Home Editorial John Hargrove: Raising Awareness for Orcas in Captivity Worldwide

John Hargrove: Raising Awareness for Orcas in Captivity Worldwide

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On November 16, Dive News Network had the unique opportunity to attend an interview with orca (“killer” whale) activist John Hargrove, given by ‘the voice of Westchester’ WVOX radio talk show host Melissa Lonquich on her weekly show “Dive into Life”. Hargrove is also the author of New York Times Best Seller in 5 separate categories for his book, Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish.

Free Orca Whales

During the interview Hargrove offered listeners new insights: into the deplorable conditions of orcas at SeaWorld, the intense public relations campaign against him by SeaWorld management, and his views on a variety of issues surfaced by Lonquich.

While the interview with Hargrove was ‘the main event’, radio talk show host interviewer Melissa Lonquich gets a vigorous shout out for her engaging rapport and incisive conversation starters with John Hargrove.  Lonquich – owing to her style and presence — brought to light many new aspects and the challenges encountered by Hargrove in his campaign.

Before turning to the Hargrove interview, let’s circle around with interviewer Melissa Lonquich!  Her style (expressive Italian handwaving and rapid- fire questioning) offers no quarter, yet her empathy suffuses the interviewee – gaining access to her subject’s thoughts and feelings, and those of her audience.  Lonquich ‘gets it’, and she gets inside. Her weekly program quickly became a staple feature at Westchester NY’s WVOX radio programming. A Philosophy major and Theology minor from St. Johns University, she now also holds two Masters degrees in Childhood Education and TESOL(Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). She has a storied history: while a student at Saunders Trades and Technical High School in Yonkers, NY she was the first female to graduate with a major in automotive technology, and was also the first female ice hockey player to play for the city of Yonkers on an all boys team.

By day she is a beloved NYC middle school teacher (Da Bronx is her beat, rough and tumble), with English As A Second Language (ESL) as her specialty; her social media portals are plastered with heartwarming notes from her students.

She is a PADI Master Scuba Diver, and on the leadership team of The Scuba Sports Club of Westchester. She is also a rising star in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, passing challenging exam after exam! (So, how did that Coast Guard thing happen? Melissa’s friend has a boat that she was on often; there were some boating safety requirements; so… never one to let a learning opportunity pass, Melissa dove in.

Her Coast Guard team was taken with her and recruited her, and she is now their Staff Officer of diversity, an instructor for Coast Guard boating safety courses, a certified vessel examiner, and she is finishing up her boat crew qualifications this Spring ~ a truly intrepid ‘Coastie’!).  Lonquich is also a long-time volunteer at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk Connecticut, where she attracts (generally benign) attention from the seven huge sand tiger sharks and a lemon shark which call that aquarium home.

She spent a lot of her life as a competitive fighter and now trains and competes in “strong(wo)man” competitions through NY Strong in Mamaroneck, NY; just the photos of her exploits are enough to result in herniated discs…  With a ‘larger than life’ background/credentials like that, Lonquich is well positioned to successfully engage in even the most challenging interviews!

‘Larger than life’ also describes John Hargrove!  When interviewed in the film Blackfish, he indicted SeaWorld for its immoral actions of keeping orcas confined to what amounts to concrete backyard pools – with the result that some orcas developed aggressive behaviors (something like a psychotic break); separating mother orcas from their calves with a lifelong, shared bond– inflicting terrible emotional damage on them both (particularly egregious because orcas have an arguably larger and more advanced emotion-processing brain function than humans do); and worst of all, setting the blame for the death of SeaWorld senior level orca trainer Dawn Brancheau on Dawn herself – when she was no longer able to defend herself.

The trainers all knew the truth. Hargrove and Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite – along with seven other SeaWorld trainers interviewed in the film, have achieved positive change in SeaWorld practices, and have resulted in improved safety for orca trainers in aquaparks featuring orca shows.

Hargrove revealed that as a child he had marveled at the orca called Shamu at SeaWorld, and resolved that this was to be his life’s work – an orca trainer.    He proved greatly proficient at this work, and advanced up the ranks of orca training rapidly, ascending to the pinnacle of this elite profession, working at SeaWorld for fourteen years.  There are only about twenty orca trainers qualified to be in the water with orcas at any given time worldwide.  However, the higher he rose, the more frustrated he became with the decisions being made by SeaWorld senior management, which put the parks’ needs above the welfare of the animals.

John is all about honesty – and spoke about the joy of training orcas and just being in the water with them. The photos of Hargrove with the orcas reveal this deep joy. John also discussed the depth of the relationship which develops between trainer and orca. Day in, day out, performing for audiences creates a complex bond – and reciprocated love – between the trainer and the orcas. Emotional intimacies develop – being a sensitive person, John sensed the daily moods of the orcas he trained with; they in turn intuited at some level the daily rhythms of his life. In fact, during John’s presentation two years ago to The Scuba Sports Club, he reported that female orcas would know when their female trainers were pregnant – often before the trainer themselves — and would not engage in vigorous training regimens with them for fear of harming their trainer’s fetus. (Make no mistake – these orcas are huge and heavy, weighing between 8,000 and 12,000lbs – and immensely powerful.  Trainers sustain bad and even terrible injuries during their routines with the orcas under the best of circumstances, with no malice by the orcas…).

His intense emotional connection with the animals lead him to his terrible personal dilemma – leave SeaWorld in frustration, or stay at SeaWorld — where he could at least advocate for the animals’ wellbeing and possibly prevail in whole or in part.

However, after the egregious behavior of SeaWorld – blaming Dawn for the incident in 2010 which resulted in her gruesome death –  and the outrageous claim by SeaWorld that it had no knowledge of any risk factors to orca trainers (despite trainer deaths and many serious injuries to orca trainers), Hargrove made the decision to leave. He then devoted himself outside the SeaWorld corporate system to protecting orcas at SeaWorld and elsewhere. Effecting change in these corporations for the improvement for conditions for orcas became John’s mission;

John is a warrior in the fight for orca wellbeing, and his book Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish is a manifesto for positive change and both a challenge and inspiration to zoological parks worldwide.  Many zoos are divesting of large mammals such as rhinos and elephants for the very reasons advanced by Hargrove – that these species are not emotionally suited to a confined existence, and many suffer emotional trauma.

The corporate machine ramped up to fight Hargrove tooth and nail: outrageous, personal, disingenuous (and utterly ineffective) smear campaigns were directed against him by SeaWorld.  John prevailed: due to his efforts and those allied with him, SeaWorld’s captive breeding program, export/import of whales, and separation of mothers from their calves was ordered stopped by the Orca Protection Act in 2016. The Orca Protection Act was signed into law after John and team soundly defeated SeaWorld and their lobbyists by a 12-1 vote in 2016.

SeaWorld should be ashamed at their duplicitous actions in professing concern over the wellbeing of their orca trainers knowing full well the risks they faced, and should be humiliated by their abject failure to discredit Hargrove (which merely resulted in monumental blowback). John’s bottom line message to us: follow the money and don’t accept at face value claims made by big business, especially when lives (in this case, orca trainers and orcas) are at risk.  Wise advice and important successes — from a self-admitted rascal when he was in high school student! Despite these attacks by SeaWorld, John’s crusade is being taken up by new generations who are now becoming responsible for animal well-being; they are launching to the task just as John once so majestically did in the SeaWorld pools, propelled skyward by his orca companions.  Hats off John, and we all wish you every success going forward!