John Hargrove, a former killer whale trainer for 14 years, left SeaWorld in August of 2012 after witnessing his employer blatantly lie about the danger the massive mammals pose to people in captivity. A week later he was being interviewed on camera by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite for her eye-opening documentary “Blackfish.”
On the eve of the 2014 Academy Award nominations announcements, TheWrap interviewed Hargrove about his experiences leading up to the life-changing decision to help Cowperthwaite expose SeaWorld’s role in covering up numerous incidents of whales threatening their trainers, as well as the harrowing effects of keeping them in captivity solely for the entertainment of others.
When did you first start to realize that SeaWorld was doing something unethical with these animals?
Four years into my career. The first four years of my career, SeaWorld was the happiest place on Earth. I was living out my childhood dream. SeaWorld was the biggest, best in the world, and had the most money, and I had no reason to believe that we were doing anything but giving these animals the best life possible and they were there to serve a purpose.
And after four years of my career little things would happen, really starting with trainers. We would start to see the dark side of stuff with trainers, like with management and how they would handle trainers. It is a very cult-like environment, especially with killer whale trainers. There’s very few of us in the world that do it. SeaWorld is, like, the monopoly in the world. So if you want this career, you will do as [SeaWorld wants] you to do, and think the way that [SeaWorld wants] you to think.
For me, with the animals, is when we started separating moms from their calves.
Contrary to what SeaWorld’s carefully prepared statements that they put out saying they’ll never separate moms from calves unless it’s medical, that’s bullshit. Total bullshit. I can give you so many examples that that’s not true. And not just my opinion that it’s not true — it’s not true. I was there for those, and I know the exact reasons we moved those whales, and it was because we had a need in another park for that particular animal, whether it was a juvenile male or a juvenile female, or a female that knew all of the water work behaviors, or a dominant female, or whatever.
What’s your response to the company’s allegations that “Blackfish”only focuses on a handful of events from the park’s history and ignores its contributions to education, preservation and animal research?
I think they do some great research and rescue efforts, like with manatees and sea turtles, but that has nothing to do at all with killer whales being in captivity for entertainment purposes. It’s such a deflection that they use. Yeah, I’m all for giving credit where credit is due, and I applaud you for what you do with manatees and I applaud you for what you do with sea turtles, but that has absolutely nothing to do with what we’re talking about. That has absolutely nothing to do with “Blackfish,” or killer whales in captivity for entertainment, or the death of these trainers by killer whales. It’s a total deflection.
And then saying it only focuses on a handful of events, in one way, is right. It only focuses on a handful of events, but there were so many others. We just scratched the surface. There’s so many incidents that we did not bring up in “Blackfish,” that trainers nearly died and we didn’t even touch on those. So, I mean, they should be grateful that we only brought up what we brought up. If there was more time, it would have been a less-flattering picture for them, for sure.
Were you afraid of legal repercussions from SeaWorld?
Absolutely. I know SeaWorld, I know what they’re like. And they’re bullies. They’ve always been a bully. I’ve just seen them bully so many different trainers, and so many court cases that were settled and gag ordered.
They have so much power and so much money, they’ve successfully created an alternate universe that they’ve been able to live in, up until recently. Then the tide shifted. People started to evolve with their thinking. We have camera phones, and all that kind of shit, so things were being captured that weren’t being captured before. So they started getting exposed about a lot of the things that they weren’t transparent about. But for the ’80s and ’90s, for sure, they were untouchable. They knew they were untouchable.
Has SeaWorld made any legal moves against you?
No, they haven’t made any legal threats against me, yet.
The threat is always there, but at this point they have to go through Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films, so it’s not just me out there on my own as an individual, and they know that.
And what SeaWorld doesn’t want is all the shit that I know coming out. So if they decided, “We’re going to sue him,” first you have to prove it was a lie, but everything I said was the truth.
What was your reaction to news that close to 200 SeaWorld Orlando employees were caught weighing in on the Orlando Business Journal’s poll asking, “Has CNN’s Blackfish Documentary Changed Your Perception of SeaWorld?” Were you somehow bothered by that? Or was it no big deal?
How embarrassing, you know? It’s just so pathetic. I love the fact that they got busted. And how stupid can you be in 2014. Like really? The smartest people that are working in your IT department didn’t think that it wasn’t going to be traced back to your IP address and its registered under SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment? Dude, I’m not tech savvy, and have trouble setting up Twitter, and I know that. I wouldn’t make that mistake, so I just think it’s hilarious.
This is historically so fitting for SeaWorld. They screw up like this all the time. They have all the wrong people in the wrong positions. So many people should have lost their jobs so many years ago and they just keep these people in these positions and they just keep shooting themselves in the foot. But that’s just embarrassing.
I imagine not, but have you had any interactions with the whales or seen them since “Blackfish” came out?
No, and I never will. No desire to. I’ll never do it. When I left there was only one way to handle that and I had to accept it has a death, because I was never going to go back to SeaWorld and be a park guest, and sit in the stadium with some popcorn and watch the show.
After everything I had lived through in my career with these whales, there would be no way in hell I would ever reduce myself to sitting in the stands and looking at them as a park guest.
Was there a scene in the documentary that particularly affected you while watching it?
The capture videos were always upsetting, but I’ve seen those videos so many times throughout my career. For me personally, the most powerful interview in the film is with John Crowe, the hardened guy that was a part of the captures. And I just think it’s because he’s got this very rough exterior, but he’s so tortured by what he did so many years ago. And you can see that he’s tortured by it. Here’s a guy that’s a rough-and-tough guy, and has lived a rough-and-tough life, and yet he’s sensitive enough that he’s tortured by what he did.
What does an Oscar nomination for “Blackfish” mean for you, and for the cause?
Full acceptance that this has gone mainstream. That mainstream America has really heard this story, and for me, knowing that all these people out there know the names of these whales and the stories that these whales have left behind.
Listen, I had the choice to leave, to move back to New York City, to live the life that I want to live. Those whales that I love, and meant everything to me, don’t have that choice. They have no choice. They’re stuck there in those concrete pool walls.
For it to get this nomination, and to know that this is not just animal people that care about this issue, but mainstream America … and the pressure that puts on SeaWorld to change. Dude, I don’t even know how I’m going to celebrate, but I will celebrate. I want it so bad.
I am counting down the hours because I really want to get nominated, just for those whales, just for their voice. And SeaWorld, you’re really fucked.
How can people who are moved by “Blackfish” get involved in the cause?
We’re viewing 2013 as the year that set the stage, and in 2014 you’re really going to see a lot of action taken. Until we solidify that action, and what we’re doing, and how those people can help, the best thing that people can do is very simple: Just don’t go to SeaWorld. And be specific with SeaWorld why you’re not coming. ‘We’re not coming to SeaWorld because it’s not acceptable to us that you forcibly artificially inseminate your whales and take the calves away from their mothers, and that you are forcing the whales to go into pools that are only eight feet deep, and that you haven’t updated your facility since the mid 1980s, and that we’re going to tell all of our friends and family the same thing.’
That’s the most powerful thing that people can do right now, but there will definitely be more things that come this year.