Former Seaworld trainers claim ‘self-injuring’ orcas drugged and starved
SEAWORLD has long fought allegations about the conditions under which its captive killer whales are kept, including claims that they suffer from stress so acute that they become ill, aggressive and die prematurely.
This week the park received a closer look in the wake of the “sudden and unexpected” death of the San Diego killer whale Amaya – with the cause of death pending.
Her death was announced by the park in a statement, saying: “It is with a heavy heart that SeaWorld announces that Amaya, a 6 year old female orca, died suddenly on August 19, 2021 … The whole SeaWorld family is saddened. by loss.
While the park added that specialists dealing with the whale were “heartbroken,” at least 24 orcas have died in SeaWorld’s three parks over the years, according to the report. nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Conservation USA.
The parks have long come under scrutiny, with activists saying the 36-foot pools in which whales are kept are inhuman to mammals.
Earlier, speaking to Sun Online in 2018, former SeaWorld coaches John Hargrove and Jeffrey Ventre claimed that during their time working for the park, whales were routinely drugged and starved, and even self-harmed due to the trauma. psychological they suffered.
Here they share their stories.
Rant and self-harm
Jeffrey Ventre was first thrilled when he landed the SeaWorld coaching role in 1987, saying: “My daily activities consisted of playing for the public and taking care of the whales and dolphins.
“At first I was happy because it’s quite difficult to do because a lot of people wanted to be coaches, and I felt honored to work with marine mammals.”
However, over the next eight years, he discovered the horrible truth.
He says: “The job is more like a stuntman or a clown playing with captive animals using food deprivation as a motivator.”
Jeffrey noticed that the whales were showing signs of extreme distress.
They gritted their teeth or chewed concrete out of boredom, causing dental damage, and “raking” – scratching their teeth – was common.
He says, “There has been a lot of self-harm. We saw jaw shards on a regular basis – it’s a threat between two orcs. ”
Jeffrey says the whales were given medication daily for health problems, but also to control their behavior.
“The whales and dolphins were stressed and it caused stomach ulcers,” he explains.
“So they took medication for that. They also had chronic infections, so they received antibiotics. They were also sometimes aggressive or difficult to control so that they could be given Valium to calm their aggression.
“All the whales were getting vitamins in their fish. Several received daily antibiotics, including Tilikum, for chronic dental infections.
Inbreeding was also common, with John remembering a whale called Taku – Tilikum’s son – mating with his own mother.
John began his killer whale training in 1993, at the age of 20, and resigned in 2012.
He remains deeply affected by what he saw, explaining that captivity has cut short the life of the whales.
He adds, “I have worked with whales who took medicine every day of their lives and I have personally seen whales die from disease at a very young age.
“It was the most difficult decision of my life to have to get away from the whales I loved so that I could become a whistleblower and expose the industry.”
Killed and dismembered
SeaWorld Tilikum’s Killer Whale was linked to the deaths of three people and became the focus of the 2013 documentary Blackfish.
On February 24, 2010, trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, who worked at SeaWorld for 16 years, died at Orlando Park after Tilikum pulled her into the water by her ponytail.
She suffered “multiple traumatic injuries” and was held underwater until she drowned.
John was devastated by his death.
He says, “I was a personal friend with Dawn Brancheau for nine years before Tilikum killed and dismembered her.”
Dawn is not the only human victim.
Before arriving at SeaWorld, Tilikum was involved in the death of another trainer.
The incident happened at Sealand of the Pacific, a marine park that has since closed in British Columbia, Canada, in 1991, with the trainer accidentally falling into a reservoir with Tilikum and two other whales.
Then in 1999, intruder Daniel Dukes was found dead after entering Tilikum Reservoir at night.
“A whale grabbed me and held me under”
Jeffrey says attacks on trainers were common because stress made orcs hyper-aggressive – but many incidents have gone unreported.
“I was involved myself and saw other trainers get soaked and shoved by the whales, and Taku shoved me under the water,” he says.
“It was never reported. But ‘stuff’ like this was commonplace.”
John adds, “I’ve worked with 20 different orcas in my career and swam with 17 of them.
“The three that I didn’t swim with were because they were classified as ‘non-aquatic whales’ and no trainer swam with them.
“I have had 10 major ‘water assault’ incidents in my career where whales grabbed me in their mouths and held me under.”
Jeffrey says trainers were forced to lie to the public about the whales, passing off the injuries they suffered in captivity as normal.
One of them is the dorsal fin collapse, where the dorsal fin tilts to one side.
It’s not fully known why this happens, but scientists have suggested it is due to stress and reduced activity.
Jeffrey explains: “We were also given scripts for educational shows that were filled with errors that were in fact public relations talking points.
“For example, when we spoke to children, we were told to tell them that killer whales live an average of 25 to 30 years. This is not true.
“We also told the public that dorsal fin collapse is genetic or quite common in nature, which it is not.”
In the wild, killer whales live between 50 and 80 years, while in captivity their life expectancy is around 17 years.
Still feel guilty
Jeffrey quit his job in 1995 and John in 2012, both realizing the industry’s negative impact on coaches and whales.
John is now campaigning for better conditions, saying: “Speaking, it helps ease the guilt I still keep buried in me for being able to walk away and get on with my life when these whales I loved more than anything couldn’t.”
Jeffrey, a physician and specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation, now lives in Washington. He’s campaigning against keeping killer whales in captivity, and in 2016 SeaWorld announced that they were ending their breeding program.
The last killer whale bred, a female named Kyara, was born in April 2017. She died three months later of suspected pneumonia.
Twenty-two orcas now remain at the park’s attractions in Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego. The youngest Amaya was born in 2014.
Jeffrey says: “It is difficult to dramatically improve their lives in small pools, as most of the problems of deconditioning, broken teeth, hyperaggression, mortality and morbidity are captivity dependent.
“A step in the right direction is a protected marine enclosure where they have an entire cove to play, interact with the kelp and fish, be together and not do shows, but also an area where they can get dental rinses and medical care.”
Theme parks “
PETA Director Elisa Allen says, “On the high seas, orcas travel more than 100 miles each day, feeling the currents, seeing other marine life, accompanying their families, and raising and teaching their offspring – but in captivity, there is little else they can do. but swim in endless circles.
“This life of frustration, stress and loneliness comes at a huge cost, and orcas in captivity are dying far below their natural lifespan.
“Anyone with a heart can only be moved by their plight and stay far, far away from these ‘abuse’ parks.”
Responding to the claims, a Seaworld spokesperson said: “These are many of the same tired, false and misleading claims that uninformed activists and disgruntled former employees have been repeating for years.
“Our animal welfare practices are accredited and reviewed by organizations such as American Humane, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, and the Animal Health Inspection Service. and plant from the United States Department of Agriculture, so any idea that SeaWorld is abusing animals is categorically false.
“The fact is, no one is doing more to protect marine mammals and advance cetacean search, rescue and conservation than the more than 1,000 animal care experts at SeaWorld.”
Speaking in 2019 following the news that TripAdvisor was planning to stop selling tickets to Seaworld, Dr Chris Dold, Chief Zoological Director of SeaWorld, said: “We are disappointed with TripAdvisor’s new stance which ignores the educational value and conservation mission of professionally accredited zoos and aquariums.
“SeaWorld maintains the highest standards of care for all animals, including cetaceans.
“And regardless of TripAdvisor’s stance, SeaWorld will continue to advance animal conservation and education efforts with our millions of supporters, professional scientists and other science organizations around the world.”