Former SeaWorld Trainer John Hargrove on Six Ways to Save the Orcas

Former SeaWorld Trainer John Hargrove on Six Ways to Save the Orcas

In 2013, Blackfish premiered at Sundance Film Festival and SeaWorld has never been the same. The gripping documentary uncovers the psychological damage done to killer whales who live in captivity and the dangers posed to the trainers who work with them. It focuses in particular on the death of Dawn Brancheau who was killed by Tilikum, a male orca at Orlando, Florida’s SeaWorld.

In Beneath the Surface, former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove shares his own experiences working with these intelligent creatures. After idolizing the park as a child, Hargrove secured his dream job and moved up the ranks to work with the orcas. In his memoir, he reveals his struggle to reconcile his love of the whales with his growing knowledge of the corporation’s dubious practices and his eventual role in the Blackfish documentary. Here, Hargrove gives six ways to save killer whales without giving support to the organization that exploits them.

For a long time, I was fearful about speaking out about SeaWorld, even though I saw practices that were not right. I imagined that if I did, I would be alone and completely at the mercy of a gigantic company with its lawyers, its money, and its public relations machinery. It would also be very hard to explain to people who have simply enjoyed SeaWorld’s Shamu shows that the orcas, who seem to be having a grand time performing, were actually stringently trained to appear that way through rigorous behaviorist techniques.

But when I decided to leave SeaWorld to help make the documentary Blackfish and to write my book Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, I discovered a new universe of support and enthusiasm. The reception and warmth and welcome empowered me. Here are several ways you too can put your feelings and beliefs into action to help captive orcas and to join in the growing campaign to save them.

  1. Let your wallet do the talking.
    Though SeaWorld has been around for more than half a century, the company is relatively new in one important sense: It only began selling public stock two years ago. It is thus very sensitive to anything that affects its market price. In an immediate sense, that means marine park attendance and the sale of SeaWorld souvenirs and related items have a direct effect on the way the corporation thinks about doing business. So, to send a message, don’t patronize the parks and don’t buy from its gift shops or purchase anything with its label.
  1.  If your friends visit SeaWorld, don’t shun them—engage them in conversation.
    Beneath the Surface will allow you to follow what goes on behind the scenes at the theme parks—and you can help your friends analyze why the whales behave they way they do. If a whale “misbehaves” during their visit, you can then give your friends background on why that may have happened. In that way, you can help turn your friends and neighbors into supporters and they can help you…
  1. Lobby your local politicians.
    Even though there may be no SeaWorlds or marine parks in your state, you can still get your state and federal representatives to sign on to existing or new declarations and legislation banning captive orcas. That will send a message that the rest of the country—outside of Florida, Texas, and California, where SeaWorld’s three big parks are located—care about the issue. If you live in those three states, your voice is crucial in affecting change that will have a direct impact on the lives of SeaWorld’s whales. 
  1. Write letters to SeaWorld and influential public figures.
    Tell them that animals of such size and intelligence suffer in captivity, both physically and psychologically. Tell them that humankind is learning to respect the rights of the other beings who share this planet—and that our fellow earthlings cannot be transformed into the equivalent of clowns in a carnival. Tell them that even Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey—the legendary circus—has decided to end the elephant acts that the whole world thought defined their existence. If the circus can do without elephants, SeaWorld can do without orcas.
  1. Organize support for orcas who live in solitary confinement.
    SeaWorld is not the only company that owns orcas. There are killer whales who live alone in small parks in the U.S., Canada, and around the world. Write letters to the localities where these parks operate. For example, you can write to the city of Miami and to the Miami Seaquarium, which is owned by Coral Gables-based Wometco Enterprises, to demand that they free Lolita, the female orca it has owned for more than four decades. It is cruel to have one of the most social of God’s creatures living in what is the equivalent of a prison’s solitary confinement.
  1. Raise the debate over the future of the whales in public and at home.
    Discuss with friends and coworkers what can be done with the orcas once they are freed from marine park captivity. Freedom is an entirely new concept for many of these magnificent creatures, who have only known SeaWorld and confinement from birth. Their nature is to roam through hundreds of miles of ocean a day but captivity has limited that nature and mutated their minds. The complexities of release into the wild are immense—and some of these whales may not survive reintroduction into the open sea. But there are other ways of providing them freedom without putting them in danger, including building huge sea pens that will allow them much more room to swim and still allow humans to tend to them to help alleviate all the physical ills that years of captivity have visited upon the orcas. Is this the way to go forward? Debate it among yourselves. You may just help decide the fate of the orcas.

The most important thing you can do is talk about the orcas and their plight. Make it a public issue. That is the way to move hearts and minds. And once the clamor grows loud enough, you will not be alone and the demands of the public could well force even a cold, calculating corporation like SeaWorld to change its ways.

John Hargrove has 14 years’ experience as a killer whale trainer. His experience spans both SeaWorld of California and SeaWorld of Texas where he was promoted to the highest ranking Senior Trainer. John also has an international reputation, having been a Supervisor with MarineLand in the south of France. He resigned his position with SeaWorld in August 2012 and currently resides in New York City.

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