Thu, Apr 29, 2010 - Page 13 News List

From Flipper’s keeper to activist

Ric O’Barry made his name capturing and training the dolphins for the ‘Flipper’ television series. But after one of them died in his arms, O’Barry has since dedicated his life to saving dolphins and whales

By Catherine Shu  /  STAFF REPORTER

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Since US documentary The Cove won an Oscar last month, Ric O’Barry’s journey from dolphin trainer to activist has become known throughout the world. He was the lead trainer on the hit 1960s TV series Flipper, which spawned a craze for dolphin performances at amusement parks like SeaWorld. But after one of the dolphins he had trained died in his arms, O’Barry dedicated his life to keeping dolphins out of captivity. He now travels around the world, rescuing dolphins, protesting against hunts and drives and earning the ire of fishermen, trainers and, occasionally, other activists.

O’Barry’s work in Taiji, Japan was the focus of The Cove, which premieres in Taiwan this week at the Urban Nomad Film Festival. Directed by Louie Psihoyos, the film brought international attention to the yearly dolphin drive in the coastal town, one of the largest suppliers of dolphins to aquariums and amusement parks around the world (including in Taiwan). Dolphins not sent into captivity are slaughtered and their meat sold for consumption, despite containing high levels of mercury. But the film has only been shown so far at a handful of theaters and film festivals in Japan; a screening last week at a US Air Force base was canceled after protests outside the Japanese distributor’s office. (O’Barry wants the film released online for free with Japanese subtitles.)

Advocating for dolphins is in many ways a path of redemption for O’Barry. While on leave from the US Navy in 1955, O’Barry visited the Miami Seaquariam in his hometown. “I saw the dolphins in the tank underwater and I said, ‘When I get out of the Navy, I’m going to come back here,’” he remembers. Five years later, he did just that, capturing dolphins for the Seaquariam. O’Barry then joined the Flipper crew, training the five dolphins that shared the title role.

While working on the series, O’Barry says he began to realize dolphins were self-aware and keeping them in captivity was morally inexcusable. But it wasn’t until one of the dolphins, Cathy, swam into his arms and, he says, committed suicide by closing her blowhole (dolphins are voluntary breathers) that he felt compelled to act.

O’Barry returns to Taiji five or six times a year, but Japan represents just one part of his work. “If there’s a dolphin in trouble, anywhere in the world, my phone will ring,” he says. At the time of this interview last week, O’Barry had just come back from the Solomon Islands, where his activities included convincing tribes on Malaita island to replace dolphin hunting with beekeeping and other ventures.

He says he also tried to find other forms of subsidy for the Taiji fishermen, but they turned him down, claiming the dolphin hunt is a form of “pest control.” The Japanese government, O’Barry says, told the fishermen that dolphins are the main reason for dwindling stocks of fish, instead of overfishing by humans.

O’Barry blames the Japanese government — which continues whaling in the face of pressure from other nations and the International Whaling Commission — for a “media blackout” about dolphin hunting in Japan and the high levels of mercury in the marine mammal’s meat.

In an interview with the Taipei Times, O’Barry talked about why stopping dolphin hunts is more than just an animal rights and environmental issue, the charges of cultural imperialism that have been leveled against his activism and The Cove, and why he thinks the Japanese public needs to see the film.

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