Rachel Grate
March 26, 2015 5:23 am

It’s no secret that SeaWorld treats their animals questionably. But if you’re like me and too squeamish to watch the graphic documentary Blackfish, now there’s an alternative: a new tell-all book from a former SeaWorld orca trainer.

John Hargrove spent 14 years as an orca trainer at SeaWorld and other parks before becoming disillusioned and leaving the company. Now he’s written an exposé called Beneath the Surface designed to reveal the animal cruelty that he couldn’t stand any longer.

“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 told NPR’s Fresh Air in an interview. “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.”

Hargrove was also one of seven trainers interviewed in Blackfish, the documentary released in 2013 that covered two orca trainers deaths during shows (the 2010 death of orca trainer Dawn Branchea at the SeaWorld in Orlando, FL., and the death of Alexis Martinez at a theme park in Spain). The movie, like Hargrove’s new book, clarified that orca whale’s aggression is a result of their unnatural captivity, not because of any natural “killer whale” tendencies.

Seaworld has denied accusations of mistreatment, but these denials of danger and of wrongdoing are what Hargrove says was his “final straw” to leave the company. He says he knows personally of 19 calves SeaWorld separated from their mothers, even though the whales actively resist the trauma of separation.

Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish reflects on the personal connection Hargrove felt with these highly intelligent and social animals, and the detriment living in captivity does to both them and their trainers. (He’s suffered a laundry list of injuries himself on the job, including one time in France when he felt in danger while training an orca whale named Freya, who had pulled him under water by putting the entire width of his torso in her mouth.)

As Hargrove deals with the complexities of loving the animals he trained while working at a place that he feels doesn’t, the book helps us rethink how we relate to the animal world. Hopefully this account will bring us one step closer to understanding and improving how we treat of some of nature’s most majestic animals.

(Image via NPR)