'Blowing the whistle' - ex-SeaWorld orca trainers speak out
13 July 2012 - 11:03am
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In February 2012, a fascinating new website was launched. Voice of the Orcas is ‘devoted to providing a voice to those without’, and it contains information, background and blogs on the still ongoing practice of keeping orcas in captive arenas for human entertainment.
Combating this practice is not new, but this website has an edge. It’s been compiled, not by lifelong anti-captivity campaigners, but by former trainers at SeaWorld itself. Jeffrey Ventre, Carol Ray, Samantha Berg and John Jett have all spent time teaching tricks to captive animals, before becoming disillusioned with their trade and leaving to pursue new careers. As a result, they have a combined unique insight into orca captivity, and want to share it. Theirs is a perfect tale of captor turned freedom fighter.
‘The only regret I have is that it took me so long to find the courage to get involved,’ says Carol. ‘The whale and dolphin rights’ groups and activists were the people I wanted to be able to align myself with, and I was afraid they would think I was a hypocrite for having worked in the industry in the past.
Thankfully, that has not been the case.’ Samantha agrees: ‘Yes, I was initially hesitant to speak out and I’m no longer sure why. Part of that is likely social conditioning about not wanting to stick my neck out and call attention to myself. Also, I genuinely liked most of the people I worked with and considered myself to still be friends with some of the people who are still at SeaWorld. It didn’t seem right to say anything out of respect for them. Now I realise that the people still there can’t say anything – even if they know the truth – for fear about their jobs. It’s up to those of us outside the industry to speak up and say as much as we can to create more public awareness.’
Back in 1987, when Jeff and Carol first joined SeaWorld, public awareness of the issues of orca captivity was virtually nonexistent. ‘Working with them is the 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 by whales and dolphins, even if you’ve never seen one in the wild.
SeaWorld has the largest collection of killer whales in the world and also employs the largest collection of trainers. If you want to work with whales and 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 with them inherently makes the prospect of the job alluring. Young people are drawn to the idea even before they’ve been able to give full thought to what it really means, for the animals. To be able to work closely with and develop relationships with whales and dolphins seems very special.
It’s hard once someone has latched onto this idea, to see it another way. It simply becomes their dream.’
Yet it wasn’t long before the glamour wore off. ‘What people don’t know is that animal trainers ‘They work long hours and scrub a lot of fish buckets.’ Carol has similar memories: ‘Cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning is the name of the game when you’re a novice. Scrubbing buckets, schlepping heavy buckets of fish around for other trainers, scrubbing seagull poo off the stage, for example, likely makes up most of the day for newer trainers.’ Samantha was rather taken aback, too, when she first started her job at SeaWorld in 1990. ‘Like Jeff, John and Carol, who all had bachelor’s degrees while working at SeaWorld and went on to advanced degrees, I assumed I was going to be involved in a job where there was some actual useful research going on. But the entire time I was there, I saw very little scientific research, and most of the research I did see was basically focused on how to keep the animals alive in captivity, not necessarily anything that would benefit wild populations.’
Captive orcas break their teeth on the steel bars that separate them for shows and training sessions"
It wasn’t long before other alarm bells started to go off, too. ‘Captive orcas break their teeth on the steel bars that separate them for shows and training sessions,’ says Jeff, ‘and once they break off the enamel, the pulp of the tooth is exposed. This can then form a cavity leading to food plugging. So SeaWorld vets drill out the core of the tooth, where the pulp is, and it leaves an open bore hole, which then needs to be irrigated two to three times per day by the trainers with an antiseptic solution to keep dead fish from getting plugged. All of this was very concerning, but we were told to tell the public that the whales were receiving “superior dental care”.
The reason for the fractured teeth was captivity itself, but we didn’t mention that part. SeaWorld spins it to make it seem “better” than the wild. We were also told to repeat incorrect longevity data to school children during “educational shows”, as well as to say that dorsal fin bending and collapse is “common” in the wild.
We now know that dorsal fin collapse, as seen in 100% of captive male orcas, is incredibly rare in the wild and associated with illness or trauma.’ ‘For me,’ says Carol, ‘the issue of moving Kalina to Ohio, away from her family at Shamu, was a huge factor and something that I couldn’t ignore. I vehemently disagreed with what we were doing, and yet was completely helpless to do anything. Other situations that were distressing for me generally involved the large male we had at the time, Kanduke. In my view, I saw him as miserable, neglected and with no social connections, human or orca. I was conflicted when he died. I felt like I should only be sad, and I was, but there was also an element of relief about it – like he was finally free.’
Samantha had her concerns, too. ‘The dolphin petting pool, for example, was just awful in retrospect. All day long, kids and people crowded around this little pool trying to pet dolphins – some would actually try to put things in the dolphins’ blowholes.'
Many people threw coins in the water and some dolphins ate them and got sick and died. One turned white before dying from zinc poisoning.’
Despite these misgivings, the trainers carried on with their jobs. Why? ‘It is interesting that, as close as some of us were while working together, these kinds of things were not openly discussed even amongst friends,’ Carol continues. ‘I had conversations with friends who I did not work with, regarding concerns. But it was somehow taboo to even have these conversations with the people I shared the work with. I think that’s a testament to how well SeaWorld does at indoctrinating new staff, for example with buzz words to avoid and the proper euphemisms to use. At the same time, I certainly take responsibility for not questioning what was told to me, or asked of me. It made it that much easier to distance myself from difficult thoughts I had about my work there. Typical cognitive dissonance I guess.’
This worry about speaking up seems to have affected the trainers in several ways. ‘I once found out that one of my female colleagues who was a senior trainer was being paid less than all the male senior trainers,’ says Samantha. ‘I brought that to her attention, someone reported me and I almost got fired. I learned very early on at SeaWorld that if I wanted to work with the animals in the shows and do water work with the dolphins and whales, it was best to keep my mouth shut and do what I was told and smile. Anyone who questioned management’s decisions got labelled a troublemaker. So, I learned the party line very well and did my best to follow the rules and not speak out.
Although my co-workers and I might complain amongst ourselves about the decisions made about animal welfare, very rarely did those complaints make it to upper management.’ So did that mean that the
trainers had to toe the company line in public as well as in private? ‘Public relations training is a key part of being a SeaWorld employee,’ says Jeff. ‘You are told what to say and how to say it, in case you receive an awkward question from the public.’ Samantha agrees, and notes that there could be a penalty to pay for speaking out. ‘There are always plenty of people willing to do the job for low pay,’ she says. ‘I’m sure SeaWorld receives hundreds of CVs every day from people wanting to be an animal trainer.
So, any individual working at my level could easily be fired and replaced. Once someone develops six or more years of experience they become more important to the company, but even then, trainers still had to follow the company line. Unfortunately, the more you know, the more you are likely to have to compromise your values – so people didn’t really want to know the truth about the animals or it would be much harder to do the job.’
Safety first or last?
But presumably, adequate safety measures were in place to look after them while they learned the ropes? ‘SeaWorld relies mostly on trainers making subjective decisions as to how to act safely,’ says Jeff. ‘There are no effective safety measures to deploy against an orca who goes after a trainer in the water. You’re at the whale’s mercy at that point. There have been hundreds of accidents over the years but SeaWorld has, until recently, managed to keep details of them fairly quiet. In general, trainers know that there are risks associated with working with killer whales, but details were generally not discussed much especially if they occurred at another park.’
There have been hundreds of accidents over the years but SeaWorld has, until recently, managed to keep details of them fairly quiet'
Samantha nods. ‘I’ve heard Chuck Tompkins, head of animal training at SeaWorld, say that we can predict the behaviour of these animals 99.9% of the time. That is a total joke – just ask any dog trainer. I was absolutely not aware of the dangers of working with marine mammals while I was working there. In fact, before I was hired there were at least 30 serious incidents and accidents with trainers that I knew nothing about. The John Sillick incident, where John was crushed between two killer whales at SeaWorld of San Diego, happened in 1987, three years before I was hired. I only found out about it because my husband was sitting on a plane next to John Sillick’s sister on his way to visit me. Even then when I asked my colleagues about it, most trainers didn’t know much (it happened at another park, didn’t concern them, must have been trainer error, etc) and some people hadn’t even heard about it. These were pre-internet days, so I had no way of just looking things up for myself other than going to the library and it never occurred to me to try to get more information.’
Carol, too, laments the lack of information provided. ‘I can only speak about my own experiences, which were long ago,’ she says, ‘but I can emphatically state that NO we were not given any information to help us make decisions about how safe or unsafe it was to work with captive orcas. Just weeks before I started in the animal training department, John Sillick was crushed by an orca at SeaWorld California. We were removed from the water while management “reviewed safety protocols”, nothing was passed down to us, the trainers who were working hands-on with the whales. That is only one example of how “in the dark” we were. It wasn’t until I was leaving Shamu Stadium that my supervisor asked me to provide input for animal profiles of whales I knew best. I didn’t even know we HAD animal profiles... and I had been there for over two years!
‘Even today, I don’t believe they have adequate safety measures in place because they still work in such close proximity to the whales that they can still have the same kind of attack happen, that happened to Dawn Brancheau [who was drowned by an orca at SeaWorld Florida in 2010], and it’s really as simple as that.’
In the next issue of the WDC Magazine 'Whale and Dolphin', the ex-trainers, some of whom knew Dawn, discuss their reactions to her death, their motivations for speaking out now, and much more. In the meantime, you can read their account of the life of a captive orca at wdcs.org/captivity, and visit the trainers’ website.
Trainers of thought
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.
You will be able to read comments from the fourth member of the ex-trainer group, Dr John Jett, in the next issue. 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.