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Mar 042010
 

(Note: The Cove won the 2010 Oscar for best documentary.)

 
Marine mammal activist Ric O'Barry: 'We would like to see the Justice Department investigate SeaWorld.  This girl did not have to die.'
Marine mammal activist Ric O’Barry: ‘We would like to see the Justice Department investigate SeaWorld. This girl did not have to die.’

By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now

This is an interesting time to be Ric O’Barry.

On one hand, the marine mammal activist is counting down the hours until Sunday, when he may win an Oscar for his role in the documentary The Cove – a compelling and gruesome expose about the secret slaughter of dolphins in Japan.

On the other hand, he is all over the news as the unabashed enemy of whale captivity, the go-to naysayer in the wake of a SeaWorld trainer’s death in the jaws of an orca – a killer whale.

Fighting for the rights of dolphins and whales is nothing new for O’Barry. In a way, he blames himself for starting it all. He was the man who captured and trained the dolphins who performed in the ‘60s TV show Flipper.

He’s been trying to make up for it ever since, fighting to free captive dolphins, including the orcas, which are the largest members of the dolphin family.

A scene from a SeaWorld killer whale performance in San Diego. Seaworld says that their programs provide the public a unique experience with the whales, which leads to heightened concern about their fate.

A scene from a SeaWorld killer whale performance in San Diego. SeaWorld says that their programs provide the public a unique experience with the whales, which leads to heightened concern about their fate.

“We have a utilitarian relationship with these animals – SeaWorld does,” he said. “The fact is that 90.4 percent of all the orcas captured since 1961 are dead. That’s appalling for an animal that should live 70 years in the wild. We know of 152 orcas that have died in captivity.”

For SeaWorld – and other entertainment aquariums around the world that train dolphins and killer whales to perform – O’Barry is an unceasing, increasingly high-profile irritant, reminding the world that these are highly intelligent creatures that should not be domesticated.

“These are wild animals, and they are forever wild. Playing lovey-dovey with them is not smart. . . . These (attacks and injuries to trainers) are not accidents. These are incidents and they happen quite often. Then they are covered up,” he said, mentioning another recent, relatively unpublicized death of a trainer at an aquarium in the Canary Islands in December. Reports say he drowned after an accident during “playtime” with an orca.

And most everyone following the news knows that the orca that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in Orlando last month, Tilikum – the largest killer whale in captivity today –  had killed before.

Why are we so attracted to the spectacle of flipping Shamus and ball-tossing dolphins? SeaWorld spokesman, beloved animal advocate Jack Hanna, says these interactions between the crowd and the dolphins and orcas help sensitize us to their amazing beauty and make us care about their fate.

Despite the death of Brancheau on Feb. 24, the multimillion-dollar business of dolphin and killer whale performances goes on. The big black and white mammals are the headliners at entertainment aquariums around the globe, and that means millions of dollars to the “abusement parks,” as O’Barry calls them.

That quip, along with lots of others, has brought lawsuits, legal threats and nasty letters his way, O’Barry said. None of which seems to have any impact on him.

Ric O'Barry's first contact with dolphins was as the trainer for the '60s TV program 'Flipper.'

Ric O'Barry's first contact with dolphins was as the trainer for the '60s TV program 'Flipper.'

The “seaquarium” industry is powerful, with lobbyists, lawyers and PR firms working hard to keep their image clean. “They’ve been able to convince people over the years that these animals belong here, doing these stupid tricks. And that’s the problem – we’re brainwashed into thinking they belong here.

“We need to recognize that there’s a space between us and wildlife that we don’t respect. And so, what they (the seaquariums) do is a form of bad education. Yes, it’s educational, but it’s bad. It only serves to perpetuate our insidious utilitarian relationship with nature,” he said.

It’s also all about control, he says. With dolphins’ perpetual smiles and playful antics, it’s hard to think the force driving those behaviors might not be love.

“It is a spectacle of dominance. I think anybody who watches that show – if they are honest with themselves  – would have to admit that.

“And it teaches us that dominance is good. Dominance is right, Dominance works. So everything is upside down and backwards,” O’Barry said.

To counter those comments, SeaWorld’s CEO Jim Atchison and others try to sooth a troubled public in an official statement: “It is important that I again stress that we provide the highest standard of care, and no animal is ever subjected to punishment in any form. Tilikum is no exception.”

Is there a disconnect between our wish to keep these sound-sensitive marine mammals safe and watching them splash around in what O’Barry calls a “concrete box”? There is that, and more: If we need a better example, look no further than Japan, he said.