September 22, 2014

Undercover Investigation Reveals Primate Injuries, Death at Texas Biomed

Today, I announce news of an HSUS investigation into a primate research facility. The investigation occurred last year, and at that time we provided findings to federal authorities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken action and cited the lab for violations of the Animal Welfare Act based on our investigation, and now it’s time to share some of this information with our supporters and the public.

Primates at Texas Biomed
An HSUS investigator documented a pattern of mistreatment of primates at Texas Biomed, a taxpayer-funded institution. Photo: The HSUS

Specifically, an HSUS investigator went undercover as an animal caretaker at Texas Biomedical Research Institute, a taxpayer-funded research institution in San Antonio that houses more than 3,000 primates for laboratory use. Over five weeks, the investigator documented a pattern of mistreatment of the animals, including primates who suffered unnecessary injuries and even death. The institution’s standards of care frequently fell short of the federal Animal Welfare Act, with primates living in overcrowded and barren conditions, mothers and infants separated, and injured and sick animals not receiving timely medical care.

A USDA inspection report has cited the facility for two cases uncovered through the HSUS investigation, including the death of an emaciated baboon from septicemia as a result of trauma, and repeated injuries to a female rhesus monkey that required her tail to be amputated.

Numerous other problems were documented by the HSUS investigator, including: 

  • Primates were plucking out their own hair and over-grooming—both indicators of extreme stress. Our investigator, on film, documented dozens of macaque monkeys, including infants, with substantial bald patches as a result of these behaviors.
  • Repetitive behaviors like pacing, spinning and flipping and severe aggression, resulting in serious injuries.
  • Young infants separated from their mothers and housed nearby, resulting in constant cries from the infants and significant stress to the mothers. Lack of special consideration for the well-being of infants and juveniles is directly in violation of the Animal Welfare Act.
  • Staff handling animals improperly, including hand-catching animals by their tail.
  • Poor sanitation practices and lack of veterinary attention. Some animals were injured, one was severely dehydrated, but laboratory staff did not notice or report the problems.
  • Laboratory staff showed the HSUS investigator an X-ray of a baboon with a stomach full of rocks. It is clear that the baboons at Texas Biomed are not getting proper animal care – stressed and underfed, they resort to consuming large quantities of rocks and feces.
  • Extensive fighting within groups, resulting in wounds and other injuries to the animals.

Texas Biomed has a history of problematic animal care, including the self-strangulation of a baboon and two macaques by door cables, a poor design that the facility failed to correct.

The dismal life of primates in research is a topic we have frequently turned the spotlight on here at The HSUS, including last Friday’s blog about maternal deprivation experiments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Primates suffer immensely when confined in research labs, and exacerbating those problems through neglect and mistreatment is simply wrong. It is time for our nation to move beyond using these highly intelligent, social animals for these purposes. 

Please join us in urging the agency to take strong enforcement action. We are also asking that the government retire the 22 federally-owned chimpanzees currently at Texas Biomed to sanctuary as soon as possible. 

Watch b-roll footage of the investigation below:

September 19, 2014

Reopening a Cruel Chapter, at UW-Madison, in Maternal Deprivation Experiments

We have a strong, natural inclination to protect the vulnerable, and that urge swells when it comes to caring for infants and children. So when I was told of a government-funded study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in which infant monkeys would be separated from their mothers, subjected to other stressors to build even higher states of anxiety, and then killed following various invasive procedures, I knew we couldn’t stand by. We had to join the fight to stop this appalling, degrading “research.”

Rhesus monkeys
For these inhumane experiments, infant rhesus monkeys will be separated from their mothers, subjected to stressors, then killed. Photo: iStockphoto

Researchers at UW-Madison have been granted more than $500,000 from the National Institute of Mental Health for a study that will remove 20 rhesus monkey infants from their mothers and raise them alone for a number of weeks before they are paired at the age of three to six weeks with another monkey who has been raised alone. This group will be compared to infants who have been raised with their mothers for approximately six months. All of the infants will be exposed to live snakes, human intruders, and other external agents and conditions to further induce fear and anxiety. They will then be subjected to a number of invasive tests, including MRI and PET scans, blood and cerebrospinal fluid sampling and skin punch biopsies. In the end, they will be killed in order to study their brains.

Meanwhile, the mothers will endure the trauma of having their infants snatched away from them.

These so called “maternal deprivation” studies date back more than 50 years and UW-Madison is notoriously known as the pioneer of these experiments, under the direction of psychologist Harry Harlow. A critique of maternal deprivation studies published in the mid-80’s demonstrated that such studies were of very little, if any, benefit to human children.

While the researcher at UW-Madison argues that there are new tools that weren’t available in the past (such as the ability to do brain scans), pediatric specialists and neuroscientists have weighed in and argue that this newly proposed research won’t benefit children. Two members of UW-Madison’s own committee that is required to approve animal studies (known as the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee—IACUC) even said that the study shouldn’t move forward, but they were outvoted by the university’s representatives.

The HSUS is a determined advocate of science, but we insist that science must be ethical and humane. In fact, two of our most distinguished and long-serving board members are medical doctors who have remarkable reputations in their fields. With their leadership, and with our professional staff, The HSUS seeks sensible reforms when it comes to animal research and testing, including scientific work to spur development and use of non-animal alternatives, so that we can move toward a day when we no longer need to use animals in research. But there are some cases where the costs to the animals are too high and the likelihood of medical benefits and relevance to the human condition are extremely remote. Those are the experiments that should be prohibited from moving forward. This proposed experiment is, hands down, such a case.

There has been an overwhelming response from the public opposing this experiment; so far, more than 200,000 people have signed an online petition demanding it be stopped. But we need more people to add their voices and keep the pressure on. Please join me in urging UW-Madison to make a swift decision that this painful and pointless experiment won’t move forward.

September 18, 2014

Global Community Tells Japan to Stand Down on Southern Ocean Whaling

The big news on whaling in 2014 was the ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declaring Japan’s hunt in the southern hemisphere is at odds with international rules. As a consequence, for the first time in more than 100 years, there was no whaling in the Southern Ocean since the ICJ ruling on March 31st. We knew that while Japan said it would honor the ruling, it was looking to interpret it narrowly and to find a way – at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting that just ended today in Portorož, Slovenia – to gain some authorization to resume some whale killing.

Minke whale
The International Whaling Commission voted against Japan's plans to hunt Minke whales in the Antarctic. Photo: Alamy

Today, Japan’s maneuvers were thwarted, as IWC 65 closed out with a hard-earned “yes” on New Zealand’s resolution codifying the ICJ’s ruling that scientific whaling must be held to a far higher standard of review and necessity. Together with the defeat of Japan’s proposal for coastal commercial whaling, the adoption of the ICJ resolution fortifies the global commercial whaling moratorium. Humane Society International’s team at Portorož pursued this agenda with single-minded purpose.

The New Zealand resolution, intensely discussed all week, incorporated key elements of the International Court of Justice’s March 2014 ruling on Japan’s whaling. It sought to clarify the process by which proposals for scientific whaling should be evaluated by the IWC and its scientific committee. The resolution incorporated the guidelines set down by the ICJ on such points as whether a particular plan for lethal research is necessary, and whether the number of whales killed was justified by the program's objectives.

There was other good news this week, with the passing of resolutions from Monaco and from Chile, seeking additional protections for small cetaceans and transparency within the IWC, respectively. The United Kingdom also made great progress in advancing its strong whale welfare agenda.

One bad outcome was the swift approval on Monday of an expanded whaling quota for Greenland, amounting to 207 whales per year -- 176 minke, 19 fin, 10 humpback, and two bowhead whales -- for the next four years. Many observers have noted the increasingly commercial dimensions of Greenlandic hunting, and whale friendly nations and non-governmental organizations lobbied hard to persuade the IWC to deny the quota as it did two years ago in Panama.

Another disappointing outcome was the vote against the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, which, despite increased support, was once again a victim of the political spite of Iceland, Japan and Norway, the world’s remaining most-vociferous pro-whaling nations. This vote, perhaps more than any other, revealed the true fault line that separates a few nations from the rest of the world when it comes to this issue. Most members of the community of nations -- like their billions of citizens – want to see whales safe, sound and protected in marine sanctuaries, while these outliers want to keep an archaic, cruel and unnecessary trade alive. We’re determined to stop them, and it’s clear to me that the winds and tides of history are moving in our direction and in the direction of the whales. 

September 17, 2014

Big News: FBI to Start Tracking Animal Cruelty Cases

Cruelty to animals will get its own category in federal crime reports for the first time. I got that word yesterday from John Thompson, my friend at the National Sheriffs’ Association, who told me that Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey has signed off on including animal cruelty offenses in the Uniform Crime Report. Local agencies will also track them to report to the FBI.

Horse
Now that animal cruelty, including animal neglect, is included in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, there is a real incentive for law enforcement agencies to pay closer attention to such incidents. Photo: Mike Buscher/The HSUS

No longer will extremely violent cases be included in the “other offense” category simply because the victims were animals. Just as the FBI tracks hate crimes and other important categories, we will now have critical data on animal cruelty. The HSUS has been pushing for this change in policy for years, along with our affiliates, the Humane Society Legislative Fund and Doris Day Animal League.

Before this expansion of the FBI’s focus, there was no process for capturing animal cruelty data on the statewide or national level. Capturing such data is especially difficult because animal cruelty laws are enforced by a very large number of local police, sheriffs, and humane society agents and animal control officers.

But now that animal cruelty, including animal neglect, is included in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, there is a real incentive for law enforcement agencies to pay closer attention to such incidents. With accurate data, law enforcement agencies will also be better able to allocate officers and financial resources to handle these cases, track trends and deploy accordingly. 

The decision by the FBI is especially good news for The HSUS, because we are on the frontlines of the battle against animal cruelty in so many ways. We are upgrading state and federal laws, and just this year South Dakota became the 50th state to enact felony penalties for malicious cruelty, and Congress banned attendance at animal fights. Besides the thousands of cases on which we work with law enforcement agencies every year to rescue animals from animal cruelty and fighting, we also travel across the country to train law enforcement officials on how to investigate these crimes. 

So far this year, we have provided training to more than 1,200 officers, representing 300 agencies, and in areas of the country where it is needed most. It is a new training program designed by experts from across the United States (including our own) and we look forward to expanding it in 2015.

I am enormously grateful for the work of the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Department of Justice in recognizing the importance of animal cruelty. This new development, which has been on the radar of the animal protection movement for years, is a practical way of cracking down on cruelty. The decision is also significant in affirming, at the highest levels of our government, that animal cruelty is a vice just like so many other violent crimes. It is the latest tangible gain in our effort to make opposition to animal cruelty a universal value in our society.   

September 16, 2014

Little Competition, Lots of Soring at This Year’s Celebration

With so many lawmakers signed on to legislation that would substantially upgrade the federal law against horse soring – the practice of deliberately wounding a horse’s legs and hooves to create the artificial, high-stepping gait known as the “big lick” – we hear from industry leaders that they have cleaned up their act. They say there’s no need to do away with the industry self-regulation program, and no need for felony-level penalties for soring abuses.

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Of the 360 "big lick" horses inspected at this year's Celebration, 145 - more than 40 percent - were disqualified. Photo: Lance Murphey/The HSUS

But results from the major Tennessee walking horse show for the year – known as the Celebration – reveal that a core segment of the industry cannot kick the soring habit and has almost a seemingly pathological commitment to concealing horse abuse.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report released last week revealed 219 violations among 1,075 horses inspected at the Celebration. That’s double the number of violations at last year’s Celebration. The USDA and industry-retained inspectors carried out inspections. But as usual, the USDA found many more violations and disqualified many more horses than industry inspectors did. Of the 360 “big lick” horses inspected by USDA officials, 145 – more than 40 percent – were disqualified.

In fact, only three horses even passed inspection and entered the Grand Championship event. It’s like having an Olympic event where every entrant medals. 

These weren’t the only embarrassments from the events in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Organizers of the Celebration told the public that it had created a Veterinary Advisory Committee to improve inspections and add a layer of protection for the horses. The committee turned out to be a sham, with one of the three veterinarians named to it revealing publicly that he had not even served on the committee. One other member has been a long-time booster of the industry and a denier of soring.  There was no real protection of horses – just a fancy name and false promises, with nothing behind it.

But not too many people noticed the lack of competition.  This year, stands were mostly empty, even on championship nights.

Celebration stands
The number of attendees at the Celebration has been dropping each year. Photo: Chad Sisneros/The HSUS

The incidents in Shelbyville make the case better than we could imagine for enacting the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 1518/S.1406, which now has more than 360 cosponsors in Congress. It would eliminate the industry’s failed self-regulation scheme, strengthen penalties for violators, and ban devices used to carry out soring. The comprehensive bill has the support of the nation’s veterinary community, the horse industry, newspapers in Kentucky and Tennessee and the general public. 

The Big Lick segment of the industry rewards the abuse of walking horses instead of punishing it. Consider this: the top 25 trainers in the industry’s Rider’s Cup award program have collectively amassed more than 500 citations for violating the Horse Protection Act.

And at the Celebration, we got one more in-your-face example of the industry’s tone-deaf approach on animal welfare. A video surfaced of B.L. Cozad, a vociferous cockfighting proponent in the country, delivering a speech to a pro-cockfighting group at an event held on Celebration grounds. In his speech, Cozad falsely refers to both cockfighting and horse soring as “victimless crimes,” and to all animal cruelty laws as unconstitutional and illegal.

Soring – like cockfighting – is a crime. Its victims are the gentle horses who are forced to endure cruelties like having blistering chemicals poured on their feet and having their hooves cut to cause them excruciating pain. Congress should deal with this issue in the most emphatic way possible, and before the session adjourns.

September 15, 2014

Live Action in Pennsylvania on Live Pigeon Shoots

Today, I was in Harrisburg advocating for the enactment of H.B. 1750, which would ban the eating of dogs and cats and end live pigeon shoots. I was joined by lawmakers from both parties and by representatives of the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania SPCA, the Women’s Humane Society, Humane PA and other organizations. 

SHOOTER_AND_BIRD_18325
Pigeon shooting is not hunting. It’s just a massacre of birds imported for the spectacle and thrown right up in front of the shooter. Photo: The HSUS

The ban on eating companion animals doesn’t seem particularly controversial, but, at least in the capitol, the idea of banning pigeon shoots has its detractors.

You’d hardly know it’s controversial, though, from talking to average Pennsylvanians or reading the major papers in the state, all of which condemn the shoot:

“Pigeon shoots are not hunting; they are slaughter, and they should be outlawed,” wrote the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Friday.

“It’s overdue.  So inexplicably overdue,” wrote the Lebanon Daily News in July.

“Live pigeon shoots are not a sport – it’s a stain on Pennsylvania,” the Carlise Sentinel opined in August.

And the Republican & Herald of Pottsville had this to say just a few weeks ago: “There is no justification for using live animals as target practice.” 

Within the all-too-large universe of inane cruelty to animals – a range that includes cockfighting, hog-dog rodeo, shooting bears over bait, rattlesnake roundups, captive hunts, dolphin drives and slaughter and more – there is still something particularly sickening and frivolous about live pigeon shoots. Think of shooting fish in a barrel and you’ve got the basic set-up.

Pigeon shooting in Pennsylvania has been under fire since I became active in the larger fight for animals in the mid-1980s, and there was literally a time when, if you were an activist on the East Coast, you would always know where you were going to be on Labor Day. You’d be in Hegins, Pennsylvania, a town nestled in a beautiful Appalachian county, but also a town that had acquired a dark and ugly distinction for the behavior of some of its citizens. Hegins was the site of the world’s largest one-day pigeon shoot, where a phalanx of shooters would slaughter birds released from boxes just 30 yards in front of them. It took almost no skill – only an unfeeling heart -- to participate in this butchery.

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At a typical shoot, pigeons are brought in packed crates like this one and released 30 yards in front of the shooters. It is like shooting fish in a barrel. Photo: The HSUS

Mercifully, the Hegins shoot is no longer in existence. But other shoots occur, though more hidden from public view than ever. And that’s why we are lucky to have state Rep. John H. Maher and Sens. Pat Browne and Richard Alloway thrusting the issue into the spotlight and working to clear away the roadblocks and to help enact a statewide ban on the practice.

The chief political roadblock in banning live pigeon shoots throughout Pennsylvania has been none other than the National Rifle Association. Sen. Alloway, a hunter and longtime NRA supporter, has been particularly strong in standing up to the lobby group and calling pigeon shoots indefensible and indeed shameful. Under his leadership, a bill incorporating the prohibition on pigeon shoots with a ban on the killing or selling of dogs and cats for human consumption has emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee. And Pennsylvanians are asking their state senators to support the measure and to ensure that it comes up for a vote in the remaining weeks of the legislative session.

Pigeon shooting is not hunting. There’s no sport and no stalking, there are no hunting licenses, there’s no wildlife management, there’s no consumption of the animal. It’s just a massacre of animals imported for the spectacle and thrown right up in front of the shooters. The NRA’s attempt to wrap pigeon shooting in the mantle of freedom has been rightly lampooned by people all across the political spectrum, but the best of the bon mots on the subject came from my colleague John Goodwin, commenting some weeks back on a privately held shoot at Wing Pointe Resort, just 40 miles from Hegins. “Thousands of pigeons will be shot and wounded or killed this weekend in an event that is no more sporting than shooting chickens coming out of a henhouse.”

On Labor Day, there was a shoot scheduled at Wing Pointe, a reminder that we’ve got a little way to go in putting the nails into the coffin of this particular cruelty.

“We won’t rehash most of the self-evident reasons that live pigeon shooting as a ‘sport’ in Pennsylvania has got to go the way of dog-fighting, chained bear-baiting and other once-popular animal abuse for entertainment,” wrote The Pottstown Mercury in August.  And the Luzerne County Citizens’ Voice noted, “A true sportsman or sportswoman cringes at the thought of blasting away at pigeons released from cages only yards away.”

If you live in Pennsylvania, let your lawmakers know that continued inaction is shameful, and that they have a duty to stand up to the hollow arguments of the NRA, which has enabled this sadism for too long. 

September 12, 2014

The Many Costs of Cruelty

It was a year ago that The HSUS assisted in the rescue of 367 dogs from a network of dogfighting operations in Alabama, Georgia, and other states in the South. It was a major unraveling of a major dogfighting syndicate, and we’ve been so pleased to see a successful round of prosecutions since the arrests and seizure of the dogs. 

There’s another angle to this story – and that’s the long-term care of the dogs. Over the past year, we’ve had to spend more than $1.5 million on the dogs – to house them, take care of their medical needs, work on behavioral issues and work with partner groups on adoption. Most of the dogs are now adopted, but it’s come at a huge expense. On today’s video blog, I discuss why passing laws to prevent the abuse and exploitation of animals is so vital, to help animals before they get into situations of crisis but also so that our movement does not have to bear these sorts of enormous costs.

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P.S. Last night, I appeared on Jane Velez-Mitchell on HLN to announce that there will be no wolf hunt in Michigan, as a result of our referendum to block the trophy killing of the state's small population of wolves. Watch my interview about the battle over wolf hunting in Michigan and the terrible abuse of wolves in other states in the Great Lakes and the Northern Rockies. It’s important that Michigan citizens vote “No” on Proposal 1 and Proposal 2 this November.

Paid for with regulated funds by the Committee to Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, 5859 W. Saginaw Hwy #273, Lansing, MI 48917.

September 11, 2014

Jonas (Minus the) Brothers

For 29 years, Jonas was denied a decent existence. This rhesus macaque was born into the captive wildlife trade here in the United States and was passed around from owner to owner. Instead of swinging from trees in the forests of Asia where rhesus monkeys are native, he was confined to a backyard with a stiff leather collar and chain. He likely never met another macaque or primate, had no opportunity to engage in a normal primate life, and had no companions other than feral cats who would occasionally wander into the yard.

JONAS
Jonas, a rhesus macaque, has  found a pathway out of captivity, but the misery continues for around 15,000 other primates who are still kept as pets in basements and backyards.

This month, Jonas found a pathway out of his life as a backyard pet. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries– which has been doing a great job tackling the problem of the exotic pet trade -- was able to convince his owner to release him to the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch. The ranch is operated by our affiliate, The Fund for Animals, in Murchison, Texas.

Jonas’s past life means his mental and emotional state is very compromised right now, says Ben Callison, director of the Black Beauty Ranch. But he has been freed of the collar he wore and is gradually relaxing and getting more comfortable. Unfortunately, for approximately 15,000 primates like Jonas, who are still kept in private homes in the United States, the misery continues. That’s why, with Congress back for a short session this month, I want to remind members to pass the Captive Primate Safety Act without further delay. This bipartisan bill, introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and David Vitter, R-La., and Reps. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and Earl Bluemenauer, D-Ore., would put an end to the exploitation of monkeys like Jonas by prohibiting the interstate commerce in primates for the exotic pet trade.

There are some very strong voices on our side, like Charla Nash, whom I interviewed not long ago when she came to Capitol Hill to press for the passage of this bill. Charla was mauled, blinded and crippled by Travis, her boss’s pet chimpanzee, and she barely survived the attack.  She’s now had two face transplants. In a poignant op-ed for the Shreveport Times, Charla recently wrote:

“Primates are extremely intelligent and have complex social, physical and psychological needs. “In captivity, they are abused and neglected and I saw that first-hand with Travis. He was lonely and unhappy. I have no ill will toward Travis; I just want the trade in these dangerous animals to stop so no one else will suffer like I have and so the animals won’t be forced into inappropriate situations as pets.”

Collar and chain
At the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, Jonas has finally been freed of the stiff collar and chain that he wore during his life as a backyard pet. Photo: Ben Callison

Indeed, primates and other wildlife are ill-suited for life as pets. Most people who acquire primates lack the means to provide for these animals’ behavioral and nutritional needs. The animals end up locked in a cage in the basement or a garage after they mature and start to bite and scratch or tear down the drapes and rip up the couch.

Jonas is 29 years old, and since rhesus macaques have a life expectancy of only 30 years, we don’t know how much longer he has. It will take him a while to recover, and physically he shows signs of wear and tear, having lost all of his teeth – likely due to a poor diet and lack of veterinary care. But our staff at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch is working tirelessly to make every day count, and very soon he will be introduced to three of our resident female rhesus macaques who were retired from biomedical research labs. Many primates kept in isolation as pets do not learn how to be around others of their kind. “We hope he is a quick study because he deserves to spend his last days knowing what it is to be a rhesus macaque, and not a backyard pet,” says Ben.

I have often said that we cannot just rescue our way out of the problems that face animals. While rescue is vital for animals who can be saved, like Jonas, we also must pursue policy changes that strike at the root of the problem. To help those 15,000 or so primates still chained in a backyard or confined in a cage in someone’s basement, contact your members of Congress and urge them to pass the  Captive Primate Safety Act immediately.

September 10, 2014

My Interview with Louie Psihoyos, Director of ‘The Cove’

This month, dolphin hunters taint the waters of Taiji, Japan, as men launched a gruesome annual ritual: driving hundreds of dolphins ashore so a small number can be sold to entertainment parks and the rest butchered for meat right there in the water. The event was chronicled and presented before the world in Louie Psihoyos’ disturbing, critically acclaimed documentary, The Cove. The film won an HSUS Genesis Award, but more importantly it won the coveted Oscar – a landmark in the history of animal protection filmmaking. I spoke with Louie about the activism his film inspired since it was released in 2009, the state of dolphin hunting in Japan today, his next film that he says is a bit like a real-life The Avengers, and why he won’t stop until he has ended this barbaric practice.

Q: How did the dolphin drive fishery in Taiji, Japan, come to your attention, and what compelled you to make a documentary?

LOUIE_PSIHOYOS
Louie Psihoyos received The HSUS' Genesis Award in 2010 for his documentary, The Cove. Photo: Tim Long/Long Photography

I started the Oceanic Preservation Society with my dive buddy Jim Clark who founded Silicon Graphics and Netscape. We started our non-profit with the intent of using film to change the disasters we saw happening as divers. I've been all over the world on his sailboats and whenever dolphins would swim on the bow everyone would come up from whatever they were doing and just watch. They are mesmerizing to behold—it felt like you were watching one of the most amazing animals on Earth. There is something magical about watching dolphins, everybody loves them, or so I thought.

I first found about the so-called Taiji dolphin drive when I was at a marine mammal conference in San Diego and Ric O' Barry was supposed to speak. Ric captured and trained the five female dolphins that collectively played the part of Flipper in the popular 1960's television series that I used to watch when I was a child. At the last minute, the sponsor of the conference, the Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute, banned him from speaking. I found out it was because he was going to speak about a dolphin slaughter and I was just floored. I couldn't imagine anyone killing a dolphin, and why at a seminar of 2,000 of the top marine scientists, Ric wouldn't be allowed to speak. I used to be a photographer for National Geographic magazine and I always was on the lookout for an interesting story. This one seemed like a Hollywood script: an ex-dolphin trainer becomes their biggest defender. The problem was, I had never made a film before, which was probably a good thing. I think an experienced filmmaker wouldn't have made this film. It would be too difficult for someone that thought too much about the practicalities and obstacles of making a film where your subjects want to kill you.  

Right before we made The Cove, Steven Spielberg and his family came to visit Jim Clark and our families on Jim's boat. Spielberg made Jurassic Park with the Silicon Graphics computers Jim invented. When I asked the great director if he had any advice for a first-time filmmaker, he advised me to never make a film involving boats or animals. I was lucky enough to have a crew, really just a group of friends who were all water people and wanted to help put an end to the madness. We didn't need filmmakers to make The Cove, we needed pirates with a conscience. People who were passionate about exposing a dark truth.

Q: It’s difficult to fathom how these fishermen could take part in an activity that is so demonstrably cruel. Could you believe your eyes when you witnessed it firsthand?

The first time I saw a slaughter, I was hiding across the cove, hanging from a rope on a cliff in full camouflage and face paint. I was shaking from fear and rage. I had seen the dolphins swimming in circles around their young to protect them. Even during the slaughter dolphins were swimming through the blood in the cove to rescue their family members. The cruelty was so unbelievable I thought that if the world saw what was going on it would certainly stop. My team has been working almost 10 years on the issue and we won't stop until this barbarism of captivity and slaughter has stopped.  

Q: The meat from the dolphins and other small whales killed in Taiji is sold in local stores and even on online marketplaces like Yahoo! Japan. There have also been reports on mercury contamination of the meat from these animals. How does this industry remain viable?  

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Pantropical spotted dolphins like these are butchered in Taiji, Japan. Photo: Vanessa Mignon

When Ric and I do interviews with the Japanese press we try to use the word mercury in every sentence so they can't edit out our core message. It's hard to argue animal cruelty in another culture when our own eats other sentient animals like pigs and cows, so we speak about the health consequences. Mercury is the most toxic non-radioactive element in the world. All dolphin meat is toxic! Dolphin meat has anywhere from 5-5,000 times more mercury than allowed by Japanese health laws. I personally don't eat animal products but if our farm animals were that toxic, or broccoli for that matter, I would hope someone from any culture would have the courage to speak out. Through the success of The Cove, along with the work of the Dolphin Project, the Humane Society [of the United States], Sea Shepherd, EIA [the Environmental Investigation Agency], and many other groups, we've managed to break through a media blackout on the subject. Dolphin consumption has been reduced by some two-thirds in Japan. We managed to stop the distribution of dolphin meat in mandatory school lunch programs while we were filming, and currently the Japanese dolphin hunters are having trouble selling dolphin meat. 

Q: Some of these dolphins are captured alive and regularly sold to aquarium facilities in Japan and overseas. Do you believe the captive dolphin industry also plays a role in perpetuating this practice?

The single most powerful driver of the slaughter is the captive dolphin industry. If it weren't for the captive dolphin industry, the dolphin hunters couldn't afford to go out—it just wouldn't pay. The hunters can get $150,000 for a trained show dolphin. A dead one only makes them about $600.  

Q: Since The Cove blew the lid off of the dolphin drive fishing in Taiji, thousands upon thousands of activists, concerned citizens, celebrities and officials have spoken out against the cruel practice, including the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy. Despite this, dolphin fishermen and government officials in Japan continue to defend the hunts. What drives their defense of this disgraceful spectacle?

I believe the Japanese government would love to end this embarrassing chapter, but there is a very small yet powerful group of nationalists using misplaced pride to defend what they claim is their tradition. However, a Japanese researcher recently discovered that this so-called "tradition" really only started in 1969 after the demand for dolphins for dolphin shows. That's one reason why Ric is so adamant about stopping this. He feels guilty for helping start the demand for dolphin shows by popularizing Flipper. There is an incredible amount of pressure to end the practice, so it's important to stay motivated and apply pressure where one can. 

Q: The Cove and Blackfish have both been cultural phenomena. It’s rare for documentaries to break through and capture such attention and inspire such activism. Why did two marine mammal docs have such resonance?

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Movies like Blackfish, about an orca whale, and The Cove have turned the spotlight on marine mammals in captivity and inspired change. Photo: iStock

There is a growing animal rights community and it's becoming a very powerful force for social change. Recent research shows that nothing motivates someone to action more than animal rights and food issues. A film becomes the rallying cry to organize those people who want to focus their own voice for the good of animals. In this context, a film can become much more than a way to spend 90 minutes. It also becomes a weapon of mass construction. Once you see a film like Blackfish or The Cove you can't unsee it—it becomes part of your growing consciousness and propagates throughout the world, spreading compassion. You never really know how much effect your film will have and how it may change someone. Judy Bart is the executive producer of Blackfish, and she told me that she became vegetarian after seeing The Cove and then shortly after became vegan. She had never financed a film before but loved our film, and then director Gabriela Cowperthwaithe approached her about the idea for Blackfish. When I saw the premiere at Sundance, I told the creators of Blackfish that our organization has an army of activists that are ready to help them get their message out. Never ever underestimate the power of the individual when we raise our voice together for collective action. SeaWorld has lost half of their value since we began working with other organizations to close down their dolphin shows. They lost a third of their value in one day after earnings came out last quarter. It probably helped that we sent copies of Blackfish and The Cove to every single board member of the 10 top investment firms holding SeaWorld Stock. We also sent a copy to every home in Taiji and every Japanese embassy and consulate in the world with the idea that change needs to happen from the bottom up and from the top down. To me, a film is not great when it earns a shelf full awards, but instead when it significantly changes the hearts and minds of the people that watch it.  

There's so many injustices being done to animals we need to break through and get people active. Scientists say we're entering a new era where man's impact on nature is so great, we're causing a geological epoch they named The Anthropocene, "The Age of Man." Some claim we're now losing species so fast, 1,000 times the background rate, that by century-end we're on track to lose half the species on Earth. This is the biggest story on Earth, bar none, and we need to galvanize all NGOs [non-governmental organizations] to work together to mitigate a planetary disaster. Our next film is about not just creating awareness about the issue but inspiring the audience to create change.    

I'm very aware of that if you want to get somebody to spend hard-earned money and 90 minutes watching a film on date night about mass extinction, you better make sure it's entertaining. So our next film is a little bit like The Avengers - but it's real.

September 09, 2014

Heinz Makes New, Important Animal Welfare Commitment

Today, I’m pleased to report that, after working with The HSUS, Heinz announced that it will be switching 20 percent of its eggs to cage-free throughout its North American operations by the end of 2015. Heinz produces an enormous array of food products, including a leading mayonnaise brand. While the company still has a ways to go before getting cage confinement entirely out of its egg supply, this is a decisive step forward to reduce the suffering of tens of thousands of animals.

Battery cage
Heinz is taking a decisive step forward to reduce the suffering of tens of thousands of hens confined in inhumane battery cages. Photo: The HSUS

Heinz’s commitment, to be outlined in the company’s next sustainability report, adds on to its previous announcement that it will cleanse its supply chain over time of pork from gestation crates. Heinz is one of about 60 major food retailers we’ve seen make announcements on this subject. Just yesterday, I announced that Clemens Food Group, one of the nation’s largest pork companies, is eliminating gestation crates in its production systems. Earlier this year, we praised Smithfield and Cargill for similar announcements. And we were pleased that Tyson Foods signaled it is planning to move away from the crates, too.

These commitments to ending gestation crates for pigs and cages for hens, coupled with my recent announcements about Unilever’s and Nestlé’s commitments to improve farm animal welfare, demonstrate that the old model of disregarding the basic needs of animals simply is no longer workable as a business model. The American public just won’t go for this sort of extreme treatment of animals, even as they (and The HSUS) recognize that the phase-out periods for intensive confinement methods won’t happen overnight.

Six years ago this November, The HSUS led the fight to pass Proposition 2 in California – to ban extreme confinement of veal calves, breeding sows and laying hens. That measure takes effect in just over three months, and given the size of California’s egg industry, there have been questions about how the industry would make the transition away from battery cages. While we are seeing resistance from some producers, we’re seeing more reports that major operators are switching to cage-free systems, which are compliant with Prop 2. I spoke with one major producer that is expanding production, and all of the new facilities will be entirely cage-free. That’s the best step for these producers, because as they take this action, they not only align themselves with the law, but with the increasingly high expectations of American consumers. 

Plaudits to Heinz today for being part of the major movement toward better conditions for animals raised on farms.