Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Free Tilly

Looking good for a centenarian, isn't she?

My happiest childhood memories were formed when my dad took us out to the San Juan Islands on our little pink cabin cruiser.  We trolled for salmon, back then so abundant that they were easily caught in view of the downtown landscape.  Sometimes we were lucky enough to sight orcas.  Once -- to my mother's mortal terror -- one of those orcas swam so close to our boat that I was able to reach out and stroke its back. 

A typical Seattle native growing up in the sixties, I took these casual interactions with the natural world for granted.  The orca, like the salmon, are still our totem animals, and we hold them in reverence, and feel that they somehow "belong" to us.

Of course, the Pacific Northwest has changed a lot in my lifetime.  The middle aged "natives" grump about these changes endlessly, and are always taking stands on what and what is not a "permissible" development, as though our disapproval made one iota of difference in stemming the relentless tide of "progress."  How pathetic and self-righteous we can be!

For example, as a typical Seattle native, there are some places I never will go.  One of them is the EMP (Experience Music Project), Paul Allen's architectural monstrosity controversial contribution to the Seattle Center.  I still haven't visited the museum, but last night I did go to a concert there to raise money for the Orca Lab.

If you have been following the aftermath of Blackfish, you probably are aware that a number of big-name acts pulled out of performing at the Florida Sea World last summer in protest of its captivity and exhibition of orcas (killer whales) and other marine mammals.  And several of these acts got together to put on a show last night.

I was happy to fork over $200+ to take my place in the standing room only crowd.  For three hours we rocked out to Country Joe McDonald, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Heart, and others.  I was most looking forward to Joan Jett, and she didn't disappoint,* but surprisingly it was Graham Nash who made the biggest impact.  It had been a long time since I heard those Crosby Stills and Nash classics, rendered so sublimely fresh and sweet with harmonies provided by Ann and Nancy Wilson and Jami Sieber's cello accompaniment.

Paul Spong, director of the Orca Lab, spoke about his lifetime commitment to studying orcas in the wild, recording their language and music, analyzing their complex culture and family structures.  He talked about the rehabilitation of Keiko ("Free Willy"), a project that proved orcas can be successfully returned to the wild.  (Although Keiko was not able to rejoin his family of origin because they were not identified during his capture, he was able to swim free for five years after his release before succumbing to pneumonia.)

It's perhaps too late for Tillicum, the whale featured in "Blackfish" who has killed three humans over the course of his imprisonment, and now spends his time in isolation, listlessly floating, staring at the wall of his tank for hours at a time.  But it's not too late for Lolita and others.  Lolita, who has been circling a concrete tank the size of a hotel pool for 44 years, is considered healthy enough to be released.  Her mother is still alive, and there is every reason to believe her pod will recognize her and welcome her back when she is repatriated to her home waters.

Sea World lies and lies and lies.  It lies, for example, when it claims orcas in captivity outlive free orcas.  Granny, the matriarch of J2, is 100 and is still the leader of her pack.

It was easy to summon the spirit of the 1840s abolitionists last night.  The capture, enslavement and exploitation of animals that rival us in intelligence and social complexity is clearly indefensible to anyone whose heart is not made of stone.  It must stop, and it will stop... The only question is, How long will we allow these creatures to suffer in order to fatten the shareholders of Sea World? 

What can we do?  For starters, refuse to go to Sea World or take kids to any aquariums that feature performing marine mammals.  Challenge the message these corporations are sending children about our rightful relationship with nature.  Resist the temptation to "swim with the dolphins" on vacation (so much fun for us, not so much for the dolphins who have no choice to interact with us in those environments).

Come to Washington State during whale watching seasons.  There are several local charters that will take visitors out to observe killer whales from a respectful distance.  If you're a regular reader, shoot me an e-mail and I may even accompany you to the top of the Space Needle (I have to go some time, I guess). 

* OK, I was a teeny bit disappointed she didn't play "Androgynous," so I'll just play it right now:


  1. Ha, I've been to the EMP (as I think I mentioned in a much earlier comment here), and to the top of the Space Needle as well (I still use my ticket from the latter place as a bookmark)! I've also been out to the San Juan Islands, which I found a beautiful place, if a little overrun with wasps (indeed, I came to dub the island I visited, which I think was San Juan Island itself, the Isle of Wasps). I was rather amused to see a lot of the houses there flying the American flag, as if their inhabitants were intent on sending out the message, "You're not in Canada yet!"

    I have to admit I have ambivalent feelings about orcas and dolphins, having once watched a BBC documentary on the world's oceans (called The Blue Planet), which showed many examples of rather brutal predatory behaviour from these animals. Still, I suppose that only serves to reinforce the points you were making - these animals aren't cute creatures that exist to perform silly tricks for us, and otherwise entertain us. They're predators that play a vital role in the marine ecosystem, which is where they should be left. (I can't help wondering, also, if our keeping them in captivity is also motivated, at least in part, by misguided compassion - by a belief that they'll be safer and happier in an enclosure than the harsh environment of the open ocean.)

    Interestingly enough, I've been giving a lot of thought to conservation-related matters in the Doctor Who fanfic I'm writing. It basically revolves around a brutal alien Mafia going to a planet called Alzarius (which featured in an old Tom Baker story, Full Circle, that hardly anyone seems to remember), and kidnapping the juvenile members of another alien species, the Marshmen, to sell them into slavery. While the story's predominantly about the evils of slavery, it could just as easily be about the evils of poaching, given that the victims of the slavers fall into a sort of grey area between intelligent lifeforms and mere "animals". (I've noticed many interesting parallels between the capture of the Marshchildren in my story, and the real world trade in young chimpanzees, which I've heard is a pretty nasty business in its own right.) I'm quite tempted to put some Paris Hilton-type character in the story, who sees one of the Marshchildren for sale, thinks it'd be soooo cute* as a pet, and proves extremely reluctant to let the heroes take it back to its own world, and its own kind, at the end of the story.

    *And they are sort of cute, for what're essentially baby swamp monsters.

    1. I was probably thinking of you when I wrote that, and I am sure it is equally true of others that they never visit the "tourist" spots in their own cities unless they are entertaining out of town friends -- even though I often speculate that "Riding the Duck" might be a lot of fun, I have to wait for someone who is not from Seattle to visit me to do it.

      I have also seen some footage of the brutal behavior of killer whales: a scene of a killer whale "toying" with a sea lion before killing it (like a cat with a mouse) lingers in my memory. It's hard to deny they take pleasure in being predators. Maybe that's part of why people pay money to see them performing benign "tricks" -- it's a way of subduing the cruelty and aggression of nature.


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