What happens when animal issues are overwhelmed by current events?
HARLAN COUNTY, Kentucky; TAIJI, Japan; BALI, Indonesia––A trainload of coal worth $1.4 million, blockaded for six weeks by illegally laid off miners whose last pay checks bounced, might at a glance appear to have nothing to do with an alleged cockfighting ring run by public employees.
Increasingly violent demonstrations roiling Hong Kong for more than four months, triggered by a proposed extradition treaty with mainland China, might seem to have even less to do with either the plight of four captive dolphins in Bali or the ongoing annual massacre of dolphins and pilot whales in Taiji, Japan, each about 2,000 air miles from Hong Kong,
But the idled coal train and the Hong Kong demonstrations actually have a great deal to do with why nothing seems to be happening either to stop cockfighting in Harlan County, Kentucky, or on behalf of marine mammals in Bali and Taiji.
“Timing is everything”
Both the coal train drama and the Hong Kong demonstrations also illustrate the maxim that “Timing is everything.” They grabbed the headlines first––which left Showing Animals Respect & Kindness (SHARK), In Defense of Animals, and Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project standing in the shadows, amid situations that at another time might have gone global.
Showing Animals Respect & Kindness and In Defense of Animals on August 26, 2019 jointly announced “the launch of a new campaign to expose those who participate in illegal cockfights,” called Crush Cockfighting.
SHARK and In Defense of Animals investigators, they said, had extensively reviewed “Facebook accounts of self-professed cockfighters” to “collect evidence of their illegal acts,” and had discovered what they believed looked to be a sensational case.
“Open and brazen”
“Our inaugural report deals with Ronnie Bennet and Kyle Simpson, two Kentucky law enforcement officers who are also father and son,” said SHARK spokesperson Stuart Chaifetz.
“We were shocked to see how open and brazen these Harlan County Detention Center employees are with their illegal cockfighting farm and operation,” Chaifetz alleged, adding “That may very well be because they think they are untouchable.”
The SHARK and In Defense of Animals announcement was extensively amplified by animal rights media, but no response was forthcoming from law enforcement. Perhaps for that reason there was also no response from mainstream media.
Three weeks later, having heard nothing from anyone, SHARK founder Steve Hindi emailed to Harlan County judge/executive Dan Mosley, whose position is more-or-less comparable to that of a city mayor.
“Three weeks have passed & you failed to respond”
Law enforcement officers Bennett and Simpson, Hindi charged, “run a fighting rooster operation called the Cuttin Up Game Farm. The evidence in this case is quite strong,” Hindi wrote, “supplied by the suspects themselves via Facebook posts. The pictures and posts are extensive and irrefutable. The suspects obviously feel they have nothing to fear from Harlan County officials such as yourself. Three weeks have passed, and you failed to respond. This is, at a minimum, troubling. I encourage you to respond now with information regarding the actions you have taken in this matter.”
This time, Mosley responded almost immediately.
“Thank you for reaching out regarding the allegations involving a detention center employee,” Mosely began. “I apologize for not responding to the previous email regarding this situation. For the last two months, our county has been fully engulfed in the economic disaster of trying to help more than 300 coal miners who were wrongfully laid off and had thousands of dollars clawed back from their bank accounts. My deputy judge executive also moved on to another position out of state and his replacement did not begin his role until two weeks ago. Not downplaying what your organization contacted me about, but I just simply had not had the opportunity to look into this matter due to everything else we’ve been dealing with.
“Mr. Bennett is an employee at the Harlan County Detention Center,” Mosely confirmed. “Mr. Simpson does not work for the detention center. Mr. Bennett works at the pleasure of the Harlan County jailer, and neither myself, nor the Harlan County Fiscal Court, supervise him or anyone else at the jail. That is the responsibility of the jailer,” who according to the Kentucky Jailers Association web site is one M.J. Burkhart.
“Proper authorities” will “look into this matter”
“Furthermore,” Mosely said, “the Harlan County Fiscal Court does not conduct criminal investigations. I have though reached out to other entities,” Mosely finished, “regarding what has been alleged, and can tell you that the proper authorities who would look into this matter are doing so.”
Perhaps something yet will come of the SHARK and In Defense of Animals investigative effort. Meanwhile, much of the social media evidence that SHARK and In Defense of Animals said they had gathered is––predictably––no longer online.
The alleged Harlan County jailhouse cockfighting ring case is so far a non-story for mainstream media, even in Harlan County, as well as something Dan Mosely did not get to right away, because as Sydney Boles summarized on September 3, 2019 for Rolling Stone, “On July 1st, the nation’s sixth-largest coal company, Blackjewel LLC, declared bankruptcy without warning, leaving 1,700 employees out of work” as Blackjewel facilities closed abruptly, from Wyoming to West Virginia.
The largest number of miners laid off were the 300-plus in Harlan County, but that was not the worst of the situation.
“Coal miners’ June 28th paychecks bounced,” Boles continued, “leaving many workers thousands of dollars in debt. Their final paychecks, which ought to have come on July 12th, never came.
“On July 29th, a woman who lives near a Blackjewel prep plant noticed a train being loaded with coal. She sent a message to some Blackjewel workers,” Boles added.
The workers stopped the train, won a court order that has kept it stopped, and the confrontation soon made global headlines, coming as it did in a county that voted 85% for U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016, but was synonymous with labor activism from the 1920s into the 1970s.
“Because of the spotlight the month-long Blackjewel protest has drawn, local journalists discovered that no Kentucky coal company was in compliance with a law that would have helped miners get their rightful pay, and that Blackjewel owed millions to a miners’ health care fund,” Boles noted.
Meanwhile in Taiji
Meanwhile on the far side of the globe, the dolphin and whale massacre underway yet again in Taiji has attracted some attention, between weekend outbreaks of protest in Hong Kong––but not much.
Reported Michael Dahlstrom for Yahoo News Australia on September 16, 2019, a Monday,
“Tim Burns from Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project has been visiting the Japanese village of Taiji in Wakayama prefecture for 10 years, documenting the annual hunt. This year has proved particularly tough on the activist.”
The mayhem is the same as ever. That very morning, Burns told Dahlstrom, a large pod of pilot whales who had been herded into the killing cove, made infamous by the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, “were jumping up on rocks, getting caught in nets, then under the skiffs, getting up on the beach – it was just pure chaos.”
One small juvenile
Burns videotaped “one small juvenile just going in little, tiny, tight circles,” whose mother had already died.
All Burns could do was document the killing and bear witness, as Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project volunteers have for more than a decade, and others have ever since U.S. film maker Hardy Jones first showed the world the Taiji dolphin killing in 1978.
“I have three police cars with me when I drive through town,” Burns explained. “Up on the hill there are multiple police officers. There are plain clothes police officers up there with video cameras, watching what I’m doing. Also the town of Taiji has representatives wearing arm bands up there, watching what I’m doing, trying to catch me doing something wrong.
“Tough to not physically intervene”
“It’s really, really tough to not physically intervene, to not get in and try to stop this,” Burns said. “If I did, it would get no media attention in Japan, which is the main place where we need to get media attention. We have to follow the law, follow the rules, the guidelines that the police set out for us, and to be honest, if I tried to make a break for it, I don’t think I’d get to the water before the police got to me.”
Ric O’Barry himself, now 79, was arrested in Japan in 2015 on trumped-up drunk driving charges that were later dropped, and was treated by police in a manner that appeared to violate international treaties.
This year O’Barry has been trying to arrange the release of four dolphins and a menagerie of other animals from what he and many others have termed “deplorable conditions” at the Melka Excelsior Hotel in Lovina, North Bali, Indonesia.
Most of the animals were moved to other captive venues in mid-August 2019, some of the venues also questionable, but two aged, blind dolphins remained behind.
“The duality of being here in Bali trying to save four dolphins while Taiji is going on at the very same time is beyond my ability to explain in words,” O’Barry told ANIMALS 24-7.
“There are no words. What happens in Taiji involves thousands of animals. We have a team on the ground in both places.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
“I’m afraid post-traumatic stress disorder has kicked in once again,” O’Barry admitted. “It happens about this time every year. It’s been going on since my first experience at the cove in 2003.
And this is only September. I’ll be awake until March,” when the killing season ends, O’Barry said.
The Cove, a decade ago, put Taiji at the forefront of the global activist agenda. But not very much changed as result of the ensuing demonstrations, petitions, and other grassroots activity against the dolphin massacres.
Now, ten years past The Cove, the Taiji killing no longer has much shock value. Most of the animal advocacy world knows just enough about it, and is frustrated enough over it going on & on, that they don’t want to look at it any more.
Hong Kong upstages everything
The Hong Kong unrest, meanwhile, is occurring in one of the world’s centers of commerce and communication––and the major portal into China, the world’s largest nation, for most of the western world.
Almost every reporter stationed in Asia, serving western media, has been focused on the ongoing Hong Kong saga, with reason, because people everywhere have a direct stake in it.
Perhaps when the Hong Kong crisis is resolved, or just peters out, Burns, O’Barry, and their allies can rekindle interest in Taiji.
Until then, about all they can do is remind Taiji that some people still care about the dolphins and pilot whales, and are still watching.