Two former SeaWorld trainers have spoken out about the conditions killer whales were kept in during their time working there, claiming they were drugged and deprived of food to make them perform.
John Hargrove and Jeffrey Ventre worked at the Orlando theme park for years and were initially ‘delighted’ to land the role of trainer, however say they soon came to realise the horrifying truth.
Upon leaving SeaWorld, both men have alleged that the animals were routinely drugged with Valium to calm their aggressive behaviour and often self-harmed as a result of the psychological trauma they suffered.
In an interview with The Sun Online, Ventre, 55, said his day-to-day activities when he started the role in 1987 were performing for the public and taking care of whales and dolphins.
Knowing how hard it was to land a job as a trainer, Ventre said he initially felt ‘honoured’ to be working with marine animals at SeaWorld. However, over the next eight years, he says he discovered the horrifying reality of the situation.
The 55-year-old explained:
The job is more akin to a stunt man or clown performing with captive animals using food deprivation as a motivator.
Soon, he came to notice the whales were displaying signs of extreme distress; they would grind their teeth or even chew concrete out of boredom, and ‘raking’ – scratching each other with their teeth – was common.
Not only that, but the whales would self-mutilate and ‘jaw popping’ – a threat display between two orcas – was regularly seen. As well as being medicated daily for various conditions, the marine animals would also be given drugs to control their behaviour.
The trainer said:
The whales and dolphins were stressed and this caused stomach ulcers, so they got meds for that. They also got chronic infections, so they got antibiotics. All whales were getting vitamins packed in their fish. Several got daily antibiotics, including Tilikum, for chronic teeth infections.
They were also sometimes aggressive or hard to control so they could be given Valium to calm their aggression.
Ventre also claimed trainers were forced to lie to the public about whales, passing off injuries they sustained in captivity as normal. For example, they were told to tell the public that dorsal fin collapse was genetic or a regular occurrence in the wild, when in reality scientists believe it’s caused by stress and reduced activity.
The 55-year-old continued:
We were also given scripts for educational shows that were filled with errors that were actually public relations talking points. For example, when we spoke to kids we were told to tell them that killer whales live 25 to 30 years on average. This is not true.
In the wild, killer whales live to between 50 and 80, whereas in captivity their life expectancy is cut to around 17 years.
The second trainer, John Hargrove, began his killer whale training in 1993 and resigned in 2012 when he was 39. He said he remains deeply affected by what he saw, adding: ‘It was the most difficult decision in my life to have to walk away from the whales I loved to be able to become a whistle-blower and expose the industry.’
Ultimately, both Ventre and Hargrove left because of the negative impact the industry was having on both whales and trainers.
In response to the trainers’ claims, a SeaWorld spokesperson told MailOnline:
These are many of the same tired, false and misleading claims 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, Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, so any notion that SeaWorld abuses animals is categorically false.
The fact is, no one does more to protect marine mammals and advance cetacean research, rescue and conservation than the more than 1,000 dedicated animal care experts at SeaWorld.
Both Ventre and Hargrove now campaign for better conditions and against keeping orcas in captivity, with Hargrove saying he still lives with the guilt of walking away and continuing with his life when ‘those whales I loved more than anything could not’.
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A Broadcast Journalism Masters graduate who went on to achieve an NCTJ level 3 Diploma in Journalism, Lucy has done stints at ITV, BBC Inside Out and Key 103. While working as a journalist for UNILAD, Lucy has reported on breaking news stories while also writing features about mental health, cervical screening awareness, and Little Mix (who she is unapologetically obsessed with).