Saturday, March 19, 2011

Kindred Spirits

I had the pleasure to meet Ric O'Barry, the dolphin trainer turned activist, at a showing of the film, "The Cove", at an intimate restaurant in Canggu, Bali, last night. I had just finished my last mission to Jakarta and Sumatra on behalf of the Orang Utan Republik Foundation, and was preparing to return to the States. Facebook alerted me to an opportunity while in Bali to see the mega-award winning film about the annual dolphin slaughter at Taiji, Japan. I admit, I was hesitant to watch the brutal scenes of these sentient animals being hacked to death in a bay of blood. But Ric was going to be there and I wanted to meet this fascinating man, watch the film, and ask him some questions.

The film was preceded by a modest dinner which in light of the content of the film may not have been a wise move. My stomach did turn during the course of this well done film that showed the epic journey that Ric had taken over the past 50 years. Ric was the original trainer bottlenose dolphins that starred in the 1960's television program, "Flipper". He came to realize that capturing and exploiting dolphins was a profoundly wrong thing. Perhaps a transformative moment in his life came after the series ended when Kathy, one the dolphins who played Flipper, died in his arms by committing suicide. On Earthday in 1970, Ric turned from being a trainer to an activist, rescuing dolphins all over the world. He has worked endlessly to document and bring the slaughter of the Taiji dolphins to the attention of the world. He was in Bali working with local animal protection groups to help the dolphins in Indonesia.

The film is well worth watching, highly emotional at time, very tense with the undercover aspects, and not suitable for children too young to grasp the meaning of the bloodletting and slaughter.

What I found interesting was the parallels to the orangutan crisis, something I made clear to the large audience during the Q&A part of the evening. Orangutans, like the dolphins, are highly intelligent, sensitive animals that are captured for entertainment and killed as pests and for food by a small segment of the society. Their respective habitats are being altered and degraded by humans in our insatiable and unsustainable consumption of natural resources.

As I pointed out, educating the locals people about the crisis and making it meaningful to them is the key. That is what the Orang Utan Republik is focusing on. I asked him if there were education programs in Japan to bring this issue to the public's attention (as the film suggested many people in Japan had no idea about the slaughter nor ate dolphin meat). Ric said there were education programs in Japan and the annual slaughter was reduced by one month this year. Apparently there is a single fishing union in the town of Taiji responsible for this despicable practice.

Finding alternative livelihoods to killing dolphins is another avenue to stop such undesirable behavior. While it didn't apply to Taiji (as the proud elderly dolphin fisherman in this affluent town just don't like being told what to do), it is a way to bring about positive change. Ric gave examples of how the people of the Solomon Islands gave up dolphin killing when an alternative livelihood was given to them. This is something we will be doing for the orangutans in Sumatra with our new MECU program.

Of course our propensity to laugh and be amused by the antics and tricks of orangutans and dolphins in marine parks and zoos is a highly profitable enterprise. It is the main driver of the slaughter in the case of the dolphins (a secondary factor for orangutans). Each year during the Taiji roundup of the dolphins, hundreds are first selected for capture and sent to marine parks around the world for $150,000 or more for each animal. These "smiling" animals cry out (as evidenced by the hydrophones in the "killing bay") as they are first captured and then the less desirable are slaughtered in a multi-month orgy of killing with spears and harpoons.

So what can we do to make a difference? Ric has a simple answer: just do what you can. Get informed and take action. There are so many organizations out there where you can help. The key is finding something that is relevant and of use. Volunteers who offer their services just to feel good about themselves miss the point. Have a plan of action. Ric says, "surround yourself with people who know more about the subject than you do". Certainly if you want to make a film about a topic of concern, it is critical do to it as a team. Go out to schools, raise money, talk to people. That is what we are doing this year once again for Orangutan Caring Week. It is a big team effort.

But Ric says the best thing you can do is not go to dolphin performance shows. Again, it is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Japan has over 50 marine parks with dolphins (that is in a country the size of California). Many of these parks around the world get their dolphins from Taiji. The slaughter will stop when the high priced incentive to round them up dries up.

I have to say I was totally moved by the experience last night. It only recharges my own desire to do more on behalf of a species that is critically endangered. Saving our precious biodiversity is a collective act of passion and commitment. But we need more young people to take up the charge and get out there and do what they can.
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