SeaWorld has been a lightning rod for controversy in recent years, and no one knows that better than John Hargrove. On this week’s episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Hargrove—a former SeaWorld animal trainer—recounts his experiences working with orcas in captivity. From heavily medicated killer whales to the tragic death of his colleague, Hargrove paints a picture of an entertainment company in crisis.
SeaWorld, a nationwide chain of parks well known for its displays of marine animals, purports to blend “imagination with nature” and enable visitors to “explore, inspire and act.” It’s perhaps most famous for its orcas. Also known as killer whales, orcas are actually the largest member of the dolphin family. They weigh thousands of pounds and are, in the words of National Geographic, “one of the world’s most powerful predators.” SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas has come under intense scrutiny; the 2013 film Blackfish recounted the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau and showed the dangers (for both whales and humans) of keeping orcas in captivity. Hargrove appeared in the film.
Hargrove spent most of his time at SeaWorld as an orca trainer. Since he left, he has repeatedly accused the company of mistreating animals and endangering employees. Representatives of SeaWorld have denied these allegations, telling NPR in 2015, “We don’t put any animal in any stressful situation” and calling conditions depicted in Blackfish “a bit of exaggeration.” (You can read the company’s point-by-point rebuttal to Blackfish here.) When Hargrove came out with a book criticizing the company, SeaWorld denied many of his claims and said that he had quit the company “‘after being disciplined for a severe safety violation involving the park’s killer whales’ that resulted in his transfer from the orca stadium,” according to the Orlando Sentinel. (Hargrove denied that he was responsible for the safety violation, according to the paper.) SeaWorld also released a video showing Hargrove repeatedly using the n-word while intoxicated several years earlier. (“We do a lot of things we shouldn’t do when we drink,” Hargrove told the Sentinel. He went on television to apologize for the video.)
On Inquiring Minds, Hargrove tells co-host Indre Viskontas that it wasn’t just his colleagues who were in danger. Hargrove says he had multiple encounters with aggressive killer whales over the course of his career. In one incident, which took place when Hargrove was working at a different park not owned by SeaWorld, he describes escaping a close call with an orca named Freya, who he says had pulled him underwater before. When she wasn’t responding to his signals, Hargrove made a decision that he believes may have saved his life. Rather than swimming like mad for dry land, he moved to the center of the pool and waited for Freya to approach. Trying to outswim an orca is impossible, says Hargrove—it just makes it more fun for the giant predator to hunt you. If he had tried to make an escape, he says, “that would have equaled almost certain death for me.” In the end, Freya’s behavior changed. She followed Hargrove’s instructions and even helped push him out of the pool. (You can listen to the interview below.)
But two other trainers, Brancheau and Alexis Martinez, weren’t so lucky. Both died after being viciously attacked by orcas owned by SeaWorld. Martinez, who worked at a non-SeaWorld park, was killed in December 2009 by a whale on loan from SeaWorld. Brancheau died two months later at SeaWorld’s Orlando park after being violently attacked by a whale named Tilikum. “It was not a shock to me that he had done that to her,” recalls Hargrove. “I know he was capable of it. All the whales are capable of it.”
For Hargrove, SeaWorld was a childhood fantasy gone terribly wrong. While he had dreams of working at the park as a child, he soon discovered that the relationship between man and whale wasn’t what he had envisioned. Hargrove claims he and his colleagues were frequently hurt on the job. And he says he often worked while sick or injured—diving deep into cold water and sometimes emerging spewing bloody sinus tissue.
SeaWorld declined to respond to detailed questions about Hargrove’s allegations on Inquiring Minds, but the company did say in an email that many of Hargrove’s claims are “false.”
Since leaving SeaWorld, Hargrove has become an activist and has written a book called Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish. He’s now a central figure in the campaign to alter the way SeaWorld does business. And that campaign seems to be having an impact. Earlier this year, the company agreed to end its orca breeding program and to change the way it exhibits its orcas.
“Society has changed and we’ve changed with it,” SeaWorld said in an email. “We’re focusing our resources on real issues that help far more animals, like working with [the Humane Society of the United States] to fight commercial whaling, shark finning, and continuing our efforts to rescue, rehabilitate and release injured and sick animals to the wild.”
Few states have a greener rep than California, and for good reason. The state has a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions, solar-energy production exceeding that of all other states combined, and, at the behest of Gov. Jerry Brown, it’s now mulling new targets that would slash greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030. The state has proved itself a national leader in environmental policy.
All of which makes California’s latest waste and recycling report, issued yearly by state Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), so bewildering. It reveals that landfill waste in the state jumped to 33.2 million tons in 2015, a one-year increase of 2 million tons, contributing to last year’s release of 200,000 extra metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Per capita, each Californian now tosses 4.7 pounds of stuff into the landfill.
The state’s rate of recycling also dropped to 47 percent in 2015. That’s the lowest rate since 2010, and the first time since the state began measuring that the number has gone below 50 percent—not the greatest news, given California’s 2020 goal of recycling 75 percent of all consumer waste.
CalRecycle spokesman Mark Oldfield points to a recovering economy as a primary contributor to the setback. Economic growth boosts consumption and construction, which necessarily results in more waste, he says: “All of a sudden people are buying new stuff and getting rid of the old.”
There are other elements at work, too. The low price of oil, combined with other plummeting commodity prices, has largely eliminated financial incentives for companies to use recycled materials. Thanks to cheap crude, points out Californians Against Waste, a Sacramento-based advocacy group, producers are using more petroleum-based plastics than before, and less (easily recycled) aluminum.
A four-year decline in the prices manufacturers are willing to pay for recycled materials has proved deadly for many for-profit recycling centers. In part, that’s because it’s a subsidized business. CalRecycle pays up to half of the centers’ operating expenses, depending on the amount of materials they collect, to encourage recycling centers to accept plastic containers alongside the more lucrative aluminum cans. The deposits consumers pay on beverage containers provide an incentive for individuals and companies that do curbside pickup to bring cans and bottles to the centers (and pocket the deposits). But CalRecycle’s payments to the centers are based on scrap prices over the previous 12 months, with a three-month time lag. Which means, when prices are in decline, the payments come up short, and the centers struggle to stay profitable. Statewide, the bulk recyclers have faced a cumulative shortfall of more than $50 million.
Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), says this has led to a rash of closures. Per her group’s estimates, more than 800 recycling centers have shut down in the past 16 months, unable to compete thanks to the low prices and insufficient subsidies. All told, nearly one-third of California’s recycling centers have gone out of business.
The setbacks are costing the state in additional ways: Recycling typically generates $8 million to $9 million in tax revenues annually and results in at least 3,000 full-time jobs. And income from collecting and redeeming recycled materials helps keep scores of desperate people off public assistance. Cities such as San Francisco have been hit particularly hard by the recycling-center closures; the city now has just six active recycling centers, down from 35, for 900,000 people. The vast majority of the city is now an “unserved zone.”
CalRecycle’s Oldfield preaches patience. “I don’t think we thought it was going to be easy to begin with,” he says of the 2020 goal to recycle 75 percent of all consumer waste. “I don’t think we mind running the risk of criticism if we fall short of a number on a time scale.” He points to AB 939, California’s Integrated Waste Management Act. The 1989 legislation mandated that 50 percent of solid waste be diverted from landfills via recycling, composting, and incineration by 2000. That goal wasn’t achieved until 2006, but it now stands at 63 percent.
As for the 75 percent number, which is not a mandate, CalRecycle is looking at new technologies it hopes will increase recycling rates for construction materials and organic matter, although there is no deadline for these developments.
Mark Murray, executive director at Californians Against Waste, bristles at the notion that the goal needn’t be met on time. Murray was disturbed by the startling dip in the recycling rate, and that the state remains so far from 75 percent: “I don’t want to make excuses in 2016 when there’s still four years to go.”
If the state is serious about reaching its goal, there is plenty of precedent. “We know exactly what needs to happen, it just isn’t happening,” Murray says. In the past, the state has set minimum standards for the amount of recycled content certain goods must contain. Newsprint must be 50 percent post-consumer materials; for glass containers, it’s 35 percent. Such standards also exist in California for electronics and paint.
Regulating plastic packaging the same way could have a big impact, Murray says, and would help reverse this troubling course. Legislation requiring producers to buy recycled content could also help. By Murray’s estimation, packaging accounts for 35 percent of the overall waste stream, and companies need to be called to task for their wasteful packaging. Collins, of the CRI, agrees that the state needs urgent, binding legislation, but given the scale of the closures, she’s worried it’s too late to flip the script quickly: “This is a devastating loss to the recycling infrastructure in California.”
Tensions continue to rise over the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (known also as the Bakken Pipeline), a proposed 1,172 mile project currently under construction. Demonstrations over the pipeline, which will travel from North Dakota’s northwest Bakken region to southern Illinois, have grown steadily over the last few weeks. As many as 4,000 people have reportedly joined the Standing Rock Sioux in protesting the pipeline, which is slated to travel beneath sacred Native lands and cross under the Missouri River, the region’s main source of drinking water. The protesters have gathered along the border of the Standing Rock Sioux’s reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, blocking the construction site. (Read Mother Jones‘ report on the pipeline here.)
On Monday, according to the Bismarck Tribune, Greg Wilz, Division Director of Homeland Security, ordered the removal of the state-owned water tanks and trailers that had been providing the protesters with drinking water. Wilz attributed the decision to alleged criminal activity—specifically two complaints of laser pointers being shined in the eyes of pilots of surveillance aircraft monitoring the protest. “Based on the scenario down there, we don’t believe that equipment is secure,” he said. The supplies were provided last week by the North Dakota Department of Health at the request of the tribe.
Authorities in North Dakota have now arrested 29 protesters in the last two weeks, including the tribal chairman. A federal judge will rule by September 9 on the injunction filed by the Standing Rock Sioux to prevent construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Pipeline protesters—including actors Shailene Woodley and Susan Sarandon—have also gathered in New York and Washington, DC. Woodley has been protesting the pipeline for weeks, documenting the peaceful nature of the Standing Rock demonstration in North Dakota on her Twitter page before returning to DC for the rally, which took place Wednesday outside of a federal court building where challenges to the permits were being heard.
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) August 23, 2016
— Shailene Woodley (@PlanetShailene) August 24, 2016
Environmentalist Bill McKibben also weighed in on the pipeline with an article published Monday. Indigenous populations like the Standing Rock Sioux “have been the vanguard of the movement to slow down climate change,” wrote McKibben.
Senator Bernie Sanders issued a press release of his own on Thursday, condemning the pipeline and upholding the grassroots efforts to stop it. “Regardless of the court’s decision, the Dakota Access pipeline must be stopped,” he wrote. “As a nation, our job is to break our addiction to fossil fuels, not increase our dependence on oil. I join with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the many tribal nations fighting this dangerous pipeline.”
The Wilderness Society commends the Obama Administration for making history today by quadrupling the size of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, now the largest protected area in the world, measuring 582,578 square miles.
[ Donated land in Maine protected by President as a national monument on 100th birthday of National Park Service ]
The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument will be a unit of the National Park Service and was announced on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, which was established on August 25, 1916.