A War of Words and Whales

On March 24th, 2015, a man named John Hargrove will be releasing a book titled “Beneath the Surface”. The book will go into details about the care of cetaceans at Sea World parks around the world. What makes Hargrove’s take on the matter relevant amidst the flood of all the anti-captivity material released in the wake of the documentary film “Blackfish”?

John Hargrove was a Sea World trainer for over 20 years.

He has written a book that will document not only his own personal experiences, but his rationale for deciding to speak out against keeping Orcas in captivity. The book has already caught the attention of Sea World. Although Sea World is not commenting extensively yet, there was one brief statement from their Vice President of Communications, Fred Jacobs, which caught my attention. In an article published on Smithsonian.com, Jacobs is quoted in an email as saying:

“John Hargrove joined ranks with animal rights extremists after leaving SeaWorld and has eagerly embraced their habit of misleading the public to advance an agenda.”

Depending on how one views that statement, it can be written off as fairly routine. Dismissive statements are a common tactic used by organizations to acknowledge awareness of an issue while simultaneously rejecting claims and reassuring supporters. However, a closer look at the statement reveals a subtle tactic used by supporters of both sides of the debate.

Mr. Jacobs uses the label “extremists”, a word that Sea World uses in order to paint a negative light on anti-captivity supporters. In the United States and other countries, the word “extremist” carries a heavily negative connotation and is usually associated with religion or politics, although it can be applied to any sensitive issue or topic. There are those people who do commit criminal acts in support of animal welfare, and even popular public organizations have been accused of acts in support of animal rights that have pushed the boundaries of taste. 

Sea World’s goal is to portray anti-captivity activists like John Hargrove as the fringe of the debate and out of step with the general consensus. By tying Hargrove and his book to those people who represent the extreme fringe of animal advocacy, Sea World seeks to undermine his credibility, and shifts the perception of their position as more moderate. 

One might argue that Sea World could be considered extremists in favor of Orca captivity. The public argument Sea World would put forth against that would be their proposed improvements to their Orca habitats*, and their well-publicized wild animal rescue efforts. However, it is worth noting that Sea World operates three out of the remaining four marine parks in the United States that exhibit Orca.

Hargrove is said to have “joined ranks with animal extremists”. Using that logic, an opinion becomes a direct association with less reputable individuals who share that same opinion. This is poor reasoning and a way of subtly undermining an individual’s character. If Sea World considers those who oppose Orca captivity to be extremists, it would seem as if the bar has been set very low. On a personal note, I would be willing to guess that of all the people who disagree with Sea World’s position, it would be a miniscule fraction that have ever committed a crime in the name of animal welfare.

Sea World is not the sole perpetrator of manipulating language in this debate. Many of those who decry Orca captivity use the same strategy by referring to the Orcas in captivity as “slaves” and claim intentional abuse on the part of all of trainers and veterinarians. This is an emotional appeal to others who care deeply for animals but it carries great risk. Assailing the character of a person that one disagrees with can backfire when trying to be persuasive to those who are currently neutral on the matter. 

Indeed, anti-captivity advocates commonly fall into an “echo chamber” of sorts, where debate gives way to posturing for others who share the same opinion. Those who choose to do this find gratification from others who share the sentiment and join in, but the negative consequences that can arise as a result may be counterproductive towards swaying the hearts and minds of the undecided. It is certainly something I have been guilty of in the past.

So why did I write this?

I believe that the benefits of Orca captivity are heavily outweighed by the concerns. I advocate against captivity because I believe that the evidence on its own, if presented in a vacuum free of rhetoric and human bias, supports this. The promise of a day when Orcas are not kept in captivity is as realistic today as it has ever been in the last fifty years. But that goal will require increased public sentiment against Sea World, and to do that requires a campaign of strong reason. 

 As a publicly traded for-profit corporation, Sea World will use a myriad of public relations techniques to protect their interests. This will include publicly discrediting those who can present evidence counter to their opinion in an attempt to erode the credibility of the evidence itself. Encouraging others to recognize this will blunt the effectiveness of that tactic. Meanwhile, anti-captivity advocates need to be aware that upon taking up a cause and debating it publicly that they become a representative of others who share that opinion. Emotional appeals with little reason or substance could turn an undecided bystander off from listening when a person like John Hargrove decides to speak out based on relevant experience.

Language has a subtle and unseen power that we experience every day but rarely ever stop to notice. The language we choose shapes thoughts and forges strong opinions. In any debate held in the court of public opinion, victory comes from convincing the undecided. It is important to realize this effect to better achieve goals. Human beings can be very passionate, and it is those who focus their passion that achieve great things as well. 

*-As of the writing of this article, Sea World's proposed "Blue World" exhibit improvements have progressed no further than the drawing board despite being heavily publicized by the park.  Sea World has not obtained the permits required to said project nor have they even officially applied for said permits.