Loading...
orca glass trainers captive

Former SeaWorld trainer says orcas became aggressive in captivity 

Organizations often have the most to fear from employees-turned-whistleblowers. In film, rage detectives pose the greatest threat to police corruption. Edward Snowden, once a silent, obedient member of the NSA, used his position to leak the secrets of a nationwide spying program.

The problem with including human workers in any enterprise is that they can rebel. Of course, full automation may descend upon us in the next 15 years, at which point the entire nature of work will have to be re-negotiated, but until then, it's former employees who have the greatest potential to undermine a system.

Enter John Hargrove, who used to be a senior orca trainer at SeaWorld, until he quit in 2012, describing the conditions at the park as "a disgrace to humanity". Hargrove was interviewed in CNN's most famous investigative documentary, Blackfish, which sought to expose the cruel world of imprisoning and training whales for profit.

Today, Hargrove has revealed more information in the wake of the tragic death of yet another captive orca.

orca breaching seaworld play trick killer whale Credit: Patrick Frilet/REX

A female orca named Kasatka was put to death at the age of 42, suffering from a chronic respiratory infection. In the wild, female orcas are expected to live for between 80 and 100 years, as female animals generally have longer lifespans than male animals.

Disease is believed to be far more common in captive animals. For example, if you try to house a great white shark in an aquarium tank, even a very large one, it will presumably die after a few weeks. Very large sea animals are incredibly hard to keep alive in captivity, and so it is remarkable that orcas are even kept in SeaWorld in the first place.

You've likely heard of Tilikum, the famous orca who was covered in Blackfish, and had reportedly killed three of his trainers. Tilikum's mental illness, his aggression, was believed to be a result of living in captivity. Tilikum also died of a lung infection, at the young age of 36.

orca trick bathing Credit: International Marine Mammal Project

Hargrove explains the common aggression shared by captive whales, and particularly in Tilikum and Kasatka:

"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...she was one of the most dangerous animals I met. 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."

orca jump seaworld trick Credit: Kings Inn San Diego

SeaWorld disagrees:

"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."

There are two competing narratives here. Are current standards for animal care enough to protect orcas? Or are additional standards needed that are not currently being considered? Are these creatures, who are born to hunt seals and penguins in Arctic waters, too wild to live in tanks?

Not to mention, amid all of the bad press about SeaWorld, can they ever make a comeback?