Saturday, April 11, 2015

Food Deprivation at SeaWorld

A Statement on Food Deprivation at SeaWorld 

Recently, the topic of killer whale food rationing & deprivation has made national news as SeaWorld vigorously defends its training practices & launches attacks at critics.

Q: Does SeaWorld use food deprivation?
Absolutely. But decide for yourself

Identical questions were posed to John Jett PhD & Jeffrey Ventre MD, former killer whale trainers. Jett is a visiting research professor at Stetson University in Deland, Florida, USA, and Ventre a board certified physiatrist in Washington state. Their responses are below, beginning with Dr Jett. There is an additional section that summarizes how killer whale food preparation happens each morning. 

Dr John Jett being interviewed by Katie Emmons of Blue Freedom. Katie's film Voiceless will be released this year. 

1. JJ: Does SeaWorld use food deprivation?

Food deprivation was a tool often used when I was a trainer. The concept is straightforward: Reduce the number of calories a whale gets over a period of time and that animal becomes increasingly food motivated. Animals are generally more likely to cooperate with trainers when they are hungry. Food deprivation is a normal component of the training environment, at least while I was a trainer.

2  JJ: Have you ever witnessed food deprivation, or witnessed a drop in an animals food amount prior to a special occasion?

I have both seen and have been a part of depriving whales of food too many times to count. For example, we would often know a week or more prior to August Busch IV visiting the park in Orlando. August Busch IV was the CEO of Anheuser-Busch, the company who owned SeaWorld while I was employed there, and we were always informed by management to cut food bases during the week leading up to his visit. This helped to ensure that Mr. Busch would observe a decent show. Hungry whales generally seemed to perform much better and more consistently, which of course was the objective. 

A bucket of fish. The herring on top is likely the "med fish" which is fed first
I also witnessed food deprivation on targeted animals for specific purposes. For example, Tilikum was often deprived of food prior to teeth drilling or when he was initially asked to go into the (at the time) new back pool (“G” pool). Captive whales are often reluctant to enter new pools, especially when being asked to do so. Food deprivation was also used to help address difficult separations. For example, there was a time when Gudrun (deceased) and Katina were difficult to separate and both bases were cut on a number of occasions so that separations could be reinforced.

Ex SeaWorld Killer Whale Trainers John Hargrove and John Jett talking Blackfish 

3. JJ: What else can you add on the topic of food deprivation?

Food deprivation is not immediately effective as it usually takes at least a couple of days of reduced caloric intake before a whale becomes motivated by their growing hunger.

Jeffrey Ventre & John Jett answering questions at a Blackfish screening 

1. JV: Does SeaWorld use food deprivation?

Yes. One can debate the ethics of withholding food from animals, but it is a tool that is necessary for companies with scheduled orca shows. All performance animals (as opposed to exhibit animals) have carefully managed food base amounts to keep them interested in food & willing to perform

Some animals are clearly more food motivated than others, but ultimately they all must eat. Hunger provides leverage, especially when you consider that even sea lions weigh several hundred pounds & could seriously injure a trainer.

A captive killer whale posing on a scale. This image shows some of the impacts of captivity on Orcinus orca  

If you think about it, how else could you coerce an orca to separate from its family, remain motionless for teeth drilling, or pose for photos on a slide-out for 20 minutes without a hunger drive? 

Does SeaWorld expect the public to believe that whales voluntarily swim into stretchers for transportation to another facility?  Really?

The reality is that most whales become agitated & fearful when the crane rumbles up to Shamu Stadium because they realize that one of their facility-mates, or possibly them, is about to disappear. This is especially true when separating a mother from it's calf. In those situations food deprivation is not only used, but is relied upon, along with plenty of man power.  

_______________ Relevant Videos in this box_________________________

VIDEO: Keto is beached & a wooden 4x4 inch post is placed into his mouth to keep it pried open for a medical procedure. In this case a long tube with a fiber-optic camera is inserted all the way to his stomach. This procedure is called an "endoscopy" and was done to look for paint chips in his gut. Does he open his mouth for this because he wants this? No, because he is hungry PRIOR to this endoscopy. 

VIDEO: Blackfish star Carol Ray describes the Kalina separation story to a full house at #Superpod2. Kalina did not voluntarily separate from her mother.  

VIDEO: Samantha Berg & Jeffrey Ventre discuss trainer-whale relationships at SeaWorld


The head trainer assures potential customers that SeaWorld "would never" withhold food 

Food deprivation is a training reality, and marine circuses should be honest about its use. The famous line that "our animals are doing these behaviors because they want to" is a very insincere way to describe why the animals are
performing many of their trained behaviors, especially ones that are uncomfortable. Granted a roll-over & belly rub is likely more enjoyable for a captive killer whale versus a pulpotomy procedure, but even roll-overs are trained using food. 

Roll-overs have a dual purpose. They are used to portray a trainer-whale bond during a show, which is good PR (and by design), but they also allow trainers to visualize & access killer whale genitalia, a key to SeaWorld's artificial insemination program. 

Wild killer whales are not known to roll over for humans. These behaviors are taught utilizing food & sometimes deprivation.

Withholding food becomes deprivation when it is done in a way to exert extra control over an animal; when it is intended to increase an animal's hunger drive. When I worked there, the order was to "hold the animals at half base," (or 3/4 base, etc.) meaning if a whale consumed 200 pounds of fish on a given day, hold him or her to 100 lbs. When deprivation is sustained, an animal will eventually cooperate for a desired show or husbandry behavior. 

On at least one occasion I recall asking a supervisor, "What do I do with this extra bucket of fish?" The order was, "Grind it."
 2. JV:  Have you ever witnessed food deprivation, or witnessed a drop in an animals food amount prior to a special occasion? 

Yes, both.   The pressure was on when celebrities, politicians, athletes, or businessmen attended live performances. These were scheduled shows and known weeks in advance. Food was sometimes withheld to ensure animal cooperation.

If management needed a vet's approval to cut back food, they simply asked for it & it was done. The veterinarian's salaries are dependent on the show performances, too.

In the lead-up to a VIP visit the routine included scrubbing pool sides with a light bleach solution, removing dead fish from the bottom grates & making sure the VIP saw a good show in a clean stadium. Steps to ensure that important people saw a good show are routine & this translated into
Taima & Jeffrey Ventre in A pool, 1995 
food deprivation for some whales. Taima was a notoriously disruptive killer whale who sometimes prevented shows from happening & who was eventually banished from doing waterwork. I was her primary waterwork trainer in 1994 & 1995. Her food base was cut on at least several occasions that I can recall, primarily to get her to separate into particular pools when asked. She had periods that included refusing to separate out of A pool, and her presence out there meant some shows were cancelled. The show must go on. 

SeaWorld's Food Board & Fish Room Described 

In regard to how food is distributed at Shamu Stadium, here's a summary: 

The ordered food amount is written up onto the food board in the fish room. The board is a clear plastic rectangle hanging on the wall. Grease pencils are used to "make up the board," an actual phrase. The first column is for the whales, the rows are for food bucket amounts, in pounds. 

The buckets themselves are labeled as in the image below. Each bucket contains a mix of fish, mostly smelt & herring, and is weighed & stored in a walk-in refrigerator. Each animal has his or her own buckets, and for shows extra mixed buckets are prepared and hidden around the stadium. The food is placed at positions where behaviors would terminate, so a trainer can quickly spin around, grab some fish and move on with the show. You see a lot of hugs, rubs, and "secondary reinforcers" during shows, but it's all usually backed up (reinforced) by food, just not on every occasion. This approach keeps the whales guessing as to when a food reward will come.

Please click to enlarge. Right click to save for your own blog. 

When an order to cut an animals base comes down from management, a senior level trainer will make up a new food board reflecting those changes. And when the morning crew comes in they will simply follow the new numbers. Questioning management was and is not encouraged. And keep in mind that the term "cut the animals base" is almost assuredly no longer permitted, by rule or unwritten rule. 
We understand that SeaWorld prefers not to call what it does, "food deprivation," so they play word games with this. They prefer phrases like "adjusted optimal food amount" or "best working weight" or phrases to that effect. 

It reminds of Florida Governor Rick Scott banning the term "global warming." Just because SeaWorld prefers to use other terms for its practice of withholding food from show animals doesn't mean that SeaWorld doesn't practice food deprivation.  

 It does. 

Orcas typically ignore humans in kayaks, boats, or SCUBA. Only at SeaWorld do you see them jumping out of the water for food. This mother-daughter pair is Kalina, pregnant here & now deceased (with Laura foreground) & Katina (with JV). 

3. JV: What else can you add on the topic of food deprivation? 

Food deprivation is built into the operant conditioning of free thinking & sometimes unpredictable killer whales.  Food is the primary leverage trainers have & one that is used to maintain control. Only at marine circuses are orcas & dolphins coerced into unnatural tricks for human amusement as well as their very sustenance. 

Call it what you will, but food deprivation is alive and well at SeaWorld. 



We former trainers at Voice of the Orcas have spoken out on the topic of food deprivation at numerous Q&A sessions & also during interviews with reporters & bloggers. Here is just one example from March of 2012. Be sure to read Samantha & Carol's thoughts on the topic here:  former seaworld trainers speak out about captivity

J. Jett & J. Ventre have two scientific writings on the topic of captive killer whales currently in print. One is a chapter in a university textbook dealing with animals in tourism. The other is a peer-reviewed article in the J. of Marine Mammal Science. Stay tuned. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Exclusive Video: John Hargrove Unleashes Beneath the Surface in Seattle

In 1965...  Ted Griffin paid a fisherman $8,000 for a Northern Resident killer whale named "Namu" and launched an industry at the Seattle Public Aquarium. People from all over the world came to visit Namu; books were written, and a movie was made. Wanting to cash in on the business of performing orcas, a new company, Sea World, paid Griffin $70-100,000 USD (reports vary) for the 2nd captive killer whale, "Shamu," a Southern Resident orca. 

To "land" Shamu, Griffin (working with SeaWorld's Don Goldsberry) harpooned & killed Shamu's mother, delivered the calf to Sea World, and now a billion dollar industry was created. Sea World collectors would go on to capture or kill an additional ~57 Southern Residents (some winding up at other facilities)... a clan that is endangered today. 

Fifty years later, on 30 March 2015 and in the wake of the book Death at SeaWorld and Blackfish, John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld trainer with 12 years at the company, visited the birthplace of captivity. 

He came to share excerpts from Beneath the Surface, his new book that documents a journey from an enamored young kid driven to work at SeaWorld, to a senior killer whale trainer (at 3 separate facilities) and finally to animal advocate & company whistle-blower. 

(Spoiler alert: John's transformation to "extreme activist" in the video below is funny)

It was a sold out venue and John was flanked by Blackfish cast members, SeaShepherds, Orca Network, book authors, doctors, activists, #Superpod4 organizers, whale lovers, one heckler, camera crews and at least one of his attorneys. 

@orcawild & Superpod4 Organizer Jeff Friedman with Beneath the Surface Co-author @JohnJHargrove

A Weird Twist 

At the time of the Seattle event and in an attempt to redirect the topic from captivity to John's character, SeaWorld delivered a disturbing 5 year old video of its former employee, heavily intoxicated, rambling racial epithets, to various media outlets. The intention, as stated by SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs, was to demonstrate the "true" character of John Hargrove and presumably to cripple him as a whistle-blower. 

Regarding the leaked video and as stated by Dr Naomi Rose, here

This video shows nothing about John Hargrove’s character other than that he made a serious mistake while drunk. However, sending it to the media in an effort to discredit a former employee who has published a book critical of corporate practices does show a great deal about SeaWorld’s corporate character. It shows that this company, which has always resorted to the personal attack against its critics instead of engaging on their substantive arguments, has no ethics or morals at all. It will go right down into the mud as it desperately clings to its outdated business model.

This blog wasn't created to defend John or the video he participated in. It was created to share the work that the post-SeaWorld John Hargrove is doing right now. Work that is informing the public and propelling the  animal justice movement forward, and work that has SeaWorld scrambling for its very survival. 

Keeping our eye on the ball... The video below contains stories of growth, mistakes, humility, learning, laughs, sadness and transformation. It's an evolution that all of us at VOTO have had time to make. And it's a great preview of his book "Beneath the Surface." 

Friday, March 27, 2015

John Hargrove Daily Show Interview

John Hargrove delivered a great interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. We thought it was worth archiving here.

Monday, March 23, 2015

NPR: Former Orca Trainer For SeaWorld Condemns Its Practices

NPR: Last year 4 million people visited SeaWorld's theme parks, where the top shows feature orcas, also known as killer whales. For years, activists have charged that keeping orcas in captivity is harmful to the animals and risky for the trainers who work with them, a case that gained urgency in 2010 when Dawn Brancheau, a veteran orca trainer, was dragged into the water and killed by a whale at the SeaWorld Park in Orlando, Fla. When Brancheau died, there was some dispute as to whether the whale's intent was aggressive and whose fault the incident was.

John Hargrove, who spent 14 years as an orca trainer, mostly at SeaWorld, says there was no doubt that the whale was aggressive. And the reason for whales' aggression, he says, is that they're held captive. 

Hargrove eventually became disillusioned with SeaWorld's treatment of orcas and left the company. 

"As I became higher-ranked, I saw the devastating effects of captivity on these whales and it just really became a moral and ethical issue," Hargrove tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies in an interview about the book. "When you first start to see it, you first try to say, 'OK, well, I love these animals; I'm going to take care of them.' ... You think, 'I can change things.' And then all these things, of course, never improve and then you start ... seeing mothers separated from their calves; you start seeing trainers being killed, and then they blame [the trainers] for their own deaths." 

He said his "final straw" was when SeaWorld publicly testified that "they had no knowledge we had a dangerous job." 

The documentary Blackfish, released in 2013, covers Brancheau's death and an incident two months earlier at a theme park in Spain when an orca killed a trainer named Alexis Martinez. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated Brancheau's death and concluded SeaWorld had exposed trainers to hazardous conditions; it fined the corporation. 

In its order, later upheld on appeal, OSHA also banned SeaWorld from permitting its personnel to enter the tanks to train and perform with orcas, a practice known as water work. Now Hargrove has a new book, called Beneath the Surface. He is one of seven former trainers who criticized the company in Blackfish.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

VOTO Remembers Sam Simon

Every now and then a man comes along who changes things for the better. A man who puts the human back into humanity. Such is the case with: 

The Great Sam Simon...  

Stanford graduate, sports cartoonist, amateur boxer, TV writer (Taxi & Cheers), boxing manager (of a world champion), philanthropist, radio show host, animal lover, Co-creator of The Simpsons, tireless advocate, and much much more. 

The Broadcast Booth for The Sam Simon Show, at Sam's Place 

After the tragic 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld, Sam took an interest in the work we were doing at VOTO...  blowing the whistle on SeaWorld. This was prior to Death at SeaWorld and Blackfish. He read our website and blog religiously, according to him. This connection gave us the opportunity to spend some time with Sam over the last several years. He invited us onto his radio show, and we invited him to see whales with us. 

He saw his first wild killer whales at #Superpod2, where he also transmitted the Sam Simon show, from Friday Harbor.

I had the opportunity to visit Santa Monica and hang with Sam. He was interested in creating a movie about killer whale captivity, and requested that I fly down from Washington state. We sat down with another movie producer, and put our heads together. He seemed excited about the project. 

Those plans changed after the success of Blackfish

Earlier, Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite brought the film to his home and did a private screening. Later, after the film's success, Sam figured that he didn't have to make another movie on the topic. He told me, 

"Why should I make another film after Blackfish?" 

He also said numerous times, as Oscar season 2014 approached, that he thought that Blackfish would not only get nominated for an Academy Award, but that it would win the award. Some of his thoughts regarding #Blackfish are included in the interviews embedded on this page. 

Sam Simon lived in Santa Monica 

As an anecdote regarding the movie Sam didn't make, I can tell you this: It was going to involve ex-trainers, night operations, stealth activities, gullable SeaWorld security guards, and in the end, large heavy-lift helicopters. SeaWorld of California was targeted due to it's location near the ocean. 

A meeting space at Sam's place, with some Chihuly glass on the wall 

As far as my role, Sam needed to know some details regarding animal separations, transports, use of stretchers, and how we'd keep the whales moist and as comfortable as possible for their relatively brief ride from the stretcher to the open ocean... 

Damn... it's fun to think like Sam Simon. We'll miss you Sam. 

Jeffrey Ventre

On Behalf of All of Us At VOTO

Monday, February 16, 2015

Sara Ellzey Has Ideas for SeaWorld

On January 19, 2015, Sara Ellzey, from Boston, Massachusetts, USA, reached out with ideas that she believes will help SeaWorld grow. Her ideas are detailed & elaborated, so instead of just telling us about them, maybe it's best if she shares them with you, too. She is our guest blogger. Below are her ideas.


Sara Ellzey is in sales by day, and is a writer-activist by night. She is a longtime supporter of human rights and animal rights, with a passion for non-profit and volunteer work. She has a particular affinity for cetaceans, elephants and dogs. She currently lives in Boston, MA, having previously lived in Pennsylvania, Virginia and California. Find her on Twitter @WeAreItForThem


SeaWorld should take their proposed 1.5 acre pool and make a snorkeling and scuba diving pool with a beach for visitors. The water can house reefs with life-sized moldings of various marine mammals. The education department could offer waterproof headsets to visitors for an audio tour for underwater and on land.

A model of every type of animal they have rescued can be in those pools and on those beaches, in a realistic habitat so guests could learn in an interactive way. 

Money from this type of park can help fund sea pens or salmon restoration efforts. It would be the first project of its kind and an amazing step in the right direction. Some organizations across the world work to release and rehabilitate terrestrial animals, like the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust; the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, USA; the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. SeaWorld led the way to marine captivity, and surely they can lead the way back to sea.

Each marine mammal model will have written & audio descriptions, telling the public about the animals SeaWorld has rehabilitated, rescued and/or released - stirring interest & support for that process. For those who don't like the water, imagine a ski-lift or monorail ride above the pools, with an audio tour. Think of the Eye of London... slow and with enough time to take it all in. Under the massive pool visitors can see the activity via glass windows. Imagine underwater walking tunnels, like at the Shark Encounter, so visitors can walk beneath the swimmers and the models, visiting multiple "habitats". This approach is animal-exploitation-free and can be updated or amended as needed. 

Include information on why reefs are so important & the effects of ocean acidification. Discuss the impact of plastics & other debris on wildlife. In the pool you will swim, snorkel or scuba dive with a guide. They'll lead you through each area. Underwater photographers could take pictures for purchase.

Have you ever been to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA? 

There is a gigantic two story, full scale heart that you can walk through. You hear the heartbeat, learn about what happens to the blood. You walk through the heart as if you are blood. Imagine being underneath this massive pool at SeaWorld and seeing a gigantic humpback whale. Imagine being able to climb inside of it. You could have a whale at the bottom where the folks in the tunnel can see inside the whale and those swimming can see its vast size. Maybe they can even swim through another one next to it, from head to flukes! This could happen by keeping the top of the whale cut open by an inch or so, and guiding an oxygen line down to the open section so that a swimmer can swim through. What an interaction that shows you how truly large these creatures are!

Learn and play with interactive walls, activities or listen to story tellers. Watch 5-10 minute film clips about everyone's favorite animals in the ocean; in the various theaters, combined with a kid-centric "please touch" museum style of area. In the center there could be a playground with slides and jungle-gyms geared towards younger children. Think of a child sliding through a life-sized orca, life-sized humpback whale, or a baby slide of a life-sized bottlenose dolphin. End the water walkway tour at a gift shop, where you can pick up pictures of you in a whale (with diameters drawn on it to show you how small you are in comparison!). At this shop you can learn about where to see animals in their natural habitat, buy books, DVDs, plush toys and more, and where 25%-50% goes to support conservation or research.

Teach conservation. Use the money generated from this type of park to release the animals into sanctuaries and sea pens which will be created by you. Turn SeaWorld into the most interactive and incredible marine park in the world... without having a single live marine animal inside.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Chronicling the #Blackfish Effect

By now, anyone reading this knows what the #Blackfish Effect is. It's been written about by journalists from The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Mail, National Geographic, & Outside Magazine. A future post will describe exactly when, where & why the name was coined, and what it refers to. Note: It has a definition & was used for a specific purpose.

For now, enjoy these #Blackfish Effect Tweets & links to great journalism. Keep in mind the Tweets are still live.