Waterwork, Calves, And Cadillac Killer Whales

A few weeks ago I dug into the details of a minor incident in which Taku gave former SeaWorld Florida trainer Jeff Ventre an unscheduled bump.

There were two aspects I have been meaning to follow up on, which further illustrate the complexities and subtleties of killer whale entertainment.

As I noted in the previous post, Taku’s little stunt was written off as “baby behavior.” Calves are naturally immature, inexperienced, and can be unpredictable. According to Carol Ray, another former SeaWorld Florida trainer from that era, Katerina and Taima were also well known for that sort of acting up as calves. Former SeaWorld Florida trainer Samantha Berg adds: “Taima had her way with Teri Corbett’s ponytail on more than one occasion, until management decided that women working Taima in the water had to wear their hair in a bun. But I don’t know how long that rule lasted.”

So when calves went off script it was tolerated–up to a point.

But the fact that calves are unpredictable and sometimes do not do what they are supposed to do created an interesting dilemma for SeaWorld regarding waterwork. On the one hand, a number of SeaWorld killer whale mothers have been sensitive to whether their caves were with them in the pool. The most notorious is Kasatka at SeaWorld California, whose profile notes that aggression was sometimes linked to “when she was separated from her calf and her calf was in distress.” Kasatka’s profile includes a pretty long rap sheet of incidents, a number of which were attributed to a calf being in another pool and/or vocalizing.

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Of course, the most dramatic incident was when she repeatedly dragged Ken Peters to the bottom of the pool in 2006, a scene which features in Blackfish.

So, for whales like Kasatka who liked to have their calves around, it could be an important safety measure to have a calf in the show pool if the Continue reading “Waterwork, Calves, And Cadillac Killer Whales”

Captive Orcas And Mosquitos

Mosquito landing pad?

Former SeaWorld trainers Jeffrey Ventre (now a doctor) and John Jett (now a university professor) have published a peer-reviewed scientific paper in the Journal Of Marine Mammals And Their Ecology, on the vulnerability of captive orcas to mosquito-borne viruses (PDF). Here’s the abstract:

Although unreported in wild orca populations, mosquito-transmitted diseases have killed at least two captive orcas
(Orcinus orca) in U.S. theme parks. St. Louis Encephalitis Virus (SLEV) was implicated in the 1990 death of the male orca Kanduke,
held at SeaWorld of Florida. In the second case, West Nile Virus (WNV) killed male orca Taku at SeaWorld of Texas in 2007.
Captive environments increase vulnerability to mosquitotransmitted diseases in a variety of ways. Unlike their wild counterparts who are rarely stationary, captive orcas typically spend hours each day (mostly at night) floating motionless (logging) during which time biting mosquitoes access their exposed dorsal surfaces. Mosquitoes are attracted to exhaled carbon dioxide, heat and dark surfaces, all of which are present during logging behavior. Further, captive orcas are often housed in geographic locations receiving high ultraviolet radiation, which acts as an immunosuppressant. Unfortunately, many of these facilities offer the animals little shade protection. Additionally, many captive orcas have broken, ground and bored teeth through which bacteria may enter the bloodstream, thus further compromising their ability to fight various pathogens. Given the often compromised health of captive orcas, and given that mosquito-transmitted viral outbreaks are likely to occur in the future, mosquito-transmitted diseases such as SLEV and WNV remain persistent health risks for captive orcas held in the U.S.
[JMATE. 2012;5(2):9-16].

At the time Kanduke died there was uncertainty over the cause. But here is the necropsy which indicated that something unusual had happened, and helped Ventre and Jett find the answer..

This is an important insight into how captivity affects the lives of killer whales, and what is particularly interesting is how a confluence of captivity-related issues–logging, temperatures, lack of shade, teeth-drilling, etc–combine to create a vector of vulnerability that wild orcas likely do not experience. Which is one more reason that mortality in captivity is greater than mortality in the wild. Very well-done, informative, fact-based, work.

Anatomy Of A Minor Killer Whale Incident

“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 Continue reading “Anatomy Of A Minor Killer Whale Incident”

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