I Knew SeaWorld Was Terrible. Here's Why I Kept Working There Anyway.
I sometimes get asked why I stayed so long at SeaWorld if I saw what was happening to the whales. And although I understand why people would ask that, they simply don't understand.
This was not just a job where if you don't like your boss you simply give your notice and walk away. It's difficult for most to comprehend how hard it was to say goodbye to the whales I loved, and to stand up to SeaWorld and the captive industry in general.
Imagine that being a killer whale trainer is your identity and has been your identity - and passion - since you were a young child. And now imagine finding out that attaining this dream is nothing like how you thought it would be. By the time I had enough experience to have a full grasp on what captivity was doing to the whales, I was fighting so many demons. I loved these whales more than anything in my life; it was unthinkable to walk away and abandon them.
My rationalization of the situation at SeaWorld became delusional and I believed my love was enough to make up for all the things happening to the whales for the sake of greed and profit. Anyone would want their love to be enough, but it's not. And then there's the undeniable cultlike environment we faced by leaving and speaking out. I personally faced that vicious assault, just as I had witnessed versions of it throughout my career done to other trainers who had left and sued SeaWorld. If you don't have a huge platform and a big backing, SeaWorld will simply crush you into silence.
I refused to let them do that to me, which is why speaking out in "Blackfish" and writing my book, "Beneath the Surface," was so important to me. The reception from readers and activists all over was overwhelmingly warm, and showed me that being a whistleblower was my role to play all along. Many people played a role: Their passion and grace created the perfect storm that not even a multibillion dollar corporation could overcome.
Even though the company fought back and used every dirty, unprofessional trick it could come up with, the SeaWorld brand has since been decimated and has not been able to fully recover.
With that said, I'm proud of my career for two main reasons. I started at age 20 with the best of intentions - I wanted to live my life with these magnificent animals and I had no clue what was really happening so I fought like hell to stop directives and protocols that were clearly not in the animals' best interest. And second, because of my career, and my years of direct hands-on experience, I am now able to testify about what truly happens to orcas in captivity, not just provide the sound bites and twisted truths that SeaWorld and other similar entities put out into the world.
I believe with absolute conviction that this was my destiny. I used to think my destiny was to have the career I had with the whales. Now I know it was to have my career and later share my experiences to help save these remarkable creatures.
With the help of the masses of passionate people, animal rights groups and individual marine mammal researchers and scientists such as Dr. Naomi Rose, Dr. Ingrid Visser, Howard Garrett, and many others who have that empathy, we have managed to change history.
The pressure we brought about forced a multibillion dollar company to do something it publicly said it would never do. In March, SeaWorld ended its captive breeding program at all three SeaWorld parks, which included stopping the transport of genetic material across state lines to end artificial insemination.
Mothers and calves will no longer be separated, and the whales' offspring won't be sold off in any shady deals with other markets like China and the Middle East.
Our mission from the beginning was to stop captive breeding, and for this to be the last generation of orcas in captivity. And now it's happening. We just backed it up with an historic California bill, introduced by Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), that would make it illegal to keep any new orca in captivity for entertainment purposes. Last month, the bill saw a landslide win in the California Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife committee, which voted 12-1 to support it.
I was honored to support that bill and provide expert testimony alongside the remarkable Dr. Naomi Rose. I can't tell you what that means to me - I feel incredibly happy for everyone who fought so hard for so long, but most of all I'm thrilled for the whales. Assemblymember Bloom and his staff, in particular his legislative director Guy Strahl, made this bill happen because they witnessed captivity firsthand, and, like the vast majority of the world now, they had the compassion to know that it simply was not right.
At the risk of this being a controversial statement, I must say that SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby is the first SeaWorld CEO ever to reach out to us. In fact, I testified to this before the California State Assembly, as this very dialogue produced the meaningful change we were eager to win, and Mr. Manby deserves credit for that.
Do I trust SeaWorld? Absolutely not. What I hope we're seeing is Joel Manby ushering in a new era of SeaWorld, and perhaps we'll even be able to trust them one day. He's already making big changes: Staffers are getting let go or reassigned and he ultimately agreed that captive orca breeding ends now.
The SeaWorld I don't trust, and for good reason, is the old guard. Joel Manby is the new guard and I choose to applaud and support him at this moment in time.
When it comes to all the other changes that it is necessary for SeaWorld to make, we'll just need to give Mr. Manby more time. Encouragingly, what has happened was not just a step in the right direction, but a major historic leap that will cause a positive domino effect for all captive animals, not just orcas.
We have a long way to go; next up is testifying before Congress for federal legislation. But first, let's all take the time to celebrate this historic victory for the orcas and to look back at how far we've come, so we can continue to move forward.
John Hargrove is a former SeaWorld trainer, "Blackfish" star and author of the bestselling memoir "Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish."