Docs Worth Seeing: Trophy

It won’t surprise anyone to know that I believe in the power of documentaries to tell a story that needs to be told, to illuminate, to change minds, and to inspire people to take action. Not every documentary sets out to do that, or achieves that. But I love the fact that there are so many creators out there working to use the medium to make the world a better place. As I have learned, it is perhaps the most effective medium for our visual, streaming, social media age (though it still starts with the written word!).

One new documentary that definitely illuminates, though it doesn’t come up with any easy answers (which makes it very honest) is Trophy, which opens in theaters September 8. In the words of the producers:

Trophy is a startling exploration of the evolving relationship between big-game hunting and wildlife conservation that will leave you debating what is right, what is wrong and what is necessary in order to save the great species of the world from extinction.

I do think the film delivers on this promise, and it beautifully conveys the complexity of the terrible choices before us as poachers and land changes relentlessly diminish the planet’s extraordinary bounty of beautiful beings. I came away devastated by the fact that the human relationship with the wild is so broken that we are even forced to consider whether canned big-game hunting–no matter how odious and self-serving the hunters are–or rhino horn farming, might really be beneficial to the future of lions, elephants and other big game.

The case for rhino horn farming (horns are harvested from the rhinos every few years in a relatively painless way) appears reasonably solid to me–no doubt aided by the passion and determination of the sympathetic rhino breeder featured in Trophy. A legal, sustainable international rhino horn trade would arguably have an impact on reducing rhino poaching, and that would save rhino lives because farming horn involves breeding and nurturing the lives of the animals while poaching means brutally killing the animals.

However, the case for high-value, canned, big-game hunts is harder to stomach. The hunters, their families, and the community around them are egotistical, crass, and thoroughly repulsive (as they cynically quote the bible, giggle their way through hunts, and then shed tears over the beauty of the animal they have just put a high-powered bullet through at virtually no risk to themselves). And it is abundantly clear that they don’t really care about conservation beyond the idea that it means sustaining species that they want to be able to add to their trophy walls.

Still, however much we dislike them (my son and I took to referring to Philip Glass, the hunter who is most featured, as “the dickhead”), it is not as easy to dismiss the fact that at least some of their dollars do in fact help fund anti-poaching and conservation efforts. That does not just come from their mouths, but from the mouth of a very thoughtful, very conflicted, anti-poaching unit leader in Zimbabwe. The choices are indeed hard, and hard to contemplate. But they are the choices a few centuries of industrialization, free market capitalism, rampant materialism, rampant population growth, and a thorough disregard for the natural world have left us with.

One very important policy goal that is simple to understand and simple to get behind, which sets the context for this crisis, is poverty. Trophy does not directly address the role of poverty in the ongoing extinction crisis, but it hints at it when it takes us into a poaching family’s destitute dwelling. It is very easy for anyone who is comfortable and well-fed to rail against the killing of wildlife and the assaults of humanity against the natural world (and I am describing myself, too!). But it seems clear to me, at least, that none of us will get very far in addressing the difficult and depressing problems raised by Trophy unless we, and the developed world as a whole, are prepared to address the underlying problem of extreme income inequality. It is poverty and desperation, and the need to feed one’s family, that often drives a young man into poaching. Or a farmer to kill a lion. Addressing that problem will take a quantum shift in how the wealthy nations of the world view our responsibilities to the global community and its impoverished nations, and a reassessment of what we are willing to sacrifice to achieve the conservation goals we all care so much about. (Along with a quantum shift in the moral consideration we give nonhuman species).

Millions of dollars from fat cat hunters from Texas may help buy some anti-poaching gear, or help preserve a slice of habitat. But it is a drop in the bucket compared to the income flows it would take to really solve the ongoing crisis of the relentless destruction of the great species and the environments they need to thrive.

I hope someone is making a documentary about that.

Releasing Captive Dolphins Back Into The Oceans

Chunsam, with her freeze brand #2 sorta visible, enjoys life back in the wild.


As the public becomes more aware of the ethical issue involved with keeping dolphins and killer whales captive, and public sentiment about captivity changes, the question of whether captive dolphins and killer whales can successfully be released back into the wild is increasingly relevant.

While there have been many releases of captive dolphins, there have been relatively few releases of long-term show dolphins, and even fewer that were fully documented. In recent years, however, two bottlenose dolphins (named Tom and Misha) were successfully released back into the Aegean, and three bottlenose dolphins (Jedol, Chunsam, and Sampal) were successfully released off Jeju Island, South Korea. All had spent years in marine parks, yet managed to learn what they needed to learn to survive again in the ocean.

Both releases were carefully documented, during and after release, and show what can be achieved, even with dolphins that have suffered greatly in captivity. My story about these dolphins,  and the question of captive release, was just published at National Geographic.

Here’s the start:

In early January 2011 Jeff Foster, a 55-year-old marine mammal expert from Seattle, arrived on the stony shore of a pristine bay near the small village of Karaca, situated in a corner of the Gulf of Gökova on Turkey’s southwest coast. Just offshore was a collection of floating pens used to farm fish. In one of them, which had been modified and measured about a hundred feet across and 50 feet deep, two male bottlenose dolphins swam in slow circles.

Tom and Misha, as they were called, were in lamentable condition. As far as anyone could tell, they’d been captured in the Aegean sometime in 2006, and almost nothing was known about their lives in the wild. After starting their captive lives at a dolphin park in the seaside town of Kaş, they’d been trucked a short distance inland in June 2010 to a crudely constructed concrete pool in the mountain town of Hisarönü so that tourists could pay $50 for the chance to grab their dorsal fins and get a ten-minute tow. Hisarönü consists mainly of cheap hotels and bars with suggestive names like Oh Yes! and thumping late-night music. It would be hard to imagine a more incongruous or disorienting location for two ocean-born dolphins. An inadequate filtration system quickly left the bottom of their pool carpeted with dead fish and dolphin feces.

Within weeks, an outraged grassroots and social media campaign organized by dolphin-loving locals had forced the place to close. In early September, amid fears that the dolphins would soon die, the U.K.-based Born Free Foundation, which is dedicated to the protection of animals in the wild, stepped in and took possession of Tom and Misha. The two dolphins were bundled into a refrigerated meat truck lined with old mattresses and transported to the pen off Karaca. Foster was hired to help Born Free attempt something truly ambitious: restore Tom and Misha to peak physical condition, teach them what they would need to know to live as wild dolphins again, and release them back into the Aegean. “It is extremely high risk with a creature that is not predictable and easy,” says Will Travers, Born Free’s president. “But we realized that there were very few options for them, and they were likely to die unless somebody did something.”

You can read the whole thing here. And there is a great photo gallery here. Hope you find it interesting.

Two Dolphins Go Back To The Sea

Mostly we take dolphins FROM the sea. We put them in marine parks, we charge tourists to watch them do tricks and to swim with them, and we often breed them to produce more dolphins that can stock the parks. So it is pretty cool when there is an attempt to take captive dolphins and send them in the other direction: back to the wild.

It’s a process that is highly complex (the dolphins have to be taught how to hunt for themselves again, among other things), and many argue that returning marine park dolphins to the wild puts their lives at risk. So we should pay close attention to what is happening with Tom and Misha, two dolphins who have been rescued from a filthy pool in Turkey, rehabilitated and prepared for release by marine mammal experts, and set free in the Aegean.

Tom and Misha are part of an expensive, ambitious and risky program sponsored by the UK-based Born Free Foundation, which is aiming to prove that captive dolphins can be reintroduced to the wild.

For more than a year, Foster and his team worked in a quiet cove on the Aegean, teaching the two dolphins how to catch their own food. He said the intensive training was necessary to get the dolphins ready to fend for themselves.

“It would be like taking your dog and releasing it into the woods,” Foster said. “If you don’t prepare your dog for that, it would never happen.”

When Foster first met these dolphins more than a year ago, he said they would eat only if humans placed dead fish directly in their mouths.

“We had literally thousands of fish in the pen, and they just wouldn’t look at them,” Foster said. “They had just been so used to being hand-fed in a captive situation that they did not recognize fish as a food source.”

If they can survive, and even thrive in the wild, it will help establish that marine park releases, for dolphins that are good candidates, are viable. So far, Tom Continue reading “Two Dolphins Go Back To The Sea”

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