Watch the full episode below, or scroll down for individual stories.
Research by Kim Rogers Bartlett
Presentation & editing by Wolf Gordon Clifton
Theme music: “Praetor,” courtesy Ross Bugden: <https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQKGLOK2FqmVgVwYferltKQ/>
‘BLACKFISH’ ORCA TILIKUM DIES AT SEAWORLD
Tilikum, a captive orca, or killer whale, featured in the documentary Blackfish, died in SeaWorld Orlando on January 6th. The cause of his death has not been confirmed. However, Tilikum was being treated for a lung infection caused by bacterial pneumonia. He also suffered from a host of other health issues, physical and mental. His teeth were worn to the pulp from chewing on the metal gates and concrete corners of his enclosure. He displayed abnormal behavior, often floating motionless for hours. Most disturbingly, he was prone to violence, and killed three people over the course of his life in captivity: A trainer in 1991, while at Sealand of the Pacific before being transferred to Seaworld. A nighttime trespasser in 1999. And another trainer in 2010.
Such violent behavior is highly unusual. Only one other captive orca has ever killed a human being, though there have been many serious non-lethal attacks. Orcas are natural predators, with some populations feeding on sharks, seals, and even larger whales. However, aggression toward humans is very rare in the wild, and history records no fatal attacks on human beings.
In the wild, orcas frequently dive more than five hundred feet underwater in search of food, and range up to a hundred miles per day. Like other toothed whales, they use echolocation, or sonar, to sense the world around them, allowing them to effectively “see” up to two thousand feet even in total darkness. Tilikum’s concrete enclosure at Seaworld Orlando, one of the largest captive orca pools in the world, measures only thirty-six feet at its deepest point.
On January ninth, just a few days after Tilikum’s death at SeaWorld Orlando, SeaWorld San Diego ended its Shamu show, in which orcas perform acrobatics, swim with their trainers, and carry them on their backs. It will be replaced with a new show called Orca Encounter debuting this summer. While the orcas will still perform tricks, they will no longer swim with humans or perform unnatural stunts like somersaults.
Tilikum, who died at age thirty-six, is believed to have lived an average lifespan for an orca. Though much older than the median lifespan of twelve years for captive orcas in the U.S., Tilikum died young compared to some wild individuals. Early this month, the world’s oldest orca was announced deceased by the Centre for Whale Research. Nicknamed “Granny,” orca J2, a Southern Resident Killer Whale living along the northwest coast of North America, was last seen in October and is now presumed dead. She was an estimated one hundred and five years old.
RINGLING BROS. CIRCUS GOING OUT OF BUSINESS
Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, infamous for its abuse of animals for entertainment, is closing down permanently, with its final show scheduled for May twenty-first, 2017. The circus, first established in the 1860s, has become widely unpopular in recent years due to increasing public awareness of how circus animals are trained. Elephants are removed from their mothers as babies, and regularly beaten with bullhooks so they’ll submit to human command. Tigers and lions are whipped or prodded into obedience. According to former Ringling Brothers employees, domestic animals are often abused in similar ways: camels may be whipped, and horses’ lips are twisted painfully as punishment.
Following years of legal battles with animal rights organizations, Ringling Brothers announced in March 2015 that it would phase out the use of elephants in its shows by 2018. It completed the process early, in April 2016, when it moved its last eleven performing elephants to its so-called Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. There, the elephants have daily outdoor access, toys to play with, and are not forced to perform, though they’re still chained at night, and their enclosures are reportedly little larger than suburban backyards.
According to the circus’s owner, Kenneth Feld, ending the elephant shows was what finally did in Ringling Brothers. Although revelations of animal cruelty were what drove away much of the circus’s audience in the first place, for those who remained, the elephant shows had been the main reason to keep coming. With this latest drop in ticket sales, Ringling Brothers finally became too unprofitable to operate.
Feld Entertainment will continue to care for the elephants at the Center for Elephant Conservation, and says it will rehome the remaining performing animals, who include lions, tigers, donkeys, camels, llamas, alpacas, and kangaroos.
JAPAN RESUMES ANTARCTIC WHALING
Japan has begun its annual whale hunt in the Antarctic Ocean. Photographs taken from a Sea Shepherd helicopter reveal a dead minke whale aboard the factory whaling ship Nisshin Maru. The whalers quickly covered the body and their harpoons with tarps as soon as they were spotted. The government of Australia, which on Saturday announced increased military ties with Japan, sharply criticized the hunt, issuing a statement that,
“The Australian Government is deeply disappointed that Japan has decided to return to the Southern Ocean this summer to undertake so-called ‘scientific whaling.’ … Australia is opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called ‘scientific’ whaling.”
The International Whaling Commission, to which Japan is a signatory, has banned commercial whaling since 1985. However, Japanese vessels have killed more than twenty thousand whales since, claiming an exemption for “scientific research.” The supposed purpose of such research is itself to justify commercial whaling, by showing that whale populations have grown large enough to sustain it. Whale meat and blubber is sold as “byproduct” within Japan, though it isn’t widely popular, and could not sustain the whaling industry were it not subsidized by the government.
In 2014, the United Nations’ International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s hunt was unscientific and therefore illegal. Japan did not kill any Antarctic whales the following season, but slaughtered three hundred and thirty-three whales in 2016, including more than two hundred pregnant females.
AIR CHINA BANS TRANSPORT OF SHARK FINS
The airline China Air has announced that it will no longer permit the transport of shark fins as cargo. The first airline in mainland China to do so, China Air joins thirty-five other airlines abroad and seventeen shipping lines in banning the product. Shark fin soup is an expensive delicacy in China, often consumed as a sign of wealth and social status. The fins are often cut from live sharks captured in the wild, who are afterward discarded to bleed to death, drown, or be eaten by other animals drawn to their blood. With tens of millions of sharks killed for their fins every year, many species are now at risk of extinction.
China Air’s decision has renewed pressure on FedEx to do the same in banning shark fins. So far, the U.S.-based company has refused, despite appeals from conservation and animal welfare groups and a petition signed by over three hundred thousand people.
CHINA ENDS LEGAL IVORY TRADE
The government of China has announced a total ban on the processing and sale of ivory, to be phased in over the next year and completed by the end of 2017. Since an estimated fifty to seventy percent of all ivory taken from elephants ends up in China, the new ban will play an enormous role in combating poaching and protecting elephants worldwide.
The ban will be enacted in phases, with a designated group of ivory processors and businesses being the first to close by March thirty-first. Ivory objects determined to have cultural or historical value will be transferred to museum collections. The ban satisfies an agreement to crack down on ivory made with the United States last year, but is also a result of international campaigns and public pressure. Former NBA star and celebrity Yao Ming has been at the forefront of anti-ivory campaigns within China.
The international trade of elephant ivory has been illegal under CITES, the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, since 1989. However, the existence of legal domestic markets in some countries sustains demand and provides cover for illegal poaching and smuggling. Despite continued decimation of African elephant populations, a proposal to ban all domestic ivory trading was defeated at the most recent CITES conference. It was opposed by Japan, which now hosts the world’s largest legal ivory market, and Zimbabwe, South Africa, and the European Union, which all profit from trophy hunting of elephants.
Hong Kong, whose government operates autonomously from mainland China, has also announced a ban on ivory, but with a much longer phase-out period. Sales of ivory in Hong Kong will not be fully banned until 2021, raising concern that it may become the next big hub for ivory smuggling.
ZIMBABWE EXPORTS WILD-CAUGHT ELEPHANTS TO CHINA
Though China’s new ban will help combat the killing of wild elephants for ivory, it will not prevent them being captured for human entertainment. In late December, Zimbabwe exported thirty-five young elephants, captured from Hwange National Park, to China. The shipment of animals also included eight lions, twelve hyenas, and a giraffe. The animals have been distributed between three different zoos and safari parks across China, including Hangzhou Wildlife World in Zhejiang, which recently shared a photograph of two of the elephants in a concrete enclosure.
The animals were captured and exported at the behest of Grace Mugabe, wife of Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe, to satisfy a debt for military supplies purchased from China. Zimbabwean wildlife officials claim that removing them from their habitat will help to reduce the impact of a severe drought. However, elephant experts and advocates condemned the export, highlighting elephants’ vast territorial needs, high intelligence, and deep social bonds. Says Patricia Awori of the African Elephant Coalition,
“The essence of being an elephant is that they live, function within and are shaped by their environment. Foraging for and consuming food, rolling in the mud, and frolicking with its siblings is an essential part of being an elephant. An elephant that ceases to be wild ceases to be.”
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES BANS EXOTIC PETS
The United Arab Emirates has banned the keeping of wild animals as pets. Ownership of exotic animals has long been popular as a status symbol in the UAE and neighboring countries. Wealthy citizens are often sighted walking big cats in public, and businesses sometimes display wild animals as attractions, such as the Atlantis hotel in Dubai, which kept a whale shark in its lobby until forced to release him under public pressure in 2010. Demand for exotic pets has contributed to the endangerment of some species, including cheetahs and birds of prey captured from the wild.
Under the UAE’s new law, wild animals can now only be kept in zoos, wildlife parks, circuses, breeding and research centers. Any private citizen who takes an exotic animal out in public can be imprisoned for up to six months and fined up to five hundred thousand dirhams, or one hundred and thirty-six thousand U.S. dollars. The law also strengthens regulations on domestic pets, requiring dog owners to get permits and keep their animals on leashes in public.
SOLDIER WHO SAVED DOG BECOMES NATIONAL HERO IN IRAN
In Iran, a soldier who lost his leg while rescuing a dog has become an online celebrity and national hero. In December, Mohammad Bakhtar, nineteen years old, witnessed the dog tangled in barbed wire at the edge of a minefield. Speaking to Al Jazeera, he described the incident:
“I was standing at my post that day… I heard the poor dog moaning non-stop. I knew that it was a minefield, but I couldn’t reach the poor dog. Finally, I put my right foot to the other side of the barbed fence to release the dog. As soon as he ran, [the mine exploded].”
Doctors attempted to reattach Mohammad’s leg, but were unsuccessful. Though no longer physically fit for military service, he has reportedly been offered a new job in the government’s Environmental Protection Organization, whose head Masoumeh Ebtekar praised him as “a source of honor and pride for every Iranian.” Though Mohammad is Sunni, in a majority Shia Muslim country troubled by religious conflict, his courage and compassion have made him a national role model to Iranians of all backgrounds. Said one Iranian citizen on Twitter,
“I salute this young soldier as the symbol of honor and bravery, and wish the Middle East had many like him as a panacea for long-existing problems.”
ILLEGAL DOG KILLING IN PHILIPPINE FILM ‘ORO’
In the Philippines, the movie Oro has stirred controversy over its depiction of a dog being slaughtered for meat. The film, which tells the true story of four miners murdered in 2014, features a scene in which a dog is beaten to death, cooked, and eaten. The filmmakers initially claimed the slaughter scene was shot using a goat fitted with prosthetics, but social media posts by cast members revealed a dog was in fact killed for the scene. Most slaughter of dogs for meat is illegal under the Philippine Animal Welfare Act. Although the law does allow an exception for ritual slaughter done by indigenous communities, such rituals still require official permission and oversight.
The filmmakers now maintain that they merely recorded a traditional practice, without actually soliciting or participating in it. However, the slaughter scene was planned in the movie’s script, and according to one of the film’s cast members, the producers bought two dogs to use for it, one of whom died accidentally during transport to the set. The Philippines Animal Welfare Society is pressing criminal charges against the film’s producers. Says PAWS director Anna Cabrera,
“Oro has disappointed animal welfare advocates everywhere. It would have made a great film, but the fact that a dog was killed for this film will just make it go down in history as an example of how showbiz can be insensitive and heartless.”
If convicted under the Animal Welfare Act, the film’s director Alvin Yapan and his associates could face two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to one hundred thousand Philippine pesos. The Metro Manila Film Festival has already banned the filmmakers from participating in next year’s festival, and withdrawn the Fernando Poe Jr. Memorial Award previously granted to the film. Oro was pulled from cinemas after the filmmakers failed to edit out the dog slaughter scene. The controversy has also driven lawmakers to push tougher penalties against animal cruelty and dog slaughter in the Philippines. Proposed legislation includes mandatory prison sentences for first-time cruelty offenses, and increased sentences and fines for participating in the dog meat trade.
FUR BANS IN INDIA AND CROATIA
So far, 2017 has seen bans on fur take effect in both India and Croatia.
India’s ban prohibits the import of mink, fox, and chinchilla furs as well as reptile skins, as per a declaration by the Directorate General of Foreign Trade. The ban was first proposed by Maneka Gandhi, India’s minister of Women and Child Development and a prominent animal rights activist, with support from the Ministry of Environment and Animal Welfare Board of India. The market for fur and skins has grown enormously in recent years, with imports of reptile skins increasing by almost two thousand percent between 2014 and 2016. By nipping a growing industry in the bud, the ban will spare untold numbers of animals in farms from exploitation and slaughter.
It does not, however, affect the production or trade of leather from cows. Despite the fact that many Indian states restrict or prohibit cow slaughter, leather is one of the country’s top exports, India accounting for some thirteen percent of all leather production worldwide.
In Croatia, a ban on domestic fur farming came into force on January 1st, 2017. Compared to India’s ban, it has been in the making for much longer. Breeding animals for fur was first banned in 2006, when Croatia adopted its new Animal Protection Act, and was supported by more than seventy-three percent of Croatian citizens. However, the 2006 ban came with a ten-year transition period for fur farmers to phase out operations and find alternative livelihoods. The majority of Croatia’s fur farms, numbering over two thousand in 2006, ceased operations. However, a small number of breeders stayed in business, and even expanded operations as the transition period drew to an end.
Under pressure from the country’s fifty remaining breeders of chinchillas, the only animals farmed for fur in Croatia, the Ministry of Agriculture proposed that the transitional period be extended yet another year. Breeders argued that unless the ban was postponed, pregnant female chinchillas and animals too young to skin would have to be killed and disposed of. The organization Animal Friends Croatia responded by offering to take and rehome all remaining chinchillas instead.
Thanks to campaigns led by Animal Friends and other groups, and testimony from veterinarians and other animal welfare experts, the extension proposal was defeated in public hearing. Although the fate of the chinchillas currently held in fur farms is not yet known, the ban will ensure that no further animals are ever bred or slaughtered for fur in Croatia again.
FRANCE TO REQUIRE CAMERAS IN ALL SLAUGHTERHOUSES
In France, a bill to install closed-circuit cameras in slaughterhouses has passed the National Assembly. The proposal to monitor all slaughter of animals for food follows massive public outcry over undercover footage. The videos, taken and released by animal rights group L214 last year, show slaughter workers hanging animals by their legs, punching and hitting them, and throwing them against walls.
The bill passed the National Assembly with twenty-eight votes in favor and four against. It still has to clear the Senate, which will debate and vote on it in March, before becoming law. If passed, installation of cameras will begin in select slaughterhouses for an “experimental” phase, before the law is enforced nationwide in 2018. Besides requiring surveillance, it will also establish a national slaughterhouse ethics committee, and impose penalties of up to twelve months’ jail time and fines of twenty thousand euros for animal cruelty violations.
While French animal rights activists generally support the bill, some have expressed concern that only government veterinarians and slaughterhouse managers will have access to the footage, and not the media or general public. According to a government survey, eighty-five percent of French citizens approve of video surveillance in slaughterhouses. Farmers and slaughter workers have adamantly opposed it, however, with some even dumping manure and hanging pig carcasses in public to protest the bill.
RARE SIBERIAN LEOPARD ‘ALEKSA’ RECOVERS FROM SNARE
Finally, Aleksa, a wild Amur leopard believed to have been killed in a poachers’ trap, has been sighted alive and well with two cubs in Siberia. In 2014, Aleksa was photographed with gaping wounds and a metal snare tangled around her. Researchers believe the trap was set by poachers in China, and entangled the leopard when she crossed over the border. It was assumed she could never survive such a serious injury, but new images from wildlife cameras prove that she somehow managed to get free and recover, possibly with help from the father of her cubs. That the leopard photographed is really Aleksa has been confirmed by her unique pattern of spots, and a large scar left behind by the snare.
Amur leopards are a unique subspecies of leopard adapted for cold weather, native to eastern Siberia, northern China, and Korea. They are extremely endangered due to poaching and habitat loss, with fewer than sixty individuals still alive in the wild. Surviving through good fortune and power of will, Aleksa’s recovery is a major victory for her kind.