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It’s time to rethink our treatment of our fellow earth travelers

John Hargrove and Killer Whales
John Hargrove and Killer Whales
Melissa Hargrove

Some people firmly believe man’s intellect gives us the right to do whatever we please with our fellow travelers on planet Earth, while others want to learn from them and preserve each species in its natural habitat. Money and man’s domination have long been integral factors in approaching our interactions with other species. If man needed meat to survive, the bison could be exterminated. If animal parts could enable sexual potency, then it was acceptable to kill the whole beast. If there was money to be made, we could cage animals and put them on display in a circus, abuse them for our amusement at rodeos and fairs, or force them to perform tricks for their food.

The 2009 Academy Award® winning documentary The Cove followed a team of activists and filmmakers on a covert mission to penetrate a cove in Taiji, Japan, where the village participates in a round-up and slaughter of dolphins. It tells the story of former dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry. Although O’Barry achieved a certain level of fame because he was involved in capturing and training the wild dolphins that starred in the television series "Flipper," he eventually came to see their capture and captivity as a curse.

Japan’s actions were recently denounced by both Yoko Ono and U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, but officials there stoutly defended the practice after this year’s slaughter, with the mayor saying, "We have fishermen in our community and they are exercising their fishing rights." Perhaps even more worrisome is that the fishermen are said to have focused on selecting dolphins to be sold into captivity at marine parks and aquariums.

The Case Against SeaWorld

A recent film, Blackfish, casts doubt on the marine park industry, especially SeaWorld and its treatment of killer whales. Blackfish focuses on Tilikum, an orca which was involved in the deaths of three people. The case receiving the most attention was the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010. Film director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite explores the whale’s treatment in captivity and the pressures brought to bear on trainers by the multi-billion dollar industry.

Cowperthwaite relied on the expertise of former SeaWorld trainer, John J. Hargrove. They say that parks are raking in the money by manipulating the paying public into thinking that it is good, clean educational fun. But Hargrove maintains that captivity is a highly unnatural and unhealthy atmosphere for whales and other animals. Since killer first began starring at marine parks in 1965, over 130 died in captivity. Whales once accustomed to wide open oceans are kept in pens far too small, sometimes just eight feet deep, without feeling the currents or hearing the ocean’s natural sounds. They are fed dead fish instead of hunting for their own food, have very little contact with one another, and are forced to perform tricks on demand for human amusement.

Hargrove has an intense passion on this topic. He believes SeaWorld cares as little care for its trainers as it does for the whales. His own injuries included broken ribs three times, skull lacerations that required 17 stitches, knee problems, a back knocked out of alignment, broken fingers and toes, almost losing two fingers, multiple neck and back injuries, major cartilage destruction in both knees, and sinus damage from working in cold water with whales.

Most of the trainers are young and vulnerable, tending to be “pleasers,” but even those who mature and realize what is really going on find there is little they can do to stop corporate SeaWorld from doing things that are not in the animals’ best interest.

Hargrove likened it to a cult-like mentality that is all about the image. “When I first started at SeaWorld I believed, but the first sign that everything is not perfect came at about four years in when I really begin working with the animals. When they began the artificial insemination, I thought it was amazing that we were the first in the world to do this. But when I saw what I felt was the unnaturalness of it all, the risks in the birthing process, the in-breeding potential, and the emotional removal of calves from their mothers for business purposes, I began to question the whole process.”

Hargrove ended up fighting SeaWorld to obtain compensation for the injuries he suffered while working as a trainer. Although he was devastated to lose the relationship with the whales, he moved on to preserve his own health. John’s feeling is that SeaWorld was able to sweep a trainer’s death at a park it was associated with in Europe under the rug because of distance, but couldn’t do that in the U.S. In spite of being cited by OSHA for various violations, the company ramped up its PR machine to prove its non-complicity. In a shameful CNBC interview, Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman tried placing the blame for Dawn Brancheau’s death on her actions, instead of taking any corporate responsibility.

Hargrove maintains that everything known about whale behavior shows that what happened was an aggressive incident. He says that Tillicum never came under control, and didn’t respond to emergency recalls from other trainers. It was not an accidental “playful” incident as Dawn was totally dismembered, and the whale exhibited every behavioral sign that he was upset. Hargrove says it just doesn’t make sense to say he didn’t attack her.

“In my time at SeaWorld I saw many trainers that experienced injuries,” he said. “But trainers teach the animals that contact and open-mouth injury is never play. We taught whales not to put parts of the body in their mouth, and that no part of their body should touch the trainer’s body. There is no doubt in my mind that, any time a whale has struck a trainer or dragged a trainer, it was an aggressive behavior.” He says it was a physical and emotional labor to go to work every day, but he did it to try to make the best life possible for the whales. In the end, he lost his love and respect for SeaWorld.

SeaWorld responded to charges but their claims were refuted by the makers of Blackfish and The Cove, among others. Although SeaWorld claims it does not capture killer whales in the wild, the filmmakers assert that it has other people capture animals for them. So-called “rescues” are often veiled attempts to secure wild animals. Despite orcas’ life-long family ties, SeaWorld airlifts animals among parks to meet business demands. Calves are separated from mothers for breeding and entertainment purposes, and SeaWorld routinely breeds female orcas at much younger ages and shorter intervals than in the wild.

The Case Against Captivity

Can we really blame animals for actions they take against their human captors? How would we react if we were torn away from our family units and social structures, subjected to sensory deprivation from everything we knew in our natural state, held in tiny rooms for months at a time, and forced to perform unnatural tricks for food despite our injuries or mental state?

The inevitable crush of the almighty dollar has quashed any chance for real conservation. SeaWorld has parks in Orlando, San Diego, and San Antonio, which are visited by more than 12 million people annually. In a piece for HuffPost Live, Tim Zimmermann (@earth_ist, Washington, DC), the Associate Producer of “Blackfish,” revealed that Orcas account for about 70% of their revenue, but only .0006% of revenues are reinvested into rescue and rehabilitation. SeaWorld reportedly had $1.4 Billion in revenue in 2010, yet still received grants to perform their rescue programs.

Our long and shameful history of capturing animals and doing what is best for human outcomes needs to come to an end. After Brancheau's death, Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of the Ocean Futures Society, said, "Maybe we as a species have outgrown the need to keep such wild, enormous, complex, intelligent, and free-ranging animals in captivity, where their behavior is not only unnatural; it can become pathological. Maybe we have learned all we can from keeping them captive." Amen.