An animal-loving Florida kid who majored in biology and rose to trainer stardom in Shamu Stadium before being fired, Ventre says the attacks that killed Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld and Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque are manifestations of stress, even madness, in animals forced into miserable, unnatural conditions.
“Killer whales don’t attack humans in the wild,” said Ventre. “What we’ve seen in these injuries to people is a direct byproduct of the stress associated with captivity.”
Ventre was fired in 1995. SeaWorld says it was for being careless; Ventre says it’s because he’d become critical of the industry. Wired recently talked to Ventre, who has since become a medical doctor and cetacean advocate, about his work.
Wired: When did your feelings about keeping killer whales in captivity begin to change?
Jeff Ventre: When I started, I was just happy to have the job. It was amazing to see dolphins and sea lions and killer whales, despite the fact that they were in captivity. I thought there was going to be a lot of science, too. I’d grown up with Jacques Cousteau programming. Over time I found out there wasn’t much science going on. It was just a different version of the circus. Over time, that wears on you.
I did two different tours of duty at Shamu Stadium. The first time I was there, I was an apprentice. I did a lot of bucket-scrubbing, blue-collar type work, and had only a little water experience. Then I went around to the other stadiums, where they had dolphins, belugas and false killer whales, and honed my waterwork abilities. Then I was brought back to Shamu Stadium in 1994, where I spent my last two years. It was that second tour of duty that was somewhat enlightening.
By that time I’d learned enough about killer whales that I began to realize that what we were telling students coming in for education shows was at odds with what was true.
Wired: Give me an example.
Ventre: We were telling people that the animals lived to maybe 20 years old. But in reality, I knew that females lived to be 50, and males to be 30. That was a red flag. I also began to realize that all the killer whales in captivity had broken teeth. That seemed odd to me, because we were feeding them dead fish.
It’s because, when you put on a live public performance, or do a training session, you have to separate the killer whales with steel gates. These have horizontal bars on them. If you’ve ever seen two dogs on the opposite side of a fence barking, this is two orcas on the opposite side of a gate. Sometimes they charge the gate and bite down on the bars.
This knocks off the enamel and exposes the pulp of the tooth. This fleshy pulp is then drilled out by a veterinarian. What you have is a hollow tooth, creating a corridor down into the jaw itself. So for the rest of that animal’s life, they need to get their teeth flushed two or three times a day. In humans, it’s known that poor dentition leads to heart disease, kidney disease and stroke. These orcas are essentially left with a diseased mouth.
Wired: What are other ways in which killer whales are poorly suited for captivity?