Human Celebrities versus Animal Celebrities

by Benjamin White, Jr.

"The Cult of Animal Celebrity", written by Paul Watson and published by Merritt Clifton, puts forth recent context for defending the captivity of marine mammals and opposes those that want them free: the theory that many millions of dollars are going into helping "celebrity animals" that could be spent better protecting wild populations.

The premise is false and is being used to defend Paul Watson's ongoing funding by Steve Wynn of the Mirage Casino and Merritt Clifton's clear allegiance with marine parks and aquaria. Three years ago I quit as president of Sea Shepherd when Paul changed the policy of the group toward captivity in order to appeal to Steve Wynn for funding. It worked, Paul got $50,000 as a first installment in appreciation for his backing off on the captivity issue and his trashing of the efforts of myself, Lisa Lange and Peter Wallerstein to close down the Mirage's captive dolphin tanks. I guess Sea Shepherd's motto could be changed to "No Compromise in the Defense of Mother Earth unless the price is right."

Merritt Clifton, masquerading as the animal rights movement's muckraking journalist, has made a career of late defending those that make a living from captive animals and trying to marginalize those that think zoos, circuses, vivisection labs and aquariums should be abolished, not reformed.

Saying that there is too much fuss being made over "animals with names" is a sly shorthand for referring to captive animals, they are the only ones up close and personal enough to have been given names. Paul and Merritt's arguments offer a false dichotomy: that one must choose between helping named captive animals or wild unnamed animals. Amazingly, Paul is using his hero status as a militant defender of marine mammals to parrot the same arguments long used by the public display industry. How wonderful it must be for Sea World, that has virtually invented the world trade in marine mammals, to be defended by the likes of Paul Watson and Merritt Clifton.

The job of those that presume to speak up for animals, it seems to me, is to speak and act to stop animal suffering period, regardless of where the animals are. One need not choose between helping animals in the wild or in captivity, we obviously need to do both.

Paul writes, with his casual use for the truth, that the amount of money raised for the cause of freeing marine mammals with names may exceed $45 million a year. The use of the slippery word "may" gives license for vast exaggeration. Yes, contributions to free these creatures "may" exceed $45 million, but they don't. Having been involved in all four of the efforts decried: the campaigns to Free Willy, Free Lolita, Free Corky and Free Hondo, I can attest that the amount is nowhere even close. The Free Willy campaign, headed up by Earth Island Institute, was started with a grant from Warner Brothers for two million dollars essentially to deal with an in-house problem: Warner was coming out with Free Willy 2 and knew that if there was no plan afoot to move Keiko from his tiny tank in Mexico City, they would be raked over the coals. The entire budget for the tank being built to house Keiko in Newport, Oregon is about 11 million. It will be used as a stranding rehab facility once Keiko is gone. I personally opposed the building of yet another tank and favored a sea pen in Nova Scotia for Keiko, but there is not a shred of evidence that any of the money going into this project was subtracted from any effort to save life on the high seas.

All of the money for all of the other projects, to free the whales Lolita, Corky and the sea lion Hondo tally up to far under a hundred thousand dollars. The only reference anywhere to Free Hondo was on a banner I tied to the side of the cage out in Puget Sound near Seattle when I locked myself inside on February 1. Hondo had been caught in the same cage a week earlier and was being held for execution by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. After my cage-sit, and the resulting front page picture and article in the Seattle Times, state officials announced that Hondo would no longer be killed because he had become too much of a celebrity. He was released in June. I consider one animal saved a tiny victory, whether named or not. Contrary to Paul's assertion that Sea Shepherd is opposed to captures from the wild, he was at the same time offering to capture the sea lions for the National Marine Fisheries Service and transport them via the Edward Abbey to California. This gave exactly the wrong message: that it is the sea lions that are to blame for the steelhead trout decline instead of the people that had driftnetted, deforested and dammed the steelhead and salmon to oblivion.

What Paul is really expounding is the old finite funding pie argument, that there is a limited amount of money going into animal protection and more should go to what he once did so well: the interference with the killing of sea mammals at sea. But even in this context it is bizarre to defend marine parks and aquaria. For many years representatives of this industry have attended the meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the Convention in Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) with one purpose in mind: to prevent the extension of protection from the great whales to the smaller cetaceans. Any measures that would have protected small whales and dolphins have been successfully blocked, enabling not only the ongoing trade in these animals but their continued slaughter worldwide.

Paul's description of Sea World as having saved more animals in the wild than all animal advocacy groups combined is both wildly numerically inaccurate and reminiscent of Weyerheuser calling itself the tree growing company. After having their corporate butt thrown out of Washington state for killing four killer whales in capture nets and trying to hide their bodies, Sea World went to Iki Island, Japan to find a new source for entertainers. There they revived the waning drive fishery by agreeing to take the prettiest of the dolphins and pseudorcas off the hands of the fishermen for a handsome fee. They describe this as a "rescue" because the fishermen slaughter all dolphins not taken by the display industry. None of the thousands of animals destroyed over the years by this industry funded slaughter had, as far as I know, been given names.

It's embarrassing to hear Paul, one of the founders of Greenpeace, credit the marine park industry with having caused the public's love affair with marine mammals. That assumes the industry's primary fallacious argument, that they educate in a positive direction. They do not. They teach dominance: that might makes right. Every child admitted is taught, through his parent's passive consent, that having whales and dolphins against their will, away from their family, doing tricks for our amusement, is all right. Paul also adopts the "it's a jungle out there" defense, an old saw of the industry, to try to pretend that captivity us for the victim's own good. Who among us would choose permanent "protective custody" instead of facing the rigors of freedom?

Paul laments that none of this attention focused on captive animals has served to help whales and dolphins in the wild. That claim may help in fundraising but it is not true. The killing of dolphins in tuna nets worldwide, mainly as a result of an Earth Island campaign and monitoring program, has dropped from hundreds of thousands a year to about 3500, obviously, still 3500 too many. During the twenty years Paul mentions, the killing of whales has gone down from tens of thousands a year to hundreds. None of this steals from the urgency of stopping the murder of those, but it is simply untrue to say the movement to assist wild cetaceans, of which Paul has played a huge part, has not swelled in parallel to the increase of compassion for captive cetaceans.

While we're on the subject, why does Sea Shepherd only defend animals on the high seas out of U.S. territory and only when the killing does not have the sanction of the International Whaling Commission? Paul has been highly vocal lately in opposing the Makah Indian Nation's intention to begin killing whales again, but if they get IWC approval, as now seems likely, he will do nothing to stop them. If a group's mandate is to protect marine mammals, but they exclude those captive, those in U.S. waters and those being killed under the approval of the International Whaler's Club, it would seem their scope of responsibility has shrunk almost to the size of Greenpeace's (that now doesn't oppose the killing of 200,000 Canadian harp seals a year.)

Paul Watson and Merritt Clifton have joined the public display industry. The posting by Paul that I am responding to is really the second in a series, the first one was called Moral Relativity and Marine World, Africa. In that article, Animal People editor Merritt Clifton defends not only that amusement park's purchase of pseudorcas from the Iki Island drive fishery but the expedition the company took to Alaska to pay Inuits to kill mother walruses so their babies could be taken into captivity.

Paul complains that divisiveness in the "movement" is becoming increasingly negative and destructive and that we need to have peace among all factions, by agreeing to disagree. The trouble with this happy scenario is that the industry he and Merritt defend is predicated on taking what doesn't belong to it and then lying to keep it. Have we lost the capacity for telling right from wrong? My own moral touchstone for determining if a situation is justifiable for an animal is to consider if the same situation would be tolerable for a person. Would Paul and Merritt justify centers where people were taken against their will from their families, force fed until they submit, kept in an environment far diminished from their natural home, have children taken from their mothers routinely, and then forced through food deprivation to perform until they die? To call this industry, as Paul does, part of the animal protection movement or to define this debate as one over "moral relativism" does not tell the truth or help us into the future. To the degree that we, the people who supposedly stand up for critters, acquiesce to animal suffering based on such fuzzy and self serving logic, we surrender both our value to the animals and our moral compass. By compromising with those that deliberately cause suffering by stealing animals from their home and family we become the protector of the jailer, abandoning the jailed.

Paul Watson's benefactor Steve Wynn promised (to me and many others) that his casino would have dolphins only temporarily, serving as a halfway house for dolphins taken from abusive facilities on their way to freedom. Problem is, Steve forgot that freedom part. Then he acted as point man for the industry and sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, resulting in them losing purview over almost every aspect of captivity. Due to his efforts, captive cetaceans are virtually unprotected.

As far as I can see, there is very little division among animal rights groups over this issue. Ten years ago, there were a bare handful of us fighting for the abolition of whales in jails. Now it is embraced by virtually every group, including such previously immovable rocks as HSUS. We do not have a worsening rift in the movement but two people with guilty consciences that want to solicit new members for their Quisling Club. If Paul and Merritt want to denigrate those who work to free wildlife and glorify those that work in institutions founded on cruelty, that's fine, but they should admit they have acquired a vested interest in the subject. They should say how much they have received from the industry (Paul has garnered well over $100,000 from Steve Wynn) instead of pretending they are just another objective activist giving advice on strategy.

I have a bias. I am an abolitionist. I have sworn to the dolphins that I will stop at nothing to save every life, to free every creature and close every facility that I can. Like it or not, that's where I stand. Paul and Merritt have a bias. They should own up to it.

On a personal note, I just can't understand why Paul doesn't get it. I was captive with him after being arrested stopping the Canadian Seal Hunt in 1983. We were both facing six years to life. We ended up in adjoining cells for ten days. One day Paul was so depressed he stayed on his bunk with his head covered up all day, talking to no one. He was my best friend and I was worried about him. The next day he was back in his typically wonderful good humor. But I've always wondered why he feels no connection with the orca that floats listlessly between performances, with nowhere to go, nothing to do, no stories to tell, no fish to catch, no life to live. These creatures have been sentenced to life imprisonment for no offense other than appealing to people.

The fact that they have been labeled with stupid pet names (how amazing their real names must be!) should not be used as a reason to encourage their jailers by dismissing their suffering. Free Willy? Free Hondo? Free Corky? Free Lolita? Yes! and Yaka, Bubble, Molly and all the rest. The only way to save a species is one by one. Free them all. And let's not let anyone, friend or foe, plant false doubt and make us lose focus. Our enemies are real, they are those that cause animal suffering, whether on the high seas or in our backyard.

What does one say to an old friend that chooses to switch sides and speak for the enemy? Everyone makes mistakes. Come back to the fold. Money can't buy you love (except on the sleazy side of town.)

Benjamin White, Jr.
Date: 3 August,1995

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