When John Hargrove started his career as a killer whale trainer at SeaWorld San Antonio in 1993, he never thought 20 years later he would be advocating against the marine park responsible for introducing him to his life’s true passion. In the controversial documentary film “Blackfish,” Hargrove and other former SeaWorld trainers speak about the dangers associated with keeping killer whales in captivity and the inhumane treatment inflicted on the species while under the care of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. During our interview, Hargrove talked about his experience working at SeaWorld off and on for the last 19 years and how he felt SeaWorld handled the deaths of two killer whale trainers, Dawn Brancheau and Alexis Martinez.
How long did you work at SeaWorld in San Antonio?
Is started in 1993 and then in 1995 I transferred to the California park. I was in California until 2001 and then I moved to France for a couple of years. Then I left the industry entirely for five years. Then I came back to Texas and started at SeaWorld in San Antonio again in 2008 until I resigned my position last August (2012).
What specifically prompted you to resign a year ago?
Well, I had issues with [SeaWorld] management for years. Like a lot of us SeaWorld killer whale trainers, we would see things happen and not agree with it. But because it’s your livelihood and your job, you think, “Well, if I leave who is going to fight for these whales and take care of them as much as I do?” That logic keeps you there for a while. But I would fight management a lot and get in trouble a lot. The joke was that I was always in a closed-door meeting. As an experienced trainer you feel like you can speak out and rattle the cage and nothing is going to happen to you because you are one of the most experienced killer whale trainers in the corporation, but even then I had very little power to stop whatever corporate’s decision was. Despite all that, I really still believed SeaWorld would protect me if something awful happened to me like it happened to Dawn [Brancheau]. The real catalyst for me leaving was how they handled Alexis Martinez being killed in Spain and how they handled Dawn being killed by Tilikum and how they testified in the OSHA hearing. They testified that they didn’t have any knowledge that we had a dangerous job. I was already unhappy about a lot of things. Work became unbearable and miserable because we weren’t swimming with the whale anymore. The politics of it had really ramped up. The combination of all those things really made me face reality. This was a corporation not even willing to acknowledge I have a dangerous job. Do I really think they are going to support or protect me? They’re not. It was right in front of my face how they handled Alexis and Dawn being killed. They shifted the blame on both of them. It just became unsustainable for me at the end.
Were you having the same problems with management at the San Antonio location as you were with the SeaWorld in California? Does management have the same kind of mentality at both parks?
Yeah, I would actually say most of my problems were at the San Antonio park. I had the most experience when I worked in San Antonio at the end of my career, so I spoke out even more. The more I spoke out, the more I got in trouble. I didn’t want the whales to be treated like baby machines. All we were doing was artificially inseminating them over and over. As soon as the whales gave birth and would cycle, we would artificially inseminate them again. We had up to seven shows a day and were keeping these whales in what was basically a backyard swimming pool. It was a big issue for me and I would fight about it. I thought that was really wrong. I even emailed the general manager of the park and questioned the legality of doing that based on the Animal Welfare Act [of 1966]. You can imagine what happened then. Not only did he not respond to me because they didn’t want any electronic trail, I was quickly pulled off to the side and asked, “What the hell are you doing? Do not send email like that.” It accomplished my goal. I knew I was going to get in trouble for it, but I wanted to get their attention. But it still didn’t stop it.
You’ve explained about a lot of the problems you had with SeaWorld over the years, but you also mentioned that this was your livelihood, too, which is one of the reasons you couldn’t give it up. Did you ever feel guilty because you stayed there for so long and – in a sense – enabled these things to happen?
Yeah, I did. The way I and other trainers would rationalize it in our heads was that we truly loved those whales. Of course you think it’s a cool job, but we loved them and that in some way made it OK. We loved them and we wanted the best life for them. But when you’re fighting against this machine at some point you just think, “Well, I’ve done everything I can do and no one is listening, so the best thing I can do for them right now is love them.” But, yes, there is guilt.
One of the most emotional scenes of the film is when you see a calf get taken away from its mother and you witness something happen that is almost humanlike. There’s no doubt in my mind the mother knows her baby has just been taken away. How does SeaWorld defend that practice?
They try to defend themselves by saying that they only separate moms from calves after they are weaned and if it serves the best interest of the calf, but that is total bullshit. To give you a perfect example, Takara (a whale John worked with at SeaWorld) was separated from her mother Kasatka when she was 13. There was nothing medically necessary to separate those two. They were inseparable, so it was very traumatic for both of them. Then when Takara gave birth to Kohana, they separated them when Kohana was only three years old because they needed a female [whale] in Spain. Then they bred Kohana unnaturally young in Spain when she was only eight years old. She rejected both of her calves. It’s because she didn’t have a mother to learn from or any adult female to learn from. Then Takara had Trua and that’s when they moved Takara to Texas. So, she lost Trua when she was only three years old. The reason we moved Takara was because we needed a dominate female at the San Antonio park, which is part of their natural hierarchy. Basically, when SeaWorld says they move these whales because it in their best long-term interest, that is absolutely, blatantly false. They move these whales because it fits the needs of a park.
SeaWorld appealed the decision by OSHA to keep trainers separate from whales. Is that decision still in place?
Well, that’s where things get complicated. The federal judge ruled and sided with OSHA, but SeaWorld didn’t follow [the ruling]. Because SeaWorld didn’t follow it, OSHA came back in about six weeks ago and cited SeaWorld again for repeat violations. They were still allowing trainers in close proximity to killer whales without barriers. It’s crazy because OSHA came in and cited them. SeaWorld sued them to try to overturn the ruling and lost.
So, wait, if I go to SeaWorld tomorrow, am I going to see trainers in violation of a ruling by a federal judge?
Yes, you are. Now, you won’t see waterworks. We haven’t done waterworks since Dawn was killed in 2010. Now, they have started resuming waterworks in those smaller pools I was talking about. How they are doing that with OSHA on them, I don’t even know. They’re looking for loopholes. There is no reason to be in the water with a killer whale for husbandry reasons. The ruling was that trainers couldn’t be with whale in the water during shows. It should’ve been all interaction. Why would you say it was too dangerous for a show but OK to do it in other sessions? But the originally court ruling was that it was specific for performances.
How do you let something go like whale training that has defined who you are for so many years?
I don’t think I’ve let go of it even now. Especially doing this film, it’s still my identity. Some people say they’re work doesn’t define them, but that wasn’t true for me. It’s always been my passion and my dream ever since I was a little kid. It was brutal leaving the whales behind. Even talking about Takara and Kasatka is still hard for me. All the other parts of SeaWorld, I’m totally fine with leaving behind – all the political bullshit, the labor, the low pay. But I have to accept that I’m never going to see those whales again.