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SeaWorld ex-employee John Hargrove, an experienced orca trainer, gives us his perspective on the current controversy surrounding keeping whales in captivity [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]

Apr 01, 2015 09:01 AM EDT
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Orcas, those familiar black-and-white oceanic creatures also known as killer whales, are some of the most beautiful, impressive, and powerful creatures to call the world's oceans their homes. Sadly, however, most people recognize them only as trained performers common to SeaWorld theme parks.

These spectacular water shows capture theme-park visitors' imaginations and interest along with their dollars. But animal activists around the world are increasingly making the case that keeping orcas in captivity is harmful to them, as well as risky for trainers. That argument seemed to be validated in 2010 after the tragic death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau in SeaWorld Orlando.

Since that awful occurrence, no trainer has been allowed to perform in the water with a killer whale. But while that rule change helps to increase the safety of trainers, the question remains - what about the whales?

John Hargrove, who spent 14 years as an orca trainer, is uniquely positioned to answer such a question. Over the course of his career, he has worked with 20 different whales on two different continents and at two of SeaWorld's US facilities. The man knows the ins and outs of how these places operate, what conditions are like for the whales, and how these magnificent creatures are treated on a daily basis.

Not long after the death of Dawn and two other fellow trainers, Hargrove became disillusioned with SeaWorld's treatment of orcas and ultimately resigned from the company in 2012. Now he advocates on behalf of the whales, explaining that - in his opinion - SeaWorld's programs, while popular, entertaining and mildly educational, are not only dangerous for trainers but also inflict irreversible physical and psychological harm on the whales.

For example, Hargrove stated that SeaWorld regularly separates calves from their mothers - an allegation that the company denies: "We do not separate killer whale moms and calves, and in the rare occurrences that we do move whales among our parks, we do so only in order to maintain a healthy social structure," says a rebuttal on its website seaworldcares.com.

Hargrove is one of the seven former trainers who criticized SeaWorld in the recent and very controversial documentary Blackfish. And in his new book "Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish" (published March 24) he's delved deeper into the ethical issues surrounding orca captivity, convincingly making the case that these intelligent, sentient animals can only be free in the wild.

Note: Nature World News attempted to contact SeaWorld to give them a chance to refute the allegations against them in Hargrove's book. A response was not received before the release of this publication.

Nature World News: You're obviously extremely experienced when it comes to orca training. In your time as a trainer, did you notice any great differences in the way orcas were treated at each facility, especially the ones outside the United States?

John Hargrove: That's a good question because at SeaWorld the whales are treated the same, although each park's management style is different; but its still the same premise of animal training. The takeaway point is, regardless of the park, whether it was France, SeaWorld of Texas, Florida or California, all of the damaging effects of captivity were the same. You saw the same types of issues, it didn't matter which park.

From the whales grinding their teeth - which they basically did out of boredom - to peeling the paint off the pool walls that led to them rubbing down their teeth, to collapsed dorsal fins, to premature deaths and illnesses that would never have occurred in the wild. That was really the takeaway for me. I worked with 20 different killer whales at three different parks, and all the harmful effects of captivity were the same - which tells me it's not just a particular park.

(Photo : Daniel) Pictured: "Hugging and kissing Takara SeaWorld of Texas, 2012"

Your book 'Beneath the Surface' delves into exactly how orca performances first became a business model. Can you talk a little about how we first came to think that orcas, a wild animal, and humans could work so closely together?

More than anything, people just thought they were impressive animals. But our mindsets have evolved; we've gotten so much more progressive on social justice issues. I just think we saw something and we thought, "It's impressive, and I'm interested in it, I must capture it to learn from it." We just don't think that way anymore. You don't just - because you're interested in something - think you can go and take it from its real life, strip it of its family, kill its family members and capture it.

Unfortunately though, we haven't gotten to the point where people realize this is what they're supporting when they go to places like SeaWorld. They have taken or destroyed the lives of these whales so that people can be entertained and the corporation can make hundreds of millions of dollars in profit every year. That's the sad part. I think we're getting there certainly - people need just a little education and now they're getting it with films like Blackfish, and my book.

[Also,] with my book, I didn't go into it looking to slam SeaWorld. I went into it to give an accurate depiction of my 14 years of experience with these animals - all the good points and the bad points, so it's not just a trash piece on SeaWorld. What is it like to be a killer whale? What do you see? What are the amazing moments? What are the horrible moments? When it turned out to be so many horrible moments, it naturally became a tell-all book against SeaWorld.

What would you say a typical day is like for an orca at SeaWorld?

[In the California park] in the off-season, you would have two shows and two interactions (sessions). We would feed the whales their vitamins and their medication, because often many whales were on medication every day for various illnesses. We gave it to them right away, [their doses] spaced 12 hours apart. And then we would go back later and do a session, and then do a show, have lunch, come back and have another session, another show, and go home. That was the off-season - four quality interactions a day.

And then in the summer, over spring break or holidays, sometimes we were doing six or seven shows a day and you didn't really have time for sessions. Everything is really focused on show after show after show. In California they have better variety in their shows, using different whales at different times. The Texas park, [however], was just a total mess. They would use every single whale for every single show.

What sort of safety precautions were there, if any, for both the trainers and the whales when working with them one on one?

We really didn't have anything until after [Ken] Peters was dragged down [under the water] over and over again by Kasatka in November 2006 in California. At that point all we did for safety was add cameras to better monitor certain parts of the pool, and then put in a net that was ready to be deployed at the front show pool, which is what they ultimately did with Peters and he was able to swim away from Kasatka. Trainers will instinctively free the net because they know the whales can get entangled and drown. Interestingly, though, [during] that aggression with Peters she swam over that net, because she wasn't quite finished with him yet. He wouldn't have gotten out unless she made the decision to let him out. But she was still thinking about it. She wasn't completely over the situation even though she had calmed down to the point that she let him swim out.

Most people know of orca trainer Dawn Branchaeu's death in 2010; since then the lives of these SeaWorld whales have been of major concern. But you and other trainers are at risk as well. Were there many other incidents we haven't heard about in which trainers were almost killed?

We had many major aggressions with the whales that we kept hidden from the public. For example, [there's a trainer named] Tamarie in Blackfish in a scene (and I'm narrating it in the film) and she gets pulled in by Orchid, and then Orchid and Splash take turns holding her under the water and [end up] compound fracturing her arm. SeaWorld somehow managed to get the tape away - I don't know if it's through financial means or not - from the member of the public who had it, and it was under lock and key for 10 years. Only as experienced trainers at Shamu Stadium did we ever get to see that video. That's just one example I can give you, but it really does highlight that this company is not a transparent company. They will hide whatever they need to hide to protect their image.

That's just one example; there are so many others and I talk about them in the book. I talk about the details of the more graphic ones in which trainers sued SeaWorld and ultimately the company forced them into settlements and gag ordered them so they couldn't talk about it. But I haven't been gag ordered, and I know about it intimately, so I can talk. They can't shut me up - even though they'd love to and they're trying to - they can't.

Was it after the deaths of two of your fellow trainers that caused you to start advocating for the humane treatment of orcas?

No, I already had been advocating for 3 - 4 years before that. I was really fighting management a lot on issues I did not feel were in the best interest of the whales. But certainly when Alexis [Martinez] was killed and 60 days later when Dawn was killed, that added a whole other dynamic to it. But the straw that really broke the camel's back for me was when they first blamed Dawn and Alexis both for their own deaths, saying it was their own fault. And then when they testified to that in court the judge even said that it was not plausible; no reasonable person would conclude that. That they had no knowledge that we had a dangerous job is what SeaWorld testified to.

You've already talked about how damaging life in captivity can be to orcas, but what are some of the other physical and psychological harms you've witnessed or heard about?

Well, you know, one of the heartbreaking things for me was when Takara came back to Texas. The last time I had worked with Takara was when she was in the California park - and at that point she was still with her mother. She had had her calf, Kohana, and all she knew was the California park. She was very well established in the number two spot right behind her mom. When I worked with her years later in Texas I can honestly tell you that her spirit had died. It was a completely different animal. You could tell she had suffered great loss. And it really broke my heart. They had taken her away from her mother and her first calf, daughter Kohana, at only 3 years old, [as well as] another calf named Trua. When they shipped her to Texas they [then] separated her from 3-year-old Trua.

It's just horrific what happened with Kohana, too, who was shipped to Spain at the age of 3 with no mother or adult female to help her. And so the consequence of that was she was bred unnaturally young; she was actually inbred with her uncle Keto twice, and she rejected both calves. The second calf died within its first year of life because she had no idea what she was doing; she had no one to teach her. It's just very sad when you think of all of the mother-calf separations. SeaWorld still says that they don't do it and only do it if it's medically necessary. I can tell you unequivocally that that is a false statement. In my career, I know of 19 calves that we have taken from their mothers, and only two of those were medically necessary.

[As for physical harms], we've had two adult killer whales that have died from mosquito-transmitted encephalitis. That's from being bitten by a simple mosquito that's carrying it. In the wild they don't experience that because they're out in the ocean and constantly swimming, so mosquitos aren't biting them. But when they're in central Florida or Texas and just floating for an abnormal length of time at the surface of the water, they get torn up by mosquitos. And the body is ill equipped to handle that.

And that water is treated with chemicals. SeaWorld would like you to think that it's just a pristine environment and that the big bad wild is full of contamination and pollution. But the reality of it is they're swimming in chlorine, aluminum sulfate and ozone... If you look up what these chemicals do, it's appalling. These chemicals are lethal and destructive to all living organisms.

It's been said that orcas are too sentient and intelligent to be held in captivity, and they're capable of deeper feeling than we originally thought. You've mentioned building more natural sea pens and socializing the whales more as a way to improve their SeaWorld habitat. What more do you think can and should be done to make life in captivity better?

SeaWorld has really backed itself into a corner because the only way they can get out of this situation is if they come to terms with public demand. They have to stop the breeding program and forced artificial insemination program, and then these whales that were born in captivity... the realistic argument is that these whales are always going to be in captivity. While they're still alive now it would be cruel to go dump them into the ocean and hope for the best. But we can phase this out responsibly by stopping the breeding program, letting us see the last generation of killer whales in captivity, and then for those that are still in captivity, try to get them into sea sanctuaries. I know it's possible. It's the least we can do for what we did to them.

Also, what are your thoughts about SeaWorld's new 'Meet the Animals' campaign, which coincidentally was released just a few days before your book?

It's all money driven. It's not about the interest of the animals; it never has been. I saw part of one [advertisement] and it was so ridiculous. It was half disgust and half hilarity, and I just turned it off. I didn't want to hear it; it was like fingernails on a chalkboard, it's all lies. It's just propaganda.

In five or more years, where do you see the SeaWorld program? Do you believe they'll come a day when orcas will no longer be held in captivity?

Absolutely. If they stop their breeding program and their artificial insemination program, this will truly be the last generation of orcas in captivity. And what I think SeaWorld needs is a complete overhaul and shift in management. What I would love to see is some type of ingenuity and creativity. You need the right minds and the right people to come in and make that decision. Someone's got to be a savior - it's not going to be SeaWorld. SeaWorld is determined on keeping those whales and that type of show, but they're not going to win this. They're going to go under.

I used to hope that the savior was SeaWorld. But when you get to the point that you've seen them lie enough in federal court, you lose all respect for these people. I want someone else to come in and do the right thing. And these whales deserve it.

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