by Merritt Clifton
VANCOUVER, KANSAS CITY, CHICAGO––Propaganda wins converts to causes by reducing issues to good against evil, forcing observers to take sides. Propaganda is among the most effective tools of warfare; but like warfare itself, it exacts a high price from those who use it. Much as the dead from either side don’t “win” a war, propagandists for any cause often find themselves obliged to wage wars they can’t afford simply because they chose to use exaggerated rhetoric in trying to win a simple reform. The nature of propaganda is that in making broad accusations of bad faith by the opponent, it cuts off communication, making enmity out of disagreement and mendacity out of misunderstanding.
No one ever used propaganda more effectively than World War II British prime minister Winston Churchill; but it was also Churchill who urged that propaganda be used with judicious restraint. “Never ascribe to malice what may be ascribed to stupidity,” he warned, “and never ascribe to stupidity what may be ascribed to ignorance.”
Even in combatting Nazis––the real Nazis, not just the metaphorical Nazis who have haunted debate over ethical matters ever since––Churchill urged recognition that his foes might be acting honorably as they perceived honor. Accusing oceanariums of operating concentration camps for whales and activists of copying Big Lie tactics from Adolf Hitler, few participants in the marine mammal captivity debate have demonstrated any comparable inkling of statesmanship. Even those who feel the need for it have little idea how to proceed, given the poisoned atmosphere on either side.
Wrote Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums executive director Marilee Keefe in response to the first installment of Dirty Pool: “I couldn’t agree with you more that there are things we should be doing together. I know we all need to learn to disagree without being enemies. At first glance, my thoughts are that we have to learn to trust each other on some little things before jumping into some of the bigger things,” such as jointly orchestrated and monitored releases of selected “surplus” captive marine mammals who might have a good chance for survival in the wild.
“However,” Keefe continued, “both sides’ rhetoric is heating up, and we’re facing negotiated rulemaking on USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service care and maintenance standards” for marine mammals. “Nobody may be in the mood right now. I, for one, have a headache.”
In November 1994, I reported on the many misunderstandings and resultant misrepresentations I discovered in a probe of four leading propaganda pieces relating to marine mammal captivity: two widely distributed activist “fact sheets” on captive orcas and dolphins, and two articles purporting to tell the “truth” about activists, widely circulated among oceanarium management.
The often recited mis-statements in the pieces in question, deliberate or not, account for much of the escalation of rhetoric that Keefe observes. Obscured in the taking of sides is that not all captive venues are the same, or even comparable. Some, like SeaWorld, are large and run for profit; others, like most north of the sunbelt, are nonprofit; and still others are the marine mammal equivalent of roadside zoos. Conversely, not all opponents of captivity are the same. Some oppose captivity of particular species or individuals at particular sites, but do not object to keeping what they deem appropriate species or individuals at appropriate sites. Others oppose all captivity, on principle yet many in this camp make exceptions for stranding victims and elderly captive-born animals whose chances of survival in the wild might be poor.
Examples of debates over marine mammal captivity that have degenerated into warfare are myriad. I will examine three of particular note in this installment: Lifeforce vs. the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, British Columbia; People for Animal Rights vs. Oceans of Fun, in Kansas City, Missouri; and the Chicago Animal Rights Coalition vs. the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois, which is essentially a continuation of protests initiated by other people and organizations long before CHARC was formed. In a sequel series next year, I hope to look at others, among them the escalating debate over the adequacy of the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary in Florida, where Ric O’Barry of the Dolphin Project and others are preparing several captive dolphins for return to the wild when and if they get the necessary federal permits, and the role of oceanarium demand for pseudorcas in the continuing Iki Island “drive fishery” massacres off the shore of Japan. In each instance, allegations and counter-allegations are many, yet there is paradoxical agreement that the animals in question do deserve to live in good health, and though there may be right and wrong tactical judgements, the only clear black-and-white may be the heaving flanks of the stranded pseudorcas as their tormentors––reviled by most oceanarium people as well as captivity opponents––close in with harpoons.
“Save the Sea Lions,” the Lifeforce flyer implores. “Aquarium Vivisection,” claims a banner across the front of a photograph of five young Stellar sea lions playing king-of-the-mountain. “Behind the glass prison wall,” the caption explains, the young [sea lions] have to fight for space on the only tiny island. The exhibit is too small for adult sea lions, who can weigh up to 2,200 pounds and measure up to 10.5 feet long.” A second photograph, of a transportation container, is captioned, “Deprived of food and imprisoned in an enclosed experimental chamber.” Recipients are asked to demand that the Vancouver Aquarium immediately stop the inhumane experiments on the Stellar sea lions, close the sea lion exhibit, and release the sea lions.
The text elaborates: “The Stellar sea lions were cruelly abducted from their mothers and natural home in July 1993 for experimentation and exploitation for financial profit. They were only two weeks old. The research, related to food intake and energy costs, is conducted by the U.S. North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium and funded by U.S. fish processing companies, which circumvented U.S. regulations by capturing and experimenting on the sea lions in Canada. While on display and during experiments, the victims will be continuously exposed to human imprinting, which jeopardizes a successful release, and inhumane conditions. They will continue to be subjected to cruel experiments that include food deprivation, confinement in an enclosed metabolic chamber and, in the near future, forced swim-mill tests. They could also be electrically shocked by perimeter fence wires if they try to escape or if they try to determine the source of adjacent whale, dolphin, and human sounds by looking over the wall. It is highly likely that other sea lions will be captured under the guise of rehabilitation or research to keep the new exhibit open.”
The flyer went on to assert that the research in question is bogus because, “The Alaskan sea lions and other wildlife may be declining but studying in captivity members of the stable British Columbia population does not apply.”
I received the Lifeforce flyer in early August 1994, just after observing the sea lions in question first-hand while researching a September 1994 cover feature on captive orcas, belugas, and dolphins. Spending considerable time with the sea lions, I noted that they evinced no fear whatever of humans, not exactly what one would expect from animals who had purportedly been vivisected; showed great interest in socializing with human visitors; played very much as young sea lions do in the wild; and were most unlikely to get close enough to the electric fence to get a shock, which was obviously there half to inhibit misguided humans from taking up the sea lions’ apparent invitation to dive in and play, half to ensure that no sea lion under any circumstances ever ventured into the adjacent orca exhibit. Orcas, after all, eat sea lions.
Noted marine mammologist Peter Olesiuk of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans also received the Lifeforce flyer in early August 1994. He promptly demanded written explanations, which Vancouver Aquarium researchers Andrew Trites and Peter Watts readily shared with me.
“The U.S. fishing industry is funding a large part of this research,” Trites and Watts acknowledged. “However, they do not stand to profit from these experiments. In fact, they could well be negatively affected if the data shows that overfishing is to blame for the Stellar decline. Some public skepticism about the independence of the research is completely understandable. However, it would be wiser to base judgement upon the quality of our research, not the identity of our funders. It has been suggested,” they continued, “that we do not have to do any research because we already know that overfishing is the problem, and all we have to do is shut down the fishery. The fact is that we do not know any such thing. It is one of the theories but evidence is lacking. Should a multimillion dollar industry cut itself back and put people out of work on the chance that the suspicion is right, or should decisions be based on sound scientific data?”
So far as I can determine, the overfishing hypothesis is the only plausible explanation for the decline of Steller sea lions, which closely parallels the growth of the Alaskan bottomfishing industry over the past 20 years. Nonetheless, political reality is that more extensive scientific documentation than presently exists will be required to shut down the bottomfishing industry, if indeed it can be shut down before it exterminates itself along with Steller sea lions and other species, by extinguishing the fish stocks.
“We do not vivisect sea lions,” Trites and Watts further explained. “We never never vivisected sea lions, or anything else, for that matter, nor will we ever. Such an allegation is usually made by people who simply do not know what the word means, or by people who count on others to not know what it means. Our research program is designed to learn how much energy it takes sea lions to engage in their usual wild activities: resting, foraging, swimming at various speeds, and keeping warm in sea water which can approach freezing. We cannot learn such things from wild animals. What we can learn from wild animals is how much time they actually devote to these activities; satellite tags allow us to monitor their location, swim speed, and even stomach temperature, which drops when prey is ingested. Thus the field research we are involved in reveals what wild animals do, and the captive work tells us how much it costs. From there we can estimate the energetic needs of wild individuals, and by extension, of the whole population.
“The sea lions are not being starved or subjected to food deprivation experiments,” Trites and Watts added. “Basal metabolic rates cannot be measured from animals who are actively digesting food. Therefore, the sea lions are not fed for the 12 hours leading up to such measurements, which to date have been collected every two weeks. Since our metabolic studies begin first thing in the morning, this generally means that the animals skip breakfast once every two weeks, and are fed extra fish immediately following the measurements. Our animals at the Vancouver Aquarium are fed far more regularly than young Stellers would be in the wild; lactating mothers commonly leave their pups for two or three days at a time whenever they leave the rookery to feed.”
Trites and Watts admitted occasionally confining the sea lions in the metabolic chamber.
“We take blood samples every three weeks,” they wrote. “We measure lengths and girths once or twice a week, generally while feeding the animals, who ignore the presence of the tape measure in favor of the fish being offered. We put them in a metabolic chamber once every couple of weeks, usually for an hour or less. “It should be noted that stressed animals have increased metabolic rates, which would show up on our instruments. What usually happens while the sea lions are in the chamber is that they either fall asleep, or quietly groom themselves, not the sort of behavior expected from tortured individuals. Our own needs dictate that the animals not be stressed, because this would invalidate our results. We have not yet begun the swim mill studies, but we do not expect these to be stressful to the sea lions either. In fact, evidence from other labs indicates that seals actively seek out the opportunity to swim against a current.”
Trites and Watts did not discuss the capture of the sea lions. However, while I do not favor removing healthy marine mammals from the wild under most circumstances, fairness requires acknowledging that capturing two-week-old pups essentially simulated the effect of natural predation on their mothers and the sea lion population.
Neither did Trites and Watts discuss the likelihood that the Steller sea lions in question have become so conditioned to captive life as to be poor candidates for successful return to the wild. This is problematic, since the Vancouver Aquarium does not presently have a tank big enough to house them when they reach adulthood.
The Vancouver Aquarium sea lion research project is therefore vulnerable to some criticism. On balance, however, Lifeforce coordinator Peter Hamilton’s credibility is considerably compromised––even more so, Trites and Watts argue, because, “Mr. Hamilton knew the facts before he wrote his release. He had spoken for over two hours with Dr. Watts, and had received background information from us.”
This was the third time in four years that Lifeforce and Hamilton attacked the Vancouver Aquarium in a questionable manner. The first time involved an appeal for letters protesting purported plans to capture and exhibit narwhals. In 1970 the Vancouver Aquarium did in fact try to exhibit narwhals; six were captured and all soon died. In 1987 Vancouver Aquarium researchers Deborah Cavenagh and John Ford spent three months laying groundwork for a second attempt, which Cavenagh predicted would come within three to five years. But Ford, now the Vancouver Aquarium marine mammal curator, denied in 1990 that he had any plans to capture and exhibit narwhals. Communications manager Marissa Nichini told me, in response to a specific inquiry, that whatever plans had once existed were now so long abandoned that she’d had difficulty finding anyone on staff who remembered them well enough to give her details for relay to us.
In 1993 Hamilton published Orca: A Family Story, a detailed history of British Columbian and Washingtonian orcas in captivity that accurately indicts the Vancouver Aquarium for its part in many brutal captures during the 1960s and 1970s––but as the story moves from the relatively distant past into the present, it shifts from highly partisan but essentially factual narration to fiction masquerading as journalism, with the identities of people and institutions altered just enough to dodge libel suits.
The Vancouver Aquarium’s recent record on orcas is also vulnerable to criticism: of two orca calves born there so far, one starved to death after 22 days in 1988, as the staff failed to observe her failure to nurse successfully, while the other died of a brain infection at age three months in early January 1992. The infection was detected only 10 hours earlier, as she repeatedly battered herself against the walls of her pool, apparently from disrupted equilibrium, and eventually smashed her own jaw. Each death might have been prevented by earlier recognition of symptoms followed by appropriate care. Neither incident is mentioned in Hamilton’s book, however, the latter part of which focuses on Corky, an orca kept at SeaWorld in San Diego.
Oceans of Fun
At Oceans of Fun, an adjunct of the Worlds of Fun amusement park, two bottlenose dolphins share a nine-foot-deep circular tank measuring 35 feet in diameter, about one-eighth the size of a regulation baseball infield. By any standard, that’s small. The tank meets the basic USDA requirements, but the requirements are intended to insure physical survival, not happiness. Ric O’Barry of the Dolphin Project and People for Animal Rights president Norma McMillen allege that the dolphins are disturbed by the proximity of a Ferris wheel; that excessive chlorination may cause the dolphins to suffer skin disease and blindness; and that sonic echoes off the tank walls may drive the dolphins mad. McMillen further objects that the tank lacks shade, and that the dolphins are not protected from coin-tossing spectators.
Responds Oceans of Fun director of general services Gary Noble, “The dolphin pool is 40 yards away from the Ferris wheel. The wheel is inaudible and is totally hidden with trees and shrubs. The water is not over-chlorinated. If it were, the animals would not perform. Only happy animals will execute tricks. There is no scientific evidence that dolphin pools are echo chambers. The sounds that dolphins emit do not cause them stress. In fact, the clear water in pools makes it unnecessary for dolphins to use their sonar constantly, unlike their wild counterparts who are exposed to a barrage of sound in the tragically fouled and murky coastal waters of our planet. We are happy,” Noble continues, “that no animal has died at Worlds of Fun in the 12 years Marine Animal Productions has produced our dolphin exhibit. And,” he concludes, “Most of what mankind knows about dolphins has been learned by working closely with animals in a public display setting. This type of interaction between the two species is primarily responsible for the appreciation of the dolphin by the general public. “In Worlds of Fun s 21 years of presenting dolphin shows, over 10 million persons have met the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin face-to-face at our facility. Most of these people have had no other contact with these wondrous animals. Yes, our show entertains; but it also informs and educates. For the longterm survival of the dolphin, we are performing an important service.”
The matter of the Ferris wheel may reveal the most about the quality of the arguments pro and con: 40 yards is 120 feet, the distance from home plate to second base. This in itself proves nothing, inasmuch as the entire New York Aquarium is scarcely wider, and is surrounded by the Coney Island boardwalk, roller coaster, and a busy street, yet provides quality outdoor exhibits for sea otters, sea lions, and harbor seals, among other species, with improved facilities for belugas and dolphins under construction. PAR literature asserts that the dolphin tank is “under” the Ferris wheel, never mentioning the trees and shrubbery; at the same time, it is doubtful that as Noble asserts, the Ferris wheel and the crowds it attracts are “inaudible” from behind a mere treeline.
On the second count, overchlorination may cause dolphins serious harm, but PAR has produced no evidence of either actual overchlorination or actual harm. But again, Noble strains credibility in claiming that the dolphins wouldn t perform under unsatisfactory conditions. Animals, including dolphins, generally perform either for food rewards or to please a trainer. They rarely associate the trainer with their environmental conditions, which is why, historically, some facilities have been able to keep performing animals in miserable conditions for years. Though the Oceans of Fun dolphins may be happy and healthy, the mere fact that they perform does not prove the point.
Noble is on firmer ground in refuting the contention about the sonic echoes, in citing the park’s recent record on dolphin health and safety, and in asserting linkage between public contact with dolphins and the growth of public concern for protecting the species. However, the assertion that most of what we have learned about dolphins in more than 3,000 years of recorded contact has been learned from public display settings is at best debatable. McMillen, on the other hand, seems unaware that there isn’t any shade on the open ocean, either. Nor do the dolphins at any facility have protection against coin-tossing yahoos, other than the vigilance of the security staff.
The propaganda claims in the Oceans of Fun case seem to have obscured the most important point: if indeed the dolphins are seen by up to 1.3 million people a year, the purported 1993 paid attendance, why hasn’t a modest percentage of the admission price been invested in building them a tank closer to the size of a whole infield?
In retrospect, the John G. Shedd Aquarium on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago was remarkably uncontroversial for the first 57 years it existed. When the Shedd opened in 1930, after six years of fundraising and construction, there were barely a dozen aquariums in the United States, and no more than two dozen in the world. The Shedd, the largest indoor aquarium ever built, was also considered one of the best––even though the fish displayed there died at such a rate that from 1929 until 1972 it maintained its own railroad car to fetch replacements, still keeps an 83-foot collecting ship, and was obliged to close its salt water gallery during World War II because replacements of ocean-going species were unavailable.
Learning how to keep species alive who were seldom observed––or observable––in their native habitat took decades. As techniques improved, management by 1964 recognized the original Shedd facilities as obsolescent. Ambitious renovation and expansion plans were drafted, but finding the means to fulfill them took more than 20 years. New exhibit areas and a science center were added piecemeal.
Finally, in 1983, the Shedd moved to regain state-of-the-art status by creating the world’s largest indoor oceanarium, designed to resemble the habitat of the Gulf of Alaska. Construction costs were estimated at $30 million; by the opening on April 27, 1991, the facility actually cost $43 million. But the overruns were only briefly contentious. Even most Shedd critics agree that it got what it paid for.
The real source of controversy is that the objective of the oceanarium is to house marine mammals. Crowds drawn by the marine mammals are to pay off the construction bond issues, making possible everything else the Shedd wants to do. When this strategy was announced in 1964, it was greeted with enthusiasm; keeping marine mammals was then the most prestigious accomplishment in oceanarium science. Three decades later, however, public attitudes toward keeping marine mammals captive have become ambivalent. The Shedd was slow to recognize the concerns of captivity critics; then erred, like many other whale exhibitors, in lumping all critics together as “extremists” and compounded the fiasco by practicing denial when things went wrong.
As the Shedd publication Aquaticus v.23, #1 recounts, acquisition of the beluga whales who are central to the oceanarium “was dogged by several small but zealous groups of animal rights activists [who] objected to cetaceans being taken from the wild for public display. The activists engaged the aquarium in several legal skirmishes that threatened to check the beluga collecting trip. They were successful in obstructing, at least in time for the opening, the acquisition of false killer whales.”
The latter episode is now officially remembered as a management decision not to acquire false killer whales, more properly called psuedorcas, because of the difficulty of managing breeding populations of three different cetacean species in limited habitat.
In fact, some small but zealous groups did protest the Shedd’s cetacean capture plans, and also some larger and more mainstream groups. Some opposed the captures on principle; some for practical reasons. To date, Shedd cetacean captures have been actively opposed by at least 29 different organizations. Even the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans questioned the Shedd strategy of trying to capture belugas in 1989, two years in advance of completion of the oceanarium, then keeping them until needed in a relatively small tank at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. That arrangement insured that the belugas would be available for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and the TV cameras, but doubled their transport and readjustment stress. As lead agency in defending the long controversial harp seal hunts along the shores of Atlantic Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has almost never sided with animal protection groups. Yet eventually it limited the Shedd to capturing only two rather than three belugas in advance; the remainder of the proposed captive group of six would be captured in 1992.
The proposed pseudorca acquisition was likewise fought by mainstream opponents as well as animal rights radicals, because the whales were to be purchased either directly or indirectly from the notorious Japanese “drive fisheries.” As the drive fisheries drew international protest during the late 1980s, oceanarium buyers argued that their purchases spared some pseudorcas who would otherwise have been killed. However, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration obliged purchasers to certify that any imported pseudorcas were captured “humanely,” imports ceased.
Debate over the Shedd collapsed into enduring mistrust with the 1990 publication of an Aquaticus account of the 1988 captures of Pacific whitesided dolphins for exhibit, which omitted any mention of the capture of a pregnant female, released two weeks later; the capture and release of two juveniles; and the capture and death from pneumonia within 46 days of a young male, for whom a release permit was sought. The permit was received 24 days after capture, but by then the dolphin was already requiring medical treatment and could not be released with any chance of survival.
Midwest Whale Protection discovered and promptly revealed the nondisclosures. “It appears that the Shedd Aquarium deliberately withheld information from the public,” the group charged, “to make the capture of these whales appear to be a smooth operation without disturbance to wild stocks or disruption of wild family units.”
Yet while advocating frankness and honesty, Midwest Whale Protection itself hinted that the Shedd had applied for a release permit to get rid of the dolphin who eventually died before he did die––a significant distortion of what actually happened.
In 1992 the Shedd roused further outrage with the alleged rough captures of the additional belugas it had sought since 1989. Six belugas were chased to exhaustion and cornered with speedboats in waters north of Churchill, Manitoba, then wrestled into submission as two different activist groups videotaped and tried to disrupt the procedures. Two belugas, considered unhealthy, were released at the capture site. The remaining four were flown to Chicago on August 18, 1992 but on September 22, scarcely a month later, a pair died within a 15-minute span from overdoses of deworming medicine.
The treatment was medically necessary, and at least one beluga among the four might have died without it. However, the simultaneous dosing of the belugas was widely criticized because it divided staff attention––and lessened the chances that any complications suffered by one whale might be seen and arrested before treatment of another began. A subsequent investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration discovered that Shedd veterinarian Jeffrey Boehm was not properly licensed in the state of Illinois. On December 21, 1993, the Shedd paid a $2,510 fine, euphemistically described as a settlement agreement involving nonadmission of guilt. Nine days later while denying any direct connection between the events Canadian fisheries minister John Crosbie cut off Shedd access to replacements by announcing that his government would “no longer consider the live capture of belugas for export.”
These developments came less than a month after the Shedd eluded protesters from the Whale Rescue Team and Chicago Animal Rights Coalition to capture three Pacific whitesided dolphins off San Nicholas Island, 70 miles southwest of Los Angeles, touching off a month of frustrated and furious anti-captivity rallies and press conferences at the temporary holding facility on the San Diego waterfront.
CHARC, headed by former deep-sea fishing enthusiast Steve Hindi, was a latecomer to the ongoing Shedd controversies––as was Hindi to animal rights activism. In 1989 Hindi was en route to go shark fishing when, on a whim, he stopped at Hegins, Pennsylvania, to watch the notorious annual Labor Day pigeon shoot. After years of unsuccessful vigils, the pigeon shoot had gradually been abandoned as a protest target because Hegins actually seems to revel in public displays of meanness, while the gun lobby has such a hold on the Pennsylvania state senate that stopping the shoot through legislation appears unlikely.
Shocked by the lack of sportsmanship he witnessed, Hindi mulled it over for most of the next year, then gave up hunting and fishing, became a vegetarian, and returned to Hegins to singlehandedly revitalize the protests with a confrontational style that made up in media flair what it lacked in polish. Hindi’s weapons are videotaping and direct challenges that make great headlines and sound-bites, backed up by lawsuits. Though Hindi and CHARC have not stopped the Hegins pigeon shoot, they have stopped pigeon shoots in Illinois––and have forced Pennsylvania to spend many times more money than the Hegins shoot brings in each year to provide police protection against mass civil disobedience.
Hindi first challenged the Shedd on April 27, 1993, alleging that he had several hours of video footage documenting stereotypical behavior by the beluga Naluark––an indication, if true, of maladaption to the facility. Maybe that’s what the video shows and maybe it isn’t, but either way the Shedd pursued a classic corporate public relations strategy, a critical blunder. The classic strategy assumes the institution is well-run, and that criticism therefore comes chiefly from chronic malcontents. The object is to keep the malcontents from grabbing public attention. This is done by ignoring them as much as possible, dancing a little sidestep to avoid public confrontation, and stonewalling over actual problems to avoid giving the malcontents ammunition.
This often works well for institutions whose business is done behind closed doors, such as biomedical research laboratories, but it doesn’t work for zoos and aquariums, whose facilities are by definition open to the public, and where problems, if they exist, are often readily observed by visitors who learn to look for them. Institutions dealing directly with the public are better advised to remember the retailer’s maxim that the customer is always right: the customer may be wrong about the nature of a particular problem, but if a problem is perceived, there is a problem of some sort, which must be dealt with in an open manner.
Ignored for six weeks, Hindi on June 10, 1993 challenged the Shedd to a public showing of the video. That was the Shedd’s opening to resolve the issue. Instead, the Shedd declined the opportunity, to avoid creating “a circus.” Once again it was classic corporate public relations strategy but suicidal in context. The Shedd could have avoided a “circus” by arranging for the video to be screened in the dignified atmosphere of an impartially moderated formal forensic debate, open to the media and an invited audience of several hundred other people, with equal numbers of the same printed invitation to be sent by either side. Subjecting the audience to the entire video would not have been necessary: a few minutes followed by random fast-forwarding through the several hours would have been sufficient to ascertain what is on it, after which Hindi and a selected expert from his side could have made their case, heard rebuttal from equivalent Shedd personnel, asked each other questions, and taken questions from the media and the floor. In this scenario the Shedd had nothing to lose. If the facts supported Hindi, the Shedd might have had to acknowledge and deal with problems, but criticism could have been disarmed by the demonstration of willingness to deal openly and fairly with critics.
Hindi, on the other hand, had everything to lose. Large institutions start out with a public presumption of credibility. Squandering it takes years of error. Activists start out as presumed crackpots, who gain credibility either through making a good case or attracting large followings and they can lose credibility overnight with a single well-publicized misjudgement. If Hindi’s claim to possess videotaped evidence had been clearly and openly refuted, he might have picketed the Shedd alone for decades, but he’d have had a hard time regaining the confidence of either the Chicago media or most fellow activists. If Hindi’s evidence was inconclusive, he’d have still lost, because the Shedd, by giving it consideration, would have been doing what responsible institutions do to keep their credibility. In a formal forensic debate, Hindi could only have “won” by being demonstrably right about the beluga’s behavior; and even then, the Shedd could have won too by finding a way to change the behavior.
By refusing to engage Hindi’s allegations when the onus was on him to prove his point, the Shedd appeared to be afraid of the truth, whatever it was; gave media the pretext to air snippets of video that alone didn’t prove the allegations but appeared to lend them weight; and provoked a year and a half of further confrontations, many of them embarrassing. For instance, on August 23, 1993, the Shedd barred activist Debra Leahy from the premises for wearing a t-shirt reminding viewers of the deaths of the two belugas, thereby giving her a media platform from which to disclose Shedd stock holdings in Monsanto, U.S. Steel, and Philip Morris three firms she linked to water pollution. Each firm is so large and the pollution so incidental to operations that the disclosure by itself probably wouldn’t have made the newspapers.
As at Hegins, where record crowds of demonstrators in 1991 and 1992 were met by even greater crowds of ruffians looking for trouble, Hindi’s protests against the Shedd appear to be running out of steam. While the Shedd made a tactical blunder by declining to debate, Hindi blundered by committing CHARC to weekly demonstrations throughout the summer of 1994. That set up a war of attritition that CHARC, with limited resources, could only lose. The demonstration crowds predictably dwindled as the summer went on, Hindi’s language became shrill––he refers to the Shedd now as the “Shedd Aquaprison”––and trying to recapture media and activist interest, he issued various charges about animal exhibition schedules and quarantines in August and September 1994 that came across as simply paranoid beside the Shedd’s explanations.
Yet no one wins wars of attrition. While the Shedd is likely to outlive Hindi’s offensive, at least this time, thousands of visitors who barely remember the issues are now aware that some people found something there so wrong that they spent their whole summer trying to make the point. The next time the Shedd does something controversial, or loses a well-known animal, more of the public will be inclined to disbelieve the official version of whatever happened. Erosion of trust in the institution goes on nightly on the computer networks and radio talk shows. It may never do the Shedd serious harm, yet it does the Shedd no good, either.
Can such a situation of ideological opposition compounded by mutual mistrust be resolved? Perhaps, but only if the stronger party is self-confident and generous enough to accept the parliamentary idea of “the loyal opposition,” an enfranchised and respected body of critics whose challenges to debate are accepted and whose objections to proceedings, when sufficiently supported, are accommodated through policy amendments.
Conversely, the weaker party must accept that it is more effective to have access to information and have a voice in decision-making, if only a dissident minority voice, than to remain forever on the outside, with no voice and no inside knowledge. The stronger party must feel secure that in admitting the weaker party to strategic discussions, it is not inviting a viper into its nest; the weaker party must understand that it must not act like one, including understanding that sometimes mistakes are made despite the best efforts of all concerned.
That Jeffrey Boehm badly erred in deworming the belugas, for instance, does not make him a murderer; he is in fact a very young veterinarian in a field where there are few longtime practitioners and as yet only a slim body of medical knowledge. Calling him a murderer is dirty pool.
Both parties must understand that productive coexistence involves compromises of procedure, not principle. The object is not to patronize, co-opt, subvert, sabotage, or otherwise gain the advantage; the object is to solve problems so as to meet the concerns of both sides, or at least give the weaker side more consideration than it would have if still on the outside.
It is not only acceptable but useful in rapproachment to draw clear lines of disagreement: the Shedd is going to keep the belugas and dolphins. CHARC respectfully opposes this policy. There might be a place for a written agreement to disagree, stipulating rules for fair debate and establishing a grievance procedure if one party or the other feels the rules have been broken. Within such an understanding, disagreement can be accomodated, and can even be integrated into the educational function of an oceanarium. In lieu of enduring demonstrations, for instance, a particularly courageous management could even allow a protest group to write one half of a handout, setting forth the objections to keeping marine mammals in captivity, while the oceanarium would in the other half present the opposite case.
Both parties must finally recognize that enfranchising formerly hostile outsiders as a loyal opposition is a tricky business. There will be misunderstandings and communication failures, as already happened in April 1994, when new Shedd director Ted Beattie tried to work out a truce with Hindi that ended in each party frustratedly telling associates that the other is untrustworthy. Communication failures––and I obtained written evidence that this is all that happened––must not be misread as bad faith. If one party or the other feels dealt with in bad faith, the thing to do is talk about it––not withdraw and resume conflict.
There are clues that a de-emphasis of hostilities at the Shedd is possible. No one objected to the Shedd acquisition of four sea otter pups in 1989, who were orphaned by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Nor did anyone object to the acquisition of three harbor seals from the National Aquarium in Baltimore––an adult stranding victim and two captive-bred offspring of stranding victims. It is also worth noting that most of the activists criticizing the Shedd management have not criticized the physical facilities except by contrast with the wild; only CHARC has criticized the animal care staff other than in connection with the two beluga deaths; and even Hindi has repeatedly stated that he has no objection to the Shedd exhibiting marine mammals of any species who for whatever reason could not be released into the wild.
What is done is done. To be considered now is what will be done in the future.