FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 19

Biology Professor appears in Killer Whale Documentary

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Blackfish, featuring Dr. John Jett, highlights health and psychological issues captive orcas experience in marine parks

A Stetson biology professor was recently featured in a documentary exposing the negative aspects of whale captivity at marine parks.

John Jett, P.h.D., lab coordinator and visiting research professor for the biology department, appeared in Blackfish to discuss his time as a trainer at SeaWorld, an attraction park in Orlando, Florida.

The movie focuses on the life of Tilikum, a killer whale currently living at the park. Tilikum was involved in the deaths of 3 people between 1991 and 2010. It was the most recent death of the orca’s trainer Dawn Brandcheau that inspired Gabriel Cowperthwaite, director of Blackfish, to make the film.

Cowperthwaite contacted Jett to ask him if he would like to participate in her documentary. After discovering her main objective for the film was to tell the truth about orca captivity, he happily agreed.

“We need to be honest and truthful and that’s what Blackfish is,” Jett said.

Jett, who specializes in waterway management and marine animal issues, was a trainer at SeaWorld from 1992 to 1996 and had direct experience working with Tilikum. He is one of several researchers and scientists in the movie who discuss the social issues and health effects that orcas experience in captivity.

Blackfish premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 19, and was later bought by Magnolia Pictures, CNN Films and Dogwoof. It is now being shown in select theaters.

“In captivity it’s a hosh posh of usually unrelated animals all crunched together in a concrete pond.”

“When I saw it, I immediately knew this was going to be an important movie,” Jett said. “It’s so well done and it’s so accurate.”

Jett said he has always been interested in mammals, specifically cetaceans. After having the opportunity to interact with bottlenose dolphins shortly after earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas, he knew he was interested in doing behavioral research and working more closely with marine mammals. He sent applications all over the country and was eventually offered a position at SeaWorld Orlando.

“It didn’t take long being on the job- in fact, it was almost immediate- that I began to sense that things were amiss,” Jett said.

Jet explained that one of the most notable issues was the little amount of time the orcas spent swimming. Compared to wild orcas which swim 100 miles a day, whales in captivity spend the majority of their time floating motionless. In addition, their teeth were in bad shape, their dorsal fins had collapsed and the orcas hurt one another. The whales are generally unhealthy and many are on antibiotics.

Jett added that unlike orcas in captivity, killer whales in the wild live in very tight knit family groups. The males spend their entire lives with their mothers in the wild. Jett pointed to a picture on his office wall he took 3 years ago off the coast of Victoria, British Columbia while filming a documentary with the 60 Minutes crew. Pictured was a wild orca named Granny about 100 years-old at the time alongside her son, Ruffles, who was in his mid 50s.

“In captivity, babies are yanked from their moms and shipped all around the planet to other facilities,” Jett said.

Tilikum, for example, was pulled from his mom when he was 2 years old and placed with animals he didn’t know who beat him up regularly. “You can imagine the psychological trauma that poor animal has had to endure,”  Jett said. “In captivity it’s a hosh posh of usually unrelated animals all crunched together in a concrete pond.”

Jett also co-authored a paper with Jeff Ventre, a fellow SeaWorld trainer about the risk factors which make orcas in captivity more susceptible to mosquito-transmitted illnesses like the West Nile virus and St. Louis Encephalitis.

“They are attacked relentlessly at night and they have no natural immunities to these pathogens because in the wild killer whales generally don’t spend time floating motionless and they generally don’t spend any time close to shore,” Jett said. He added there have been no reports of these pathogens affecting orcas in the wild.

Jett and his fellow trainer, Ventre had been discussing these health issues relating to captivity in private for years. “We certainly would have been fired by management had we spoken publicly about it,” Jett said.

Jett explained that the trainers were kept relatively ignorant and were not told much about Tilikum’s involvement in Brandcheau’s death. He said he believes SeaWorld has been very careful in crafting the message to the public over the years.

“That’s how they’ve gotten away with it,” Jett Said. “They’ve controlled the message and now that’s falling apart for them.”

Jett also said SeaWorld has encouraged the idea that the whales love their trainers, when there is little evidence to support that claim. While many of the trainers may love the animals, Jett said there is more evidence to suggest that the whales are unhappy in their environment. “So this is something that SeaWorld has fabricated,” Jett said. “They have told you what to believe and it’s a fairytale.”

Jett stressed that he does not believe Tilikum is a violent animal, but rather an exceedingly bored animal. “I think what probably happened in the three deaths is that he had an opportunity to procure a novel experience: something that was a lot more fun than floating motionless.”

Jett said he believes that once someone sees Blackfish they will not be able to support the practice of orca captivity.

“I think Blackfish is one of these precipitating events that is going to bring a lot of recognition to young people that this isn’t right,” Jett said, “and once you get young people involved, you better watch out.”

Jett said his email inbox is filled each day with people asking what they can do to help.

If a viewer is moved by the film, Jett said that the first step is to stop buying SeaWorld tickets. He also advises one to become educated about orca activity. Jett and several other former trainers have created a website called “Voice of the Orcas”, which offers educational material and scientific papers on the subject.

“Once there is a critical mass of people that say ‘You know what? This is unacceptable,’ then I think the industry is going to have to change; They’ll have no choice,” Jett said. “That is what our hope is anyway.”

Despite his feelings about orca captivity, Jett said he does not want SeaWorld to close. He believes zoos and aquariums can serve important functions. He only asks that these parks change their business models.

“When you start talking about these large very sophisticated socially complex animals that have these environmental requirements that we simply can’t meet, like killer whales, it’s tragic and it has to stop.”

If someone wants to see killer whales, Jett advises them to view them in the wild instead. He explained that it is a more dynamic experience witnessing them interact in their natural environment. He was not able to view killer whales live until after he had stopped working as a trainer.

“It was really, for me, an emotional experience knowing what I have participated in at SeaWorld and knowing how the whales are supposed to live in the wild,” Jett said.  “If you want to see whales doing whale things and not being caricatures, see them in the wild.”

Jett explained that it’s a complex civil rights issue that will take time to be resolved, especially since SeaWorld has a lot of money at stake.

Even though it will take time, Jett said it feels good to be at the leading edge of this movement to end orca captivity and is hopeful for the future. “I think it’s clearly an unsustainable enterprise,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

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2 Comments

  1. Michelle James on

    As an alum of Stetson I am highly disappointed to see the university being used for someone’s personal agenda. By exposing future biologists to only one side of a topic is ethically wrong. Whether or not you support this belief, both sides should be heard. This is just a way for Stetson to gain exposure and draw attendance. There is more to the story than just Dr Jett’s side or beliefs. This is very upsetting to me and I will be contacting the President of the University. Apparently over the last several years ethics and moral values are no longer taught at Stetson.

    • The point of this article was not to discuss the issue of whales in captivity. It was to honor a professor featured in a documentary receiving national attention. He earned the right to express his opinions. Sea World has also been contacted many times about this issue and they either don’t want to comment or say something of very little value.

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