Two new documentaries share by pure coincidence the threat to sea mammals posed by venal Chinese consumerism.
“Long Gone Wild”, which is available across all VOD platforms on July 16th, picks up where “Blackfish” left off. Made in 2013, “Blackfish” exposed the cruel exploitation of orcas at SeaWorld, where they were confined to unnatural, prison-like conditions and forced to perform circus-type tricks until the 12,500-pound Tilikum began to take vengeance on two of his trainers and a hapless trespasser. “Long Gone Wild” demonstrates that while SeaWorld made significant concessions to activists and scientists, it has continued to explore ways in which the killer whale can be commodified. Ironically, the nomenclature “killer whale” seems inappropriate since it is profit-seeking that is the real killer, especially as China has become the new SeaWorld colossus with Russia supplying most of the kidnapped creatures for big money.
“Sea of Shadows”, which opens at The Landmark at 57 West and Quad Cinema in New York today, concerns the vaquita, the smallest porpoise in existence. It is poised on the edge of extinction largely as collateral damage created once again by China. It turns out that the swimming bladder of the totoaba, a member of the drum family, is prized by Chinese for its medicinal properties and that can command $40,000 on the black market just like rhinoceros horns and other animal organs taken from animals at the top of the food chain. The fisherman of San Felipe, a seacoast village in Baja California, have begun using gillnets to snare the totoaba but the vaquitas are caught as well. Except for a small minority of fishermen in the village who disavow such wasteful practices, the rest are willing to break the law as part of cartel run by local gangsters and their Chinese middle-men.
“Long Gone Wild” is directed by William Neal, who has a long television career making commercial junk like Unsolved Mysteries for the Lifetime Network but who also considers himself an animal lover, with a particular passion for orcas. What makes the film stand out is his inclusion of a virtual who’s who of experts on orcas in captivity and in their natural state, which is about as far removed from SeaWorld as a Sing Sing prison cell would be from a country home in Vermont.
We hear from Ric O’Barry, a former animal trainer who captured and trained the five dolphins that were used in the TV series Flipper in the 1960s. Now 79, he is still an activist, seen toward the end of the film penetrating through the tight security of an orca warehouse in China. My first encounter with O’Barry was in August 2009 when he was the central figure in another documentary titled “The Cove” that exposed the killing of dolphins in Japan so that they could end up in supermarket bins, even when they were laced with mercury. The film was to dolphins what “Blackfish” was to orcas. I wrote:
Rick O’Barry, now 70 years old and bearing a striking resemblance to Richard Widmark, trained dolphins for a living in his youth. So good was he at it that he landed a job with the 1960s “Flipper” television show that featured a number of dolphins playing the lead role, just as multiple collies played Lassie on a kindred show. Before long O’Barry discovered that dolphins hated being in captivity despite their outward exuberance at places like Seaworld, so much so that they often committed suicide. Unlike human beings, dolphins and porpoises breathe each breath as a willful act so the decision to stop breathing can lead to death. The dolphin Kathy, who was one of the animals that played “Flipper” died in O’Barry’s arms one day in an act that he could only interpret as suicidal. From that moment on, he devoted himself to freeing dolphins from captivity no matter the risk.
Others interviewed in the film are just as compelling. Steven Wise, the director of the Nonhuman Rights Project, was determined to secure the release of the jailed orcas just as he had done with chimpanzees but was blocked in court. Without a sanctuary of the kind that had been created for chimps, the orcas stayed put. As part of SeaWorld’s con game, they refused to release the orcas they still held in captivity because they had been born in captivity and would die if released into the wild. We hear from Lori Marino and Charles Winick of the Wild Sanctuary Project that has been busy identifying a body of water that could accommodate released orcas and be supported by a staff of scientists and veterinarians. I invite you to visit these websites to get up to speed on one of the most important animal rights initiatives today: https://www.nonhumanrights.org/ and https://whalesanctuaryproject.org.
SeaWorld has changed hands a number of times since it was launched in 1964. Among the best known of its owners was Busch Entertainment, a subsidiary of the beer giant Anheuser-Busch, just the kind of company that would be sensitive to animal rights. As bad as Busch was, it paled in comparison to Blackstone that became the new owner in 2009. Stephen Schwarzman, the vile CEO of Blackstone who threw himself a $5 million birthday party 2 years ago, blamed the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau on her own failure to follow regulations when she was killed by Tilikum. This doesn’t sound much different than his best friend Donald Trump blaming immigrants for their own mistreatment when they seek asylum in the USA.
In 2017, Blackstone sold SeaWorld to the Zhonghong Group, a Chinese investment firm, for about $449 million, thus setting the stage for the disgusting orca imprisonment being resurrected in China. The deal fell through a year later when travel agency Thomas Cook, announced that it would cut its ties with the marine park, issuing a statement that it would “no longer sell any animal attractions that keep orcas in captivity.”
To get an idea of the sordid connections between the dubious anti-imperialist credentials of the two most powerful members of BRICS—Russia and China—and orca suffering, consider the fate of 11 orcas and 87 belugas that were warehoused in Russia pending sales to Chinese water circuses (the best term for these cruel spectacles) in the summer of 2018. The miserable conditions were captured by a drone video, leading the media to label it the “whale jail.” Outrage over their conditions forced Russia to release them back into the ocean. Will Gray Zone will take up the anti-imperialist right of Russia and China to build SeaWorld’s without Western interference? Time will tell.
There are probably less than 20 vaquitas left in the world. A NY Times article on the campaign to stave off its extinction showed how beautiful the creature is.
In San Felipe, there is a three-pronged effort being waged on their behalf by three very distinct agencies. First, there is Sea Shepherd, a conservationist direct action group that has much in common with Greenpeace. They make the rounds of the Sea of Cortez each day removing gillnets from the water, even at the risk of being attacked by poachers or the gangsters they sell totoabas to. Four years ago I had a run-in with Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd over their opposition to Makah whale-hunting that I supported on the basis of indigenous rights. You can read the exchange here. Whatever lingering animosity I felt toward Sea Shepherd has melted after seeing their heroic resistance to the profiteers turning the Sea of Cortez into a dead zone.
Working closely with Sea Shepherd is a cadre of fishermen who remove nets as well. So committed they are to sustainable fishing that they go 200 kilometers south of San Felipe just to make sure they won’t jeopardize the vaquita when they set their nets. One of them is most eloquent. He says that the ocean is the source of life. If the ocean dies, we die as well.
Finally, there are the cops and the navy who put up about as stiff a resistance to the poachers as they did to drug traffickers for the past 40 years at least. Since totoabas are called the cocaine of the ocean, it is not surprising that the men in uniform look the other way when gillnets are being placed into the Sea of Cortez.
“Sea of Shadows” is directed by Richard Ladkani, who also directed “The Ivory Game”, a documentary that identified China once again as the source of species die-off for the worst possible reason: personal vanity. One might understand the need for Mexican fishermen or African landless peasants to hasten the extinction of vaquitas or elephants, given their inability to otherwise survive in desperate conditions. But why would the Chinese need to put trinkets on their mantel place if the consequence is elephant extinction? This is what I had to say about “The Ivory Game”:
As the title implies, this is about the wholesale destruction of African elephants through poaching. The main market for their tusks is China, where the nouveau riche value artwork made of ivory. Like the rhinoceros tusks that end up in useless cures for a variety of ailments ranging from impotence to cancer, China is a primary cause of the enormous loss of living natural resources that cannot easily be replaced.
The film follows some of the men and women involved in eliminating the black market for ivory in both Africa and China. We meet the cops who are in pursuit of Shetani, a kingpin in the poaching business whose name is Swahili for Satan—appropriately enough. We also meet a young Chinese man who after being horrified as a boy by the slaughter of small animals in an outdoor market decided to take up their cause. He became an investigative journalist covering the ivory game as well as an undercover operative who secretly filmed the Chinese and Africans who take part in this sordid business.
As a further illustration of the insanity of the capitalist system, we learn that the men in the poaching trade and the shopkeepers in China who sell the handicrafts made of ivory want the elephant population to decline since that will drive up the price of their goods. Supply and demand, don’t you know? This becomes a vicious cycle that will eventually lead to their extinction.
Supply and demand, otherwise known as capitalism, will not only lead to the extinction of the vaquita and the elephant. Unimpeded, it will destroy us as well. That’s the lesson of these two powerful documentaries.
(“The Cove” is available on YouTube for $3.99 and “The Ivory Game” can be seen on Netflix, where it was first released.)