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Former Orca Trainer For SeaWorld Condemns Its Practices

John Hargrove says he left SeaWorld after seeing "devastating effects of captivity" on orcas. His new book is Beneath The Surface. SeaWorld's Christopher Dold says such criticism is "unfounded."



March 23, 2015

Guests: John Hargrove - Chris Dold & Chuck Tompkins

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off today. Last year, 4 million people visited SeaWorld's theme parks where the prized attractions are shows featuring massive killer whales or orcas. For years, activists have charged that keeping orcas in captivity is harmful to the animals and risky for the trainers who work for them - a case that gained urgency in 2010 when Dawn Brancheau, a veteran orca trainer, was dragged into the water and killed by a whale at the SeaWorld Park in Orlando.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Orange County Sheriff's Office.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We need SO to respond for a dead person at SeaWorld. A whale has eaten one of the trainers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A whale ate one of the trainers?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's correct.

DAVIES: That 911 call was featured in the documentary "Blackfish" released in 2013. Brancheau was not eaten, as the caller said, but the whale did kill her. The documentary also covers an incident two months earlier at a theme park in Spain, when an orca killed a trainer named Alexis Martinez. The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated the tragedy in Orlando and concluded SeaWorld had exposed trainers to hazardous conditions, and it fined the corporation. And its order later upheld on appeal. OSHA also effectively banned SeaWorld from permitting its personnel to enter its tanks to train and perform with orcas, a practice known as waterwork.

Our first guest today is John Hargrove, who spent 14 years as a killer whale trainer, mostly at SeaWorld. He eventually became disillusioned with the company's treatment of the orcas and is one of seven former trainers who criticize the company in the documentary "Blackfish." Later in the show, we'll get a response from SeaWorld's curator of zoological operations, Chuck Tompkins, and its vice president of veterinary services, Dr. Chris Dold. Former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove has a new memoir called "Beneath The Surface."

John Hargrove, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to begin with the incident that you describe at the very beginning of the book. You're in France at this point, and you're in the water with a whale named Freya. What happened?

JOHN HARGROVE: I had an aggressive incident with her. It was the most severe waterwork aggression I had in my career, and it was the only time in my career in a waterwork aggression where I remember being truly unnerved by it - feeling like that I may not be able to get out of the situation. I had been swimming with her son in another pool, and then I ultimately ended up swimming with Freya. And as soon as I dove into her pool, I had another trainer throw me some fish. And Freya came at me, and I offered the fish to her. She refused the fish, and she immediately started pushing me, with a closed mouth but into my chest, and pushing me into the middle of the pool. While I was trying to deflect off her best I could, but those animals are so incredibly agile. There's no way. So she just stayed on me and just kept on me where there was no way I could deflect off till she had me right in the middle of the pool. And they do that because you're furthest away from safety. You're furthest away from land. You're furthest away from the other trainers. And then she drug the entire length of the side of her body down my body, making contact, so with her underside, her ventral side of her body, with the side of my body. And then she stopped with her tail flukes, one submerged, one above the water. And I didn't know if she was going to hit me in the head with her tail flukes, which would've easily broken my neck. She did not do that, thankfully and obviously, but then she went under. She ultimately sank down below me. She turned sideways. She opened her mouth, and she put the entire width of my body in her mouth right as I called out to the trainer that was closest to me to, you know, get ready to call paramedics. As soon as I said that last word, she pulled me under. She didn't hold me under very long or pull me very deep. And she ultimately opened her mouth, and she and I both floated to the surface together. And I repeated it - call paramedics. And she rolled. She grabbed me again in her mouth. She pulled me under. It was the exact same topography as the first pull-under.

DAVIES: And was this a pattern that you recognized?

HARGROVE: Certainly, I had seen trainers being pulled under by whales before, and I had been pulled under by whales before. But I had never seen a whale grab a trainer by their torso before. So to feel her entire jaws - and she's 7,000 pounds - around my hip bones. I mean, you know, seeing her, looking her in the eye during the entire incident. So I knew - I could see Freya's eyes still focused on me also, and I knew she wasn't going to let me swim out.

DAVIES: This is a harrowing tale, and it goes on. When I read that - and I'm sure as other readers read about that incident, their thought will be, how could you possibly ever get back in the water with a whale again? And when you read the book, I understand because I understand your great affection for these animals and the relationship you built with them. So I want to talk now a bit about these animals, these killer whales, the orcas. You know, it's interesting. You say you have trouble calling them animals. You call them beings. You write that when a killer whale looked you in the eye, you'd see an intelligence. Tell us about that.

HARGROVE: There's something almost scary to it - the intelligence level of these animals - their level of problem-solving, how tightly united their social groups are, their family units, especially - not so much just these whales that have been moved around to different parks, but the animals that are true family members. It's really remarkable.

DAVIES: You know, few of us follow careers that we've aspired to since childhood, but you have. When did you become enchanted with orcas?

HARGROVE: Six-years-old, 1980. It was the first time I ever went to SeaWorld. I was with my mother and my stepfather, and it was the first Shamu Stadium show that I saw. And I just remember being so seduced and mesmerized by it, just seeing, you know, this large stadium and 5,000 people and these incredible animals and seeing people in the water with these animals. And at that point, I was already, of course, an animal lover, but I had never seen anything this size and the magnificence of a killer whale. And so seeing a person interact and having this, you know, relationship with an animal like that - it hit me at a cellular level and never left me. And I, you know, obsessively pursued it from that point forward.

DAVIES: Yeah, you describe how you spent time at SeaWorld. You pestered the trainers, talked to them and eventually did all the things you have to do - become an excellent swimmer, go and study, eventually got to Sea World and got to work with killer whales. I'd like you to describe a little bit about what the performances are like there, what you would actually do in the water with the whales, what people would see.

HARGROVE: Well, when we'd do shows? When we were still...


HARGROVE: ...Swimming in the shows? You know, what we would try to highlight in the show is we would try to show the smaller waterwork behaviors that would really kind of show off our relationship with the animals. And then ultimately, we would work our way into the more dramatic behaviors - you know, the hydro hops, the rocket hops where you see the whales throwing us through the air and we're diving off the whale, surf rides...

DAVIES: Surf rides is where you're holding onto the whale and it just cruises around the arena, yeah?

HARGROVE: Well, you're standing on their back and you're riding them like - essentially you're surfing on them. You know, surfing on the back of them like you would a surfboard. You know, so those types of bigger, more dramatic behaviors. So we would like to, you know, showboat the smaller behaviors and show the relationship. And then get into the big, dramatic stuff that, you know, you can't do off of a dolphin, but you can do off of an 8,000-pound killer whale just because of the sheer size and strength of the animal.

DAVIES: You mentioned their size. How big is an orca compared to dolphins?

HARGROVE: You know, I never worked with dolphins, but my understanding, say, of a bottlenose dolphin, they're roughly around 500, 600 pounds. I'd say more 500, even less than that, certainly, if it's a female. And killer whales - the largest female in the world and actually the first killer whale I ever swam with, Corky - she's in California, she's still alive - she's 8,200 pounds. Tilikum, who killed Dawn, he was - he is 12,000 pounds. Ulises in California, he's an adult male, he's 10,000 pounds now. So you can see the radical difference in size.

DAVIES: Many times larger than a human. Like, it's like being...

HARGROVE: Absolutely.

DAVIES: ...In the tank with something the size of a truck.

HARGROVE: It's an amazing force. I mean, even the smallest behaviors that we do on the animals, people don't realize the force that that creates on our body and the compression on our joints. When you're having an 8,000-pound animal push you around the pool, it's not - you're not effortlessly gliding through the water like most people think. You know, it's like having two SUVs pushing you around and you're just on one foot. And then you're making all the turns and moves and the animal's shifting and - so it's an enormous amount of pressure on your body and joints. And that's why we have so many injuries and so many problems with our bodies later.

DAVIES: One of the things you write a lot about in your book are the stresses that killer whales experience living in captivity in SeaWorld. And I want to talk about some of those. Now, in the wild, of course, these animals live their whole lives with a social group that they're very accustomed to who understand their vocalizations. What happens when they're in SeaWorld and are mixed with whales outside their social group?

HARGROVE: We see a lot of aggression between the whales. We see - and we would describe it as hyper-aggression. There's a lot of it. There's a lot of raking. So that's when one whale is cutting another whale with their teeth. Sometimes those rakes are superficial, and other times they are very deep and just deep gashes where the whale is, you know, just looks like, you know, profuse bleeding and bleeding out. And, you know, they would have to be on heavy, heavy doses of antibiotics to try to prevent infection setting in, and sometimes infection would set in. And one time, Ulises bit Corky's tail flukes. You can actually still see it if you go to a show - which I don't encourage people to do - but if you just see on video there's a big notch taken out of Corky's fluke, and that was from Ulises biting her, and she nearly died from that from it getting infected. So you see a lot of that type of behavior with the whales in captivity.

DAVIES: You know, I - the SeaWorld officials that we spoke to, I asked them this, I mean because clearly there is a lot of raking, which does damage to the whales' bodies. And I said, is this something that you see in the wild? They said yeah, you see it all the time. What do you think?

HARGROVE: Well, I think what they're doing is - there's always a half-truth or a part truth to that. You can see raking in the wild, and it's mild, and it's - a lot of times it's playful and, again, it's superficial. And it's not to the level of what I'm describing in captivity. So they try to explain it away with well, you'll see that in the wild, but, no, it's completely different. What you see in the wild - that type of raking is not what you see in captivity in places like at SeaWorld. It's completely different.

DAVIES: Our guest is John Hargrove. He spent many years as a trainer of killer whales at SeaWorld. His new book about the experience is called "Beneath The Surface." We'll continue our conversation in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with John Hargrove. He spent many years training orcas - killer whales - at SeaWorld and has written a book about his experiences. It's called "Beneath The Surface."

Now, you say mothers and their offspring will spend their entire lives together in the wild, staying in the same social group. SeaWorld says that it never separates mothers from calves, young children. What is your observation of that?

HARGROVE: This is one of the most infuriating things to me because I can tell you, my own personal knowledge - so this is a conservative number - I know of 19 calves we have taken from their mother.

DAVIES: Are we talking about a distinction of language here? I mean, is this semantics? I mean, they - I think when they say calves, they mean offspring who are still dependent on their moms, as opposed to, you know, those that are grown and self-sufficient.

HARGROVE: This, again, is where SeaWorld tries to be clever and tries to get people with semantics. They've - what they've tried to do is redefine the word calf by saying a calf is no longer a calf once they're not nursing with their mother anymore. And that's just simply - that's just not true. A calf is always a calf. So for example, Kasatka and Takara, when they were separated when Takara was 12, Takara is still Kasatka's calf, and they would remain together for life in the wild. So but of course...

DAVIES: Did you witness this yourself?

HARGROVE: I worked and swam with both of those whales, but when the separation actually happened in 2004, I had just left France. I went on to France, and then I had left France. But then when I came back to the SeaWorld Park in 2008, I was privy to all the details of that incident because Takara then came to Texas. And so now I was working and swimming with Takara again, so I needed to know every single thing that had happened with her since I had last worked with her for my own safety. So one of those things that I had to have knowledge of was that separation that took place in 2004.

So I knew every detail and every - of that incident and how the animals responded. And you know, and it was horrific. It was horrific what happened to Kasatka and Takara and still affects them years later. But you know, Takara was not nursing Kasatka at age 12, but she was still Takara's calf. And it was an extremely traumatic event to separate them, and like I said, still is years later.

So that's where SeaWorld tries to get people with semantics. And besides, even if - just say, even if that were true, which it's not, SeaWorld has separated mothers from their calves before they had stopped nursing. They took Keet away from Kalina, and he was only 20 months old. And he was still nursing. So, I mean, it has happened.

DAVIES: Going back to the separation of the mother Kasatka from her daughter Takara, what manifestations of stress or grieving, if you want to call it that, did Kasatka show when that happened? I mean, they literally took her daughter out of the water.

HARGROVE: That's right. We trick the whales when this happens, when there's a separation like that. We'll wait to even bring up the cranes until after we get the animals that are going to be transported to another park. We'll first make sure that we get those whales into the med pool because the whales are so smart, they know that even if they hear the cranes coming up the pathway or certainly if they see them, they won't separate. They won't allow it to happen because they know the - what's the possibility. They're so smart, and they've seen it before that, you know, one of the members of their family or their social group could be taken away from them. So we'll wait until we get them into the med pool, and then once we have them in the med pool, then we drive the crane up. But you know, you'll see just extremely upset vocalizations from whales that are in the med pool and whales that are being taken away and then the whales that they're being taken away from.

And in fact, with Kasatka and Takara, Kasatka, who had been in captivity for 30 years, she was emitting vocalizations that had never been heard before ever by anyone. And so they brought in one of their own SeaWorld researchers from the Hubbs Research Institute - SeaWorld Research Institute. She analyzed those vocals and determined that they were long-range vocals. And she was emitting those vocalizations that were determined to be long-range 'cause she was looking - you know, obviously Takara was gone, and she was trying something that - anything that she could to try to locate and communicate with Takara, which is absolutely heartbreaking. And those vocalizations continued on for a long time.

DAVIES: You know, I asked the SeaWorld officials about that, and they said, well - they thought that, you know, people like you were misinterpreting some of the vocalizations that occurred in circumstances like that. And further, they said that when they move whales from one facility to another, it's done with careful attention to the social groups so that conflicts don't occur and they don't feel stress from missing family members.

HARGROVE: Well, there was no misinterpretation of those vocalizations because I certainly understand what types of vocalizations whales make and what those vocalizations mean. And this information was communicated to me by a senior manager from Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld of California. So obviously that was their determination of their vocalizations, which was communicated to me rightfully so. So there's no real gray area there for any misinterpretation of what those vocalizations might have meant. Everyone clearly understood that it was an extremely traumatic event for both Kasatka and Takara. And I'm sorry, the second part of your question was...

DAVIES: Well, they were saying that they manage this stuff carefully and pay a lot of attention to social groups, which whales get along, that kind of thing.

HARGROVE: Well, OK, then a great rebuttal to that is, if they paid such careful attention to that, they wouldn't have taken Kohana from Takara. Kohana was only 3 years old when they took...

DAVIES: Kohana was the daughter of Takara, right?

HARGROVE: Exactly.


HARGROVE: And ironically, up on SeaWorld's - their own page, The Truth About Blackfish, they have a picture of Takara with her calf Kohana, and they say, we do not separate mothers from their calves. OK, right now, Takara is at SeaWorld of Texas, and Kohana is in Spain. So they are separated. And they actually took Kohana away from Takara when she was only 3 years old. And that put Kohana in a social situation where she had no mother at the age of 3 and no other adult females. So what happened was, she was inbred with her Uncle Keto. He inbred her twice. She had the calf. And because she was just a baby, really, no other whale to learn from, no mother to learn from, she rejected both of her calves, and the second calf died within its first year. So I don't think that that would classify as them taking into careful consideration what's best for social pairing when you're starting to inbreed animals.

DAVIES: You write that the whales in SeaWorld chew the paint from the bottom of the pools.

HARGROVE: They do. They chew it everywhere. They'll chew it off the bottom of the pool. They'll bite the stage. They'll peel it from the sidewalls. They'll peel it from the ledges of the pool just out of sheer boredom because their environment is so horrifically sterile. And in the process, they wear down their teeth. And once their teeth are so badly worn down, they'll develop a pinhole in it. And once that pinhole develops, then they'll get an abscess which can kill them very quickly. So then we're forced, for health reasons - which is a horrible thing for the whales, but it's kind of the lesser of two evils. We have to manually drill that tooth in what's known as a pulpotomy.

And then after that, now they have this open pathway directly to the bloodstream, which can kill them. And we have had whales that we believe - that have died from those problems with their teeth. So we have to, every day, invasively irrigate those drilled holes in their teeth. We go in with a metal catheter with a hydrogen peroxide solution and have to invasively irrigate two to three times a day just to try to keep that hole open and not blocked because if you don't - if you don't irrigate very well and you miss something, it does become blocked. They can get that abscess, and they can die, which is what we believe happened with Kalina, the original baby of Shamu who died in 2010.

DAVIES: And you would participate in these dental surgeries a lot, right?

HARGROVE: Absolutely. Every day, I was a irrigating the whales' teeth that needed to be irrigated, which is, you know, roughly about 50 percent of the whales in our collection. Their teeth are so bad that we've had to drill - so every single day, I was irrigating killer whale teeth.

DAVIES: John Hargrove's new memoir is called "Beneath The Surface." After a break, he'll talk about the 2010 incident at SeaWorld's Orlando Park when a whale pulled an experienced trainer into the water and killed her. We'll also hear from two senior officials at SeaWorld. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with John Hargrove, a former senior trainer of killer whales at SeaWorld's theme parks, who became disillusioned and left the company in 2012. He has a new memoir about his experiences with orcas called "Beneath The Surface."

Everything changed for SeaWorld in 2010 when a senior, experienced trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was dragged into the water and killed. Do you want to tell us what happened - your take on that event?

HARGROVE: Sure. Dawn was very experienced. She was working with Tilikum during a "Dine With Shamu," the show out front.

DAVIES: Tilikum was the whale? Yeah, go ahead.

HARGROVE: Yeah, exactly - a 12,000-pound male. And Dawn was on his close-contact team, so only certain approved trainers were on his close-contact team. And she was working with Tilikum the way she was allowed to work with Tilikum. She wasn't breaking any rules or protocols. She wasn't swimming with him. And, you know, he made the choice to grab her and pull her into the pool. We will never know why Tilikum made that choice. And we will never know for sure if Tilikum intended to kill her or if he was just in such a rage.

But what we do know without question - even though SeaWorld denies it now publicly, but internally we never denied it and we always discussed it as so - is that it was an aggressive event. So, I mean, even in court, in the OSHA hearings, SeaWorld attempted to try to say it was not aggressive behavior. But I can tell you, all of our senior-level internal meetings, we always discussed it as what it was, which was a highly aggressive event. I mean, he didn't just drown Dawn, he dismembered her. So, I mean, it was definitely - and he never responded to any attempt to call him over. All the emergency recalls that the whales are trained on failed. He never came over, and he was emitting highly upset vocals throughout the entire incident. And again, like I said, in the end, tragically, she was not only dead, but she was dismembered. To say that - even try to claim that it was not aggressive is just vulgar.

DAVIES: There are a number of really harrowing episodes that you describe in the book where trainers - there's another one where a trainer named Alexis Martinez was killed at a park in Spain, that while distinct from SeaWorld uses SeaWorld trainers. And then many examples in SeaWorld parks where trainers were in danger. When we spoke to the SeaWorld folks, they said these incidents are extremely rare. Would you agree?

HARGROVE: I think they're extremely rare when they're killed and they're dismembered, like with Alexis and Dawn. But aggression towards trainers is not extremely rare, and in fact we just keep that from the public. And if it doesn't happen in the media, if the media doesn't get hold of it, then you guys never hear about it. And the perfect example of that is the one in "Blackfish" where Tamarie is pulled in by both Splash and Orkid. We had that videotape under lock and key at Shamu Stadium, and only us Shamu Stadium trainers ever saw that video. But...

DAVIES: Now, this was Tamarie Tollison...

HARGROVE: That's right.

DAVIES: ...Who was dragged into the water by a whale named Orkid and bitten, right?

HARGROVE: Yeah, Orkid grabbed her by the foot. But then after Orkid pulled her under, Splash and Orkid both held her under, and then Splash crunched her arm, bit her arm, and compound fractured her arm. And she nearly died in that incident; she would've died if Robin Sheets wouldn't have made the decision to take the chain off Kasatka's gate...

DAVIES: That's an...

HARGROVE: ...Because Kasatka was more dominant. So that video only surfaced to the public under the Freedom of Information Act because it was included as evidence in the OSHA hearings - OSHA versus SeaWorld, over Dawn being killed. And my point of that is, is that there are many of those and there are still many of those that the public are not aware of. You know, we would have a lot of major water-work aggressions, we just would not tell them to the public for obvious reasons.

DAVIES: For many years, people have criticized keeping orcas in captivity, have criticized SeaWorld. You stuck with the company for a long time, defended it, believed in it. What finally made you leave?

HARGROVE: You know, I was a 100 percent SeaWorld loyalist and respected people like Chuck Tompkins. I still have a very high level of respect for Chuck. I know that Chuck loves the whales, but I also understand the position that he's in to protect the company. But what changed for me was that I really - 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.

And, you know, when you first start to see it, you first try to say, OK, well, I love these animals; I'm going to take care of them. Then you think, well, I can change things. And then, you know, all these things of course never improve. And then you start getting directed; you start seeing mothers separated from the calves; you start seeing trainers being killed and then they blame them for their own death, and then you - ultimately in court, you know, SeaWorld testify they had no knowledge we had a dangerous job. And for me, that was the final straw.

DAVIES: What did your years in the water with orcas do to your body?

HARGROVE: Oh, gosh. Well, I have - I've had major sinus surgery here in New York where they had to cut out scar tissue in all four compartments of my sinuses and saw away bone because of the cold, so many years of being exposed to the cold water had caused my bones to thicken in my skull. I have major cartilage destruction in both of my knees and in my back. I've lacerated my face to the skull - 17 stitches to close up. I've broken my foot. I've broken toes. I've broken fingers. I've broken my ribs two times. I've been treated for thoracic strain for a couple of years. Actually, I'm glad it's a little easier now. But, you know, it helps when you're actually not swimming with the whales anymore. But, you know, so I have a laundry list of injuries, and, you know, they're only going to get worse. I'm 41 years old now, and I have these injuries. I mean, they were taking x-rays of me and saying that my back already was reflective of a back of someone in their 60s.

DAVIES: And yet you stayed in the water, and I gather in a lot of ways, you really miss it still, don't you?

HARGROVE: You know, I'm conflicted. You know, I'll always miss the whales. I love those whales, and they gave me the most unbelievable memories that I'll cherish for the rest of my life. And I was there because I loved them and because I wanted to have that life with them. But I hate the fact that I was a part of a system that took these animals from their natural environment, stripped them away from their family, often killing members of their family in the process. And now that they are treated as a breeding, you know, baby machines and just, you know, stripping the calves away from their mother and moving them around and now there's inbreeding going on.

You know, one of the worst examples is the forced artificial insemination. You know, just in July of 2013 they forcibly artificially inseminated Kalia, and she was only 8 years old. In the wild, she wouldn't breed until 13 to 15. So she's not even - she's years away from being fully developed at 8 years old, and they forcibly inseminated her at 8. And I don't think - how can anyone look at these types of things that are going on and say that this is morally and ethically acceptable? It's just not.

DAVIES: John Hargrove, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HARGROVE: Thank you so much for having me.

DAVIES: John Hargrove's new memoir is called "Beneath The Surface." Coming up, we'll hear from SeaWorld's curator of zoological services and its supervisor of veterinary services. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We've heard a lot of criticisms of SeaWorld's treatment of killer whales at its parks and the risks its trainers face. A trainer was killed by a whale in Orlando in 2010. After a lengthy court battle, a judge upheld the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's conclusion that SeaWorld had exposed its trainers to danger and that it should not be allowed to let its personnel enter the water with whales. For a response, we spoke with SeaWorld's curator of zoological operations, Chuck Tompkins, and its vice president of veterinary services, Dr. Chris Dold.

Dr. Chris Dold, Chuck Tompkins, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you for joining us. You know, a common theme in the film "Blackfish" and in John Hargrove's book about his experience is the assertion that the conditions of captivity to the killer whales at SeaWorld are cruel to the animals and create dangerous situations for their trainers. So I want to kind of go through some parts of that. In the film "Blackfish" - and John Hargrove makes the same point in his book, that there are cases where mothers were separated from offspring. And it was very traumatic for them. There are clear signs of mourning. And Hargrove believes that this creates behavioral - stresses and behavioral problems. I know SeaWorld says it doesn't separate calves from mothers - calves as - defined as, I guess, younger offspring. But are there - but are moms separated from daughters or sons they've been with their whole lives, and is that a potential - does that then create stress and potential behavioral problems?

TOMPKINS: Well, this is Chuck. I've been involved in several moves where we have moved the animals because of social needs or a particular group of animals didn't get along or we wanted a breeding group to be more successful. We have moved adult animals or sub-adult animals, but we've never moved a calf from a mom.

DAVIES: What's a calf? How do you define a calf?

TOMPKINS: A calf is some - an animal young enough who's still dependent on the mom, still nursing with the mom and still requires the mom's leadership. We think they're probably dependent probably for four to five years. So after that, they start to gain their independence, and very quickly, they become their own animals in the social group. So a calf, to me, is a very young animal who's dependent on the mom. And we've never moved any of those young animals like that.

For the animals that we have moved, we obviously are aware of what we're doing and what we're about to do, and we prepare those animals for that move. They spend more time in their own social groups. They've already shown that behavior anyway. And we've trained them to be relaxed during that move. To say that they're uncomfortable or stressed, that's just not the way we do our business at SeaWorld. We don't put any animal in any stressful situation.

DAVIES: OK. Now, in the book, and this is also in the film, John Hargrove describes a heartbreaking scene in which a mom - it might've been Kasatka - I have trouble with the whale names - but clearly was distressed and making vocalizations that he'd never heard before, indicating that whatever preparation, she found this very difficult and behaved differently immediately afterward.

TOMPKINS: His interpretation of the environment is completely different from mine or any other trainer that was there. These animals are very vocal. And anytime you're doing something different in the environment, these animals can become vocal. But never during these situations have we heard those type of vocals that would indicate stress or uncomfortability or anything of that nature, or we wouldn't continue with the process.

DOLD: This is Dr. Dold. There's a theme, and maybe a bit of exaggeration, about each of these processes as described in the film, which I'm certainly familiar with, that really sort of sensationalizes what we're doing in those stories that are told from the standpoint of those who are criticizing us. The main point is that every decision we make around a social setting for the whales, around moving a whale from one park to another one, is founded in respect for the animals. We spend a long time not just, as Chuck mentioned, preparing a whale, if it's going to move, for that move, behaviorally, but also working as a team to decide, is this social situation that we may be creating or changing still going to work for the health and well-being of all of the animals?

And there's one last part of this story that I'll share here because the way we manage our whales, as close as we are with the whales that we care for in our parks, it is very different than what a wild killer whale experiences. Remember, 80 percent of our whales, or more now, were born at a park at SeaWorld, and so one of the fundamental differences between a wild killer whale and the killer whales that live at our parks is that they have humans working with them every day. Human beings are a part of their lives. And so when we move a killer whale away from killer whales it's been living with for a long time, and that may be a mother killer whale or another sibling, some of that social group still goes with that whale. If it isn't a couple of the whales already that it grew up with moving with it, it's the trainers that that whale knows, as well as the other whales in its environment.

DAVIES: John Hargrove says that the whales chew on the paint in their tanks and sees this as - that this is harmful to their teeth and that it's a sign of stress.

DOLD: Killer whales do have worn teeth and a number of our whales have worn teeth. And it's important to note that wild killer whales wear their teeth as well. And just like our killer whales, it's a result of manipulating things in their environment. Remember, killer whales, bottlenose dolphins, these species of toothed whales and dolphins, they don't have hands, and so they use their mouths to manipulate their environment. And you'll see if you look on the Internet, you'll look at photos of stranded killer whales, and you actually see that a lot of them have the exact same tooth profile as our killer whales. If they are manipulating things in their environment or they're brushing against a more abrasive surface, like a wall, there may be some tooth wear as a result. The important difference is, of course, that we have a team of veterinarians there to intervene. If that were to develop into a problem and on the rare occasion that it does, we can step in and provide comprehensive care for it.

DAVIES: You spoke earlier about raking. And raking is this activity where one whale will rake its teeth along the skin of another and create some kind of injury. And there are a lot of pictures in the film of raking, of whale skin being damaged and sometimes cuts that bleed. Hargrove writes about this as well. And what they say is that this is evidence of the stress and conflict that these whales experience in captivity. In the wild, when they can swim away from someone there in conflict, you just don't see much raking. Is that true?

DOLD: That's not true at all. Raking as a behavior isn't just prevalent in killer whales. It is the norm in any whale or dolphin species with teeth. That's how - one of the fundamental ways that these animals will exert dominance and, as Chuck mentioned, during aggressive interactions. And so this is completely part of normal killer whale behavior and killer whale interaction. It's normal part of bottlenose dolphin behavior and bottlenose dolphin interaction.

And, in fact, if you look at some of the very well-known and widely published photo ID catalogs that are out right now that are freely available - and it's great work done by field biologists looking at killer whales as a way of identifying individual whales and following them over time - you'll see that well over 80 percent of those photographs of just the dorsal fins alone and the little part of the back have rake marks from other killer whales as part of those whales. And that's just one small part of the whale. So it's well-known to be part of normal killer whale behavior, even wild killer whales that presumably have the ability to swim out of the way.

DAVIES: Dr. Chris Dold is vice president of veterinary services at SeaWorld. Chuck Tompkins is the corporate curator of zoological operations at the parks. This is FRESH AIR, and we'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking with Dr. Chris Dold; he is a vice president of veterinary services at SeaWorld. Also with us is Chuck Tompkins, the corporate curator of zoological operations. And we're talking about some of the issues raised by the film "Blackfish" and a recent book by former trainer John Hargrove.

Well, as you know, I mean, there was a terrible tragedy at the SeaWorld in Orlando in 2010 when a trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was killed after she was dragged into the water by a whale. And one of the things that a number of trainers were - felt very angry about was a sense that SeaWorld essentially blamed her for this accident, asserting that she'd had a ponytail and that that might have been the cause, and I think a lot of trainers felt betrayed by it - by the company's posture or what they see as the company's posture on that. Do either of you have opinion - an opinion to share about that?

TOMPKINS: Yes, I do. This is Chuck. I was actually the company spokesman during that time. And to be clear, I worked with Dawn her entire career. She was not only somebody that worked with us, but she was also a very, very close friend. That was a terrible emotional time for a lot of people. And we knew the facts and we - as much as we could at the time, we knew that her hair was grabbed, but that was not blaming anybody. We never, never publicly came out and blamed Dawn for anything. I think we were very respectful towards Dawn. I think we were very respectful towards the family. And in the hundred-something interviews that I did shortly after that, we simply stated the basic facts - that we knew what had happened, but we would seek what would happen, what were the facts - and we eventually decided that it was an accident that happened and there was not going to be blame. So I adamantly disagree that we disrespected Dawn in any way, shape or form.

DAVIES: Right. Well, and I never found a corporate statement to that effect. However, I mean, as you know, in the subsequent court case, the SeaWorld expert witness, Mr. Andrews, said in his report what led to the event was a mistake by Ms. Brancheau, and the judge quotes that in his opinion and strongly takes issue with it. Is that not in effect blaming her?

TOMPKINS: Well, Jeff Andrews was not working for SeaWorld during the time...

DAVIES: No. But he was represented by your attorneys as an expert witness offering an opinion on the case.

TOMPKINS: Yeah, and it was his opinion, not necessarily the opinion of SeaWorld. And I stick by the fact that we've never publicly blamed Dawn and we never would.

DAVIES: And there was an initial statement in the initial press accounts by a member of the sheriff's office that the trainer appeared to have slipped or fallen in the pool, which clearly was not the case. And it was said that the sheriff's official made that statement after meeting with SeaWorld officials. Is that right?

TOMPKINS: I can't speak to all the specifics. I do know that there was a lot of statements made without sitting down and making sure that we got the right information. I can't speak to what the sheriff said and the validity of what he said, but I do know that after talking with everybody and the trainer who was a witness there as well as some of the other people that were by the side of the pool, that was not the case.

DAVIES: As you know, I mean, the judge - the administrative judge in that case, in an opinion which was later upheld in an appeal, I mean, found that SeaWorld had placed its trainers in a hazardous circumstance and ordered changes. Do you think trainers should be in the water with whales?

TOMPKINS: Well, obviously having spent 38 years working with killer whales and 25 of those years in the water developing the relationship with those killer whales, there is a very unique relationship and trust that you can acquire with a killer whale. We also need to remember that we need to leave Tilikum out of this mix. Tilikum was never a waterwork animal, never was going to be a waterwork animal. We never treated him like a waterwork animal.

DAVIES: Just, just - wait, just - you're using terms - Tilikum is the whale that killed Dawn Brancheau. Waterwork means...

TOMPKINS: Correct.

DAVIES: ...A trainer...

TOMPKINS: Getting in the water with a killer whale.

DAVIES: Very good, go ahead.

TOMPKINS: That's right. But with all the other killer whales, we really develop these type of relationships that there's no way on land that you can develop that type of relationship. These animals are aquatic. They relate in the water. Now, does that mean that we don't have that type of relationship? We have definitely learned to adapt. We're now working these killer whales from the deck, but we're working very hard to keep that relationship. But in my opinion, I still think, based on our safety record and our past experiences, being in the water would be a good thing for a killer whale.

DAVIES: After the death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration brought a court action that was an extensive testimony taken in that. And the judge found in that there had been many incidents over the years in which trainers had been involved in dangerous situations, in some cases injured or killed. I mean, doesn't that suggest that your monitoring of these interactions of the animals is far from foolproof?

TOMPKINS: No, not at all. I, obviously, was the person that testified during that OSHA case, and, you know, there's a lot of numbers tossed out there and stuff. The reality is we only had a handful of injuries where people left the park to go to the hospital. And that's based on - at that particular time, we had 1.6 million water interactions with these animals. If you do the math on that, there's a very small percentage of people that had a situation where they were injured working a killer whale. We feel like we had one of the safest programs, and we still have one of the safest killer whale interaction programs in the world.

DAVIES: As you know, Judge Welsch's opinion was very critical of the math that you just described.

TOMPKINS: I understand that. And I would disagree because I've spent 38 years looking at the statistics and knowing each and every one of those situations. The problem was that a lot of those incidents who were written down were observations where trainers felt like they needed to put it on paper, but nobody was injured. No killer whale acted aggressive more than there was an unusual behavior. An incident does not necessarily mean there was an aggressive moment. An incident means it was a notable behavior that we wanted to keep track of.

DAVIES: Well, again the judge says that the record of incidents that SeaWorld produced left out a lot of encounters that probably should've been included.

TOMPKINS: No, that was not the case. There was two that was not documented in the document that I showed. But they were - showed up in another document that trainers still had access to. So there was not one situation that all the trainers did not have access to. And to be clear, each trainer is fully aware of the potential of what they're doing, how they're interacting with these animals and also the specifics of the animal that they're working with.

DAVIES: Let me ask a broader question. As you know, there are a lot of people who just believe that these animals should not be held captive. And your case is that you do an awful lot for the animals, that they're healthy and well-adjusted. What affirmative good comes from having these animals in captivity and performing?

DOLD: There's a lot of good that comes of it. Very, very basically, we as humans are interested in these animals, and so we're interested in everything about them. Those of us who have the privilege to care for them on a daily basis and work with them on a daily basis take as deep a caring and understanding for these animals as we possibly can. And we recognize that we have a social contract, if you will, to do as much as we can with these animals and for these animals. And fundamental to that is not just providing for their comprehensive care and well-being, but it's also to study them and understand them and make them available for others who wish to study and understand them so that we can continue to contribute to the global understanding, scientific understanding, society's understanding of these incredible animals.

DAVIES: Dr. Chris Dold, Chuck Tompkins, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DOLD: Thanks very much.

TOMPKINS: Thank you.

DAVIES: Dr. Chris Dold is SeaWorld's vice president of veterinary services. Chuck Tompkins is curator of zoological operations. Earlier, we spoke with John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld trainer. His memoir is called "Beneath The Surface." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we talk with actor Benito Martinez who stars in the TV series "American Crime" and with John Ridley, creator and executive producer.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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