Ever since watching the documentary Blackfish in 2014 my life has completely changed, this film effected me to my very core. As I was watching it I remember thinking, how can we be doing this? How can companies think this type of behaviour is acceptable? Since then, I have always done what I can to promote the message of Blackfish to make people aware that orca's do not belong in tanks. To help the orca's at SeaWorld I have previously interviewed Blackfish cast member and SeaWorld senior ex-trainer, Dr Jeffrey Ventre and also orca expert and researcher, Howard Garrett. To further spread the word I got in touch with LUSH Oxford Street, LUSH as a brand are so hot on animal issues I thought they would be ideal to collaborate with. They were happy to work together and raise more awareness about Blackfish and the subject of captivity, we organised a Blackfish event to take place on Thursday, 25th August. We were to screen the documentary which would then be followed by a Q&A with Blackfish cast member and SeaWorld senior ex-trainer, Dr Jeffrey Ventre.
Luckily, technology was on our side (for once) and the changeover from the screening to the live stream Q&A was very smooth. We were lucky enough to have half an hour with Jeffrey and we were all determined to make the most of the time, we jumped straight in with questions and got the Q&A underway.
"Were you or any of the other trainers worried about any possible consequences of speaking out against SeaWorld?"
Jeffrey explained that there were concerns for him and the other trainers, not just on the possible immediate impact like getting sued, but also the long term impact this could have on their careers. Jeffrey mentioned he was one of the first people to speak out and as more followed there was power in numbers. With the documentary release, the support just grew and grew for speaking out against this organisation and the risk of any consequences minimised drastically. Jeffrey also noted that this was not the case for many other ex-trainers at different parks, he spoke of some cases with members of staff at a few Marineland parks who have been sued for leaving and speaking out.
"What were some of the first signs you saw around the park that made you realise something wasn't right?"
Jeffrey talked us through his first few weeks and month at the park, Jeffrey heard of various 'accidents' with orca's and trainers at that park and others. This was obviously quite alarming to hear as a trainer who was in the water all the time with these animals. One of the pinnacle moments for Jeffrey was when he saw an orca having its teeth drilled and cleaned daily, this being a necessary practically daily procedure because of the effects of captivity on orca's. As the orca's are in such close proximity, they have no escape. Jeffrey witnessed the orcas biting the bars between the tanks and in doing so, damaging their teeth drastically. Their teeth are also not being used like they would be in the wild and they're not eating what they would to keep them all completely healthy. Instead they are eating small frozen fish that are pumped full of antibiotics for the various tooth and other infections the orca's are constantly plagued with. Jeffrey said that SeaWorld was supposed to be all about care and conservation, but from what he witnessed it definitely didn't seem like it.
"Did you see any other mistreatment of the other animals while you were working at the park?"
Jeffrey explained his experiences with the other animals he interacted while working for SeaWorld, he did witness the health of various animals decline and he has no doubt that is due to the captivity. Jeffrey believes that the current trainers think they're doing the best thing for the animals and giving them the vital care they need, as he originally believed. The only reason people do those type of jobs is because they love the animals and really want to be close with them, but Jeffrey can't see why people would still want to work there now. The effects of captivity are clear with every animal in SeaWorld so why would you want to be a part of that? After so much bad press being associated with the parks too and the facts coming out there is no motivation to want to be a part of SeaWorld. But of course, they think they're caring for the animals but they are just contributing to their misery.
"What are your hopes for the future of the orca's at SeaWorld and what can you actually see happening in reality?"
Jeffrey and the other people who have spoken out against SeaWorld would like to see the animals retired to a sanctuary and no longer performing in the parks. Jeffrey mentions that legislation is a key element in ending the captivity of orca's. Giving animals rights so they cannot be brought and swapped (like SeaWorld and many other marine parks do now) between parks will completely change the game. There is something like this going on at the moment and one of the leads in this is Dr. Naomi Rose. There are also organisations popping up now like The Whale Sanctuary Project (to which Jeffrey and myself are involved with) that will be a facility for captive cetaceans to retire in peace and safety in a natural seaside sanctuary. Recently the National Aquarium in Baltimore also announced they would be building and then retiring their dolphins to a sanctuary. These are all steps in the right direction and Jeffrey believe many more will come on board with this idea. However, there are some disturbing things going on with SeaWorld, they are looking to expand their business to places like Arabia and China, these places are known for having awful human rights let alone animal rights. I personally think these type of decisions reflect very heavily on what type of organisation SeaWorld really is.
"How can people get involved and help? Even though we're in the UK - is there anything we can do?"
Jeffrey's answer - absolutely yes! Luckily in the UK keeping cetaceans hasn't happened since the early 90's and I think with the amount of animal activism in the UK it wouldn't stand much of a chance now. Jeffrey speaks of the Blackfish effect, the support for Blackfish is increasing every day and this is helping. UK tourists are still one of the top three to visit SeaWorld (a shocking statistic) so there are still people who need their eyes opened. Jeffrey explains that holding events like this one is raising awareness of the situation, Jeffrey quotes something Louie Psihoyos has said -use who you are and your natural skills to help. This could be through blogs, performance, video's etc. At this point Jeffrey mentions the recently released documentary 'Voiceless' by Blue Freedom, this is a documentary made by a group of students who wanted to share the story of captive orca's and bring it to schools and students around the world and get it in the classroom. This is a very good documentary and at only 36 minutes long it is perfect for everyone, education really is key the guys at Blue Freedom are trying to encourage the younger generations to get involved and take a stand.
This live stream went terrifically as did the whole event, we had lots of questions to go through and we all learnt more about the captivity at SeaWorld. I would like to thank those people that came to the event, the staff at LUSH Oxford Street, Mikaela who I worked with closely on this event and huge thanks to Dr Jeffrey Ventre for taking time out of his day to get involved with this event.
If you're interested in hearing more from the SeaWorld ex-trainers I advise you follow 'Voice Of The Orca's' on twitter or check out their blog, they always post very informative articles and blog posts. I also strongly encourage you share the message of Blackfish wherever you can, you can help and be a voice for them.