Whether or not animals should be left in the wild, in their natural habitat, or kept in certain conditions for human entertainment, are issues people have discussed for years. A recent book, Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove, is likely to spark those conversations even further with its discussion of animal abuse in SeaWorld.
Hargrove has worked as orca trainer for 14 years over a 19-year period in California, Texas, and Antibes, France at SeaWorld Parks and Marineland, respectively. In the book, he gives open accounts about the maltreatment – both physical and emotional – of both the killer whales as well as some of the employees.
Some of the instances he documents revolve around orca calves being taken away from their mothers, in clear pain. The calves are often then kept from eating food in order to condition them to follow instructions. They’re bred and artificially inseminated to breed more whales for profit. Their teeth become destroyed in the environment – a central physical attribute – and the trainers often have to drill them.
The book follows a widely seen documentary film, Blackfish, which is centered on an orca whale named Tilikum. Tilikum is responsible for the deaths of three people. One victim, a whale trainer named Dawn Brancheau, was allegedly killed after she appeared in an unfamiliar pony tail. After premiering in 2013 at the Sundance Film Festival and grossing $2.2 million, it raised a lot of speculation about SeaWorld’s practices.
Hargrove told NPR’s Fresh Air, “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.”
Some have criticized Hargrove for continuing to work for the organization, however, he dismisses the comments, insisting that his connection with the whales was too strong to simply leave.
While last year, SeaWorld had 4 million visitors, the stock has fallen 40% since the film debuted in 2013 and the numbers are expected to fall even further. It will be interesting to hear what effects the book will have on SeaWorld and the general public in the coming months.