The Controversy Surrounding Ex-Trainers


Since the death of Seaworld’s star trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in 2010, several former trainers have bravely stepped forward to publicly speak about their jobs behind the scenes at marine parks. Special projects, films, books and gatherings bring together these ex-trainers to share and report their experiences.

At least seven former trainers (now activists) took part in the new anti-captivity documentary “Blackfish” which has yet to be released to the public. Still, rumors are flying about these trainers who were featured in the film: How much experience do they really have in the industry? Do they have a vendetta against marine parks because they were fired? Were they bribed to stand out against captivity? Are they seeking fame and fortune?

Carol Ray(left) 3 year veteran and Bridgette Pirtle(right) 10 year veteran are both former Shamu trainers, now turned activists.

Seven former trainers and their years of experience in the captivity industry:

Dean Gomersall – 20+ years

John Hargrove – 18 years

Bridgette Pirtle – 10 years

Jeff Ventre- 8 years

John Jett- 4 years

Carol Ray – 3 years

Samantha Berg – 3 years

          Collectively, these seven former trainers have 66+ years of experience in the marine mammal training industry around the world. Many of these individuals worked at SeaWorld, some as senior trainers with killer whales, and all of them worked with captive cetaceans. There is no question that they have a variety of knowledge and expertise about the field of animal training. So, why would someone devote so many years of their life to achieving and maintaining their dream job, just to quit and eventually stand against the industry that they used to love?

Fame and fortune maybe?

John Hargrove(left), and Jeff Ventre(right) worked with killer whales at Shamu Stadium.

John Hargrove(left) 18 year veteran, and Jeff Ventre(right) 8 year veteran, worked with killer whales at Shamu Stadium and are now anti-captivity activists.

Not quite. It seems foolish to believe that one would give up their job performing glamorous shows with exotic animals in front of thousands of spectators everyday for the “fame” of appearing briefly in a documentary, or writing blogs online. After all, there is far more fame, glitz and glam in dolphin training than there is in activism! These trainers have not made big bucks for standing out either. None of them were paid to be featured in the documentary “Blackfish”, and with the cost of travel  these days, it seems former trainers are more apt to lose money than to make money for their activism. Former trainer Jeff Ventre had this to say:

“In regard to fame and fortune, I’m personally down (net loss) about ten thousand due to hotels, travel expenses, and lift tickets involved with places like Park City and Sarasota.”

This ties right in with another question that pro-caps ask about the ex trainers. Did “famous” anti-caps like David Kirby, author of “Death at SeaWorld”, or journalist Tim Zimmermann, bribe them with millions of dollars to quit their jobs and join the ranks of activism?

This conspiracy theory seems less like a logical, realistic explanation and more like a stirring of the pot. Journalists/bloggers generally do not become famous for their work. To think that Tim Zimmermann would have millions of dollars to dish out to ex trainers is a bit far-fetched. Though Kirby is a professional author, he became an anti-captivity activist after many of the former trainers had already stepped out. We don’t see Kirby or Zimmermann living the high life with all of their millions (and millions more to spare). We definitely don’t see former trainers doing the same. If that were the case, Jeff Ventre would not have such a problem with a net loss of ten thousand dollars! Furthermore, many of the trainers have been out of the business of animal training for several years as they pursued other career choices, so it wasn’t a bribe from Kirby or Zimmermann that made them quit their jobs.

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Six former trainers standing proudly against the captivity industry. (Photo from voiceoftheorcas.com)

Were the ex-trainers fired or do they have a vendetta against marine parks? Only one of the former trainers featured in “Blackfish” was fired, while the rest quit or retired from their jobs. All of the ex trainers express that they felt the need to stand against captivity after re-thinking some of the questionable experiences they had while working in the industry. Dawn’s death brought the captivity debate to the forefront of the media which led many former trainers to feel convicted about their previous careers.

Many pro-captivity activists and marine park fans condemn anti-captivity activists saying that they would only consider claims about captivity made by those who have experienced it first hand. But when those who have experienced captivity first hand step forward, they are dismissed without question and are subjected to vicious rumors, assumptions, and calls for censorship. They are rejected; not because their claims are wrong of course, and certainly not because they lack expertise in the industry…but simply because their claims are anti-captivity. This is one example of prejudice that has crept into the pro-captivity community.

I urge everyone to do research before spreading false rumors or making assumptions. These former trainers are brave individuals who are standing up for what they believe in. Their voices should be heard!

If you want to learn more about ex-trainers visit voiceoftheorcas.com

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4 thoughts on “The Controversy Surrounding Ex-Trainers

  1. Great topic! Thanks for bringing the facts together to make it clear these ex-SeaWorld-trainers are NOT filling their pockets by speaking out, but rather standing up for the voiceless captives who desperately need champions with experience at the very parks spinning lies in the name of education and conservation. My hope is the continued exposure of the truth of cetacean captivity might drag the wet wool from so many of the current trainers eyes!

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