Published on Friday October 05, 2012
By Linda Diebel and Liam Casey
It’s Friday and Ric O’Barry is on Japanese time. He’s exhausted, but he’s giving the same talk about saving dolphins he’s delivered almost every day for the past 40 years.
The famed environmentalist talks fast, moves fast, thinks fast and knows more about the treatment of the world’s dolphins — their capture, slaughter, life in the wild and “survival in captivity” — than almost anyone on earth.
He’s pushing 73 but, wearing a dapper polka-dotted scarf, navy blazer, jeans and Converse runners, looks and acts like a younger man. He’s so busy he barely gets time to visit his wife and 7-year-old daughter in Denmark.
The founder of the Dolphin Project and star of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove about dolphin killing in Japan has devoted most of his adult life to saving marine mammals. After 10 years as trainer on the 1960s TV show, Flipper, he rejected the captive sea mammal industry forever. The results have taken a toll on him.
“I like to use the word, ‘anguish,’ ” says O’Barry, describing his usual state of mind. He’s sitting on a bench at Queen’s Park, between a telephone interview with Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur and a press conference about Marineland, the Niagara Falls tourist attraction.
“It’s because you can’t do anything about (your) thoughts, and it’s like pulling your hair out . . .
“I’m probably crazy at this point.”
Marineland is why he’s here. He says a Star series on the Niagara Falls tourist attraction brought him back to a place he first protested in 1991. He says he wasn’t surprised by the accounts to the Star of former trainers who blamed poor water and short-staffing on animal sickness and death.
Marineland this week agreed to an external evaluation of its water management system and thorough update of its water management protocols in the wake of an investigation by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
In a statement on Marineland’s website, marketing manager Ann Marie Rondinelli said this week “our primary concern continues to be providing a safe and healthy environment for our animals and a welcoming one for our guests.”
The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is also investigating the facility. O’Barry calls on the public to stop buying tickets and the government to stop encouraging school trips so children can see what he calls “the spectacle of domination.”
Recently, a Belgian film crew visited marine parks throughout Florida and later asked O’Barry what he thought was wrong with them.
All it took, he explains, was a trip for the team to Key West, Fla., to experience the exuberance of dolphins in the wild to understand the lessons of captivity. There, they saw dolphins that roam 60 kilometres a day and surf for fish on the waves with members of their pod.
All that he has witnessed brings him “heart-wrenching” moments when he is alone. He’s spent the last few months lobbying whalers in Denmark’s Faroe Islands, pushing to stop the savage slaughter and capture of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, and, over the Thanksgiving weekend, hitting Toronto and Niagara Falls to publicize conditions at Marineland.
Sunday, he leads a protest at Marineland on the last weekend of the tourist season. It’s the time in hotels that are tough. He wants to be alone, away from the constant interviews and reminders — every car ride seems to turn into a gruelling interview — but that’s when uninvited pictures flash through his mind.
He imagines the dark forms of nine captive dolphins held through two hurricanes, in shallow sea pens off La Paz, Mexico, in 2001.
Too often he sees the bright red waters of Taiji’s cove, where bloodied dolphins smash themselves against the rocks to escape the nets and harpoons of their would-be captors. Still, every year the boats go out to drive more dolphins to death or capture in the cove.
In an interview Friday, he praised Meilleur, saying he expects her to be a “champion” for tough provincial legislation to protect captive marine mammals. Meilleur, he said, told him she read the Star series, “went into (her) office, closed the door and cried.”
“Canadian legislation is far behind Third World countries,” said O’Barry. “Way behind.”
Before leaving for Niagara Falls, he told a press conference: “For a country as advanced as Canada not to have offered any protection whatsoever (to marine mammals) is shocking.”