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Former Orca Trainer John Hargrove on the SeaWorld ‘Facade’

Blackfish star slams the marine entertainment giant for ‘disgusting’ treatment of whales

During his 12 years as an orca trainer at SeaWorld, John Hargrove became increasingly concerned about the impacts of captivity on the whales he cared for. After leaving his job at SeaWorld, Hargrove became a powerful force in the campaign against whale captivity with his appearing in the documentary Blackfish and the recent release of his book Beneath the Surface, which chronicles the dangers of captivity to orcas and trainers alike. Hargrove recently sat down with Mark Palmer, David Phillips, and Mary Jo Rice at Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project for an interview. Here is the transcript, which originally appeared on the Dolphin Project website.

SeaWorldPhoto by John ‘K’, on Flickr Orcas perform at the San Diego SeaWorld park.

Mark Palmer: We’re here with John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld trainer of orcas — he spent 12 years there and with various orcas from around the world. He’s also the author of the new book Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish. So welcome, John. You worked with SeaWorld for twelve years, plus an additional two years in France, training orcas. You became a senior trainer — tops for SeaWorld and one of the top people in the organization — so I would like to ask: What do you think of SeaWorld today?

John Hargrove: Well, I have a radically different opinion of SeaWorld today than I did in the beginning, which was when I started in ’93 at the age of 20. I guess the best way to phrase it is that at the end of the day, SeaWorld really is a facade.  What you believed it would be as a child, and even at the beginning of your career; it’s not about that. It’s not about what’s in the best interest of the animals, it’s what’s in the best interest of the company and making profit. And once you come to that full realization, combined with seeing the damaging effects of killer whales in captivity — something in you changes.

Mark: Why do you think captivity is wrong for orcas?

John Hargrove: I don’t like the idea, really, of captivity for any animals, especially for entertainment purposes, but especially when you’re dealing with an animal like an orca. Their intelligence, their social skills, their family units, and their size — I mean, there are so many factors involved that just make these horrifically sterile, small environments, where they just have absolutely nothing to do. And the boredom. All these health effects manifest from this boredom and the stress — wearing down their teeth, excessive regurgitation, there’s just a host of health issues that happen because of them being in captivity.

Mark: Including the use of drugs on these animals.

John Hargrove: Oh yeah, we use drugs on the whales everyday; sometimes every single one of the whales were on drugs; and then sometimes only certain whales were on drugs. Also in my career, I worked with whales that were on drugs every single day for their entire life, because of one reason or another — either they couldn’t get a handle on it, or they didn’t know what it was, or they were just trying to control it. What we saw most often was ulcers, which we believed were most probably because of chronic stress, and we would treat the ulcers with Tagamet. And we saw a lot of infections, so antibiotics were regularly prescribed — sometimes just because their white blood cell count was high, and we didn’t know what the infection was. It was most likely in the teeth, because they had so many teeth issues, or it could have been because they were raked by another whale, and that rake wound was becoming infected. Sometimes those rakes are very superficial, and other times it was a deep, deep gash where it just looks like they’re bleeding out almost.

Mark: A rake would be the teeth of the orca used against another orca in an aggressive move.

John Hargrove: Exactly, and, you know, some of them are very severe, and some of them are, like I said superficial.

Mark: So now we have these animals in captivity — what do you think SeaWorld ought to be doing for these orcas?

John Hargrove: They need to stop the breeding program. They need to stop the forced artificial insemination program. And they need to acknowledge that this needs to be the last generation of killer whales in captivity. The writing is on the wall. I think the public has made it abundantly clear that we’ve evolved past the thinking of the 1970s and 1980s, where we didn’t question as much about these animals and the effects that being in captivity has on them. And what we’ve learned at this point from having them in captivity for so many years — we’ve seen the number of deaths, we’ve seen the number and the ages of premature deaths, and the host of illnesses that they have all related to captivity — to know that these animals are not thriving in captivity, despite what SeaWorld says. They are not thriving in captivity, and they are not even surviving in captivity. 

You know that I can’ t tell you even one single killer whale in my career that died of old age, and I don’t think there ever has been one at SeaWorld. I think there’s one that they claim died of old age, but he was 28, and I don’t think that’s old age for a male killer whale. But they have that as the only documented one that he died of old age, but that’s not old age.

David Phillips: What do you think Ringling Brother’s decision to retire their elephants means for Sea World?

John Hargrove: To be perfectly blunt, it’s a total egg in the face to them, because what this represents is that you have now a circus that’s 145 years old that has more money than God, and looked like they were never even going to hint at that they were going to go that direction as far as retiring their elephants to some type of sanctuary. And then they come out of the blue and say that because of animal welfare concerns, and, in their statements, a shift in what our consumers want to see, by 2018 every single one of their elephants is going to be in an elephant sanctuary. Obviously it’s an historic move, and what’s happening there can’t serve any other purpose than to put more pressure on SeaWorld. We now have this circus that is more progressive on animal rights than SeaWorld. How could it not put more pressure on SeaWorld to see that even Ringling Brothers accepts and acknowledges publicly that there is a shift in what consumers want to see?

David: Do you get a sense that the higher-ups at SeaWorld are concerned, vulnerable or are sensing the need to change, or that they’re simply digging in their heels deeper?

John Hargrove: I know these people very, very well, and there is no intention on their part of changing. A perfect example of that is: we premiered Blackfish at Sundance in January, it came out theatrically in July, distributed through Magnolia Pictures, and that July, SeaWorld forcibly artificially inseminated the orca Kalia, who was only eight years old at the time. You know that naturally she would not breed until she was thirteen to fifteen years old approximately in the wild, so to force this on a juvenile animal that’s years away from her body even being fully formed is such an abomination. I really feel that’s a perfect word to describe it; to put so much stress on her body and put her through that, and for what? Because they just want more whales and more money and more profit. It’s just so disgusting to see them do that to her, to force her to go through that, and I was really worried about her. Luckily she survived, and her calf survived, but at eight years old — in people terms that would be child trafficking.

Mark:  So with SeaWorld having this intransigent position, what in your estimation is it going to take to change that?

John Hargrove: What we have seen in the last two years is less and less attendance. This past year, SeaWorld released their fourth-quarter earnings report on February 26th, and it showed that they lost $80 million in revenue, and they lost 1 million visitors in 2014. They lost visitors, and they lost revenue for 2014, so as long as this continues, eventually something’s got to give. Since Blackfish premiered, they’ve lost more than 50% of the value of their company, including in that one day where shares plunged 33%. I’m not a businessman, but I’ve asked people who are: ‘Have you ever seen a company survive when they’ve lost more than 50% of the value of your company over controversy that is not going away; if anything, it’s gaining momentum? And they said: ‘Never.’

Mark: We’ve seen from SeaWorld a number of claims that we consider to be false; one of them is that they don't import cetaceans anymore, yet Earth Island and some other environmental organizations are involved in a lawsuit and intervened on behalf of the National Marine Fisheries Service where there was an attempt to import 18 beluga whales from Russia on behalf of the Georgia Aquarium, but some were also destined for the SeaWorld parks as well. These animals were caught in the wild, obviously, and so here SeaWorld is importing them — SeaWorld doesn't catch animals in the wild anymore, but they pay other people like the Russians to go and get them for them. There's a number of different claims like that; one of them was just the question about separation of mothers from calves, which you go into in your book quite a bit. SeaWorld claims they don't separate mothers and calves — what do you say to that?

John Hargrove:  I don't even know how they can still say that. I can tell you off the top of my head the ones that I have 100 percent certainty of. SeaWorld took 19 calves away from their mothers; only two of those were medically necessary. So for 17 of them, there was no medical necessity. We just took them from their mother because there was a need in another park, whether they needed a female, or a male, or SeaWorld wanted, as they call it, genetic management, or whatever the reason was. There was always a reason, but a total of 19 calves were removed. 

What's interesting is as of at least a couple of days ago, they still had on their official site, The Truth About Blackfish, that, ‘We do not separate our mothers from their calves,’ and they have a picture of Takara with Kohana. Takara is in Texas, and Kohana is in Spain. So, they couldn’t even use a picture where the two whales are still actually together. Carol Ray, who also starred in Blackfish and worked closely with Katina in Florida, notes at that point they had taken five of Katina’s seven calves from her. So, for them to just say, ‘We don't do that’ — I don't know how they get away with it.

I was so naïve when we testified before the California State Assembly, and I’d already given my testimony. An Assemblymember pressed Dr. Dole, a VP corporate vet, ‘Is this true — do you separate these calves?’ And he squirmed and squirmed and squirmed, and he went to all these talking points — you know, if he was in court he’d have been immediately cut off, ‘Answer the question’ — but they allowed him to squirm and go into these SeaWorld talking points. Ultimately realizing he had nowhere else to go, he said, ‘No, it's not true,’ and then he backpedaled a little bit, and said, ‘In the rare instances that it has occurred, it’s only been when it is medically necessary.’ He just contradicted himself — first he said no, then he backed off that and then said, ‘Only when it’s medically necessary,’ so which is it? 

Nineteen calves, and that's just the ones I can tell you with 100 percent certainty. There may be 23 or 24 that I'm missing that another trainer maybe would be able to fill in. So it’s just outrageous to me that it doesn't matter if they’re giving a promotional piece that they produced, or if they're in before the California State Assembly, or if they’re in federal court — they’ll just say whatever they want to say. It's amazing that they get away with it.


Mark: In your book, I was impressed by the way you address the issue of longevity of orcas in captivity, with, of course, again, SeaWorld claiming that their orcas live as long as orcas do in the wild.

John Hargrove: We were trained — I was trained for my entire career that orca life expectancy is 25-35 years, and now I’ve just heard that they’ve changed it, and now they’re saying that the average is 46 years old. 

I don't know how they arrived at that average, because SeaWorld only has one of their 30 killer whales that's even in their 40s, and that's Corky. She's older than 46, she’s either 48 or 49; she was captured in ’69, and of course her age at capture is debatable, give or take a year or two. How do you mathematically arrive at an average where only one of your thirty killer whales is that age or older, and then you're saying now that that’s your average? I don't get it — I just don’t get it. I mean, I try, but sometimes it gets to the point where it’s just so ridiculous, you have to tune it out.

Mary Jo Rice: How has SeaWorld responded to health and safety complaints by employees regarding animal and trainer welfare?

John Hargrove: I was so concerned about how often we were putting our whales in our 8-foot deep medical pool, because we were using that as a way to keep whales out of certain shows, so they wouldn’t disrupt the show, or if certain whales were fighting. Almost every single show one or more whales were being forced to go into this 8-foot-deep pool. Sometimes, they would be left in this pool for hours at a time. Some of our whales are 21 feet long, and they’re in this 8-foot-deep pool, so they’re forced to float totally motionless. The Google camera that takes Google Earth, those snap shots every three months, so you can go right now and see, and it shows a killer whale by themself in the med pool at SeaWorld of Texas with no trainer around, just left on their own. I think that is pretty damning, to be honest, because what are the chances? That shows you how frequently that happened. 

But I fought this issue, and I thought I was going to win it, that I had the support, but then nothing ever really changed.

Finally, when I came back from lunch one time, at a point where Takara, Unna, and Takara’s calf Sakari had all three been in the med pool for about two-and-a-half hours — I just lost it. I called the curator, and I just said, ‘This is wrong, this cannot happen — how do you justify this? We cannot keep two adult females and a calf in an 8-foot-deep pool in the middle of summer for two-and-a-half hours. 

His politically correct answer to me was: ‘Well, I agree, that's not ideal, but what we need to do then is work on making Kalia and Keet more compatible so they can be in together more, so that will free up another pool,’ instead of, ‘Let’s don’t put them in there; yes, that's wrong,’ or, ‘Let’s build them another pool.’ It was always, ‘Well, let’s try to make these whales get along better so that we don't have to do that.’ 

Of course that was never done, because you can’t force two whales, necessarily, to get along. So I finally emailed the General Manager of the park, and I questioned if it was legal under the Animal Welfare Act, which caused a lot of problems for me, as you can imagine. I did not get a response back, which was no surprise, as I knew I wouldn’t, because they didn’t want the electronic trail of it. Within minutes a curator was up at Shamu Stadium and pulled me aside and said, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing? Don’t ever send an email like that again.’ I knew that was going to happen, and I was prepared for it, but I was going to rattle their cage, whether they liked it or not. I can be in trouble, but I’m going to get their attention. Those types of things happened, and I fought.

Mark: You mentioned that incident in your new book, which I highly recommend: Beneath the Surface. Do you have any ideas for now how SeaWorld can continue to be a profitable organization, since it’s not profitable now. If they were to phase out the orcas and belugas and dolphins in captivity, what would you think would be a good future for SeaWorld?

John Hargrove: The last time I went to Universal Studios, in Hollywood and in Orlando, those rides are so technologically advanced and amazing. SeaWorld could do these amazing rides where people are still immersed in learning about the sea, dolphins, killer whales, in a truly interactive environment, and they don’t have to have a caged animal, they don’t have to rob the life from these animals, strip them from their family units and sacrifice them, because that is essentially what SeaWorld is doing. They like to disguise what they do as conservation through education, when we all know it’s just for profit. I don’t think there’s anyone out there with more than three brain cells in their head in today’s day and age that truly believes that SeaWorld exists because they truly care about those animals, and they’re trying to protect them. 

There’s the southern resident population of orcas in the Pacific Northwest that SeaWorld is trying to argue now, ‘That’s the reason why we need to keep them in captivity, because they’re endangered.’ They are endangered because SeaWorld decimated them in the early captures and nearly wiped out an entire generation — the orcas never fully recovered. That’s the reason why they’re endangered, so I just think it’s disgusting that now SeaWorld has the audacity to try to use that as part of their argument to continue to keep these animals in confinement and forcibly breed them. 

Now many of the whales, and it’s gone on for many years, are inbred. So we have inbreeding now; we have crossbreeding that has produced hybrid whales with no social identity so they’ve created whales that don’t even exist in the wild; and tell me how that is a successful breeding program? Once again, I go back to the word abomination — it’s an abomination; it is not a successful breeding program. What scientist in the world would possibly look at that and say, ‘You have inbreeding and crossbreeding — yes, that’s a success.’ Nobody! Except for SeaWorld.

David: We spent a lot of time working on Keiko’s rescue and rehab, and bringing Keiko to sea pen and to the wild. In your professional opinion, how do you feel that captive orcas from SeaWorld would do in a sea pen environment, and what kinds of changes do you think would be possible for them in terms of their health or their behaviors?

John Hargrove: It’s interesting because when I first started to speak out, I was not sold on the sea sanctuary thing. What I wanted was for sure to stop the breeding program, make this the last generation, but build the orcas bigger and larger pools. The whole sea sanctuary thing was too close at that time to dumping them in the ocean and freeing them all, and I certainly didn’t believe in that. So I kept quiet during our promotion for Blackfish and at film festivals whenever that issue would come up; I would just let other people answer it because I didn’t want to undermine what other people were doing. But I had not made that decision yet in my mind where I was going to go with it. 

By the time I testified in California in March of 2014, I had spoken to enough people and had been educated enough and given enough information, that I knew that it was totally possible. Not to mention that we’ve already done it. We’ve already done it with dolphins, of course, but even killer whales.  We’ve been putting killer whales in sea pens even since the ‘70s when the Navy had that open ocean killer whale. Look at Keiko — you have the detractors that’ll say that was not a success, but then you’ll have the people say, ‘Well, okay, look where he came from,’ and he lived — correct me if I’m wrong — but four years in his sea pen sanctuary and then another full year after that outside of that sea sanctuary. So, many would consider that a total success. 

This is about just bringing it to the next level, so of course we can do this. At least they would have a higher quality of life. They would have much larger living spaces, and the orcas would not be swimming in these chemicals that our water is treated with at Shamu Stadium. 

Most people don’t know that the water at SeaWorld is treated with three incredibly damaging chemicals — chlorine, ozone, and aluminum sulfate — you can just look up those three chemicals and see what they do to living organisms. To think that that’s what those orcas are swimming in every single day, so that people can go to the park and see them clearly and feel entertained. 

I don’t mean to harp on people who go, because sometimes people just don’t know, and they haven’t thought about it. Sometimes they just need the seed planted —even just a little bit of information for that light bulb to go off for them to start thinking about it and realize, ‘You know what, there’s something morally and ethically just not right about this situation.’

David: In a sea pen, they wouldn’t have to perform.

John Hargrove: Right.

David: SeaWorld sometimes makes the argument, ‘Oh they want to perform, it helps them to perform, it gives them something to do, etc.,’ but would you feel that the stresses of performance add to their health problems?

John Hargrove: On this one, I partly agree with SeaWorld. The reason why the whales appear more motivated for shows is because they live such an incredibly sterile existence. And we would withhold food sometimes until shows, so sometimes it’s not even just a motivation factor for, ‘I’m bored, and I want to do something;’ sometimes it’s because, ‘I want my food.’ Of course, we would lie and say we don’t ever withhold food from the whales, and that’s not true. Of course we withheld food from the whales; that’s the basics of animal training — you withhold food unless the orcas do it correctly. I’m not going to reinforce the orca if it does the trick incorrectly; I’m never going to get the orca trained. Even just those basics, you’re withholding food. But not every trainer did it.

Mark: What do you think the general person — a person comes up to you at a book signing, or in the audience, what can that person do?  What would you recommend that person do in order to help the orcas of SeaWorld?

John Hargrove: I think they already did it by showing up. For anybody to get themselves together and show up for an event shows that they are motivated and that they care already, so that bleeds into other things. That bleeds into, of course, the kids today — and I can say kids because I’m 41, and I’m getting older. Their skills on social media, and what they can do to spread the word. Even if someone did take away all the social media, but if that one person just told one other person, ‘Look, this is what I learned, and you shouldn’t go back to SeaWorld,’ that spreads virally also. 

I think what’s fascinating too is how every generation seems to be more progressive than the previous generation. I didn’t think, in the ‘70s and ‘80s growing up, anything about animals being in captivity as being wrong. But now, all the kids that I’m seeing and coming in contact with, they’re already getting it on an intuitive level: ‘That’s not a big enough space for them,’ and ‘Well, why aren’t they out in the wild? Shouldn’t they be in the sea? That tank is not nearly as big as the sea.’ And I don’t remember myself or any other kids questioning that in the ‘70s and ‘80s. 

I just think that there’s this natural growth and progression with people that happens, and that’s what we’re seeing now. Everything’s happening all at once. People had been fighting for decades before Blackfish came out, but sometimes you just need the perfect storm — the perfect timing with things coming together at just the right time, and hitting people in the right way, and I think that’s what happened, and it culminated with Blackfish. Now the momentum’s just like boom, it’s just taking off.

David: You sometimes hear now from kids, when their parents are thinking of taking them to SeaWorld, say, ‘I don’t think that’s a cool place to go anymore.’

John Hargrove: Right.

David: It reminds me of back in the tuna dolphin days, when students and kids would tell their parents shopping, ‘No!’ in the grocery store, ‘You can’t buy that tuna! That’s caught by killing dolphins.’ The kids were motivating parents’ decisions, and I think that SeaWorld, through your work and Blackfish’s work and other work, is losing that cool factor with kids. There still are a lot of people that don’t know.

John Hargrove: I agree with you. I think that’s a good point. I just really think that where we are now we’re so close. Even when Blackfish came out, I would not have thought that in two-and-a-half years it would so big. It became something we didn’t expect when it got selected for Sundance, and ever since then it’s just been momentum, after momentum, after momentum. Even the hits that SeaWorld takes from the federal lawsuit for investor fraud, and now a class action lawsuit for deceiving customers, it’s just not a sustainable business model. 

I just can’t imagine that the leaders of a billion dollar corporation, although that’s drastically shrinking by the day, how can they not see all this and realize that if they’re going to stay alive they’re going to have to make changes, especially going back to the Ringling Brothers. I think that people don’t realize — I know you do, but people don’t realize yet how important and historic that was because of the pressure it’s really going to put on SeaWorld. 

Because this question’s going to come up again, and again, and again, and they’re going to get hammered with it. How can you explain that a circus is now more progressive than SeaWorld is on animal rights? How is it that they identify now that these elephants belong in a sanctuary, but yet SeaWorld doesn’t have that option for killer whales? We know orcas’ intelligence level. We know that they have a part of the brain that people don’t have and we don’t even know what it is, based on Dr. Lori Marino’s work. It’s taking a life of it’s own, and SeaWorld is not going to be able to stop it. I think they already know that, and that’s why they’re going to get desperate. You’ll see the attacks and all that, which are very typical and predictable.

David: When the history is written of the end of orcas in captivity, a milestone will be a trainer of your stature who’d been at SeaWorld and knew the inside story being willing to step out, speak the truth, and tell the story, it is so much more valuable than coming from scientists, or environmentalists, or animal rights activists. It cannot, in my view, be underscored, how brave and bold a step you’ve taken.

John Hargrove: Thank you very much. I really appreciate that. I feel the same way about you folks. I lived in this encapsulated bubble for all these years, and my only view of these animals was from a captive perspective. And I was taught, as we all were, that anyone that did something outside of our bubble, any marine mammal scientist, any orca researcher, anybody, were crazy people and to be completely ignored. Their data, their research, meant absolutely nothing.

I’ve learned in the last two-and-a-half years how incredibly misled I was, and how much information there is out there. It’s overwhelming to me, because I’m learning new things every day about the true lives of whales that live naturally in their natural habitat, that live free. And it’s amazing, and it’s been a big growth process for me. I don’t think that we trainers were very great people to be around if we had such an elitist mentality, thinking we’re the best in the world, and we’re the only ones in the world that know anything about killer whales, and if you’re not us, you’re crazy. That’s pretty elitist, and that’s how all of us at Shamu Stadium especially were brought up and trained, and we believed it. Until you can somehow find a way to escape that mentality. 

I think everyone has a trigger. They have their own journey, and that will come. For some people it came from watching Blackfish. For some people maybe, hopefully, it will come from my book. For others, it will be the next thing that happens, or the next death, which I hope doesn’t happen. But something will be a trigger for another person, and then you’ll see another one after that, and another one after that, so it’s coming.

Mark:  Thank you very much for joining us at Earth Island Institute and talking with us today.  John’s new book Beneath the Surface is available now in bookstores and online, so be sure and pick up a copy.  And John, it’s great to talk to you.  Thanks very much!

John Hargrove: Thank you very much for having me.

Mark J. Palmer
Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project.

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