"An enormous amount of profit and greed": Former SeaWorld trainer condemns the shocking exploitation of captive whales

John Hargrove on how Seaworld mistreats its animals and trainers

Published April 1, 2015 2:00PM (EDT)

If you enjoy watching companies make spectacular fools of themselves on social media, then you no doubt looked on with glee as #AskSeaWorld -- the theme park's painfully earnest attempt to assuage guests' concerns regarding its treatment of captive orcas -- predictably failed to go according to plan:

[embedtweet id="581505995786096640"]

But while the hijacking of its hashtag had SeaWorld throwing a throwing a Twitter tantrum, its real problem came with the release last week of "Beneath the Surface," a tell-all book by former orca trainer John Hargrove, which pulls no punches in its denouncement of the company.

Less exposé than memoir, the book begins on the image of Hargrove as a six-year-old boy who -- upon first visiting SeaWorld and finding himself "captivated" by the "beauty and danger" of killer whales -- vows to one day work with them. Hargrove ultimately does realize that dream, but his story culminates not in a moment of triumph, but in his gradual disillusionment with the park's version of paradise.

SeaWorld, he came to realize, could not care less about its captive animals -- or about its trainers.

Salon spoke with Hargrove about the insights he gained from his 14 years with SeaWorld and about his new role as one of the corporation's most outspoken critics. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

There's this line at the end of the book where you mention that you've been interviewed about orcas and SeaWorld so many times that your answers are "almost automatic." Why keep talking about it -- why has this remained so urgent for you?

I feel very strongly, based off of my 14-year career and what I know from firsthand experience, that these animals do not belong in captivity. They do not thrive in captivity and they really, truly suffer. Those whales gave me everything. They fulfilled my childhood dream, they gave me memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life, and I love those animals and I miss them. The least that I can do is fight for them because of what I know and what I learned and the suffering I saw. If I can stop that, I feel that not only do I owe the whales that but I feel it's my responsibility.

The fact is, I have information that people have never had access to before, because SeaWorld is very secretive; it's not a transparent company and it's taken lawsuits to even finally puncture that bubble and get information that was all concealed from the public. I had known Dawn [Brancheau] for five years and she was brutally dismembered by Tilikum; 60 days before that, a whale I used to work and swim with, Keto, killed Alexis [Martinez], and then I hear my employer testify in court that they had no knowledge that it was a dangerous job, which was an outright lie. Even the judge called them out on that and said, that's implausible and no reasonable person would conclude that. You state in your own internal documents how dangerous these whales are and why only certain trainers can swim with some whales because they're so dangerous.

All these things brought me to the point of not being able to work for this company -- after seeing that there was really no soul there. If something horrific were to happen to me, this is exactly what they would do to me; they would throw me under my bus and blame me for my own death despite the years of service that I have with them and how many years I have risked my life taking risks for them while they made hundreds of millions of dollars of profit every year off the backs of those animals. The whales are exploited and the trainers are exploited for an enormous amount of profit and greed.

The simple fact is that once you have that career and you see first-hand what captivity does to those animals, if you really love them you don't want to see them suffer like that. That's what this is about for me now, in speaking out in Blackfish and writing the book, to tell people the true story and have unbelievable masses get behind this issue and say, you're right, this is morally and ethically wrong and we need to end it. That's what this is about.

You started out believing in SeaWorld's mission and wanting nothing more than to work for them. Was it a slow realization for you that things weren't the way they said they were? Or was it those deaths that really woke you up to the way things were?

It was a slow realization. I was happy for a long time and I truly believed in SeaWorld and defended SeaWorld. But then you start seeing the harmful effects on the animals. You don't know any different in the beginning -- it takes a while before you actually start to get promoted high enough to be actually working with the animals and seeing these things, and at first you still don't know if it's because of captivity.

Then, as you gain more experience, you start to learn that this is a direct result from being in captivity. The physical things are easy to see. Look at their teeth, look how they're worn down, look how we've had to drill them -- that doesn't happen in the wild. Look at the collapsed dorsal fin. We would lie to the public and say that 23 percent of all photographed killer whales in the wild have a collapsed dorsal fin, but that's not true: less than 1 percent of killer whales have a collapsed dorsal fin.

All these things we would say to the public were simply not true, all to keep up the image that what they were seeing in the show was normal. Of course, we would get asked that all the time: Why is their dorsal fin bent over like that? Oh, that's normal. No it's not! That less than 1 percent that the very rare person might see, that whale has probably been in some type of traumatic injury like being struck by a ship that caused that. If the whale is in captivity, they're collapsed like that because they're in confined spaces and they rest motionless at the surface of the water and just bake in the sun, so the height and the weight of it has no support and it collapses. There are clear manipulations that go on so that they can continue to feed this PR image.

What you don't see if you're not a killer whale trainer is the behavioral issues, the behavioral damages of captivity: the excessive regurgitation -- they throw up their food because they're bored -- and their teeth get that way because they excessively rub them and bite parts of the stage out of frustration from being bored, living in a horrifically sterile environment and not having anything to do. The hyper-aggression between the whales; you see self-mutilation -- whales that'll just start beating their heads against the wall out of frustration and they're injured or bleeding but they won't stop; you see all these manifestations from being in captivity and living this way.

If you got put into a brand-new studio apartment in New York City with nothing on the walls and no furniture and then, a few times a day, someone would come in and feed you and ask you a few questions and then leave, and that was your entire life... you would eventually go crazy.

It seems like SeaWorld cultivates this doctrine of respecting orcas and really appreciating them as incredible creatures but, at the same time, ails to treat them way at all.

Listen, the trainers love the whales. We got into it because we love those whales and we wanted a life with them. When I started at age 20, if I had known the price those whales would pay for us to have that life with them, I would never have done it. But I was naive and I didn't think there was anything wrong with them being in captivity. Like I said, it took my career and my experience for me to witness it first-hand and say, wait a second, this is morally and ethically messed up. This is not right.

We, the trainers, we're not the corporation. The corporation, they don't care about those animals; they care about the money. For the corporation, those animals are a commodity, they're a property, they're an asset. They've even described it as that -- as an asset -- in court. When we testified in front of the California state assembly, one of the most disgusting remarks was by [SeaWorld lobbyist] Scott Wetch who said, "You ban them, you buy them." These are beings with feelings and emotions and personalities. There's no respect or dignity given to these animals.

SeaWorld came out with a brand new PR campaign the same week your book came out. Do you see any signs that they're ready to reconsider the way they do things?

Did you see how spectacularly their Ask Me Anything blew up in their face? You can't have an Ask Me Anything campaign and then not answer questions or, even worse, block some people. Even I, knowing that I would face criticism from pro-captivity and pro-SeaWorld people, I just did a Reddit AMA and I answered everybody's questions.

What pro-SeaWorld people are fighting for is keeping these animals in slavery --  because that's what it is -- for profit so that people can be entertained. That's such an archaic way of thinking. That's the way we thought of this in the 70s and 80s. It is not okay to cage an animal because you want to be entertained or a company wants to make money off them and disguise it as education. You're not trying to learn from them.

So no, I actually don't. And I don't want anyone to visit them and give them any money. Watch a video of the Shamu show and tell me what education did you actually gain from that show? There is no education.

Part of SeaWorld's mission holds that allowing people to get close to orcas will inspire them to protect the whales in the wild. Do you have suggestions for better alternatives for how we could reach that goal without exploiting animals?

First of all, I think that's worse than ironic. SeaWorld has never reintroduced a killer whale back into the wild and they never will, and they certainly can't reintroduce any of their killer whales back into the wild because now they've inbred their whales, which does not happen in the wild.

They've also crossed different types of whales that would never even have associated with one another in the wild but breed because they're put into the same confined spaces. They've created a genetic mutant whale that doesn't even exist in the wild! You certainly can't release those. The solution to this is that they have to be forced to stop, one way or another -- whether by people not going to their parks and their doors being forced to close or by legislation, which is fast approaching, which would make them stop their breeding programs by law and stop the forced artificial insemination.

It has to be done responsibly. You can't just go dump those whales back into the ocean, so we have to look at viable sea sanctuaries, which are possible; the right minds are out there and it can be done. Just hypothetically, if an agreement cannot be reached on some type of sea sanctuary, at least build them bigger and better pools with true environmental enrichment so they can live out the remainder of their life with higher quality of life. And let this be the last generation of captive killer whales. If they don't stop their breeding program, this crisis for them is not going to end, and I do not think they will survive it. If they don't stop their breeding, this issue is not going away.

By Lindsay Abrams

MORE FROM Lindsay Abrams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Animal Welfare Blackfish Marine Life Orcas Seaworld