April 2, 2015

Former SeaWorld trainer’s book tour stop cancelled after SeaWorld digs up dirt


beneath-the-surfaceSeaWorld’s slow, inexorable suicide-by-media that began with the damning documentary Blackfish has taken a bizarre turn, on the eve of their former trainer’s book tour.

John Hargrove, the former senior orca trainer who quit SeaWorld in 2012 and whose interviews were featured prominently in Blackfish, recently published his memoir of his experience at the theme park, titled Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond BlackfishTo say that Hargrove is outspokenly critical of SeaWorld is an understatement; he’s called them “bullies who for decades have silenced trainers who threatened to speak out”.

However, Hargrove’s reading at Warwick’s Bookstore in La Jolla was cancelled at the last minute, after a video of Hargrove saying racial epithets surfaced. The Time of San Diego reports:

U-T San Diego quoted Julie Slavinsky, the bookstore’s director of events and community relations, as saying: “The cancellation is a statement of our feelings about what is in the video.”

The U-T report followed the Orlando Sentinel, which posted the same video earlier Tuesday. Warwick’s pulled the plug only a day before the scheduled event “after the store started receiving phone inquiries about the video and a subsequent email from SeaWorld that included a link to the conversation.”

This video is the latest in the battle between SeaWorld and Hargrove over who can make the other look worse, and Hargrove certainly comes across as a drunken jackass in the video (apparently recorded almost five years ago). However, SeaWorld’s official response, after claiming responsibility for releasing the video which they claim was provided by “an internal whistle-blower”, makes this latest move look a lot like a smear campaign.

“We are offended by John’s behavior and language,” [Seaworld spokesman Fred Jacobs] said in an email. “The video is particularly reprehensible since John Hargrove is wearing a SeaWorld shirt. SeaWorld would have terminated Hargrove’s employment immediately had we known he engaged in this kind of behavior.”

The Times article goes into much further detail about SeaWorld’s opposition research machine which they employ to discredit at Hargrove and other critics, and while it makes them come across like a client on Scandal, it’s not like Hargrove comes across as anything but a drunken jackass in the video.

SeaWorld claim that Hargrove quit “after being disciplined for a severe safety violation involving the park’s killer whales”, but this video doesn’t fit into their narrative that Hargrove is a disgruntled axe-grinder; rather, it’s basic mudslinging. Retconning Hargrove’s tenure with the company by claiming he should have been fired for being a racist smacks of misdirection, and I doubt that any existing critics of SeaWorld will change their minds about their practices.

What this will do is muddy the waters of the media cycle, and if that was SeaWorld’s plan, they succeeded, if briefly. Inevitably, it will be up to Macmillan and Hargrove’s legal team to duke it out with SeaWorld, while the court of public opinion gets to decide if drunken bigotry will derail scrutiny of SeaWorld’s massive alleged endangerment of animals and employees alike. We’ll see.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.