Jeffrey Ventre is a medical doctor, a former SeaWorld trainer, and an activist standing against orca captivity. He worked at SeaWorld from 1987-1995, and has seven years of experience training dolphins and whales. After achieving the title of “Senior Trainer,” Jeffrey Ventre was fired from SeaWorld for kissing a whale’s tongue, breaking their tongue tactile protocol. You can watch Dr. Ventre’s performance at SeaWorld here, or check out other interviews with Dr. Ventre on Voice of the Orcas.
Cetacean Inspiration: When you worked at SeaWorld, did you ever see food deprivation methods being used to train or condition the animals?
Dr. Ventre: Yes, food deprivation was used routinely. I don’t mean to imply on a daily basis, but routinely as in, when important people were expected to watch a show at Shamu Stadium, which happened a few times each month. When I worked with the killer whales, we regularly performed for August Busch, the former owner, and his people. We’d also perform for celebrities, such as Eddie Murphy, Jane Seymour; athletes such as Dan Marino or Evander Holyfield; or for politicians from all over the world. It was during those types of visits that the command was given to “hold the animals at ‘half-base.'” This meant, if an animal got 140 pounds of dead fish on a typical day, then hold it to 70 pounds (one half their base amount.)
Cetacean Inspiration: Did you ever see the animals display any abnormal behavior? If so, what?
Dr. Ventre: Yes, it was quite common for the males such as Tilikum or Kanduke (who died of a mosquito bite in 1990), to jaw pop on the gates, or chew on the concrete corners of the stage area. This could knock out their teeth, so we’d drill out the teeth and flush them everyday. (John Jeff PhD and myself talked about this in our paper “Keto & Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity,” which is available at the Orca Project.) The females, especially the ones battling their way up the social ladder, like Taima, would knock their teeth out too. This behavior is direct byproduct of captivity. I have photos of Kanduke, Tilikum, and Taima, that demonstrate how badly their teeth were damaged.
Cetacean Inspiration: Were the animals given any medication? If so, do you know what medication it was?
Dr. Ventre: Yes, on most days some animals got Tagamet, which is a medicine to prevent or treat stomach ulcers, and some got antibiotics. Tilikum is usually on antibiotics because bacteria gets into his blood stream via his mouth on a regular basis. His “white count” is usually elevated, which means he is usually fighting a low-grade infection. The animal Taku, who died of West Nile Virus, (also from a mosquito bite,) was regularly on antibiotics too. I worked with Taku. The bad thing about being on antibiotics is that these medicines kill the natural flora in the gut and then you become immunosuppressed, or more susceptible to infections from other things such as fungi, yeast, or different bacteria that the antibiotic doesn’t cover. It was Taku’s state of immunosuppression that led to the West Nile Virus taking over his brain and nervous system. This is called “neuroinvasive disease,” and it only occurs in mammals who are old or have weak immunity. I was sad to see Taku die at the young age of 14 at SeaWorld of Texas.
I have heard that other meds, including benzodiazepines such as valium, are used during transport to calm animals down, but never witnessed this first hand. I have heard from multiple sources that this does happen. Lastly, every morning all the animals are given vitamins. This is because dead fish (carrion) are not as nutritious as live fish. When you freeze and thaw fish to feed the whales, it depletes it of nutrients. SeaWorld supplements this loss with vitamins that are packed into the herring everyday. We would go out and do sessions for “breakfast” to get the whales and dolphins their morning meds and vits.
Cetacean Inspiration: How are the orcas and dolphins kept hydrated in captivity?
Dr. Ventre: They get a fraction of their free water from the frozen-thawed fish, but oftentimes it is not enough. So sometimes we would take a syringe without a needle on it and fill up the sink with tap water. We’d then insert the tip of the syringe into the anus of the dead fish and pump it full of the water. These days many of the whales, such as Tilikum, get gelatin for hydration and also to protect his stomach. The gelatin comes as a powder and is mixed with water and fed to the whales. According to Tilikum’s profile, which is readily available online, I think he gets ten pounds of gelatin daily to combat dehydration. Other whales get lesser amounts.
Cetacean Inspiration: How do you determine which animals will be housed together in the pools?
Dr. Ventre: This is usually done to set up the performance pool, usually referred to as “A Pool,” for the best possible show, so the crowd has the best experience. Remember, SeaWorld guests are spending about 80 dollars per adult in Orlando to be entertained. So, that was always the top priority. The show really must go on, so if an animal is often sick, like Tilikum often is, they are usually placed out of the way and in the back.
Usually, for killer whales, it is most convenient to keep the moms and babies together for the first several months. After that, the strategy is to try to keep the most compatible groupings together so the show can go on. For example, back in my day, Gudrun was not the best show animal, so she was often stuck in the back with Kanduke (who died in 1990), and later with Tilikum, until Gudrun died in 1996. It was sad when Gudrun died, because they hooked up a cable to her dead fetus and yanked it out by hand. This led to her hemorrhaging to death. She bled out and was likely infected, but it took a few days for her to die. You can read about this in David Kirby’s book “Death at SeaWorld.” So, to get back to your question, animals were kept together for show convenience.
Cetacean Inspiration: You say that Gudrun wasn’t the best show animal. What makes a good or bad show animal?
Dr. Ventre: That was probably a bad choice of words if you think about it. That said from the point of view of folks that are in the biz of entertaining the public. Gudrun was brought to Katina’s “pod” so to speak, so she was an outsider, and wasn’t as trained in the spectacular waterwork behaviors like Katina and her daughter Kalina. Also, she didn’t seem to be as predictable, was more of a free thinker. Gudrun’s daughter Taima (my fav) was about as free thinking as they get. Trainers were banned from waterwork with Taima because she was unpredictable and dangerous.
A “good” show animal is one that is very predictable, separates when asked (from other whales) and doesn’t disrupt shows or “split” during the middle of a sequence (which happens.) Taima split all the time and from what I’ve read of the animal profiles, eventually challenged Katina and became matriarch or co-matriarch prior to her sad and early death in 2010.
Cetacean Inspiration: What happens when the whales are uncooperative and don’t obey the trainer’s commands?
Dr. Ventre: When animals don’t obey commands, they get ignored. This is called a “lease reinforcing scenerio” or a “3-second neutral response.” If they continue to disobey they might not get their last bucket of food, or worse, sometimes their food base amount would be cut as I described before.
Cetacean Inspiration: Did you observe any aggression between the orcas, or between the orcas and trainers at SeaWorld?
Dr. Ventre: Yes, when I was there Katina was in charge. When her daughter Kalina was moved back to Orlando in 1994 from Texas, there was a big showdown. Kalina had traveled to Ohio, San Diego, and Texas, and had become dominant for awhile. When she came back to Orlando, her mom kicked the crap out of her for a few weeks until Kalina became submissive again. Also, the males are routinely bullied by the smaller females. In captivity, which is a small, confined space, the smaller animals have a big advantage: maneuverability. Tilikum and Duke could barely turn around sometimes, and the females used that to their advantage. In resident pods such as in Washington state or Alaska, it is a matriarchal society, but in all the times I’ve witnessed the whales, it is often the males who are chasing the tail if you know what I mean. I have some film of that in an old video on Youtube called “Orca Survey.” You can see J1 chasing J2. The males don’t chase the females in small, captive environments. They are at a distinct disadvantage primarily due to their immense size.
Cetacean Inspiration: What were the best and worst parts of your job at SeaWorld?
Dr. Ventre: The best part was staying in good physical condition. That has set me up for a healthier situation later in life which I appreciate. Medical school and residency can beat a person down, and continuing to exercise through those rough times allowed me to stay in relatively good physical shape. The worst part of the job was the low pay. When I started it was around 5 dollars per hour. After 8 years I was only making 30 thousand dollars a year, and I was a senior trainer. It’s really sad how little the job pays, but think about it, you’re really working at the equivalent of a sea circus, and circus’ and theme parks have historically attracted uneducated workers for low pay. When I was there not a single manager in the training department had a college education. It was more of just a physical job, and it attracted a lot of cowboy types.
*All links to references of other websites throughout the interview were added by Cetacean Inspiration. Photos were provided by Dr. Ventre.