This NPR report is distressing. It does not make me feel guilty for visiting Niagara Fall’s Marineland, with its captive cetaceans, but it does make me feel concerned for their fate.
Last year 4 million people visited SeaWorld’s theme parks, where the top shows feature orcas, also known as killer whales. For years, activists have charged that keeping orcas in captivity is harmful to the animals and risky for the trainers who work with them, a case that gained urgency in 2010 when Dawn Brancheau, a veteran orca trainer, was dragged into the water and killed by a whale at the SeaWorld Park in Orlando, Fla. When Brancheau died, there was some dispute as to whether the whale’s intent was aggressive and whose fault the incident was.
John Hargrove, who spent 14 years as an orca trainer, mostly at SeaWorld, says there was no doubt that the whale was aggressive. And the reason for whales’ aggression, he says, is that they’re held captive. Hargrove eventually became disillusioned with SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas and left the company.
“As I became higher-ranked, I saw the devastating effects of captivity on these whales and it just really became a moral and ethical issue,” Hargrove tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies in an interview about the book. “When you first start to see it, you first try to say, ‘OK, well, I love these animals; I’m going to take care of them.’ … You think, ‘I can change things.’ And then all these things, of course, never improve and then you start … seeing mothers separated from their calves; you start seeing trainers being killed, and then they blame [the trainers] for their own deaths.”
He said his “final straw” was when SeaWorld publicly testified that “they had no knowledge we had a dangerous job.”
The documentary Blackfish, released in 2013, covers Brancheau’s death and an incident two months earlier at a theme park in Spain when an orca killed a trainer named Alexis Martinez. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated Brancheau’s death and concluded SeaWorld had exposed trainers to hazardous conditions; it fined the corporation. In its order, later upheld on appeal, OSHA also banned SeaWorld from permitting its personnel to enter the tanks to train and perform with orcas, a practice known as water work.