Former SeaWorld trainer says that at the end of the day, Orcas are ‘just working for their food’

In Conversation: Jeffrey Ventre

Jeffrey Ventre spent seven years as a whale and dolphin trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, during which time he became critical of the marine entertainment industry. Now a medical doctor in Washington, he has become a vocal opponent of the practice of keeping free ranging mammals in captivity. He has also worked to undermine SeaWorld’s claim that the trainer-cetacean relationship is at the heart of cetacean performances. Instead, he argues, marine entertainment shows are almost entirely incentivized through use of food. Ventre is featured in the book Death at SeaWorld, and in the movie Blackfish. Speaking recently with Sonar, a nonprofit cetacean research and advocacy group, Ventre discussed his work as a trainer and the role of food in whale and dolphin shows. 

Photo of SeaWorld Trainer Feeding OrcaPhoto by Thomas Hawk Jeffrey Ventre says that whales and dolphins are “working for food” in SeaWorld shows.

After spending my first year at SeaWorld Orlando scrubbing buckets at Shamu Stadium, I was moved over to the Whale and Dolphin Stadium in 1989. There, I had the ability to work with the animals a lot because the Whale and Dolphin Stadium had eighteen animals, versus Shamu Station, which had eight at the most. And because I was pretty good in the water, I got to do some of the acrobatic stuff.

During the shows we would always tell the audience how much of what we were showcasing was dependent on a relationship between human and animal. One day, in 1991 or 1992, I decided to test that claim. 

I began to pay attention to how the animals reacted to being rewarded for shows. Specifically, I was trying to figure out how much of a role food played in their being complicit and engaging in behaviors that we asked them to do.

ventre standing on an orca's nose Photo courtesy of SonarA file photo of Ventre with a false killer whale named
Yaki, who was caputred in Japan and later died of
gastrointestinal complications.

I noticed that there were many cues that the animals would pick up on as a show would unfold. Before the live performance, for example, the audience begins trickling into the stadiums, the show director might start playing music on the overhead speakers, and the trainers would set out the food buckets. The animals were obviously aware of this sequence of events.

I decided to try to simulate the beginning of a show. I used show buckets that didn’t have any food in them, and went around the pool placing the buckets in their spots for the show. I got other trainers to help me with this, so that it looked like we really were beginning a show, but without all the other cues because I didn’t have control over the sound system and other stuff. 

It turned out that the animals wouldn’t even come over to the side of the pool, even when I signaled to them. This is not what would happen during a show. What I think happened was that they could sense that the show buckets did not have the same weight and density because they were empty. So they didn’t respond to any of my signals to come over to the side of the pool. They essentially ignored me, ignored me as a trainer. I think this shows how cued-in the animals are to the man-made stimuli that we put into their world. It also shows how they are basically working for their food.  

The moral of the story is this: SeaWorld likes to talk about the relationships between the trainer and the animal. They tend to de-emphasize the role that food plays in that relationship. I know that that’s kind of a sad undercurrent…. It’s true that there exists some relationship between trainer and animal, but the question is what type of relationship. One based on love? Or hunger?

Obviously, this wasn’t a double blind experiment, but I thought it was interesting nonetheless. I tried the experiment a few other times in different situations, but it was clear to me that while the animals may work better with some people over others, at the end of the day they really are just working for their food.  

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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