff. ‘Their
combination of size, intellect and
colouration pattern is compelling.
It’s easy to be captivated bywhales and dolphins, even if you’ve never seen one in the wild.SeaWorld has the largestcollection of killer whales in theworld and also employs thelargest collection of trainers. If you want to work with whalesand dolphins, it’s the big league.’Carol can also relate to those who
shared her own dream of 25 years
ago: ‘I think this fascination withthem inherently makes theprospect of the job alluring.Young people are drawn to theidea even before they’ve been ableto give full thought to what itreally means, for the animals. Tobe able to work closely with anddevelop relationships with whalesand dolphins seems very special.It’s hard once someone haslatched onto this idea, to see itanother way. It simply becomestheir dream.’Yet it wasn’t long before theglamour wore off. ‘What people
don’t know is that animal trainers
   S   H   U   T   T   E   R   S   T   O   C   K
Summer 2012
are grossly underpaid’ says Jeff.‘They work long hours and scruba lot of fish buckets.’ Carol hassimilar memories: ‘Cleaning,cleaning and more cleaning is thename of the game when you’re anovice. Scrubbing buckets,schlepping heavy buckets of fisharound for other trainers,scrubbing seagull poo off thestage, for example, likely makesup most of the day for newertrainers.’ Samantha was rathertaken aback, too, when she firststarted her job at SeaWorld in1990. ‘Like Jeff, John and Carol,who all had bachelor’s degreeswhile working at SeaWorld andwent on to advanced degrees, Iassumed I was going to beinvolved in a job where there wassome actual useful research goingon. But the entire time I wasthere, I saw very little scientificresearch, and most of theresearch I did see was basicallyfocused on how to keep theanimals alive in captivity, notnecessarily anything that wouldbenefit wild populations.’
Danger signs
It wasn’t long before other alarmbells started to go off, too.‘Captive orcas break their teeth onthe steel bars that separate themfor shows and training sessions,’says Jeff, ‘and once they break off the enamel, the pulp of the tooth isexposed. This can then form acavity leading to food plugging. SoSeaWorld vets drill out the core of the tooth, where the pulp is, and itleaves an open bore hole, whichthen needs to be irrigated two tothree times per day by the trainerswith an antiseptic solution to keepdead fish from getting plugged. Allof this was very concerning, butwe were told to tell the public thatthe whales were receiving“superior dental care”. The reasonfor the fractured teeth wascaptivity itself, but we didn’tmention that part. SeaWorld spinsit to make it seem “better” thanthe wild. We were also told torepeat incorrect longevity data toschool children during“educational shows”, as well as tosay that dorsal fin bending andcollapse is “common” in the wild.We now know that dorsal fincollapse, as seen in 100% of captive male orcas, is incrediblyrare in the wild and associatedwith illness or trauma.’‘For me,’ says Carol, ‘the issueof moving Kalina to Ohio, awayfrom her family at Shamu, was ahuge factor and something that Icouldn’t ignore. I vehementlydisagreed with what we weredoing, and yet was completelyhelpless to do anything. Othersituations that were distressingfor me generally involved thelarge male we had at the time,
Man peoplethew coin in thewate and omedolphin atethem and ot ickand died. Onetned white befoe din
Samantha Berg:
Sam worked at SeaWorld Florida or overthree years rom February 1990 to August 1993. She nowowns an acupuncture centre in Alaska with her husband,Kevin.
Carol Ray:
O Carol’s three years at SeaWorld (1987–1990),she spent approximately 2.5 working at Shamu Stadium withorcas, and 6 months at the multi-species Whale and Dolphinstadium. She is currently the owner and director o threepediatric speech therapy clinics in the Seattle area.
Dr Jefrey Ventre:
Jef is a medical doctor who specialisesin Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. He worked as atrainer at SeaWorld rom 1987–1995, spending seven o theeight years with whales and dolphins.You will be able to read comments rom the ourth membero the ex-trainer group,
Dr John Jett
, in the next issue. Johnworked or SeaWorld or our years in the early to mid-1990s.He grew disillusioned with killer whale captivity pretty quickly.He was dismayed by the act that no real science was occurringdespite what he was led to believe. Being orced to attend PR seminarsto learn what to say was also a big red flag. He currently works as aresearch proessor with an interest in waterway management issues.
Kanduke. In my view, I saw himas miserable, neglected and withno social connections, human ororca. I was conflicted when hedied. I felt like I should only besad, and I was, but there was alsoan element of relief about it – likehe was finally free.’Samantha had her concerns,too. ‘The dolphin petting pool,for example, was just awful inretrospect. All day long, kids andpeople crowded around this littlepool trying to pet dolphins –some would actually try to putthings in the dolphins’ blowholes.Many people threw coins in thewater and some dolphins atethem and got sick and died. Oneturned white before dying fromzinc poisoning.’Despite these misgivings, thetrainers carried on with theirjobs. Why? ‘It is interesting that,as close as some of us were whileworking together, these kinds of things were not openly discussedeven amongst friends,’ Carolcontinues. ‘I had conversationswith friends who I did not workwith, regarding concerns. But itwas somehow taboo to even havethese conversations with thepeople I shared the work with. Ithink that’s a testament to howwell SeaWorld does atindoctrinating new staff, forexample with buzz words toavoid and the proper euphemismsto use. At the same time, Icertainly take responsibility for
Summer 2012
not questioning what was told tome, or asked of me. It made it thatmuch easier to distance myself from difficult thoughts I hadabout my work there. Typicalcognitive dissonance I guess.’
Equal rights
This worry about speaking upseems to have affected thetrainers in several ways. ‘I oncefound out that one of my femalecolleagues who was a seniortrainer was being paid less thanall the male senior trainers,’ saysSamantha. ‘I brought that to herattention, someone reported meand I almost got fired. I learnedvery early on at SeaWorld that if Iwanted to work with the animalsin the shows and do water workwith the dolphins and whales, itwas best to keep my mouth shutand do what I was told and smile.Anyone who questionedmanagement’s decisions gotlabelled a troublemaker. So, Ilearned the party line very welland did my best to follow therules and not speak out.Although my co-workers and Imight complain amongstourselves about the decisionsmade about animal welfare, veryrarely did those complaints makeit to upper management.’So did that mean that thetrainers had to toe the companyline in public as well as in private?‘Public relations training is a keypart of being a SeaWorldemployee,’ says Jeff. ‘You are toldwhat to say and how to say it, incase you receive an awkwardquestion from the public.’Samantha agrees, and notes thatthere could be a penalty to pay forspeaking out. ‘There are alwaysplenty of people willing to do thejob for low pay,’ she says. ‘I’msure SeaWorld receives hundredsof CVs every day from peoplewanting to be an animal trainer.So, any individual working at mylevel could easily be fired andreplaced. Once someone developssix or more years of experiencethey become more important tothe company, but even then,trainers still had to follow thecompany line. Unfortunately, themore you know, the more you arelikely to have to compromise yourvalues – so people didn’t reallywant to know the truth about theanimals or it would be muchharder to do the job.’
Saety first or last?
But presumably, adequate safetymeasures were in place to lookafter them while they learned theropes? ‘SeaWorld relies mostly ontrainers making subjectivedecisions as to how to act safely,’says Jeff. ‘There are no effectivesafety measures to deploy againstan orca who goes after a trainerin the water. You’re at the whale’smercy at that point. There havebeen hundreds of accidents overthe years but SeaWorld has, untilrecently, managed to keep detailsof them fairly quiet. In general,trainers know that there are risksassociated with working withkiller whales, but details were
In all likelihood, collapsed dorsalfins such as Keto’s here arecaused by increased hours osurace floating. They are veryrare in the wild.Here you can see the racturedteeth o Kalina, caused bychewing on steel gates. Theront teeth have been drilled outby SeaWorld vets.Pulp is removed rom brokenteeth, creating a hole throughwhich bacteria can enter theblood system. To combat this,orcas require daily flushings.
I leaned veeal on atseaWold that if Iwanted to wokwith the animalin the how, itwa bet to keepm moth ht
Sam with false killer whale
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