To say that it’s been a bad time for SeaWorld since the 2013 release of the documentary Blackfish, which featured interviews from trainers and former employees as part of an extremely critical look at the theme park’s treatment of orca whales, would be something of an understatement: in 2014, profits fell by a staggering 28 percent, attendance was down nearly 9 percent from the same period in 2012, and the company’s stock price these days is around half of its pre-Blackfish high. California, where SeaWorld operates its San Diego park (the others are in San Antonio and Orlando), recently considered legislation banning the use of orca whales in performances.
The bad press the company has been experiencing, in other words, is a very real existential threat to the company itself. And SeaWorld has treated it like one, by responding harshly to critics.
SeaWorld has yet to use the word “blackfish” in any of its releases—the documentary’s popularity makes it a difficult target—but it’s gone hard after the significantly less popular folks at PETA, accusing them of spreading “lies” about the company in recent months. As CNN Money reports:
“There’s been a lot of misinformation and even lies spread about SeaWorld, and we recognize that it has caused some people to have questions about the welfare of killer whales in human care,” he said.
SeaWorld had some particularly harsh things to say about the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA.
“In the past two years, PETA has issued more than 110 press releases about SeaWorld, filled with inaccuracies about the company’s animal care,” SeaWorld said.
Calling PETA a bunch of jerks isn’t a bad strategy, but this week, SeaWorld went even bolder in its attempt to discredit a critic.
John Hargrove is one of the trainers who appears in Blackfish. The Orange, Texas, native and University of Houston alum began his career at the company’s San Antonio location in the nineties and was a senior trainer in San Antonio from 2008 to 2012, when he resigned. He was interviewed by the filmmakers just days after leaving the company, insisting that it was inhumane to keep orcas in captivity. He parlayed that brush with fame into a tell-all book about the company, Beneath the Surface, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan last month.
Five years prior, however, Hargrove got drunk and made a phone call in which he shouted a racial slur to someone on the other end of the line. We know about this because SeaWorld sent the media a video it received from what it is describing as a “whistleblower,” which the Orlando Sentinel explains:
It shows Hargrove sitting at a table with a glass of wine—”I’ve been drinking so much,” he says at one point—laughing and talking with a woman on a cellphone about an incident in which a group of black men apparently threw a rock at her. He repeatedly uses the n-word in the video and tries to get the woman to admit she did the same during the incident.
“We are offended by John’s behavior and language,” 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.”
We can assume that all right-thinking people are offended by Hargrove’s behavior and language, to be certain. In the video, he comes off as a racist ass whom any company would surely be embarrassed to employ. If you were considering buying his book, you might well decide that you don’t want to contribute to his success after viewing the video. If you had a generally favorable attitude toward Hargrove beforehand, it would be fully understandable if you had a negative feeling about the guy now.
But what’s not clear is what on earth any of this has to do with SeaWorld or its treatment of orca whales.
Anybody who is as comfortable tossing around the racial slur that Hargrove uses in that video is not someone we would trust as an authority on race relations. If he had claimed to be a witness to an incident involving, say, racially-motivated violence, the video would immediately discredit him. But a racist jerk can still recognize when an animal is being mistreated (even Hitler loved animals!), and Hargrove’s credibility there isn’t really affected by the video.
Hargrove’s defense of his statements are weak (“They’re going to pull up videos and say he was drunk one night and used a derogatory word . . . these are petty, childish attempts to discredit somebody,” the Sentinel quotes him as saying) so we’re not shedding any tears about whatever PR difficulties the guy is experiencing. But SeaWorld’s leak of the video seems like a fairly transparent attempt by a desperate, flailing company to drive down the favorability numbers on a film that, so far, it has been afraid to even refer to by name in its statements.
The sort of opposition research we’re seeing from SeaWorld here is frankly kind of bizarre. Sending an irrelevant-to-their-case video of Hargrove from five years ago is only part of it. According to the Sentinel, SeaWorld helped fund a website called “RealJohnHargrove.com,” which is the sort of thing you tend to see in intense, dirty political campaigns, the sort that Nixon and LBJ would admire. One can only assume that PETA spokesman Jason Biggs is next on their target list (“Biggs says that SeaWorld destroys the family and social structure of orca whales—but did you know he f—ed a pie once?”), and that Conan O’Brien, who has mocked their “SeaWorld Cares” initiative on his show, is going to be reminded a lot of how he was fired by NBC a few years back.
It’s hard to imagine that any of this is going to drive people to attend SeaWorld’s parks, of course, or that learning that the company once employed a trainer who was fond of racial slurs is going to assuage anyone’s guilt about watching the orcas perform in captivity. Still, it’s probably satisfying for the SeaWorld execs, who are watching their attendance, profits, and stock prices sink, to watch Hargrove squirm a bit.