August 19, 2017
- John Hargove was a SeaWorld trainer for 14 years, quitting his job in 2012
- Now he wants to expose the San Diego theme park for its malpractices
- The trainer claims the animals are kept in tanks that are too small, become violent and develop diseases they would never get in the wild
- SeaWorld said claims are a ‘miscalculation’ and they are committed to welfare
A thousand tourists hold their breath as a giant killer whale leaps skyward, the sun gleaming off its smooth back.
As if auditioning for a Disney movie, the two-and-a-half ton leviathan performs an elegant backflip before landing with a thunderous splash.
It’s a Thursday afternoon, but SeaWorld in San Diego, California, is packed with visitors, many of them British, all drawn by the undisputed star attractions: ten huge killer whales performing two shows daily.
Who would not be moved by such a magnificent spectacle of nature?
And yet who would not be disturbed by the accounts now emerging of how these intelligent creatures are imprisoned away from public view, ridden with disease, and separated from their family members in what one former SeaWorld trainer last night described as a ‘house of horrors’?
It is once the sun-burnt crowds have drifted away that SeaWorld’s killer whales, or orcas, are herded off to backstage pools where, with little room to dive, they swim listlessly in circles, often banging their heads against the concrete sides in boredom or frustration.
Or worse, as last week’s death of disease-ravaged Kasatka made clear. ‘Euthanised’ after falling incurably sick in her artificial environment, she is the third SeaWorld killer whale to die this year alone.
And this, in the outspoken words of Kasatka’s former trainer, is ‘a disgrace to humanity’.
John Hargrove, a SeaWorld expert turned whistleblower, is in tears as he describes the orca’s fate to The Mail on Sunday.
‘What continues to go on in parks like SeaWorld is an abomination,’ he says.
‘They claim captive orcas help educate people, and for years I bought into it. But Kasatka lived in misery, in barbaric and horrific conditions, and died in agony. She lived out her days in a house of horrors – and I was complicit in selling the lie to the public.’
Hargrove has already played a central part in Blackfish, an award-winning documentary which gained near cult status after its release in 2013, and caused SeaWorld’s shares and attendance figures to plummet.
Viewers were shaken by one horrific scene in which Kasatka is shown dragging trainer Ken Peters to the bottom of a tank in 2006, nearly drowning him.
SeaWorld lambasted the film, calling it ‘inaccurate and misleading’.
Yet it has helped drive a growing international movement to ban the captivity of whales and dolphins, and Hargrove, for one, is unshakeable in his convictions.
‘In the wild, these magnificent creatures live to 80, 100 years old,’ he continues. ‘I have to speak out because if it stops just one person paying to go to a park where orcas are tortured to perform circus tricks, then Kasatka’s death won’t have been in vain.’
While capturing wild orcas has been banned by many Western countries, including the US, Russia and China continue to hunt and trap them.
Globally, 50 million people visit marine parks with captive orcas.
Thanks to films such as Blackfish, SeaWorld and other aquatic parks have been forced to change – although the message that ‘cuddly’ cetaceans are not pets is yet to reach the wider public, as shown by the needless death of a baby dolphin in Spain last week.
New legislation in California means mothers and calves can no longer be separated and captive breeding has ended.
SeaWorld, which also has parks in Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio, Texas, owns 21 orcas and attracts 10 million visitors each year, including thousands from the UK.
They pay up to £75 to watch the killer whales pirouette to music and ‘beach’ themselves on the concrete sides of the pool.
In January, an orca called Tilikum, notorious for killing his female trainer, died after a long battle with a lung infection.
Then last month, Kyara, a three-month-old orca that was born under the park’s now-defunct breeding programme, died from pneumonia.
Now it has been announced that Kasatka, too, was put down last Tuesday. At 41, she was half the age she might have lived to in the ocean.
‘In the wild, orcas rarely show aggression towards humans. But I lost count of the attacks I witnessed and suffered first-hand,’ Hargrove says.
‘I’ve been butted against the side of the pool, grabbed by my torso and dragged down. I’m amazed I’m still alive.’
Kasatka, too, had become violent in captivity, as the Blackfish film demonstrated.
‘She was one of the most dangerous animals I met,’ continues Hargrove, who suffered broken ribs, fingers, toes and facial fractures during his time as a trainer.
‘These animals are trapped, frustrated, unhappy. Of course they take it out on humans they come into contact with. Being in a tank for years on end wrecks them mentally.’
Hargrove, 43, worked for SeaWorld for 14 years until quitting in 2012. He had been friends with Dawn Brancheau, the female trainer killed by Tilikum after he grabbed her ponytail and dragged her to her death in 2010.
Trainers were banned from the water after that. Hargrove claims that many of the attacks are laughed off as play by park officials, or not reported at all.
‘They tried to explain Dawn’s death away as a simple misunderstanding, as horseplay. Dawn had her scalp ripped off. Her spinal cord was severed. Her left arm was ripped off.’
Perhaps it is little wonder. Blackfish exposed how the whales were forced to perform thanks to training techniques including food deprivation, and how their calves were forcibly removed and shipped to other parks (in the wild, orca families stick together for life).
‘They chew the metal bars separating the enclosures, they grind their teeth on the concrete sides of their holding pens,’ says an emotional Hargrove.
‘Pin-holes develop in the teeth and stuff gets stuck in there, causing infections. We used to drill the teeth down, using no anaesthetic, to clean the mess out.
‘Their eyes close, their jaws quiver. It’s obviously painful.’
SeaWorld has vehemently denied charges of cruelty and put out its own moving statement last week on the death of its star attraction.
Trainer Kristi Burtis was quoted as saying: ‘Today, I lost a member of my family. I am grateful for the special time we had together and for the difference she has made for wild orcas by all we have learned from her.’
While SeaWorld officially attributed Kasatka’s death to lung disease, Hargrove believes it was caused by fungal and bacterial infections brought on by years of being force-fed antibiotics.
‘Orcas in captivity are constantly sick. They get daily doses of antibiotics and other drugs. Eventually their immune system breaks down. By the end she had lesions on her face, like an AIDS patient. SeaWorld will never release the autopsy but the internal wounds will be far worse.
‘She suffered unbearably so that kids could watch her do tricks and SeaWorld could get richer.
‘People always ask me why I didn’t quit sooner but it’s like being in a cult. I loved the animals – I bought into the mantra that we were educating people about these magnificent creatures by allowing millions of kids and their parents to see them up close.
‘I believed we were helping the species by the breeding-in-captivity programme. In reality, Kasatka was a corporate asset worth millions of dollars to a company which only cared about her ability to perform and generate cash.’
Hargrove adds: ‘Even as I started seeing the daily reality of the pain and suffering these animals go through, I stuck with it. How could I leave Kasatka? But in the end I knew I had to speak out. It’s too late to save Kasatka but if we can end this horrific practice of keeping orcas in captivity, I will be able to die in peace.’
While SeaWorld admitted in its statement last week that Kasatka had been ‘chronically ill’ since 2008, Hargrove says the company chose to increase her burden further, artificially inseminating her in 2011.
She was also one of SeaWorld’s most successful breeders, giving birth to Takara in 1991, Nakai in 2001, Kalia in 2004, and Makani in 2013.
Ha also points out that the hot southern states of America were thousands of miles from home for Kasatka, who was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1978.
Hargrove recalls the death of two whales from mosquito-borne diseases – encephalitis and West Nile disease.
‘This is because they were wallowing motionless near the surface of their pools, something which doesn’t happen in nature,’ he says. ‘Wild orcas are constantly on the move and not exposed to mosquitoes, which are limited to coastal areas.’
He is haunted by the anguish he believes Kasatka felt when her first-born calf Takara was forcibly removed from her.
‘Takara was dragged off and taken to the Texas park. Kasatka was bereft. She vocalised her pain and swam around her pool violently.
‘Years after they were separated we played Takara’s vocal sounds to her mother and Kasatka went nuts. She never forgave or forgot.’
Today, Hargrove treasures a picture of himself with Kasatka but can barely bring himself to look at it: ‘I’m beaming. It was back before I realised how wrong it all is. I feel guilt every day that I let her down.
‘Now she’s dead. My only comfort in her death is she is no longer being exploited. Finally she is at peace.’
Last night SeaWorld said: ‘These allegations are the same distortions and mischaracterisations that have been made and discredited over the years. No one is more dedicated to the health and wellbeing of our animals than the expert veterinarians and animal care staff working with this family of killer whales every day.
‘Our animal care programmes and policies are stringently regulated by US federal laws. The US Department of Agriculture has oversight of SeaWorld. Our park is inspected annually, often multiple times a year.
‘We pass these inspections, maintaining the highest quality standards. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums said SeaWorld is meeting or exceeding the highest standard of animal care and welfare of any zoological organisation in the world.’
To view the original article as well as VIDEO of John Hargrove and New Zealand Orca Researcher Ingrid Visser visit Daily Mail.co.uk