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Anatomy Of A Minor Killer Whale Incident

April 15, 2013

“Woo-hoo, Jeff Ventre just dove into the pool!”

Alternate titles: “Taku’s Follies,” or “The Challenges of Killer Whale Calves.”

The more you dig, or get taken, into the art of killer whale training, the more you understand how variable and distinctive the killer whale personalities are, how context (what is going on in the back pool, what happened the night before, who has a calf, etc) is everything, and how killer whale trainers must constantly make subjective judgements about how to deal with the almost infinite challenges or wrinkles which can pop up at any time.

That’s why experience is so crucial. It’s also why the “risk” attached to killer whale training does not just involve the major incidents (which can mean severe injury or death) that are apparent to everyone, but runs through all the small decisions, or minor incidents as well. Because a small decision, or minor incident, if not handled with the right judgement can easily become a major incident, with major consequences.

Here’s a quiet case in point, from the film archives of former SeaWorld Florida trainer Jeff Ventre. It was filmed in November 1994 by the stadium producers, who have have watched enough whale behaviors to know something is not right, and shows a young Taku (just over a year old) coming up under Ventre and bumping him.

Here’s Ventre’s explanation of what you are seeing, and how he handled the situation:

From a safety/behavioral  standpoint I ignored Taku and elected to exit the scene by mounting Katina. I made a decision to get up on her and steer her away (you can see the touch steering stimulus and she makes a quick right turn). I felt that trying to exit the water right in front of Taku might become a game and he could pull me in.

Love the show director’s comment: “That’s gotta make you nervous, man.

So Ventre had to make a lightning quick judgement about how to exit the pool, and had the experience or presence of mind (or both) to sense that simply climbing out in front of Taku might not be the best way to go. So he opted to ride Katina and a little something turned into a big nothing, and nothing more. Who knows if another trainer might have made a different decision with different consequences. This is a perfect example of the sort of subjective judgement that gets made all the time with waterwork, though often the stakes are quite a bit higher.

There are some other interesting aspects to this brief moment. The first is that this incident–even though Taku struck Ventre–did not qualify for a formal “corporate incident report,” because behavior like Taku’s was usually dismissed as “baby behavior.” Carol Ray, another former SeaWorld Florida trainer from that era, notes that “this sort of stuff happened frequently with Katerina and Taima, too,” and it also got chalked up to baby behavior. It’s just one example of how incident tracking at SeaWorld is somewhat subjective, with the result that not every behavioral hiccup made it into the corporate incident record system.

John Hargrove, who was a senior trainer at SeaWorld California and SeaWorld Texas until 2012, confirms that most incidents like the one experienced by Ventre were written off as calf behavior, and not treated as aggression or a serious incident–though he points out that the incident should have been recorded in the logs kept of behavioral interactions. Still, Hargrove says that management also sometimes resisted logging more serious incidents: “There were many incidents that happened that ultimately senior management decided not to write up as a corporate incident report. One in particular with Tuar, I fought to be written up but was overruled by Curators, despite the fact it met every criteria for a corporate incident report.”

“Hmm. This is kind of boring. Maybe I’ll go play with that trainer swimming in the middle of the pool.”

It’s not surprising that calves are frisky and less disciplined than more experienced killer whales. But when should “baby behavior” no longer be dismissed or overlooked as baby behavior? Four years later Taku was, in fact, written up in a formal corporate incident report at the still-young age of five, when he grabbed the ponytail of a trainer in the pool with him, dragged her underwater, and started spinning with her (one indication that killer whales might grab and pull on trainer ponytails, an issue that became central in the death of Dawn Brancheau). Taku let go before the trainer was put in exetremis, and Sea World responded by being more careful with Taku, working with him to increase his reliability, and allowing only trainers with short hair to interact with him.

The Taku hair-pulling corporate incident report brings up a related calf dilemma, noting that SeaWorld Florida’s calves spent a lot of their free time playing, including displacing one another, and pushing and biting. The report points out that SeaWorld Florida’s “all whales together” living conditions were therefore giving the calves a chance to rehearse pushing and mouthing, the very behaviors that SeaWorld did not want to encourage or see when trainers were in the pool. The report doesn’t lay out a plan for dealing with this dilemma (apart from being careful about waterwork involving young calves if this sort of play had been observed), but does note that the issue “has become an alarming concern with the continued additions of  calves to the Florida Park” and needs to be thought through.

So why did Taku leave the stage and bump up under Ventre? Ventre had a herring in his hand when he dove into the pool, and it’s possible that Taku got excited by the treat. But Ventre believes that Taku was uninterested in the fish: “Taku was nursing at the time, and I’m convinced he reacted to me diving in. He impacts me immediately, and underwater, and never went for the fish, which I fed to Tina for staying with me (she actually helped out and kind of blocked him).” 

In other words, a killer whale calf was being a, well, killer whale calf.

Amazing how much is involved in a single moment of waterwork. And I’m not done! Tomorrow I’ll go into two other interesting issues raised by this obscure and long-forgotten stunt by Taku: the dilemma of what to do with calves during waterwork, and Katina’s actions.

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