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Former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove tells PEOPLE the news is great, but "talk is cheap"

By Char Adams
Updated March 17, 2016 02:45 PM
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Credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/Getty

Animal activists are rejoicing after SeaWorld officials announced the company would end its longstanding practice of both breeding orca whales and making them perform in theatrical shows.

“[This] is what I have fought for since the beginning,” John Hargrove, a former trainer at the theme park and now one of its biggest critics, tells PEOPLE.

“This is what I wanted, to end the breeding program and for this to be the last generation of orcas in captivity.”

The company made the announcement on Thursday, vowing to end orca breeding that day and introduce “new, inspiring, natural orca encounters, rather than theatrical shows, as part of its ongoing commitment to education.”

Hargrove says the news is music to his ears, but isn’t getting too excited just yet.

“If what [Joel Manby] says is true, then he should be applauded and I support him,” Hargrove said, referring to the SeaWorld CEO. “However, talk is cheap. And SeaWorld has a history of not being such an honest company.”

Hargrove performed with and trained killer whales for nearly 15 years – mainly at SeaWorld – but left when he could no longer handle the conditions of the job. He soon became an animal activist, criticizing the company’s practices and even writing a tell-all book, Beneath the Surface, detailing the sad realities of whales held captive.

Although the news isn’t a complete victory, Hargrove says, it’s a step in the right direction.

“Living in a perfect world, this would be a sea sanctuary-type setting,” he said of the theme park. “Even if it’s not picture perfect the way we wanted it to be, still, this is really damn good.”

Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish, a 2013 documentary criticizing the sea-park industry, echoed Hargrove’s comments, telling people in a statement that the company’s decision should be celebrated.

“I am blown away by this news,” she says. “Of course we want more. Change should always be dynamic. We want these whales now to be retired to sea sanctuaries.

“But this announcement shows they’re completely shifting the heart of their business model. We have to celebrate this secured high ground and see what lies ahead.”

With the good news, Hargrove says he is wary that SeaWorld officials may not keep their word – “I’m cautiously optimistic,” Hargrove tells PEOPLE. But, he says, he’s marking the news down as a victory.

“We rarely get living in a perfect world, so I think this is the next best thing,” he says.

“As long as you stop the breeding program then we’ve won and we have ended orca captivity and that’s the goal.”