I recently finished a book called Beneath the Surface. When I was done, I was certain that Michael Phelps deserved every single of one of his Olympic medals, no matter how under the influence of pot he was at the time. Then I came across another book, also called Beneath the Surface. This one is the new memoir and anti-captivity diatribe by former SeaWorld San Antonio killer whale trainer John Hargrove. It was interesting to say the least and certainly not what I expected. And that’s my official review.
I’m not going to discuss the controversial practices that Mr. Hargrove alleges SeaWorld conducts. Those that have read my coverage of the film Blackfish know that I tend to shy away from such matters, referring the reader instead to the hundreds of websites that portend to offer an answer on the subject one way or another. Rather, I’m going to look at the aspect of the book just about everyone seems to have overlooked as they concentrated on food deprivation, trainer deaths, and mother/calf separation – the fact that John Hargrove has a horrible memory and is piss-ass poor when it comes to dates.
Many of Hargrove’s errors rest in his memories of that first trip to Orlando in 1980, at the age of six. In the book, he tells us:
Summer vacation for me always meant a road trip with my parents. And in 1980, my mother and my stepfather decided we’d all go to Orlando. We couldn’t afford to fly so we drove the nearly 900 miles from our home among the bayous of east Texas to the theme park capital of America. The contrast was dramatic: Orange, Texas was a monotonous, flat swampland while Orlando was punctuated with architectural extravagance, from Cinderella’s castle in Walt Disney World to the adamantine giant golf ball of EPCOT Center. And then there was SeaWorld.
We joined the crowds headed into Shamu Stadium. The coliseum for killer whales was already the largest animal performance space in the marine park, far bigger than the theaters built for the dolphins or the sea lions and otters.
So how is it that an author that goes into excruciating detail on the history of the marine mammal display industry could get this simple fact wrong about Shamu Stadium? There are two possibilities at play here.
First, based on the fact that the writing the writing style in the section about killer whale captures differs greatly from the remainder of the book and matches word for word similar descriptors in recent lawsuits filed against SeaWorld (this is not the first time wording has been reused. Both the Washington state House and Senate anti-cetacean captivity bills are verbatim duplicates of California’s AB-2140 killer whale bill), it appears to have been written by a third party.
Second, Hargrove has never been a SeaWorld fan. A true die hard SeaWorld fan would know that for close to fifteen years, the killer whales and dolphins performed together in a single tank and that there was no dedicated killer whale stadium until 1985. Hargrove’s colleagues John Jett and Jeffrey Ventre are aware of this, writing in a recent paper titled “Captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) survival,” which was published in the April 20, 2015 issue of Marine Mammal Science:
In 1985 an enlarged pool (completed in 1984) marked the beginning of improved captive killer whale breeding by enabling adequate nursing behavior between a mother and captive-born calf.
For Hargrove, there was no true dedication to the company nor to its philosophy. He was like a Jungle Cruise fanatic who couldn’t care less about the rest of the Disney empire. The parks were nothing more than a way to a means for fulfilling his addictive dream of swimming and performing with killer whales.
To counter Hargrove’s book, SeaWorld released a five year old cell phone video of a very intoxicated Hargrove wearing a SeaWorld shirt stating racial epithets about African-Americans.
I’ve been asked my thoughts on the video by a number of people. I lived in Texas for close to a decade, a couple of hours from where Hargrove grew up. I give everyone the same response: “It’s a drunk white Texan saying what drunk white Texans say.” People who have not lived in East Texas often find it hard to recognize that racism is embedded in the local culture – especially in the small towns. Hargrove appears to agree, writing:
The one real thing that always got people excited was the football rivalry between the two local high schools: Little Cypress Mauriceville versus West Orange Stark. My cousin Tracy remembers my trailing along to all her pep rallies. The underlying ugliness was that Little Cypress was the white school and West Orange was the predominantly black one. In my town, in the 1980’s, the races still lived apart, coming together only to clash via football – with all the combined awfulness of sports fanaticism and bigotry. Orange, however, had nothing on the notoriety of the city of Vidor, just about 20 miles away. The Ku Klux Klan marched there well into the 1980’s; and when black families moved into public housing in Vidor during that decade, they were greeted with burning crosses. [Blogger’s note: the cross burnings continued through August 1993, the month before Hargrove’s swim test at SeaWorld. The Klan would be represented in court by an African-American attorney appointed by the ACLU – big news in Texas]
For a book whose secondary theme is persecution of the author as a gay man, I’m surprised that the issues of rascism, homophobia, and sexism were not addressed more in the text.
Is John Hargrove a racist? Yes. Becoming an animal rights advocate or surrounding yourself with decent people does not remove racism. That requires a life altering experience, often with someone you would typically have racist leanings against. Hargrove has yet to experience that. Until then, a part of him will retain the racism that is built into his hometown’s DNA.
Even though they might not be racists, every one of the SeaWorld trainers that was present when that video was filmed is complacent in racism for doing and saying nothing.
And the theme park industry itself has a racist history. It was not until 15 years ago, when Terry Prather, now one of SeaWorld’s highest ranking executives, took the reigns at Jazzland park in New Orleans, that an African-American was given the title of “General Manager” of a major US theme park.
Much has been made about the lack of black trainers at SeaWorld and other marine life parks. Part of this is an aesthetic that goes back to the 1950’s and 1960’s, when theme parks catered primarily to white audiences.
However, a recent five year study by the Centers for Disease Control showed that African-American children were five times at risk of drowning as their white counterparts, up from three times in the prior five year study. According to USA Swimming, 70 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Hispanic children lack the ability to swim, compared to 40 percent of caucasians. The reason: racism.
I’ve been asked why I don’t like John Hargrove and the truth is I do like John. But I don’t like the John I’ve seen since just before the book came out. Watch John in this interview, then listen to his presentation to the Commonwealth Club. Everything he says, word for word, in these two recordings and in hundreds of other audio and print interviews, is exactly the same. It’s canned. He’s become like a killer whale repeating the same tricks over and over for his handlers.
I miss the John Hargrove that I performed dolphin necropsies with in 1993. And I miss the John Hargrove I spoke with extensively before he testified at the AB-2140 hearing. I miss the John Hargrove that was free to speak his mind. This isn’t him. This is an automaton.
And yes, he is a racist automaton, but thank goodness he’s not a pedophile.
There are reasons why parks such as LEGOLAND restrict adults from entering if not accompanied by minors.
In 2011, a Kentucky man named Ronald Thompson was arrested at SeaWorld San Antonio’s waterpark for taking indecent photos. Prosecutors discovered more than 70 photos on his camera – all closeups of the breast and buttocks areas of young children. Thompson was charged under Texas’s new “improper photography” law and the ruling by a Texas Appellate Court in September 2014 not only set him free, but struck down the law as a violation of First Amendment rights.
So, in Texas, you might be served fries by a Klan member in your local McDonalds, and that man taking photos up your skirt at the mall or getting too close to your children with his camera in order to later gratify himself, has every Constitutional right to express himself in such a manner under the law.
Welcome to the Lone Star State – racists and pedophiles to the front of the line.