First part in an exclusive interview series with Jeffrey Ventre.
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 that 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 to them was dependent on a relationship between human and animal. One day, in 1991 or 1992, I decided to test that.
I began to pay attention to how the animals related 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 behaviours that we asked them to do.
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; 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 in a normal situation. 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, 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 other people, at the end of the day they really are just working for their food.
Jeffrey Ventre is a practicing medical doctor licensed in the state of Washington. He is a Diplomate of the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. He treats patients with various disabilities ranging from spinal cord injury to low back pain. He is (also) a chiropractor, and uses spinal manipulation in his practice. Jeff trained cetaceans at SeaWorld in Florida for seven years, and pinnepeds for one year. He disagrees with the practice of captivity for free ranging mammals. JV is in the book “Death at SeaWorld,” and the movie “Blackfish,” as himself.
Headline image credit Leon7.