Friday, March 27, 2015

John Hargrove Daily Show Interview

John Hargrove delivered a great interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. We thought it was worth archiving here.

Monday, March 23, 2015

NPR: Former Orca Trainer For SeaWorld Condemns Its Practices

NPR: Last year 4 million people visited SeaWorld's theme parks, where the top shows feature orcas, also known as killer whales. For years, activists have charged that keeping orcas in captivity is harmful to the animals and risky for the trainers who work with them, a case that gained urgency in 2010 when Dawn Brancheau, a veteran orca trainer, was dragged into the water and killed by a whale at the SeaWorld Park in Orlando, Fla. When Brancheau died, there was some dispute as to whether the whale's intent was aggressive and whose fault the incident was.

John Hargrove, who spent 14 years as an orca trainer, mostly at SeaWorld, says there was no doubt that the whale was aggressive. And the reason for whales' aggression, he says, is that they're held captive. 

Hargrove eventually became disillusioned with SeaWorld's treatment of orcas and left the company. 

"As I became higher-ranked, I saw the devastating effects of captivity on these whales and it just really became a moral and ethical issue," Hargrove tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies in an interview about the book. "When you first start to see it, you first try to say, 'OK, well, I love these animals; I'm going to take care of them.' ... You think, 'I can change things.' And then all these things, of course, never improve and then you start ... seeing mothers separated from their calves; you start seeing trainers being killed, and then they blame [the trainers] for their own deaths." 

He said his "final straw" was when SeaWorld publicly testified that "they had no knowledge we had a dangerous job." 

The documentary Blackfish, released in 2013, covers Brancheau's death and an incident two months earlier at a theme park in Spain when an orca killed a trainer named Alexis Martinez. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated Brancheau's death and concluded SeaWorld had exposed trainers to hazardous conditions; it fined the corporation. 

In its order, later upheld on appeal, OSHA also banned SeaWorld from permitting its personnel to enter the tanks to train and perform with orcas, a practice known as water work. Now Hargrove has a new book, called Beneath the Surface. He is one of seven former trainers who criticized the company in Blackfish.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

VOTO Remembers Sam Simon

Every now and then a man comes along who changes things for the better. A man who puts the human back into humanity. Such is the case with: 

The Great Sam Simon...  

Stanford graduate, sports cartoonist, amateur boxer, TV writer (Taxi & Cheers), boxing manager (of a world champion), philanthropist, radio show host, animal lover, Co-creator of The Simpsons, tireless advocate, and much much more. 

The Broadcast Booth for The Sam Simon Show, at Sam's Place 

After the tragic 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld, Sam took an interest in the work we were doing at VOTO...  blowing the whistle on SeaWorld. This was prior to Death at SeaWorld and Blackfish. He read our website and blog religiously, according to him. This connection gave us the opportunity to spend some time with Sam over the last several years. He invited us onto his radio show, and we invited him to see whales with us. 

He saw his first wild killer whales at #Superpod2, where he also transmitted the Sam Simon show, from Friday Harbor.

I had the opportunity to visit Santa Monica and hang with Sam. He was interested in creating a movie about killer whale captivity, and requested that I fly down from Washington state. We sat down with another movie producer, and put our heads together. He seemed excited about the project. 

Those plans changed after the success of Blackfish

Earlier, Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite brought the film to his home and did a private screening. Later, after the film's success, Sam figured that he didn't have to make another movie on the topic. He told me, 

"Why should I make another film after Blackfish?" 

He also said numerous times, as Oscar season 2014 approached, that he thought that Blackfish would not only get nominated for an Academy Award, but that it would win the award. Some of his thoughts regarding #Blackfish are included in the interviews embedded on this page. 

Sam Simon lived in Santa Monica 

As an anecdote regarding the movie Sam didn't make, I can tell you this: It was going to involve ex-trainers, night operations, stealth activities, gullable SeaWorld security guards, and in the end, large heavy-lift helicopters. SeaWorld of California was targeted due to it's location near the ocean. 

A meeting space at Sam's place, with some Chihuly glass on the wall 

As far as my role, Sam needed to know some details regarding animal separations, transports, use of stretchers, and how we'd keep the whales moist and as comfortable as possible for their relatively brief ride from the stretcher to the open ocean... 

Damn... it's fun to think like Sam Simon. We'll miss you Sam. 

Jeffrey Ventre

On Behalf of All of Us At VOTO

Monday, February 16, 2015

Sara Ellzey Has Ideas for SeaWorld

On January 19, 2015, Sara Ellzey, from Boston, Massachusetts, USA, reached out with ideas that she believes will help SeaWorld grow. Her ideas are detailed & elaborated, so instead of just telling us about them, maybe it's best if she shares them with you, too. She is our guest blogger. Below are her ideas.


Sara Ellzey is in sales by day, and is a writer-activist by night. She is a longtime supporter of human rights and animal rights, with a passion for non-profit and volunteer work. She has a particular affinity for cetaceans, elephants and dogs. She currently lives in Boston, MA, having previously lived in Pennsylvania, Virginia and California. Find her on Twitter @WeAreItForThem


SeaWorld should take their proposed 1.5 acre pool and make a snorkeling and scuba diving pool with a beach for visitors. The water can house reefs with life-sized moldings of various marine mammals. The education department could offer waterproof headsets to visitors for an audio tour for underwater and on land.

A model of every type of animal they have rescued can be in those pools and on those beaches, in a realistic habitat so guests could learn in an interactive way. 

Money from this type of park can help fund sea pens or salmon restoration efforts. It would be the first project of its kind and an amazing step in the right direction. Some organizations across the world work to release and rehabilitate terrestrial animals, like the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust; the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, USA; the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. SeaWorld led the way to marine captivity, and surely they can lead the way back to sea.

Each marine mammal model will have written & audio descriptions, telling the public about the animals SeaWorld has rehabilitated, rescued and/or released - stirring interest & support for that process. For those who don't like the water, imagine a ski-lift or monorail ride above the pools, with an audio tour. Think of the Eye of London... slow and with enough time to take it all in. Under the massive pool visitors can see the activity via glass windows. Imagine underwater walking tunnels, like at the Shark Encounter, so visitors can walk beneath the swimmers and the models, visiting multiple "habitats". This approach is animal-exploitation-free and can be updated or amended as needed. 

Include information on why reefs are so important & the effects of ocean acidification. Discuss the impact of plastics & other debris on wildlife. In the pool you will swim, snorkel or scuba dive with a guide. They'll lead you through each area. Underwater photographers could take pictures for purchase.

Have you ever been to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA? 

There is a gigantic two story, full scale heart that you can walk through. You hear the heartbeat, learn about what happens to the blood. You walk through the heart as if you are blood. Imagine being underneath this massive pool at SeaWorld and seeing a gigantic humpback whale. Imagine being able to climb inside of it. You could have a whale at the bottom where the folks in the tunnel can see inside the whale and those swimming can see its vast size. Maybe they can even swim through another one next to it, from head to flukes! This could happen by keeping the top of the whale cut open by an inch or so, and guiding an oxygen line down to the open section so that a swimmer can swim through. What an interaction that shows you how truly large these creatures are!

Learn and play with interactive walls, activities or listen to story tellers. Watch 5-10 minute film clips about everyone's favorite animals in the ocean; in the various theaters, combined with a kid-centric "please touch" museum style of area. In the center there could be a playground with slides and jungle-gyms geared towards younger children. Think of a child sliding through a life-sized orca, life-sized humpback whale, or a baby slide of a life-sized bottlenose dolphin. End the water walkway tour at a gift shop, where you can pick up pictures of you in a whale (with diameters drawn on it to show you how small you are in comparison!). At this shop you can learn about where to see animals in their natural habitat, buy books, DVDs, plush toys and more, and where 25%-50% goes to support conservation or research.

Teach conservation. Use the money generated from this type of park to release the animals into sanctuaries and sea pens which will be created by you. Turn SeaWorld into the most interactive and incredible marine park in the world... without having a single live marine animal inside.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Chronicling the #Blackfish Effect

By now, anyone reading this knows what the #Blackfish Effect is. It's been written about by journalists from The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Mail, National Geographic, & Outside Magazine. A future post will describe exactly when, where & why the name was coined, and what it refers to. Note: It has a definition & was used for a specific purpose.

For now, enjoy these #Blackfish Effect Tweets & links to great journalism. Keep in mind the Tweets are still live.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Images4 #Blackfish Airings @CNNFilms & #OpSeaWorld

#OpSeaWorld Engaged 

These photos are available for use during Tweet Storms & airings of #Blackfish movie @CNNFilms; or for your use on Facebook or social media. Please add them to your collection & share.

To Download: Click on the image; Then Right Click to download it to your computer.

Wild Southern Resident Killer Whales as seen in #Blackfish Movie

Blackfish Cast Members holding up a Poster 

SeaWorld's Decimation of the Southern Resident Orca Population

As a former trainer at SeaWorld I had first hand experience providing misinformation to the public, examples of which are depicted in the movie Blackfish.  

This included parroting false lifespan data during "education shows," claiming that dorsal fin collapse is commonplace in wild orcas, it's not, & also calling teeth drilling & flushing "superior dental care." Another fiction repeated to the public was that food deprivation was never used. We'd say, "The whales get their food every day, regardless of behavior." That is more misinformation. The whales were routinely withheld food, especially in the context of VIP shows, like when August Busch would visit the park, or when key animal separations were needed. The command was, and still is, "hold the animals at half-base." Translation: If an animal, such as Tilikum, received 220 pounds of food as a daily base amount, it was an order to hold him at 110 pounds to ensure that he was "properly motivated."

In general, SeaWorld spends a lot of time grooming & feeding its trainers, animal care specialists, and education staff with corporate talking points that promote captivity and portray the happy Shamu image. For trainers, this included mandatory public relations (PR) classes to learn the "correct answers" to questions, and voice training lessons to project your lines with confidence and authority. And if you wanted to stay employed there, or have access to whales, you did what you were told.

One of the most dubious claims made by SeaWorld is that having orcas in concrete tanks helps to conserve wild populations. They cite the decline of the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) population as a prime example as to why captivity is necessary. I cringe when I hear that whooper, like at the end of this interview.

The San Juan Islands. It's easy to see why the Southern Residents prefer this to SeaWorld

Here's the rub. The "Southern Residents," with over 120 members before the capture era (pre 1965) are endangered because of SeaWorld, and remain that way due to a lack of food. This clan, the J, K, and L pods, has been unable to rebound from collections that removed over 40% of its members, leaving just 70 whales, by 1976. At that point SeaWorld was ejected from Washington state for inhumane capture methods. Here's a video of former Washington Secretary of State, Ralph Munro, describing what he witnessed in 1976, at Budd Inlet.

The practice of displaying killer whales began in the United States in June of 1965 with the purchase of a Northern Resident Killer Whale called “Namu,” who was bought by Ted Griffin of the Seattle Public Aquarium for $8,000 USD. [See my footnote regarding Wanda and Moby Doll]. Northern Residents are fish eating killer whales, akin to Southern Residents, but with a range from Northern Vancouver Island up to Southeast Alaskan waters. Relative to the Southern Residents, they're just North.

Namu was the first to perform shows, and got his name from a fishing village in British Columbia where he became entangled in a net. After paying cash for Namu, Griffin towed the 22 foot male (the same length as Tilikum) 400 miles South, to Seattle, in a custom floating 60 x 40 x 16 foot deep sea pen held afloat by empty oil drums fastened around the perimeter. Namu's Northern Resident pod, including his suspected mother, reportedly swam with him much of the way. From a business perspective, Namu was an instant hit. Griffin rode him, trained him; a book & movie were made, and he performed for tens of thousands of paying customers. Namu made headlines around the world. Lloyds of London insured Namu, covering him for loss by vandalism or natural death.

With immense potential profits in their sites, Griffin and his partner Don Goldsberry, focused their energies on the acquisition of more live orcas. In October of 1965, at Carr Inlet, Washington, USA, they collected a young Southern Resident Killer Whale after harpooning and killing her mother.

“Shamu”was Griffin & Goldsberry's first successful live orca capture. She was 14 feet in length and approximately 2000 pounds. The young female, "She-Namu" was originally intended as a companion animal for Namu. But putting a young Southern Resident female with an older Northern Resident male didn't work out. In Griffin's words:
"When I [was] in the water with Namu, even riding him, this whale would ram Namu with such force that it might have killed me. And when I was [swimming] in the water with Namu, the whale would ram me, but not as [seriously] as some of the times that she rammed Namu. I thought this was child's play at first but it became quite serious. SeaWorld had come to Seattle and was very interested in acquiring a killer whale for their new facility in San Diego. They wanted to call the whale Namu and they wanted the rights to the name, and I wouldn't do that. So they said okay, we'll... call her Shamu, and that's how it all started. So Shamu went to San Diego and Namu stayed in Seattle.

So the orphaned Southern Resident "Shamu" was sold to SeaWorld for $75,000.  Thus began the company's decimation of mostly Southern Residents in the Pacific Northwest. Keep in mind that SeaWorld has never released a killer whale back into the ocean, argues against sea pens or release for current captives, & has no intention of letting "corporate assets" out of it's concrete enclosures.

SIGNS of TROUBLE: Killer Whale Shamu Attacks Woman Rider in Bikini

According to the Center for Whale Research, website, 45 Southern Resident Killer Whales were delivered to marine parks around the world, with the most going to SeaWorld, and at least 13 more were killed during the capture operations. As depicted by diver John Crowe in Blackfish, the hunters preferred smaller, younger animals. So, if you count the larger, undesirable animals that were corralled and released, often several times in their lives, the total number of Southern Residents "caught" is well over 200. This includes 80 orcas rounded up at Penn Cove in August of 1970. And these numbers don't include some Northern Residents (like Namu) or Transients, like Kanduke, who died at SeaWorld of FL from a mosquito borne virus in September of 1990.

According to an investigative report by ABC10 News, in 2007:

"Griffin made no apologies about the whales that died in the hunt, including Shamu'’s mother. Griffin shot her with a harpoon and she drowned."

The profits from Namu & Shamu triggered the formation of a multi-billion dollar franchise and marine park industry. Griffin & Goldsberry became the primary whale hunters for SeaWorld, with Goldsberry reportedly becoming SeaWorld's "Vice President of Animal Collections," and both accrued immense wealth. Unfortunately for the whales, Namu survived only 381 days at the Seattle Aquarium & Shamu lived only six years at SeaWorld in California. But a new lucrative business model had emerged; one that relied on a fresh supply of live-captured orcas to replace the ones who died young.

From 1965 to 1976 the whale hunters collected & delivered (or killed)  about 58 SRKW's. They were finally stopped because of inhumane capture methods, including using seal bombs to herd the whales, and aircraft to spot the pods and also to drop bombs from the air.

From ‘Puget Sound Whales for Sale’ by Sandra Pollard

Public concern over the captures, and other factors, helped trigger the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act by the U.S. Congress in 1972. In Washington State, public outcry over live captures led to the ejection of SeaWorld, by name, from those waters in 1976. After that, Goldsberry, a SeaWorld Vice-President, moved on to Iceland. Griffin was done. But this business model remained operational for two decades, until Kalina, the first "Baby Shamu," was born in 1985.

From a population standpoint, the damage was done. Approximately 58 mostly young Southern Residents were removed & the group was decimated. For reference, in the wild, killer whale females have their first viable calf around the age of 14, have about a five-year birthing interval and require 17 to 18 months of gestation to produce a 300 to 400 pound calf. Even under optimal conditions, it would be difficult to rapidly replace the missing members of the clan, but especially when your young females have been taken. Unfortunately, the conditions for recovery have degraded since the captures, mainly due to  human activity, including loss of wetlands and riparian areas, toxins from industry, factory fish farming, and the ongoing negative impacts from literally hundreds of dams in the region.

Here is a video featuring Killer Whale scientist Ken Balcomb, SeaWorld's Don Goldsberry & Blackfish cast member John Crowe, the tattooed diver who was present for one of the round-ups.

Watch another former SeaWorld orca hunter, Jeff Foster, describe hunting killer whales in Iceland in this recently released footage via CNN HERE.  

History aside, SeaWorld now has an opportunity to help increase Chinook salmon for the Southern Resident Killer whales, a group that it once decimated.  It could use its influence to aid salmon recovery efforts in California, Oregon, and Washington.  Political leaders could be encouraged, by SeaWorld, to vote for the removal of unnecessary dams that block salmon migration paths far inland. As an example, The Elwha River Restoration Project is both a great success and one of the most heart-warming environmental stories in decades. The corporation could develop true educational shows that teach millions of guests to reduce the use of chemicals & lawn products which contaminate waterways. It could join corporate partners, especially large grocery stores & restaurant chains, to discourage them from purchasing and selling farm raised salmon, With it's large marketing and public relations resources, this gesture could easily become a national effort to save a unique and iconic group of whales. An effort like that would earn the respect of a new generation of potential guests at their parks. 

It would be a win for the whales, a win for the environment, and a win for SeaWorld.

Footnote: A female named Wanda lived for a day at Marineland, in Los Angeles, after being harassed and netted by hunters of the now defunct Marineland of the Pacific; and after swimming into Newport Harbor, CA, in 1961. And yes, Moby Doll lived several weeks after being harpooned & shot several times by the Vancouver Aquarium in 1964; but the beginning of the industry began with Namu, who was successfully captured in good health, and with the intent to display.

Jeffrey Ventre is a medical doctor licensed in the state of Washington and is a board certified specialist in the area of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. He treats patients with disabilities ranging from spinal cord & brain injury to low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and amputations. He is (also) a doctor of chiropractic, and continues to use spinal manipulation as a complementary therapy in his medical practice. Jeff was a marine mammal trainer at SeaWorld from 1987 to 1995. He worked with John Jett PhD, Samantha Berg, and Carol Ray, at SeaWorld in Orlando. The four ex trainers continue to spread the word regarding cetacean captivity as a group known as "Voice of the Orcas."