Part of an exclusive series with ex-SeaWorld trainer Jeff Ventre. For the first part, see here.
During my eight years at SeaWorld, I worked with most of the captive mammals in the Orlando Animal Training department, spending time at all three venues, the Whale & Dolphin stadium, Shamu Stadium, Sea Lion and Otter, and even a couple months at the now defunct SeaWorld Theater. In the end, seven of eight years were spent with cetaceans, including killer whales, false killer whales, belugas, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Atlantic bottle nose dolphins, and a Stenella named Stan. I would later find out that the five Pseudorca I worked with, Hana, Yaki, Zori, Teri and Suki, were collected in Japanese drive fisheries.
Just recently I was provided documentation that Teri and Suki were captured in Taiji, Japan, on 21 February 1983 and were moved through Kamogawa Sea World & then to SeaWorld in the USA. I’m not sure of the capture dates of the other three, but they were similarly corralled in drive hunts and all would die young at the Whale & Dolphin stadium in Orlando.
Please see the attached memo which documents the capture and availability of Suki and Teri from Taiji, Japan via Kamogawa Sea World. I would eventually meet Teri and Suki in 1990.
When I circled back to Shamu Stadium, at the senior trainer level, I was in the thick of things in terms of waterwork training and what were called “hotdog segments.” These are the segments, usually with killer whales, that brought in visitors. It was a circus style theater of the improbable: trainers performing stunts with the world’s top predator. At SeaWorld it began with the original Shamu, collected in 1965, and continued until Dawn Brancheau was killed in 2010, leading to the OSHA-mandated end of the spectacle.
A Hotdog segment from 1995:
In 1994 the top waterwork whales, Katina, the matriarch, and younger Taima, were assigned to me. Kalina (Katina’s daughter & the first “Baby Shamu”) was also an important waterwork orca but she was utilized less in 1994 and 1995 as she had just been shipped back from Texas and was pregnant with her future son, Keto, who would become infamous for killing Alexis Martinez in 2009.
Taima, or “Tai,” was special to me because she was fun to work with, free-thinking, unpredictable, and tested her environment just about every session. She had a different way, was a captive born Transient-Icelandic hybrid, and a name meaning “Thunder” or “Clap of Thunder,” or similar native translations. This was different from Katina, a wild caught Icelandic female, who was known as the “Cadillac.” “Kat” was the whale that trained all the new trainers and Tai was the opposite of that. If Katina was a Cadillac, Tai was more like a 2-stroke dirt bike that didn’t always start up on the first kick, but once it did, you’d better hold on.
I had a good connection with the young Taima. But things would deteriorate for this free thinking orca as she grew older. After my time, and collecting incident after incident with trainers, she was eventually banished from waterwork interactions all together. It became unsafe to be in the water with her. She eventually challenged and became matriarch (some say “co-matriarch”) with or over the great Katina, before she died young in 2010. Fortunately, I wasn’t injured by Tai, but did collect one corporate incident report, below.
In my time, I felt a kinship with Tai because of how she made decisions, or chose not to make them. Choice seemed important to her. And even though interactions with her were less predictable than with Katina, it was never boring. Looking back on her lifetime I bet she was responsible for more show cancellations than any other killer whale in Orlando, probably ever. And while the rest of the females rejected and picked upon Tilikum, Tai became Tilly’s companion, something that set her apart from the other females.
Sometimes Taima would do things to cause a reaction in people or birds or with trainers and even the general public. She was a master at baiting (and killing) seagulls, or letting them go free. The video below is very sad, but demonstrates her vocalizing and making aggressive gestures at clueless tourists. Some say it was labor pain but it is clearly directed at the onlooker & in my view depicts a tormented whale. There are multiple videos of her doing this at kids.
Another example of Taimia’s free thinking ways: During show performances we wore two pairs of black dress socks as part of the wetsuit uniform. Some trainers wore booties but I preferred socks as it offered a better “grip” with the orca’s rostrum. Booties provided less tactile feedback and in my experience caused more slip-offs. To get a reaction, Taima learned to nibble off the outer sock from the inner sock using her “lips” and tongue and while moving rapidly through the water on a footpush. I remember feeling her nibble away and just hoping to dismount before she pulled the entire sock off, which she managed to do a couple of times.
Nibbling socks, displacing waterwork trainers, mouthing arms & dunking trainers are behaviors Taima learned in captivity and persisted to the point where getting in the water with her became unsafe. She joined the ranks of Tilikum, Kasatka, Orkid, Keto and others. Some would say that these undesired behaviors are learned out of boredom by whales living in a shallow water column, and separated by concrete and steel. Of course free-thinking by orcas or trainers is poorly tolerated at SeaWorld. For whales & dolphins, the primary control device is food deprivation. To the best of her ability, Taima didn’t play by the rules, and her thought processes impressed upon me her sentience. Her rebellious ways were poorly tolerated by management but at SeaWorld the show must go on.
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. Check out his Tumblr page.