Kelli Bender
March 25, 2015 11:45 AM

For years, animal activists have attacked SeaWorld for keeping orca whales in captivity, and now one of the park’s most talented trainers is joining the fight.

John Hargrove performed with and trained killer whales for 14 years, mostly at SeaWorld, until he could no longer handle the conditions of the job. In a radio interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Hargrove explains how he grew to love all the animals he worked with and couldn’t stand seeing the irreversible harm captivity caused them.

“As I became higher-ranked, I saw the devastating effects of captivity on these whales and it just really became a moral and ethical issue,” Hargrove told Fresh Air’s Dave Davies about working at SeaWorld.

“When you first start to see it, you first try to say, ‘Okay, well, I love these animals; I’m going to take care of them.’ … You think, ‘I can change things.’ And then all these things, of course, never improve and then you start … seeing mothers separated from their calves; you start seeing trainers being killed, and then they blame [the trainers] for their own deaths.”

Hargrove plans to reveal the sad realities of a captive whale’s life and how this unnatural situation can put trainers in harm’s way in his new book Beneath the Surface.

In the tell-all, Hargrove says that being stuck in captivity can cause orcas to become understandably aggressive, which can lead to injuries and even death for the animals and the trainers who work with them. Hargrove explains it was SeaWorld’s lack of support and ignorance of the inherent dangers of his job that caused him to leave and urge others to stay away from the park.

“SeaWorld refuses to change its business model,” Hargrove told WKMG. “They want to say, ‘No, no, these animals are healthy and they’re thriving.’ I can personally tell you from being there for 14 years, they are not healthy and they are not thriving.”

Beneath the Surface includes Hargrove’s firsthand accounts of being injured on the job, watching calves be separated from their mothers, and seeing the stressors SeaWorld’s whales have to endure.

This is not the first time Hargrove has spoken out against his former employer. He was one of seven trainers who appeared in the documentary Blackfish about trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death and SeaWorld’s allegedly inhumane practices. The trainer says he plans to continue sharing these experiences until SeaWorld acknowledges its wrongdoing and makes changes.

“I finally came to the realization that if I had to live their lives, it would be hell,” Hargrove writes in his book. “Captivity is always captivity, no matter how gentle the jailer.”

In response to Hargrove’s book, SeaWorld has released a statement claiming the former trainer is spreading incorrect information:

“Despite the false claims from John Hargrove and other extreme animal rights activists like PETA, we provide the highest standards of care as noted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and are highly regulated by the federal government. Anyone doing their research will find that not only does the book contain statements that are either purposefully misleading or demonstratively false, much of the content is contrary to Hargrove’s own previous statements.”

SeaWorld has also launched a new ad campaign to shoot down the negative claims made in Blackfish and by animal activist groups. The spots feature the parks’ medical professionals defending the care and protection SeaWorld’s animals receive.

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