‘Food Deprivation is Alive and Well at SeaWorld,’ says Former Trainer

By Elizabeth Batt

Main photo: Sasha Abdolmajid/Ceta Journal.net

When John Hargrove’s book: Beneath the Surface, was released earlier his year, much of the mainstream media focused on Hargrove’s claim that SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment commonly employed food deprivation as a motivator to keep animals performing. An offended SeaWorld immediately hit back at the allegation in a video. The park said:

“Our killer whale trainers get to work before sunrise to prepare hundreds of pounds of fish for our killer whales … Look at what exactly goes into feeding our whales and how we would never deprive them of the food they need.”

No trainer, former or current, would argue with SeaWorld’s statement. One former marine mammal trainer, who asked to remain anonymous, told me:

The statement above is accurate, trainers do get to work early to prep the “fish kitchen”. In some parks this is undertaken by the newer staff members while at other facilities all trainers take part. All food is bucketed for the day with each animal’s “base” portioned out and weighed — say, four buckets per day. So essentially an animal has a daily base that is decided by various factors — pregnancy, nursing and motivation to work.

Some parks with natural pens or open filtration systems are subject to the water temperatures in their locations … in the summertime this means the water is warm and animals are less motivated. Summer base diets will be lower in these cases and in winter, vice versa.

Depending on the park and management, the option to “cut” an animal’s diet may be at a trainer’s discretion but this isn’t the standard so much anymore and in most cases, cutting an animal’s base is usually performed through consult with a senior staff member. This, of course, is very fluid by design and in some cases a vet may be required or a more senior trainer can suffice.

Naturally, the park is going to feed their whales and dolphins what they “need” to survive and to remain healthy. It’s nonsensical to SeaWorld’s business model to suggest otherwise, but this does not imply that animals will get their full complement of food — the daily base amount, assigned to each whale or dolphin. Hargrove’s point wasn’t that SeaWorld starved the whales, it was that food withholding was used as a motivator to keep them hungry enough to want to perform in shows for fish rewards. This is commonly known among trainers as “working weight.”

Former SeaWorld trainers John Jett and John Hargrove discussing food deprivation at SeaWorld. Image: Voice of the Orcas

Former SeaWorld trainers John Jett and John Hargrove discussing food deprivation at SeaWorld. Image: Voice of the Orcas

Former SeaWorld trainer and Blackfish cast member — Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, said that ‘working weight’ is, “coded language to refer to an animal that needs a base cut. Used in a sentence, “Kayla has been disrupting shows for the past several days by refusing to separate out of the main show pool. We need to find her optimal working weight to assure more shows are not disrupted.” Food deprivation is built into animal training programs that rely on operant conditioning,” Ventre explained, “SeaWorld uses food deprivation on a regular basis, and I’ve written about it here.”

SeaWorld writes on its website that it uses “positive reinforcement” to train its whales. The basic concept of this training is when an animal performs a behavior they have been asked for, they get a reward. It’s a type of training used widely across many different species. In other species such as K9 training for example, other rewards in place of food are used, such as a favorite toy. This is also true for the whales and dolphins.

Dr. John Jett, another former SeaWorld trainer who appeared in the Blackfish documentary, told me:

Whales are given non-food reinforcers during training and shows.  Ice, rubs, etc. are used to break up the predictability of food delivery. Importantly, non-food reinforcers have to be trained to be reinforcing.  In other words, ice  cubes (a “secondary reinforcer”)  become reinforcing after backing up with food (a “primary reinforcer”) many times. Although toys and other reinforcers are used, food is the foundation for training and behavior modification.

The anonymous former marine mammal trainer I spoke to, also confirmed this. “Secondary reinforcers are used in shows,” he said, “things like ice or tactile [touching], pouring water in their mouths with buckets.”

Still, Ventre explained, “in general, while SeaWorld does not rely exclusively on food during shows, the performing animals receive the majority of their daily food base amount, for performing in shows.”

Food is most predominantly used during the early stages of training when teaching a whale or dolphin the behaviors it needs to learn to become part of show or submit to husbandry procedures. As a primary reinforcer, it’s a crucial learning tool. “Once they’re hand fed, once you’re hand-feeding them, you are in complete control. You have all the power now,” Ric O’Barry told me. As someone who has captured and trained wild dolphins — including the dolphins for the hit television show Flipper, Ric’s insight is invaluable and you can read about his own personal experiences here.

Jett and Ventre have taken part in the early stages of marine mammal training — specifically at SeaWorld.

Jett explained:

Training a naïve animal (young or older) begins by demonstrating to the animal that when he/she does something correctly then a reinforcing event will occur immediately following.  One of the first steps in training a naïve animal is to get them to understand the concept of a “target,” which can be a small ball on a pole or one’s hand (or any neutral object). Once the animal understands that touching a target results in a reinforcer being delivered then the behaviors being trained can become more complex.

Ventre elaborated further:

The fundamental concept that is the basis of nearly every behavior at SeaWorld is the “hand target.” And it’s a concept that is picked up rapidly by marine mammals. In short, you display the palm of your hand to the animal and when it touches your hand, you reward the animal with fish. At SeaWorld, a whistle is used to signal the completion of a correct behavior.

From there, you can do a lot of different things. You can walk along stage and have an animal follow your outstretched hand, at first. Eventually the animal will follow you without the hand target. Also, you can move your hand in circles to train a “hula.” By making big circles over a killer whale’s head with your hand, the animal will spin to follow it. You can eventually start turning circles yourself and withdraw the hand target. The whales will see you spin, then, and spin in response.

How to teach a direction point? You can suddenly withdraw your hand (target) and teach a directional point by having another trainer present his or her hand, nearby. When you withdraw your hand and point, the animal will see the other hand several meters away, and swim to that hand.

What about a head shake “Yes” or “No?” You can present a hand above the animals rostrum, and when they touch it, present the other hand below the animal’s rostrum, and teach a “head shake” up and down. If you bend forward (flex at the hips) when doing the head shake for ‘yes,’ you can eventually remove your hand from the equation and the whale will shake its head up and down simply when you bend forward or shake your own head up and down.

When it gets time for aerial training, you substitute your hand with a styrofoam ball on the end of a long pole. The ‘target.’ You can point the animal to the target that is hovering over the center of the pool. If you hold it above the water, the animal must gain speed to leap out of the water. If you move the target in different directions when the animal is in midair, you can train a front flip or a back flip, or a bow.

The entire process must start somewhere, and it inevitably begins with food. Every single trainer I spoke with, admitted to personally witnessing food deprivation. The anon trainer said that withholding food was done, “for a variety of reasons including breeding, water temperatures, visits by VIPs or management, the park’s owner, and the filming of TV shows or documentaries.” The idea was to make the animals “work harder,” he said. “Since some animals receive meds on a daily basis, meds would be given in short sessions where we just “step up” and pass out a handful of fish to deliver the meds.”

Jett described the concept behind food deprivation as a simple one:

Reduce an animal’s caloric intake over a few days and the animal becomes increasingly food-motivated, and this motivation increases the likelihood that the animal will cooperate. The strategy was often used when the park would have VIPs visiting. For example, the strategy was always used when August Busch (then owner of SW parks) would visit. We would usually know at least a week in advance of Mr. Busch’s visit and we were instructed to reduce all animals’ bases during the few days leading up to his visit. The approach is extremely effective.

So how was this explained to the trainer? Is it something management orders? Is this something the trainer can do voluntarily, or must they have management approval?

The anon former trainer explained, “it is always explained to the staff as “food motivation” — keeping an animal at that line where they aren’t overly full or satiated but also not starving. In some cases, the animals themselves would determine if their base was too high by refusing food at the end of the day, so cuts would be made until the animal was eating consistently.”

Jett said when he worked at SeaWorld:

This was something ordered from one of the management layers above me. There were many times when an animal didn’t get its entire base for the day; for example, when an animal performed poorly for the night show (not at all uncommon), that animal might not get its last one or two buckets of food for the day.

This was entirely a trainer’s call and he/she didn’t need to justify it or ask for permission to grind their remaining buckets of fish. Systematic reductions of bases were not up to trainers and trainers could not do this voluntarily. This was something management would dictate. Trainers that I worked with, including myself, didn’t seem to ask too many questions about the food deprivation strategy and it really didn’t need to be explained because the concept is straightforward and logical. Plus, the results are obvious.

Ventre added that management was the only entity that could order a food base reduction:

Trainers can only report that an animal is misbehaving, which could lead to a base cut. SeaWorld is denying it now, but in reality they are just using different words for the same thing. Instead of ordering a “base cut,” they use phrases like “find the animals’ ‘ideal working weight.'” The animal training management carries more weight at SeaWorld than the veterinarians, who are primarily there to keep the animals healthy enough to continue generating revenue via live public performances. The vets salaries are dependent on the shows, just like everyone else. They nearly always comply.

So if an animal’s “base” was cut, did they receive their full quota after the show or at the end of the day? Our current trainer said this is usually decided on a case-by-case basis, but in general, no:

If an animal isn’t motivated, giving them their base would just exacerbate the issue and in some cases, base diets require fine tuning. Giving food back would mess with that, fine tuning an animal’s base didn’t consist of drastic changes but small, incremental decreases. Sometimes certain fish are decreased while others are increased … say herring would be exchanged with capelin (herring is fattier while capelin is higher in water content).

Jett appeared to agree that the process sometimes entailed a balancing act which could be tied to performance or the health of an animal:

In reality, an animal who regularly performs poorly might be consuming too many calories, in which case cutting their base slightly might be in the best interest of the animal, and certainly in the best interest of shows and training sessions. This can be a difficult call. Sometimes a poorly performing animal would be given all of their base and then sometimes they would be withheld.

At its simplest level, Ventre explained, “food deprivation is a reduction in calories to increase the hunger drive of a performance animal.” He continued, “I use the term “performance animal” to separate them from exhibit animals, who do not perform in shows.”

In his book, Hargrove argued that anytime food was cut for an animal at SeaWorld, it was always recorded or documented. All of the former trainers acknowledged this. “Any changes in behavior, food motivation or base changes were noted in daily animal care records,” said my anonymous source.

Former SeaWorld trainers explain food deprivation/Voice of the Orcas

Former SeaWorld trainers explain food deprivation/Voice of the Orcas

Jett explained that when he worked at SeaWorld, the reduction was logged into the food/behavior records of each animal on a daily basis, usually by one of the closing trainers who had worked that particular animal. He added, “I’ve just learned, however, that the records are now done electronically and that regardless of whether an animal receives all of its allotment or not, the records are zeroed out each day to show that all animals received their entire allotment of food. In other words, there is now no evidence to show that animals are withheld.”

This 2004 IMATA Training Terms document offers an overview of the terminology used by marine parks such as SeaWorld in their training. Furthermore, in this Marine Mammal Training paper produced by Sea World Gold Coast in Australia (not related to SeaWorld USA), the training process for marine mammals — as it relates to food, is explored further in its own glossary:

ENFORCED DECREASE: The deliberate process of limiting food to an animal in order to increase food motivation

FOOD DEPRIVATION: The deliberate process of with-holding food from an animal for husbandry purposes

FREE FEED: The process of an animal being fed without being required to elicit behavioural responses.

It’s also worth noting that in both papers, entire subsections are dedicated to different levels/types of aggression in marine mammals. Training may incorporate different terminology, but the basics of training are the same across the board between all parks. It’s simply a play on words.

Certainly, if true, the suggestion of record amendment on food withholding is disconcerting. However, it comes as no surprise to Jeff Ventre. “This is to protect the company in the event they are the focus of a future investigation such as from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration,” Ventre said. “Rest assured, food deprivation is alive and well at SeaWorld.”

Read more about food deprivation and dolphin training in this interview with Ric O’Barry. Ric explains how marine parks use ‘targeting’ to create optical illusions in their shows. He also discusses what happens when targeting is used for more formidable purposes.

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About Elizabeth Batt

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Elizabeth is a freelance writer, a former large animal nurse and a former certified NREMT. She is passionate about the ocean and its inhabitants and her work focuses on cetacean-related issues, including captive whales and dolphins. She graduated in psychology and sociology and lives with her family in beautiful northwestern Montana.

Author: Elizabeth Batt


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