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Blowing the whistle

Last issue, four former SeaWorld trainers revealed some of the disturbing truths about life behind the shows at SeaWorld. Here, in the second part of our exclusive interview, they conclude their tale
ast issue, the trainers revealed some of the alarm bells that started to ring during their time at SeaWorld, and how they reacted to them. They also discussed the safety issues in place at SeaWorld during the time of their employment. Then, in 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a highly experienced trainer and friend to many of our interviewees, was tragically killed by an orca called Tillikum in the middle of a display. The news must have come as a terrible shock. How did they react to it? When Dawn was killed, it brought back so many emotions its hard to describe, says Carol Ray. Ultimately, it was the catalyst that I think many former trainers needed to really evaluate

what they know given their unique experiences, what they think about the situation of whales and dolphins and captivity given those experiences, and share all that info. Samantha Berg agrees. I mostly believed all the stuff they told me and it really was Dawns death that woke me up. Dawn was hired six months after I left, and I realised that if it could happen to her (she had 16+ years of experience) it could have happened to me or anyone else I knew who was still working at the park. When I saw the photo of Dawn laying in the slide out next to Tilikum seconds before he grabbed her by the arm and rolled her into the water, I knew that the accident was not Dawns fault and I also knew that management

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 Carols 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 Je frey Ventre: Je f 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. Dr John Jett: 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 lag. He currently works as a research professor with an interest in waterway management issues.

must have gotten complacent about an animal who had already been responsible for the deaths of two people. Yet, even though I was incredibly upset when Dawn died, it still took another six months almost before I was willing to speak out in public. Im not sure what I was afraid of, but I was very uncomfortable about saying anything negative about SeaWorld. My perspectives started to shift only after Dawns death, and I am embarrassed that

I never thought deeply about this issue until after she died. I wish I had woken up and said something before. John Jett had been saying something beforehand, but carefully. I was speaking out about orca captivity long before Dawns death. In fact, I was speaking out about captivity while I worked as an orca trainer, as were other trainers. Luckily, management never found this out! Yes, the culture forces you to downplay the obvious risks and

they do this with an undertone of threats to move you from the area. My experience with the public was interesting. I received many, many questions regarding their concerns with the physical and ethical aspects of keeping orcas in captivity. Of course we were trained by public relations professionals on how to avoid these types of questions, or on how to positively spin them. Spin has been a key component to their business model for many

years, and they are specialists. As the trainers point out, it wasnt only the death of Dawn, and indeed other incidents, that convinced them to go fully public. For Jeff Venture, seeing orcas in the wild also helped change his perspective. I was invited to participate in Orca Survey in 1996 in the San Juan Islands of Washington State USA. This study is led by Ken Balcomb and Dr Astrid van Ginneken MD PhD. When I saw these majestic creatures with tall dorsal fins

swimming in front of the snow capped Olympic Mountains, mixed feelings rushed though me. I was both amazed by the beauty, and then saddened about my former role at SeaWorld as a trainer. It made my eyes water up. Armed with their knowledge, experiences, and understanding of the needs of orcas, the trainers joined forces, and this February, they launched a fascinating new website, Voice of the Orcas. Its one thing to know that theres

something wrong, its yet another to go public with the knowledge, and actually encourage a change in public opinion. Yet thats exactly what the trainers are doing. People go to places like SeaWorld because they are drawn in by the animals, just as I was 25 years ago, says Jeff. Im proof that attitudes can change, and were seeing that now. There is a wave of public awareness that began before 2010, but has accelerated secondary to the


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Might we get to the point at which orcas, and dolphins too, are no longer kept in captivity for the entertainment of the public?
scrutiny brought on by the tragic loss of life. John agrees, but believes there is much work to be done. I want people to know that there is a very convincing body of objective evidence regarding orca captivity that is available to them through outlets such as The Orca Project and Voice of the Orcas. Writers Tim Zimmerman and David Kirby (among others) have also done excellent, objective writing about the subject. Sceptics should try to obtain as much information about such issues as the orcas broken, ground and drilled teeth [see last issue]. Has Sea World ever been forthcoming about this practice? No. Try to do your research before you spend money at such a facility. The practice of keeping orcas and other marine mammals in small pools and forcing them to do mindless tricks is driven by the bottom line: money. People go to the shows for the same reason they wait in line to ride a roller coaster. People want a thrill. People want to see curiosities they dont normally have access to. That said, this type of endeavour has a finite lifespan. The business model is not sustainable as people are catching on. The same thing

happened to circuses, where at one time they enjoyed almost limitless success, whereas now people simply dont go because of the cruelty imposed on the animals. Its a good point. Public opinion really has changed on captive issues in recent decades. You dont see performing lions and tigers in circuses any more... might we genuinely get to the point at which orcas, and dolphins too, for that matter, are no longer kept in captivity for the entertainment of the public? The public attitude IS changing, says Samantha. The more people hear about the lives of captive orcas and other marine mammals behind the scenes, the more people are waking up to the fact that these animals do not belong in concrete tanks. I think people go to the shows to have some kind of experience or connection with nature - but mostly because thats where they think they have to go to get this kind of experience due to marketing, movies, TV and other media. Carol is also optimistic. History has shown that societal attitudes can and do change. I have so much hope that public attitudes regarding captive whales and dolphins will continue to evolve, too. I think we have been seeing a huge shift in the level of public awareness and consciousness regarding whales and dolphins, even in the past 5-10 years. There is no legitimate reason to keep these animals in captivity at all, let alone performing tricks, for

entertainment and profit. No legitimate reason. So why are they still there? The most important thing people should know about SeaWorld is that its not an educational institution its an entertainment facility designed to make money, says Samantha. And its as simple as that.

Should whales and dolphins be kept in captivity just for moneymaking purposes? Well give John Jett the final word. What is the life of a captive orca like? Boring. Acoustically dead. Many hours spent floating motionless at the surface as there is nowhere to swim. Often socially deprived, especially when compared with

wild orcas, many of which spend entire lives among family members. Life behind the scenes can also be frustrating for the animals when they are chased, displaced, raked or otherwise harassed by the other whales as spatial escape is not really an option. Unfortunately, this happens

regularly. Life is also very likely to include painful teeth drilling, chronic use of antibiotics and antifungal drugs (among others), chronic, low-grade infections, sunburns, and other physical and health-related problems. Captive orcas also get to eat a non-varied diet of dead, previously frozen fish.

And all that just for our entertainment, and to line the pockets of SeaWorld. The four former trainers are truly shedding light on the world behind the scenes of this industry. And its a world that must, very, very quickly be brought to a close. Sooner, rather than later, the show mustnt go on.

WDCS is very grateful to Carol, Jeff, John and Samantha, not just for their immense help in putting together these articles, but for their continued and forthright work in combating the orca entertainment industry. Do visit their website at sites.google.com/ site/voiceoftheorcas. It will provide many further insights.


The story continues...

A shocking discovery was unveiled at the fourth Florida Marine Mammal Health Conference, held in Florida in April. It brought to world attention a tragic consequence of the unnatural amount of time that captive orcas spend at the surface of the water, in the shallow pools that they are forced to live in. Two former SeaWorld orca trainers, John Jett and Je f Ventre, have been working with WDCS to reveal newly-discovered evidence documenting the death of two orcas at SeaWorld facilities by mosquito-transmitted viral diseases, some of which has been revealed here. The studies document the cause of death of both 25-year old orca Kanduke, who died in 1990 at SeaWorld Orlando, and Taku, a 14-year-old male orca held at SeaWorld San Antonio. They both died from viruses transmitted via mosquito bite. This is not a natural cause of death for orcas living in the wild but a sad reality for captive orcas who spend so much of their time at the surface of small tanks and pools. Logging ( loating at the surface) was commonly witnessed while I was at SeaWorld, especially at night, which provided a static landing platform for mosquitoes, said Dr John Jett. Wild and free ranging orcas, conversely, are on the move and not exposed to mosquitoes. They dont remain still long enough and mosquitoes are weak liers, limited to coastal

Dawn Brancheau, in happier times


areas. This work is an important introduction to a topic sure to raise eyebrows. Until our expose, no one would have thought of the risks that mosquitoes might pose to orcas in captivity. But considering the unnatural amount of time they spend at the surface in shallow pools at these facilities, it is yet another deadly and unfortunate consequence of the inadequate conditions inherent to captivity. Meanwhile, a long awaited decision has been delivered in the hearing between the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and SeaWorld, which could change the cruel captivity industry forever. The court ruling backed up an earlier hearing that followed the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau in February 2010, in

which SeaWorld was criticised and ined by OSHA for failing to provide adequate protection for trainers in the water with the animals. The judges verdict categorised SeaWorlds violation as serious, and now requires SeaWorld to implement safety measures at its captive facilities that could prevent trainers entering the water with orcas ever again. During the hearing, which WDCS attended, SeaWorld made every attempt to avoid responsibility, downplaying the hundreds of incidents and injuries involving trainers and killer whales, and blaming trainer error for mistakes that SeaWorld claimed were avoidable in what they insist is a very predictable and controlled environment. WDCS applauds the e forts of the investigators and attorneys

who have battled against the fraudulent claims by SeaWorld that close interaction with orcas is both safe and predictable. The truth behind orcas in captivity has now been revealed.

WDCS is calling for much stricter regulation of the captivity industry in the United States and elsewhere, and campaigns against capture, trade and con inement of all whales,

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