The Cult of Animal Celebrity by Captain Paul Watson
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1995:
Within the animal protection movement, there are
two types of animals: those with individual names and those
without. The movement is accordingly split between advo-
cates for animals with names, and advocates for all the rest.
Free Keiko, free Lolita, free Corky, free Hondo.
These are wonderful and appealing ideals––but not all captive
cetaceans can or should be freed. Not all facilities holding
marine animals are the enemy. And the huge sums raised to
free a few individuals could be more positively directed
toward ending the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of
nameless whales, dolphins, and seals on the world’s oceans.
The amount of money raised for the cause of freeing
marine mammals with names may exceed $45 million a year,
from the thousands raised to aid local seals and dolphins in
distress to the $14 million estimated cost of someday, maybe,
freeing Keiko, the orca star of the film Free Willy!
Never in the history of the animal protection move-
ment have so many given so much for so few––and so many
given so little for such large numbers.
Just as celebrity humans make loads of cash while
the commoners work harder to get by, so it is with whales.
Keiko is a movie star. Corky and Lolita are cause celebres.
Hondo the sea lion is a Seattle character.
Several times a year when a marine mammal gets
lost up a river, stuck on a sand bar, or trapped in ice, the
media descends in a frenzy of sound bites, the animal
receives a name like “Humphrey the humpback,” and the
baptism allows citizens to fret as they follow the animal’s
plight and applaud a “rescue” which may be no such thing. A
seal is trapped in the St. Lawrence River, for instance, and
the media names her. The public gives thousands of dollars
to transport her to freedom in the Gulf of St. Lawrence––
where the slaughter of tens of thousands of seals like her is
simultaneously underway and unremarked.
Media glorification of animals in distress indicative-
ly focuses on animals in conflict with nature. When nature is
the culprit, humans identify with their fellow creature. Thus
the Russians spent more money to rescue two California gray
whales from ice entrapment in the Arctic than they made from
slaughtering 200 of the same species the same winter off the
Siberian coast. The media knighted them as liberating heroes
for rescuing two and ignored the massacre of 200. At the
same time, then-President Ronald Reagan was a hero for
championing the cause of the two trapped whales––even as he
refused to sanction Iceland for illegal whaling.
The media has even reported about trapped dolphins
and pilot whales being heroically rescued in Japan, Iceland,
and Newfoundland, by people who regularly kill the same
species, without questioning the contradictions involved.
When the Shedd Aquarium captured two dolphins
off the southern California coast in 1994, the Sea Shepherd
Conservation Society and I were criticized for not dropping
what we were doing to run to their defense. We were accused
of being callous, of supporting dolphin captures, and one
prominent advocate against captivity, Ric O’Barry, called me
“the worst enemy dolphins have.”
What was not reported was that we were engaged in
a project to stop gill-netting off the same coast, which killed
dozens of dolphins every night. We received no support and
very little encouragement. The media was uninterested. We
could have jumped on the bandwagon and participated in the
media circus, chasing the Shedd boats around with banners.
Instead we kept our eyes focused on the greater tragedy.
Also overlooked was that a year before, we helped
fund the opposition to the capture of beluga whales in
Hudson’s Bay by the Shedd Aquarium. This led directly to a
Canadian ministerial order placing an indefinite moratorium
on further captures. We are opposed to captures from the
wild. We exercise our opposition legally, when it will be
effective. We do not simply strut before the cameras when it
is convenient to do so.
Now, what could a marine wildlife conservationist,
a protector of species, do with the kind of money made avail-
able to those who champion marine animals with names?
This year, the Norwegians, Icelanders, Faroese,
Japanese, Koreans, Portuguese, Russians, Canadians and
Americans will slaughter thousands of whales. The victims
will include endangered bowheads, under native subsistence
quotas, in addition to hundreds of minkes and unknown num-
bers of pirated sperms, grays, pilots, and belugas.
We like to think that dolphins are safe because one
can buy dolphin-safe tuna in the supermarkets. But reality is
that the tuna industry reflagged their vessels outside of the
U.S. when hit with regulation requiring dolphin-safe fishing
practices; the same ships continue to slaughter tens of thou-
sands of dolphins each year. Federal legislation barring the
import of tuna netted “on dolphin” took effect on June 1,
1994––but Mexico successfully had sued the U.S. to block
effective enforcement a year earlier, under the terms of the
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
Accordingly, the Japanese, Venezuelans,
Panamanians, Mexicans, Peruvians, Faroese, Norwegians,
Americans, and Koreans will massacre hundreds of thou-
sands of defenseless dolphins.
The Norwegians, Canadians, Russians, and
Namibians will slaughter nearly half a million seals.
Albatrosses are dying in the thousands as they are
cruelly hooked on 25-mile longlines or become ensnared in
50-mile driftnets. The U.S. shrimp industry devastates sea
turtles. (Even Forest Gump was a turtle killer.) Once seem-
ingly limitless fish populations are at the brink of extinction.
The North Atlantic cod fishery has collapsed. A dozen
salmon runs a year vanish from the Pacific Northwest.
Even the recently pristine Galapagos Islands are
under assault by fishers, who kill seals, dolphins, and turtles
on the side.
Reality is that our generation is presiding over a
marine biological Armageddon.
Money is needed to restore and protect spawning
areas. Money is needed to lobby, legislate, and litigate
against the fishing, whaling, and sealing industries. Money
is needed for research, investigation, and enforcement.
Money is needed at every level, from government agencies to
non-governmental organizations to individuals in the field.
Yet the money is not available. The great tragedy of the com-
mons is that there is every economic incentive to exploit the
oceans and little economic incentive to protect them.
Many animal protection groups respond by going
where the money is: to celebrity, a form of currency, which
can be traded quite profitably within the media marketplace.
It is easy to entice schoolchildren and the general public to
fork over funds to “save” Dotty the dolphin or Sally the seal.
It is easy for people to relate to the plight of the individual,
especially through endearing pictures. It is quite another
thing to capture people’s attention over the horrific slaughter
of thousands of animals in the name of profit. Pictures of this
only make most of us want to avert our eyes––and thoughts.
Some groups raise support for wild whales by set-
ting up so-called whale adoption programs. Donations to
save all whales are attracted by placing the publicity focus on
individuals, who respond to protect “their” whale as they
never would to an appeal for all the whales.
In recent years attention has also centered on cap-
tive dolphins held by oceanariums. This too has attracted
more support than work on behalf of the animals in the wild:
the oceanarium animals have names. They can be seen.
Unfortunately, the attacks on the oceanariums have
been a media blitzkrieg of indiscriminate irrationality, push-
ing all facilities into one category: the enemy. Any dissent
within the movement, i.e. any questioning of the overall
strategy and tactics, is stifled. Those who champion the cap-
tive animals become the good guys, no matter what, and
those who keep the animals are the bad guys.
Reality is of course never so simple. In truth Sea
World rescues more animals in the wild, chiefly from strand-
ings, than all animal advocacy groups combined. Also for-
gotten is that Sea World does not capture dolphins or whales
from the wild, and that the much maligned Shedd is
involved in breeding, maintaining, and restoring more than
100 species of African freshwater fish called cichlids.
The truth is that the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas
holds animals rescued from inferior facilities. Many of the
Mirage dolphins were at one time cruelly abused. No
expense is spared now to give them the best care available.
They are not forced to perform. The anti-captivity move-
ment, however, dismisses these arguments by saying that the
animals are simply held to make profits––a form of slavery.
Again, the facts are otherwise. The Mirage subsidizes the
dolphin facility to the tune of $1.5 million dollars a year. No
profit has ever been made nor is it planned for. The dolphins
cannot be returned to the wild; they have never known free-
dom, and would simply perish.
A double standard is at work when the Sugarloaf
Dolphin Sanctuary in Florida is considered politically correct
for holding unreleasable dolphins, while the Mirage is con-
demned. The difference between the two is that the facilites
at the Mirage are far superior, but the Mirage is owned by a
business man, while Sugarloaf is owned by prominent mem-
bers of the anti-captivity movement. Apparently it’s okay to
hold dolphins captive if you are publicly against captivity.
Actually, oceanariums in many ways are victims of
their own success. They educated the public so well about
dolphins, whales, and other marine life that a public that
didn’t care a fig about these animals before 20 years ago now
cares a great deal. Unfortunately this compassion for whales
and dolphins is not harnessed as a force against the killing
industry, but is instead turned back against the teacher.
The oceanariums have also failed to aggressively
educate the public about the slaughter in the wild. Many
acilities like the Vancouver Aquarium and Sea World do not
risk overt criticism of the Japanese whaling industry. The fact
is that tens of thousands of Japanese tourists love to look at
lovable dolphins, and pay good money to do so.
Unfortunately, too many insist upon keeping dolphins and
whales on their sushi plates.
Earth Island Institute is raising $11 million to build
Keiko a bigger tank in Oregon so that he can be moved from
his tank in Mexico. Warner Brothers has already kicked in a
few million. Keiko probably cannot be released due to a
potentially contagious skin disease, yet the fundraising to
“free” him continues––including by groups not associated
with Earth Island and not accountable for their use of the
cash, much of it apparently spent on “public education” via
further direct-mail funding appeals.
Meanwhile the conservation side of the animal pro-
tection movement needs ships to police the Galapagos and to
protect the Southern Oceans Whale Sanctuary, where the
Japanese killed at least 300 minke whales this year alone and
might have killed whales of other species with no one the
wiser because no one was even there to watch, let alone to
defend whales. We need to police overfishing and pirate
whaling. Unfortunately, these far more serious threats are
out of sight and out of mind. The victims are nameless and
their loss is considered media-insignificant.
Rights, welfare, conservation
My purpose here is not to belittle the efforts of those
who champion individual animals. The strength of any move-
ment is diversity, including diversity of strategies and tactics.
Conservationists, animal welfare advocates, and animal
rights advocates have many objectives in common. At the
same time there must be tolerance of other opinions and
understanding of the importange of agreeing to disagree.
Animal welfare is humanity in action. Animal
rights is the philosophic attempt to better that humanity.
Conservation is simply survival and thus the foundation of
our collective concerns. To address the issues of animal wel-
fare and animal rights while ignoring the foundation of con-
servation is to collapse the structure of all. There should be
concern for individual animals, and I am not saying that ani-
mals with names should be ignored. However, it is impera-
tive that the interests of species receive priority attention.
Individuals will inevitably die, and that is the ultimate fact of
life. Once a species is gone, it is gone forever, and with the
species gone, there will be no individuals left to be named.
It must be recognized that there is much to be
learned from all phases of activity within the animal protec-
tion movement. The hardcore vegan animal rights advocate
and the Shedd staffer working to protect a vanishing species
are each involved in what they perceive to be the best strategy
to help animals. It is not that one is right and the other wrong.
Both are right within the context of their individual values.
The bottom line is that both are positively active. Positive
criticisms of each others’ strategy is positive. Unfortunately
the animosity between different approaches is becoming
increasingly more negative and destructive.
The cry of “Free Willy!” is exciting and inspira-
tional, but what does it really mean? Free Willy to an ocean
where whales and dolphins are slaughtered in the hundreds of
thousands? To an ocean stinking with pollutants––an ocean
of abuse? A future where as one of the masses, the celebrity
whale will be just another target for a harpoon, in a world
that doesn’t give a damn for what it can’t see and can’t name?
There are hundreds of dolphins held in tanks around
the world. There are millions whose numbers diminish daily
in the largest human-controlled killing tank of all: the ocean.
If we don’t halt the wanton killing in the wild, the only place
dolphins will survive will be in captive facilities.
It’s time to fight the real enemy, out there on the
high seas, the killing grounds where the scarlet blood of dol-
phins, whales, seals, sea birds, turtles and fish flows forth
each day like a river of a million tributaries, into the azure
blue and toward the inky blackness of oblivion.
Captain Paul Watson is founder of the Sea
Shepherd Conservation Society, headquartered at
3107-A Washington Blvd., Marina Del Rey, CA