Tag Archives: animal rights

Unexpected Good News is the Best News

I wanted to write about something happy. Something hopeful and uplifting. But for the last couple months, it’s been hard not to feel cynical. What with all the political news, the hate and xenophobia that has infested and captivated all of us whether we’re for it or against it. Even here, on Hanson Island. I quit social media cold turkey for a few days. Every time I logged on I got mad, frustrated, defeated.

But not today. Not tomorrow, probably not for the rest of the week. I needed good news, needed a victory, something to reinstall my faith in humanity. It was SeaWorld of all places, that delivered it. Yesterday the aquarium giant announced an end to the breeding of captive Orcas and “circus style” performances. The finish line is still in the distant future, but at least it’s now visible.

There is of course, a PR spin on this, pivoting around the tenants of “world class care” and “more natural encounters.” We can peruse and scrutinize this is we want, but it’s been clear since the moment that Tilikum grabbed Dawn Brancheau’s ponytail, that SeaWorld couldn’t continue in its current state. Ever since it’s been a gradual slide. From the proposed ending of the circus shows in San Diego, to the “Blue World” proposal. Yesterday, SeaWorld in a way, admitted defeat. Though they’ll never come out and say it, announcing an end to captive breeding and by association, an end to Orca’s in captivity is admitting what animal activists have been saying for years. There is no ethical or conceivable way to keep a massive and intelligent animal in captivity.

Tilikum’s pending death may have had something to do with the announcement. The loss of one of their few breeding males would make the genetic logistics of their breeding program even more difficult and SeaWorld may have been planning for such an announcement. This is all speculation of course. Maybe they looked at their plummeting stocks, attendance records, and a new generation raised on Free Willy and realized there was no future.

But today, I’m not concerned with why SeaWorld is doing what they’re doing, or what their motives were. Today is one of celebration with potential domino effects sweeping across the globe. The end of breeding includes SeaWorld subsidiary Lolo Parque, home to four other Orcas and puts added pressure on the Miami Seaquarium, a small aquarium that is home to  Lolita, a southern Resident who has been in captivity nearly as long as Corky of the northern Residents. Without big brother to hide behind, the spotlight falls more brightly on Miami to, if nothing else, end their performance shows.

With SeaWorld’s focus on low adrenaline and educational shows, the door remains cracked for Corky to come home. After more than 45-years in captivity the prospect of Corky rejoining the A5s and swimming a hundred miles a day seems daunting. But just west of OrcaLab is a long, deep cove called Dong Chong Bay. It was here that Springer, an orphaned and lost Orca was successfully reintroduced to the wild. It would be both poetic and fitting for Corky to live out her days in the bay, chasing wild fish, hearing and associating with her family under the excellent care and attention that SeaWorld has touted for years.

As we celebrate, it’s important to remember the war is not over. Dolphins, Sea Lions, otters, penguins, and polar bears remain large parts of the SeaWorld empire. And while Orcas have deserved the lion’s share of the activism and spotlight, the time has come to tell them that more can be done. The dolphin trade remains one of the more despicable and darker aspects of human kind, with the dolphins life in captivity no better than the Orcas.

I never thought this day would come. I assumed SeaWorld would go down with the ship, beating the drum of education and quality care until they disappeared from existence. But, out of nowhere, they did the right thing. And for that they need to be applauded, commended, and encouraged to do more.

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Dear Tilikum

Dear Tilikum,

First, I apologize for not writing this sooner. I’m sure you could have done with some more reading material with all your down time. I mean, how many times can you read the Harry Potter series before your eyes start to cross? What have you heard about this Harry Potter world in Orlando? Seems a bit silly if you ask me. Anyway…

May I call you Tilly? Tilikum just seems too aggressive. An unfair name for an unfair life I suppose. I don’t know what they’re telling you when they drop herring down your throat, inject you with antibiotics, and do whatever horrors they must to keep an amazing animal like you alive in such horrid conditions, but it’s not your fault.

None of it. You understand?

Anyone torn from their family, abused by strangers, and penned up in the dark night with the walls inches from their flippers would do the same. Let no one tell you different. In our desperate hours we do desperate things. You, like the rest of the wild world, is best left alone. To be revered, admired, and loved from a distance. Something we want to reach out and touch but can’t, or at least shouldn’t. He who loves a flower does not pick it to watch it whither and die in a jar. You water it, tend it, keep the weeds away. You should have been no different. Left to flourish in your aquatic garden. Left to swim next to your mother for your entire life, your birthright.

From the moment you were born you had everything you needed. But humans are an unsatisfied race. We’re not a happy race. We’re angry, we’re violent, we do unspeakable things to each other just because we have different ideologies, different skin colors. And sometimes, a lot of the time, that cup overflows, the toxic water splashing onto the innocent, precious species of this earth. Species like yours. Orca’s learned long ago to live and let live. Residents, Transients, Icelandic, Offshore. No wars, no clashes, not until we pushed you all together, in a tiny pen, and told you to get along.

I know you’re not feeling well Tilly. I don’t know how dire it really is. It’s hard to trust anything that SeaWorld releases. But it seems like you’ll be leaving us soon. I hope you’re not in pain, that you can breathe easy. I wish I could say that I hope you get well. But I don’t. The release of death is probably the most humane thing that can happen. Let that spirit go. Leave that imprisoned body. At long last, be free.

Do Orca’s have an afterlife? Here in B.C they’ve documented what may have been an Orca burial. Observers saw a mother disappear near a cleft in the rocks with her dead calf and return to her pod without it. Is it a burial ritual? Or are we anthropomorphizing you? Our arrogant human egos selling you short yet again? Wherever you’re off to next, I know it’ll be better, I hope you love it. Few Orca’s deserve it more.

When you take your last breath, when you finally fade away, please remember this. You are not alone. You are loved, and there are millions of people across the globe standing up and screaming at the injustice that has been your life. Your life, your death, will not be in vain. And the day is coming when the tanks will be empty. When the Orca will no longer be a commodity but a wonder. A sentient being instead of an asset. We’re going to keep fighting Tilly, in your memory, in your honor. I pray you know that there are humans that are good and decent to all creatures great and small.

Rest in peace Tilly. You are missed, you are loved, you are not forgotten.

Photo Courtesy of: http://kepplar.deviantart.com/journal/HELP-FREE-TILIKUM-425641192

Finding Light

Brittney has a great capacity for love. This compassion stretches deep through the animal kingdom. Every feather, every ball of fluff. Whether they have no legs, four legs, or eight legs, she cares for them all. A couple years ago she stopped killing spiders (or more accurately having me kill spiders) and insisted that they be relocated outside. Her fear of our wall climbing, web spinning roommates was no justification for murder. She still scrolls through the Juneau Humane Society website, cooing over ever whiskered face while our cat Porter looks at her with a betrayed look on his face.

Factory farming, greyhound racing, the egg industry, and of course, captivity all have room for remorse in her heart. And while many would turn their head, or acknowledge their plight and move on, Brittney doesn’t seem capable of that. She won’t rest until every “fur baby” is safe, happy, healthy.
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“Do you think they know that there’s people in the world that care? She asks as she fills out another petition to abolish greyhound racing. That there are people trying to help them?”

“I hope they do,” I say. Though I don’t know how they can.
I look at the picture on the screen, a greyhound with dark empty eyes alone in a crate, it’s head resting on a beam. It looks defeated. I feel sadness when I see this, but anger is my primary emotion. Anger and disgust. At the greed of man. Our selfishness. At the lengths we will go for profit. Our obsession and worship for the man made ideal, money. Somehow it’s become the measuring stick for our species. We’ll obliterate whatever is in our way to obtain it. Greyhounds, orcas, the very world we live in. How is it that we’ve forgotten that we cannot live without the natural world we insist on pillaging? Infinite growth in a finite world. Not the American dream, but the global fantasy.

I look back down at the picture, my mind returning to the present. The knot in my chest tightens, my heart rate increases. How could man look at this and not be enraged? Yet here is the proof that ambivalence lives.

It’s another storm ridden night at the lab. Similar Paul points out, to the night Corky was captured. It was a wave capped, howling winter gale when her family innocently swam into Pender Harbour and had their life change forever. In the name of corporate gain and human entertainment. How can we look at ourselves in the mirror?

Do you think they know that there’s people in the world that care?

Corky seems to. Why else would she withstand this torture, humiliation, and pain for so long? Does she believe there are others beside the ignorant masses that stand on the other side of the glass and snap photos with their camera phones?

“Corky’s plight makes me sad,” says Brittney, “but I feel more impassioned by factory farming, by animal testing. There’s millions of animals that die inhumanely, that live terrible lives. It’s 2015, but we’re more barbaric than ever.”

“Look what we do to our own species.” I answer, “we can’t stop murdering each other and we’re asking that same species to have compassion for other animals?”

Yet this is where we are. I pour whiskey over ice and settle on the couch. Here I am, in the middle of the natural world, and I can’t escape. ISIS, immigration, Donald Trump, SeaWorld, climate change. Running to the woods won’t make them go away.

“It’s important,” I remind Brittney, “not to get bogged down in the negative.” I’m reminding her as much as myself. “Our media, our world feeds off of negativity. It gets clicks, draws traffic in a way that heart warming, positive stories don’t. Seek these out, hang on to them. Celebrate the victories, the joy, the beauty. Because it is there. Even in darkness there is always some light.”
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The chainsaw roars. I follow the ebbing tide down the beach, accepting the sacrifice of a massive Fir tree. It’s a beautiful piece of wood, undoubtedly an escapee from a passing barge. It didn’t deserve to be cut, but at least its death won’t be in vain. The sharpened teeth on the saw litters the rocks with wood shavings as I cut into the sweet smelling wood.

At the end of the log I stand and stretch the ache in my back, looking over Blackney Pass, over paradise. I drop the chainsaw and feel my heart lift. Blackney teems with life. Hundreds of gulls swarm a fifty yard patch of ocean in numbers so thick they look like a great feathered cloud. The bait ball has not gone unnoticed. An armada of eagles roar in from the trees, great black wings punctuating the ball of white. I count at least thirty eagles, shuttling back and forth between the trees near the cabin and the ocean. Again and again they swarm overhead, the silvery flashes of sand lance clasped tightly in their talons. Life, sustenance.
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Brittney and I fall under their trance, the log lays forgotten at my feet. A lump rises in my throat. Why does this feeding frenzy have tears coming to my eyes? Because after everything the land has endured. Clear cutting, fish farms, live captures, predator control. They’re still here. The orca’s are still here. Is the world perfect? No. But here is a victory, here is joy. Here is a chance to celebrate.

“Do you know what I see?” I ask pointing out at the surging biomass before us.

Brittney looks at me, her eyes softened, the light glowing in her pupils.

“Hope.”

 

When The Storm Breaks

The weather breaks. The sun tears through the cloud curtain. First a lone ray of light strikes Parson Island, than another, and another as like fingers thousands of miles long, they creep across Blackney Pass until they fall on our windows. The aftermath of a 50 knot storm. Porter sticks his whiskered nose out the door. He’s suspicious and disgruntled after being confined to the cabin for two days as rain pelted the windows and the walls rattled.
We step onto a beach littered with logs washed ashore in the night. Fir bark, affectionately known as “fishermen’s coal” punctuates severed trunks of cedar and spruce. We pile the bark greedily in our arms. In a few days they would dry and capable of supercharging the fire at night when temperatures are dropping below freezing.
The bark drying on the sheltered picnic table near the cabin, I grab an ax and send splinters of wood flying. Heating by wood stove offers the luxury of warming you up twice. Once when you cut it, and again when you burn it.
I used to take heat for granted. Why wouldn’t you when for 25-years all you had to do was turn a knob, flip a switch and be rewarded with steamy warm air emitting from the magical grate in the floor? That heat, that energy had to come from somewhere. Coal? Hydropower? A wizard in the wall? I couldn’t tell you. But here I’m intimately connected to where my heat comes from, my electricity. Sunshine means the computers charge, the hydrophones switch on, Netflix is operational.
Too many cloudy days and we pay the price. Hydrophones flicker, cycle, and scream in their static voices until we turn them down. To keep the lights glowing and Orca Live streaming we turn to the massive red monstrosity in the shed. The generator, good old unleaded gasoline and 10W30 motor oil. As the unprecedented climate change intensifies, there’s a sensation of guilt each time I pull the choke, turn the key, and see pale white exhaust shoot into the atmosphere. At least I know where it’s coming from I guess. Thankfully, on sunny days, the generator sits unused, ignored. For what can be more renewable and reliable than those rays of sun beating down from above?
“When we know where our food, our energy comes from,” says Zachary Brown, founder of the Inian Island Institute in Alaska, “we no longer take them for granted. When we have an intimate connection to these commodities, we pay attention.”
Food for us is a different story. Banana’s from Belize, avocado’s from Mexico. At least the Kokanee and apple’s are Canadian. We do what we can. We grow kale, collard greens, and potatoes that are waiting patiently for Thanksgiving. It’s no different in the summer when we live in a town of 400 in southeast Alaska. A town with an award winning recycling program, where people have gardens instead of lawns, and avocado’s cost 5 bucks apiece. Avocados that arrive on the same barges that I shake my fist at in the winter time as the plod past the lab, filling the hydrophones with their roar, the air with their exhaust.
What’s the answer? What’s enough? Are my bananas and avocados ethically harvested? I’m vegetarian but should I be vegan? Maybe I should just eat the salal that grows between the cabin and the ocean.
Brittney used to agonize like this when she was in school. She’d come home from another humanities class: People and Plastics and Animal Rights courses. Nestle stealing groundwater, animals testing on rabbits, a fresh water crisis, orcas in captivity, taps running dry, corn fed factory farms. What to do, how to promote change, progress.
We aren’t superman. We can’t fight all of this. Instead we must select those injustices, those policies and acts that raise the hair on our neck. That quicken our pulse, that pull at our conscience. Whether it’s animal rights, oil pipelines, alternative energy, letting Corky come home, Syrian refugees. We must pick our battles, our medium for fighting them, and go to work.
Deep in the woods of Hanson Island lives a man. An anthropologist, a writer, an activist, a hero. He calls himself Walrus. As the forests of north Vancouver Island were leveled by the chainsaw, he took a stand by sitting down. He seated himself on a logging road that wound into the heart of Hanson Island, of Yukusam, and could not be moved. This was his fight, his passion. He won. He lives in a cabin now at the site of his barricade. “The longest active logging blockade in British Columbia,” he says.
This is the life of the activist. It’s Rachel Carson typing out Silent Spring as cancer ate at her because someone had to write it, Paul Spong camping in front of the Vancouver Aquarium, insisting that Skana go home, Michale Pollen and Food Inc, Marches for Lolita, Will Allen perfecting urban farming. Different people, different passions, huge change. May we someday be counted among them.

Sea World, Blue World, Where in the World do we Go From Here?

After much posturing, debating, and protesting, the end of Sea World is in sight… kind of. Last week, the California Coastal Commission approved Sea World’s new “Blue World” expansion which would nearly double the size of the orca’s pools at the San Diego location. Approval comes with an enormous catch, Sea World would be forbidden from breeding orcas of wild lineage or housing more than 15 orcas in the new pools. We’ll bypass Sea World’s bleats about depriving the whales of their right to breed as “inhumane and unnatural” (nothing more natural than artificial insemination) to avoid the risk of choking on irony, and discuss where Sea World, and its opponents go from here.

“It’ll all be over in a few decades,” I thought. But rereading the Commissions vague restrictions I had more questions than answers. Sea World can build the tanks, but it cannot be populated with whales containing genetic material from wild whales or whales captured in the wild. Every Sea World orca, at least that I can find, has at least a grandparent of captive origin. The DNA of free whales runs through the veins of every whale in those pools. Technically, no one qualifies for the Blue World pool.

What the commission is implying I believe, is no offspring whose parents were born in the wild can reside in the new enclosure. No sons or daughters of Tillikum or Corky. Second generation, captive born whales would qualify for the new enclosure is my understanding. Which raises even more questions. For example, what does Sea World do with Corky, the northern Resident female from A5 pod who was captured in 1969? If wild caught orcas don’t qualify, Sea World would be looking at transporting her across country to Orlando or San Antonio. As would her tank mates Orkid, Ulises, Kasatka, Nakai, Ikaika, Keet, and Shouka. A massive whale shuffle would be on Sea World’s hands to move captive born animals to San Diego.

But the ruling also prohibits the trade or transfer of whales to and from the park. Does this include transfer of whales between San Diego and the other two locations? No article that I could find specifies. But if you cannot move any whales in or out of the San Diego location, why the stipulation on the genetics? The ruling needs more specificity before Sea World or animal rights activists can truly claim victory.

We have tragically reached a point where most of these whales cannot go home. For many, Sea World is the closest thing they’ll have. A cocktail of Icelandic, Resident, and even Transient have been stirred into the genetic cauldron leaving many of the park’s inhabitants with no identity. Refugees of the natural world. While the argument can rage about how Corky or Tillikum would fare if they were returned, there is no such case for the majority of Sea World’s prisoners. Where does an Icelandic/Resident mix go? And what pod would even consider accepting this man made whale Frankenstein?

The Commissions ruling is a ray of hope. It may not lead to the quick death of orca exploitation, but it’s a step in the right direction. I would love to see a more concise ruling on what Sea World can and cannot do with the additional 4 million gallons of tank they wish to build. If it means that those eleven whales in San Diego are the last ones that have to endure captivity on the west coast, fantastic. Maybe Sea World would even try to save face and agree to a net pen retirement for Corky. But if all it means is that Sea World has to shuffle whales a little more across the country, than little has been done but increase the number of mom and calf separations.

Sea World is slowly fading, but they’ve made it clear that they will not go quietly. An appeal will probably emerge, we’ll hear more about how wonderfully they treat their animals, and ticket sales will continue to drop. Let us continue to diplomatically educate those that buy tickets and boycott those that sponsor them (No Budweiser till Corky’s out!). The animal rights movement has moved at an exponential pace the past few years and I can’t wait to see where it leads next.