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More on Killer Whales - Tim Zimmerman's On Point Post

The controversy over killer whales in captivity, the topic of a segment this week (hear it streaming), generated a lot of strong opinions. Our main guest, Outside magazine writer Tim Zimmerman, followed up the show with some thoughts on various lines of criticism of his article and its claims. We repost it here:

Diary Of A Killer Whale: Analyzing Sources And Motivations

July 22, 2010

By Tim Zimmerman

In some ways it’s encouraging when the pushback against a story like Killer In The Pool is directed at undermining the credibility of key sources. It suggests that critics don’t have much in the way of rebuttal to the facts presented, so instead they have to go after the messengers who supplied the facts. And to the extent that the facts of a story stand up, any writer has to be satisfied.

But at the same time, efforts to undermine sources who present facts or arguments that are uncomfortable are scurrilous, and must be exposed for the smears that they are (particularly when they involve falsehoods). Such was the case with statements related to NPR’s On Point program about killer whales in captivity this week, made by Thad Lacinak (on the air) and Mark Simmons (in the comments on the show’s web page).

I should note that I interviewed both Lacinak and Simmons for Killer In The Pool, and their knowledge and insights related to the death of Dawn Brancheau were very helpful, and I quoted them both in the story. But they did not like the facts or opinions presented in the piece by John Jett and Jeff Ventre, two former trainers at SeaWorld (who worked with both Mark and Thad). Both Ventre and Jett have come to oppose keeping orcas in captivity, and described in detail the stressful and diminished lives they lead.

Instead of challenging the facts–the aggression Tilikum experiences from other SeaWorld Orlando killer whales, his isolation, the holes drilled in his broken and worn down teeth, the extent to which trainers get battered by killer whales–Lacinak and Simmons chose to try and trash Ventre and Jett as substandard trainers, who had poor records and left SeaWorld with an ax to grind.

Every source in a story has a point of view, a personal agenda, and specific interests. It is the job of the writer to sort them out, determine whether they impact the facts, and disclose them when they are material. Then the reader can make up his or her own mind.

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So I made clear in Killer In The Pool that both Ventre and Jett had come to oppose keeping orcas in captivity, and I also disclosed that Ventre had been fired (by a management team that included Lacinak) for giving an orca a birthday “kiss” in which he pretty much stuck his head inside the orca’s mouth (a violation against something known as “tongue tactile”).

But given the personal attacks made against Jett and Ventre, I’d like to provide some more context to make clear that the effort to dismiss them now as disgruntled, substandard, former trainers who should not be listened to is absurd, and in fact says more about the critics than Ventre and Jett.

First off, Ventre and Jett left SeaWorld in the mid-1990s. Ventre went on to become a doctor and Jett a professor of marine sciences. Lacinak and Simmons would have you think that they are embittered losers, who weren’t really very good trainers, who spend their time sitting around figuring out how to get their revenge on SeaWorld. If that was the case, they would have been on the ramparts against captivity, appearing semi-nude in PETA ads, long ago.

Instead, they went on to seek a better life (the life of marine park trainers is physically brutal and not very well paid). They did not become go-to sources for any muckraker that wanted to poke a stick in SeaWorld’s eye. I had to seek them out, and even then it took many conversations and a level of trust before they felt comfortable going on the record. So the facts simply don’t fit the notion that they have an ax to grind and I just happened along to give them the opportunity.

In addition, there is no question in my mind that both Ventre and Jett were skilled trainers. Ventre was a confident and exuberant performer (in fact, he was a lot like Dawn Brancheau in this regard). He was promoted to Senior Trainer under Lacinak’s management, so clearly Lacinak did not feel he was substandard back then. In fact, Ventre was a frequent Shamu Show headliner, and was often selected to perform in special VIP shows, such as when Augie Busch (at the time Anheuser Busch owned the SeaWorld parks) came to see what SeaWorld was all about. Here’s Ventre doing his thing, back in the day. You can decide for yourself whether he looks any good.

Ventre told me that while he definitely did violate SeaWorld’s rules against “tongue tactile,” it was a violation that was not entirely uncommon. He thinks that it may have led to his dismissal because he had started to get involved with the scientists engaged in the survey of wild killer whales, and that flagged him as a potential rebel. He also told me that the change in his views on captivity did not come when he was dismissed by SeaWorld, but when he had an epiphany on a sailboat that was surrounded by magnificent wild orcas in the Haro Strait in the Pacific Northwest. After that, he could no longer see an orca in a marine park pool without feeling that it was simply wrong to confine them.

One final note of interest, related to Ventre. Thad Lacinak left SeaWorld a few years ago and helped start a business called Precision Behavior (in other words, his livelihood depends on training animals in captivity; I mention that not to judge him but simply to note that he his personal interests are tied very closely to those of SeaWorld). And I had to chuckle just a bit when I went to his bio page, to find a picture of Lacinak, well, kissing an orca.

The attempts to dismiss Jett are just as flimsy. Lacinak and Simmons said that Jett never made it past assistant trainer, did not progress to the point where he was authorized to do waterwork in shows, and was kicked out of Shamu stadium and sent to work with the seal lions and otters, prompting him to quit. They also dispute that Jett was a “team leader” for Tilikum, as I stated in "Killer In The Pool."

Here is what Simmons wrote in a comment on On Point’s web page:

Tim – you are quoting disgruntled past employees of SeaWorld that have an axe to grind. Jett has no more than three years experience, never was approved to do show water work with killer whales, was not Tilikum’s “team leader”. Ventre was fired. Balcomb has never worked with whales in a zoological setting. You have given very little weight or “air time” to those with relevant and suffiecient experience to comment. If you give your audience 10% of the picture – their conclusions are dictated by ignorance. If this was meant to be a useful investigative journalism peice then try representing a balanced picture…leave the conclusions to the reader/listener. You cannot be an objective writer when your conclusion was preconceived.

Before I address the facts about Jett, I want to note again that I quoted both Lacinak and Simmons in Killer In The Pool, and their theory of what happened to Dawn Brancheau is the most prominent theory presented. So it’s not like they got no air time.

Beyond that, I sent every criticism or fact that might reflect poorly on SeaWorld to SeaWorld’s PR team, and included every response and rebuttal they sent me. It’s hard to get more balanced than that. And if I didn’t speak to more trainers at SeaWorld it was not for lack of trying. SeaWorld granted me a single interview, with head trainer Kelly Flaherty Clark.

After I heard Simmons and Lacinak were going after Jett’s credibility, I went back to him and asked about the points they raised. He said that they are peddling out and out lies: that he left SeaWorld at the level of full trainer, that he certainly was cleared for Shamu show waterwork (and has the videos to prove it), and that he was indeed Tilikum’s team leader for many months before he left, writing the daily training goals up on a whiteboard in the trainer area (despite the apparent dispute over Jett’s title, what no one seems to be disputing is that he worked closely with Tilikum).

He told me that he did get kicked out of working with the orcas at Shamu stadium and was sent to work with the sea lions and otters (where he says conditions are even more brutal and depressing). But here’s the backstory, which Simmons and Lacinak neglected to mention: Jett was working with Tilikum, and told me he had started to feel sorry for the big orca, who had a sweet side yet could rarely find peace in the pools. And one day management came to Jett and directed that sperm samples be taken from Tilikum every day. Tilikum was already one of SeaWorld’s most prolific breeders (he was bought by SeaWorld, in part, to breed), but SeaWorld was developing the technique of artificial insemination to expand its captive breeding program. Naturally, Tilukum would be a major donor.

You can imagine the mechanics involved: getting Tilikum to roll on his back in the water, stimulating him, etc., etc. But what got Jett–already feeling disillusioned by seeing big orcas in relatively small pools every day–was the idea of turning Tilikum into a sperm-on-demand machine. Jett found the idea grotesque. So he refused. And one thing every trainer I spoke with made clear was that you did not buck management. Jett was pulled off his work with Tilikum and exiled from Shamu stadium. He knew there would be consequences for his refusal, but he took a stand because inside he was already heading for the exits. He made it official, and quit SeaWorld to resume his academic career, shortly thereafter.

Both Jett and Ventre find Simmons’ involvement in peddling these distortions particularly stunning and hard to fathom, since Simmons lived with both Jett and Ventre during this time (so was good friends with both of them and knew their trainer profiles well). In fact, he spent this past Mother’s Day hanging out with both of them, and drinking beer, near Orlando.

That’s very strange and confusing, you may think. And it is, except that Simmons, like Lacinak and everyone else in this world, also has personal interests and a personal agenda. And if Simmons is trying to ascribe wayward motivations and agendas to Ventre and Jett, it is only fair that we put his potential motivations and agenda on the table as well. Simmons’ livelihood is earned via an organization called Ocean Embassy, which–like Precision Behavior–also depends on marine parks for business (they are consultants to parks). Moreover, it appears that Ocean Embassy is directly involved in the capture and sale of dolphins to marine parks. Does that affect Simmons’ view of the positions and facts that Ventre and Jett presented to me for Killer In The Pool? You can decide for yourself.

The major point I am trying to make here is that there is a lot of heat between people who oppose keeping marine mammals in captivity and people who are either in the business or simply support the idea of marine mammal entertainment. And we always need to understand everyone’s background and motivations when assessing their viewpoints and the information they present. That’s life, and everyone should be free to argue their beliefs. What’s not acceptable, and always needs to be slapped down hard, is when distortion and inaccuracies are thrown into the debate.

So that’s why I wrote this post. Now let’s get back to a constructive dialogue.

This program aired on July 23, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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