Tuesday, July 14, 2015

SeaWorld's Secrets: review of BENEATH THE SURFACE

John Hargrove
$26, hardcover. Our price: $20.80
According to their website, SeaWorld is “dedicated to giving animals a second chance at life.” They also purport to contribute to conservation efforts of marine mammals by educating the public. There are certainly elements of truth to some of their declarations. But there are also abundant falsehoods, according to John Hargrove and many other former and current SeaWorld trainers, as well as scientists studying orcas in the wild. Given the overwhelming outcry against their practices, how can one truly believe that “SeaWorld Cares”?
I wanted to believe it. Most of us do. We enjoy watching the wonders of these enormous animals up close in a way few could in the wild. Their bulk and intelligence are awe-inspiring. They have an almost mystical enchantment about them that is irresistible to audiences.
But then, tragedy strikes, and as the story of one trainer’s death unfolds, the public learns of the deep dark secrets behind SeaWorld’s Shamu Stadium.
John Hargrove was a senior trainer at SeaWorld, a dream job for him, and one which he gave up under quite a bit of duress. His fascinating book chronicles not only the maltreatment by the corporation of the orcas, but of the trainers as well. It took him years to face the reality of the dark side of SeaWorld, and when he did, it was even longer before he made the decision to leave. That meant leaving the whales he loved deeply; losing a career that had been hard-won and fulfilling; and becoming the target of SeaWorld’s backlash against the bad publicity his book and the documentary Blackfish created.
To understand the complexity of the situation, the reader of Beneath the Surface would benefit from reading War of the Whales, and of watching Blackfish, which focused on the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. But also, study SeaWorld’s website, read their refutation against the charges in Blackfish, and weigh the good against the evil of such animal venues. To me, in the end, it came down to the ethics of using wild animals for our entertainment and for a company’s profit. Do we have the right to do that? I don’t believe we do. Especially when the use is actually abuse.
Hargrove’s book begins with his fascination as a child with the orca show at Shamu Stadium in SeaWorld Orlando. He pleaded with his parents to let him question the trainers after the show, and thus began years of letter-writing campaigns to SeaWorld executives begging for guidance into how he could become an orca trainer. His persistence paid off, amazingly, and he eventually became the highest-ranking senior trainer at both the Texas and California parks.
Orcas in the wild are generally not considered a danger to humans. In captivity, however, some have become aggressive, and death and injury are now well-documented. SeaWorld continues to site trainer error in all incidents, because to admit that these otherwise gentle creatures would turn against their human companions would be admitting that conditions are not ideal and that captivity might, in fact, be contributing to aggression. If you consider that these whales learn that humans are their sole source of food, it’s not unreasonable some resentment might develop. Add to that, habitat too small for such an enormous creature, intense boredom, disruption of family units, and mutiny seems downright predictable. But not according to SeaWorld.
Hargrove writes that in spite of SeaWorld’s adamant declaration to the contrary, trainers are told to deprive orcas of food if they do not perform at the expected level: “In accordance with SeaWorld policies, trainers have reduced the amount of fish that a whale needs to eat daily—sometimes by more than two-thirds to remind the orca who provides sustenance at the marine park. It is not done often and it has a mixed record of effectiveness. But it has been part of the trainer’s options for making sure a whale understands that it is best to cooperate.” The company keeps careful records, and thus there is documentation of such deprivation. This form of behavior modification, however, would not go over well with the public, and thus SeaWorld has kept it secret and denies it to this day. Hargrove, however, notes that he himself inflicted this punishment “at the request of a supervisor.”
The training methods are fascinating to read about, and the close calls and tragic interactions between trainers and orcas are horrifying. The take-away from this book as well as others reviewed on this blog is relatively straight-forward: cruelty and abuse take many forms and may be camouflaged as “care.” If you believe that humans truly have dominion over creatures of the earth, then you must believe humans are wise enough to recognize that dominion does not necessarily mean domination. Pope Francis himself has said that dominion is best interpreted as stewardship. Of course, animals would be perfectly fine without our stewardship if we weren’t constantly interfering with the natural order and essentially messing up their world.
SeaWorld’s orca program originated with the kidnapping of whales in the wild and subjecting them to a lifetime of deprivation. The fact that they ceased their hunting of animals thirty-five years ago doesn’t negate the crime. Once they were forced to stop hunting, the executives realized they needed to keep adding to their stock if they were going to grow the Shamu program. And they needed to have the public perceive their use of the whales as “conservation.”
In 2000, SeaWorld embarked on an ambitious program of artificial insemination that has created a new culture of captive-born orcas. Female orcas in the wild are revered matriarchs, respected and obeyed by their extended families. In SeaWorld, some have become baby-makers, repeatedly artificially impregnated, often at very young ages, and then separated from their calves too soon. (Again, SeaWorld adamantly denies this latter charge. Hargrove, however, sites several examples he himself witnessed.)
The PR battle will continue, and SeaWorld has the motivation of dropping stock prices to keep the war going. The hope is that the corporation doesn’t begin developing parks overseas in places where public outcry over misuse and abuse may not be as prevalent. The best way to fight, however, is with the pocketbook. If people stopped patronizing such animal venues, they would eventually go away. For it is only through consumer reaction that advocacy for captive wild animals succeeds. Of course, when you hurt the bottom line of a corporation like SeaWorld (owned by Busch Entertainment Corporation), the company will respond aggressively.

SeaWorld and other similar animal parks claim that they are educating the public about creatures that most of us would never see. Education about animals is important, but we do not need to learn about whales by watching them waste away in a large swimming pool, or by doing tricks to entertain us. There are books, movies, and whale watches to consider. And if you are never splashed by “Shamu,” so be it. Perhaps some things are just not meant to be.

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