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Florida Climate Activist Nicholas Vasquez Rallies in Gainesville During 800-Mile State-Wide Walk

Maia Botek
News Feed
Thursday, July 29, 2021

Embarking on an 800-mile walk across the state of Florida, Nicholas Vazquez is a 23-year-old climate activist using unconventional tactics to raise awareness for climate change.

Nicholas Vazquez leads and speaks to members of a symbolic ‘die-in’ at the Gainesville City Hall on July 27, 2021.

Embarking on an 800-mile walk across the state of Florida, Nicholas Vazquez is a 23-year-old climate activist using unconventional tactics to raise awareness for climate change. Vazquez arrived in Gainesville on July 27, one of nine stops on his journey to Tallahassee. He has just reached the two-month mark for the walk, which began on April 22 out of Miami, Florida. Upon his arrival to Gainesville, Vazquez organized and spoke to activists on the steps of the Hippodrome Theater before hosting a more demonstrative protest at the Gainesville City Hall.

Just after 6 p.m. on July 27, Vazquez stood at the steps of the theater in a woven pair of brown slippers reading off a black iPhone to a small, but enthusiastic, crowd of supporters. Vazquez spoke candidly about his experience with Extinction Rebellion, a UK-based climate organization that he represents, and his expectations for the walk across the state, including the need for Governor Ron DeSantis to declare a climate emergency. Among the issues Vazquez wanted to call attention to were crop failures, water shortages, sea level rise, increased carbon emissions, deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest and global temperature elevations, at one point exclaiming, “Siberia is on f—ing fire!”

Many of Vazquez’s words about the urgent need for climate action were met with affirmation and small chants from the group of around 15 supporters who had gathered around the steps of the theater. Following the conclusion of Vazquez’s statements, the group organized themselves with various signs and posters demanding action and marched for four blocks north on Southeast First Street until reaching the Gainesville City Hall. Many of these signs and materials were supplied by Anne Hemingway Feuer, a member of Extinction Rebellion who had driven to Gainesville from Miami in order to hear Vazquez speak. Feuer credits her environmental activism as one of the ways she overcame her depression about the environment and pointed toward the value of motivating others in the fight for climate awareness.

Later in the evening at the Gainesville City Hall, Vazquez and a handful of supporters partook in a symbolic ‘die-in’, collapsing on the steps and front lawn of the building after reading an imagined climate-change-related cause of death. Though only certain members of the group participated in the act of lying down and ‘dying’, others placed flowers to memorialize the symbolic deaths and outlined the bodies lying on cement in various sticks of chalk that were distributed. Although no city officials or the mayor of Gainesville appeared at the event, Vazquez remains hopeful that his tactics will create the necessary impressions across both local and state governments. In 2019, Vazquez and other Extinction Rebellion activists successfully convinced Miami Mayor Francis Suarez to declare a climate emergency, and Vazquez is expecting a large amount of publicity and coverage upon his arrival and hunger strike in Tallahassee.

To continue following Nicholas’ journey across the state please visit, and make sure to follow Cinema Verde’s social media outlets! Nicholas will be in Gainesville until July 30 and is looking to connect with the people of Gainesville during his last few days. On August 10th, 2021, Nicholas will be in Jacksonville, Florida, beginning his March Against Treason to the state’s capital and hopes many people will join him on the trek along I-10.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of
Maia Botek
Maia Botek

Maia Botek is a third-year journalism major and Spanish minor student at the University of Florida who has grown up in South Florida throughout her entire life. As the daughter of a Jamaican father and part-Norwegian mother, an understanding of cultures, diversity and the world around her has always been an important facet in Maia's life which has resulted in a love of the environment, travel and education. She loves spending time outdoors and with friends, especially at the beach, which she loves. Maia is interested in utilizing journalism to educate others on the importance of the Earth's natural resources and ensuring a sustainable and equitable future for all.

Amazon's Internal Plans to Advance Its Interests in California Are Laid Bare in Leaked Memo

An internal Amazon memo has provided a stark look at the company’s carefully laid out plans to grow its influence and advance its interest in Southern California

NEW YORK (AP) — An internal Amazon memo has provided a stark look at the company’s carefully laid out plans to grow its influence in Southern California through a plethora of efforts that include burnishing its reputation through charity work and pushing back against “labor agitation” from the Teamsters and other groups.The eight-page document — titled “community engagement plan” for 2024 — provides a rare glimpse into how one of American’s biggest companies executes on its public relations objectives and attempts to curtail reputational harm stemming from criticisms of its business. It also illustrates how Amazon aims to methodically court local politicians and community groups in order to push its interests in a region where it could be hampered by local moratoriums on warehouse development, and it is facing resistance from environmental and labor activists. The memo was leaked to the nonprofit labor organization Warehouse Worker Resource Center and posted online this week. The Associated Press independently verified its authenticity. When reached for comment, Amazon did not dispute the authenticity of the document. But it said in a prepared statement it was proud of its philanthropic efforts. “Partnerships with community leaders and stakeholders help guide how Amazon gives back,” said Amazon spokesperson Jennifer Flagg. “Through employee volunteerism or our charitable donations, it is always Amazon’s intention to help support the communities where we work in a way that is most responsive to the needs of that community.” In the memo, Amazon says its top public-policy priority in Southern California is addressing “labor agitation that uses false narratives and incorrect information to affect public opinion and impact public policy.”Earlier this year, the Teamsters unionized an Amazon contracted delivery firm in the city of Palmdale and subsequently supported protests around company warehouses after Amazon refused to come to the bargaining table. Last year, dozens of Amazon workers at a company air hub in San Bernardino, a city about 60 miles (100 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, walked off the job to demand safety improvements and higher pay. Those same issues were raised by workers at a company warehouse in New York City where employees voted to unionize with the Amazon Labor Union in 2022. The e-commerce giant has been challenging the union’s win for more than a year in a case that’s still being adjudicated by the National Labor Relations Board. The Amazon memo also says the Seattle-based company faces “significant reputational challenges” in Southern California, where it's “perceived to build facilities in predominantly communities of color and poverty, negatively impacting their health.”The Inland Empire, a region in Southern California that Amazon discusses in the document, has seen a boom in warehouse development over the past few decades. But there's also been a groundswell of local opposition to new warehouses, with multiple municipalities enacting moratoriums on developments. In January, dozens of environmental and community groups sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom urging him to declare a one-to-two-year moratorium on new warehouses in the area, arguing a temporary pause was necessary to address the “gaps in current legislation” that allows for pollution and congestion. In the memo outlining Amazon’s goals for next year, the company says it plans to “earn the trust” of community groups and nonprofits, such as the San Bernardino Valley College Foundation, Children’s Fund, and Feeding America, to push back against state bills “that will continue to threaten the region’s economy, and Amazon’s interests.” The two bills cited include a state legislation that, if passed, would prohibit companies from building large warehouses within 1,000 feet (300 meters) of private homes, apartments, schools, daycares and other facilities. The memo also says the company plans to “positively affect” legislative attempts to ban single use plastic by “showcasing Amazon as a leader in sustainability and counter the voices of environmental activists against Amazon.” It also details local politicians Amazon is engaging and says the company has “cultivated” Michael Vargas, the mayor of the town of Perris, through pandemic-related "donations to support the region, touring him and his team, and ongoing engagement.” Vargas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.Media coverage is a top concern of Amazon's. The document previews the company’s goals to generate positive news stories for itself through charitable campaigns, including through a food drive hosted by the Los Angeles Food Bank where employees would drop off donations “in big media moments that are broadcasted/posted.” The memo suggested curating similar moments during a back-to-school donation event and a holiday toy drive, where drop offs occur and Amazon executives, as well as groups who receive grants from the company, “speak about Amazon’s impact” to the media. The company additionally says it won’t continue to support organizations that “did not result in measurable positive impact” to its brand and reputation and will stop funding groups that are antagonistic towards its interest. It noted it will stop donating to The Cheech, an art museum in Riverside, citing an incident this year where the center exhibited a local artist who depicted an Amazon facility on fire and gave an interview “expressing hostility” towards the company, the memo said.In a section of the document titled “Dogs Not Barking,” the memo lists the three things Amazon will watch closely in the region next year: warehouse moratoriums, labor organizing among contracted delivery drivers, and community groups that are not accepting charitable donations. It says some elected leaders have been hesitant to accept political contributions from the company. Sheheryar Kaoosji, the executive director of Warehouse Worker Resource Center, said in a statement that the organization works directly with Amazon warehouse workers in the region who consistently talk about low pay, high injury rates and other concerns. “These are critical issues that impact the entire Inland Empire, but specifically the 45,000 people who work for Amazon here,” Kaoosji said. But, she said, the memo details Amazon's strategy “to paper over these valid concerns with donations, media clippings and support for policy changes that either benefit Amazon or hurt their competitors.”Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Effort to safeguard public lands sparks battle in Wyoming

A Biden administration proposal to safeguard swaths of public land from future mineral and fossil fuel extraction has set off a battle in southwestern Wyoming. “We're out there, hiking, running our dogs, working on these lands every day,” Julia Stuble, Wyoming senior manager for The Wilderness Society, told The Hill. “But they're not our lands...

A Biden administration proposal to safeguard swaths of public land from future mineral and fossil fuel extraction has set off a battle in southwestern Wyoming.  “We're out there, hiking, running our dogs, working on these lands every day,” Julia Stuble, Wyoming senior manager for The Wilderness Society, told The Hill.  “But they're not our lands — they're our lands that are held in trust for all,” she said.  Conflict began brewing over those areas in August, however, when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposed revisions to the ways it administers this 3.6-million-acre swath of federal property.  The BLM offered up a 1,350-page behemoth — a draft “Resource Management Plan” and environmental impact statement — detailing four conservation and development options for the Rock Springs Field Office in southwest Wyoming.  What surprised activists, politicians and industry executives — in some cases for better, and in some cases for worse — was the “preferred alternative” promoted by the BLM in the two-volume document.  This pro-conservation choice, known as Alternative B, would preserve the most land relative to the other options, while restraining activities like mining and extraction. If Alternative B were to move forward as written, it would bar new fossil fuel or mineral extraction leases on nearly half of the land within the Rock Springs Field Office area.  As Stuble sees it, Wyomingites will face one of two fates as the BLM solidifies its plans: the first, remaining a state in which “public lands continue to produce fossil fuels, and thus contribute to the climate crisis.”  “Or we can have those lands be solutions to that climate crisis,” she said.  Opponents decry ‘federal overreach,’ impact on jobs Wyoming has long been a national bastion of fossil fuel development and resource extraction — providing a hefty supply of coal, oil, gas and the critical mineral trona.   The biggest coal-generating state since 1986, Wyoming was responsible for about two-fifths of all coal mined in the U.S. in 2022, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported. With regards to fluid fossil fuels, the state is the eighth-largest crude oil producer nationwide and is the ninth-largest generator of natural gas in the nation.  Wyoming also boasts the world’s largest deposit of trona — a resource it draws on to supply about 90 percent of the country’s soda ash, which is used to make glass, soap, cattle feed, paper, pool products, textiles, medicines and toothpaste, per the Wyoming Mining Association.  Beyond the BLM’s preferred alternative, the Rock Springs Resource Management Plan contains three other potential courses of action: one that maintains the status quo, another that favors resource exploitation and a middle-ground compromise on conservation and development.  But if the BLM does adopt its preferred alternative, the agency would classify 1.6 million acres of land — nearly six times today’s share — as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, a strict conservation designation that generally includes all-out extraction bans.  In total, restrictions on new oil and gas projects across Rock Springs would apply to about 2.19 million acres, representing a 305 percent jump from current conditions. The proposal would also prohibit new wind and solar energy projects, as well as “rights-of-way” corridors — for pipes, transmission lines and maintenance roads — on 2.48 million acres, or 481 percent more than those excluded today. Additionally, the preferred alternative would close 433 percent more land to new coal exploration in comparison to the status quo, while increasing the areas barred to hard-rocking mining claims by 258 percent. Millions of acres would remain available for exploitation, however: 1.42 million would stay open for new oil and gas projects, and nearly 1 million for new wind and solar projects and rights-of-way corridors. Grazing, meanwhile, would only face minimal effects: a 0.02 percent cut in accessible acreage. In advocating for its favored option, the BLM touted the benefits to wildlife habitats and cultural resources. The agency also recognized, however, that “socioeconomic impacts would be the largest due to reduced mineral development.”  Opponents of the BLM proposal, including state lawmakers and development companies, have decried this potential impact on both Wyoming’s economy and the resources it supplies the rest of the country. “Trona in particular, that's a fairly limited resource that we have domestically,” state Sen. Brian Boner (R), who opposes the BLM’s preferred alternative, told The Hill.  “I’d hate to be more dependent on foreign nations for such an important resource, especially ones that may not share our values or security concerns,” Boner added.  Reflecting on the BLM’s Resource Management Plan, Ryan McConnaughey, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said in an emailed statement that his organization “could live with any of the alternatives other than Alternative B.” Citing the BLM’s analysis that this option could lead to 52-percent economic declines and a 73-percent reduction in oil and gas-related jobs, McConnaughey stressed that such development “is the backbone of Wyoming’s economy.”  “Our stance is that the industry is constantly improving technologies and processes that both reduce the costs of production and lessen the impacts on the environment,” he stated.   “The BLM should take those advancements into account at the application for permit to drill level rather than a carte blanche ban on development,” McConnaughey added.   Boner echoed these sentiments, estimating about 3,000 jobs could be lost in a region with just more than 100,000 residents.   The legislator co-chairs the Wyoming state Senate’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee, which is sponsoring legislation that would empower local officials to disregard federal policies they believe don’t comply with federal law.  The text of the bill, which is still under revision, would involve “directing the governor to cease cooperation with federal land management agencies when agencies pursue policies that harm Wyoming,” according to October committee minutes. The legislation would also establish a full-time position within the governor’s office “to protect Wyoming’s state interests from federal government overreach,” per the minutes.  Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon (R), too, is among the proposal’s opponents. At the end of September, he sent a letter to the BLM director, requesting the withdrawal of the draft resource management plan and decrying the agency’s preferred alternative as too restrictive.  “As this draft stands it will lack Wyoming’s support, local community support, and will surely be challenged on rigor,” Gordon wrote.  The governor pointed to the efforts that have been underway since 2010 to update the current Rock Springs management plan, noting the 12-year collaborative review process is “either falling on deaf ears or disingenuously being thrown by the wayside.”  Gordon accused the BLM of pulling “a bait-and-switch” on Wyomingites and warned “existing and future partnerships are in jeopardy.” The BLM extended the mandatory public comment period for the proposal a few weeks later — a gesture for which Gordon expressed his appreciation and that he cited as an opportunity for public engagement.   For the BLM’s part, Wyoming state director Andrew Archuleta at the time issued a statement urging members of the public to participate in the process, noting such comment periods “make our work stronger.” ‘Open and free and wild and intact’ The selection of the pro-conservation option as the preferred alternative was shocking to environmental groups as well — although in their cases, it was largely a pleasant surprise.  In Stuble’s mind, the preferred Alternative B is “remarkably protective of the values that we think that they should be prioritizing.” She applauded the BLM for proposing “significant conservations” in two key landscapes — the Northern Red Desert and the Big Sandy Foothills — that are rich in habitats for wildlife such as sage grouse, migrating mule deer, migrating pronghorn and both wintering and residential elk.  “These are places people go to recreate, to hunt and fish and camp, walk around, trail run,” Stuble said. “It's a remarkable area. It's open and free and wild and intact.” As far as the potential economic impacts from slashing resource production are concerned, Stuble said certain areas that would face closures have “low to no potential for oil and gas to be found regardless.”  She also stressed the plan would not affect existing leases, which include wells that are currently producing and those that have yet to be drilled.  Stuble further pushed back on criticism regarding the proposal’s potential impact on employment. The BLM’s analysis for how many jobs would be cut is based on a forecast made in 2011 and was correlated with what officials believed would be the number of wells drilled in the following decade, according to Stuble.  But that number, she explained, was much higher than the actual quantity of wells that ended up materializing in recent years. “One of the only benefits of having a plan take 10 years is you can actually check the work,” Stuble said.  A vital link between conservation and hunting Joining activist groups like the Wilderness Society in backing the conservation-focused alternative are a spectrum of groups ranging from avid hunters and recreators to members of local tribal communities.  “I'm not sure why there's so much opposition to what is being proposed,” Earl DeGroot, a retired management consultant and administrator of the Wyoming Sportsmen for Federal Lands group, told The Hill.  “A lot of what is being proposed would be good for wildlife, and if it's good for wildlife, it's good for sportsmen,” he said.  DeGroot voiced his support for the portion of the proposal that would grant 1.6 million acres of land the strictest conservation designation. He stressed that these restrictive classifications would enable the BLM to “evolve some wildlife specific management prescriptions,” such as protections for migration corridors and riparian areas.  DeGroot acknowledged, however, that many people living in the area have dual concerns that revolve around their enjoyment of hunting and their livelihood from resource development. “It's kind of a battle between what's good for me economically and what do I want in terms of hunting opportunities and conservation and aesthetics,” he said.  Dan Stroud, a hunter and retired state biologist, echoed many of these sentiments, explaining that he is generally in favor of the BLM’s preferred alternative, but with some adjustments.  “We need protection of some very important areas for wildlife and some of the other resources, whether they're cultural or historic trails,” said Stroud, who was a wildlife habitat biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. In Stroud’s mind, there are five or six areas within Rock Springs that warrant specific attention — particularly the Big Sandy Foothills region, also known as the “Golden Triangle.” This region, he explained, is home to one of the longest mule deer corridors in the nation and has one of the densest sage grouse populations.  “It's really important from the standpoint of wildlife and their future that we pay attention to their needs,” Stroud said.  For Jason Baldes, an Eastern Shoshone tribal member, the need for conservation protections in Rock Springs extends beyond wildlife to also include centuries of cultural history. The U.S. government’s original treaty with the Eastern Shoshone tribe, he explained, contained the entirety of this high-desert area and included more than 44 million acres before the overlapping states were even established.  The tribe’s cultural connections to the region include petroglyphs, pictographs, spiritual spots, burial grounds, campsites and relics of a vast trade network, according to Baldes.  “We want to protect these places for future generations,” said Baldes, who manages the tribe’s buffalo herd and serves as executive director of the Wind River Tribal Buffalo Initiative. “The exploitation and extractive industries and the commodification of land and resources is detrimental,” he said. “Preservation, leaving things as they are, is an important endeavor.” Opportunities for compromise? While it’s difficult to predict whether the various Rock Springs stakeholders will be able to find an agreeable balance, Stuble said the governor is assembling a task force to figure out if there is some common ground.  “Time will tell in the next couple of weeks as that task force comes together, but there are shared values among people of different interests here in Wyoming,” she continued.  As discussions continue to unfold, Boner expressed what he described as “procedural concerns” about the BLM’s surprise decision to back away from a compromise solution.  “There was a middle-of-the-road option, which I may not agree with, but certainly wouldn't be strongly opposed to either,” Boner said.   Regarding the need to balance development and wildlife preservation, Boner stressed his belief that local stakeholders have been doing this successfully for years together.  “The problem is if the federal government comes in and tries to do it their way, you're going to lose a lot of the collaboration you need,” he said, noting this “checkerboard” region of Wyoming also includes private landowners.  “Without their support, there's nothing stopping them from disrupting those migration corridors, if they feel like the BLM is also threatening their livelihood,” Boner added.  Micky Fisher, spokesperson for the Wyoming BLM, stressed in an emailed statement that “no decisions have been made at this juncture” as the process has only reached the public comment phase. Until a final environmental impact statement has been approved, he continued, the entire “range of alternatives and each component within remains on the table.”  “We’ll compile and leverage all the substantive comments to make an informed final decision,” Fisher added. With the public comment deadline of Jan. 17 rapidly approaching, Stuble expressed some optimism about the potential for compromise — and about the BLM’s openness to making adjustments to the plan.  “You have folks who work in oil and gas field who are out hunting, or who are out driving around and enjoying wild spaces too,” Stuble said.  “People who are out there recreating in wild spaces, who see themselves as conservationists, are relying on these fuels and these products for our daily life as well,” she added. Baldes likewise said that while he is pleased with the BLM’s preferred alternative, he understands there will have to be some compromise.  But he cautioned against making decisions based on commodifying resources and maximizing extraction. “What I've grown up with is an understanding of finding common ground between Western science, Indigenous science,” Baldes said.  “That's often aligned around conservation values of wildlife corridors, migration and biodiversity, and those are more preferable in my perspective,” he added.

Activists at COP28 Summit Ramp up Pressure on Cutting Fossil Fuels as Talks Turn to Clean Energy

Activists had a series of events and actions lined up Tuesday at the United Nations climate summit seeking to amp up pressure on conference participants to agree to phase out coal, oil and gas, responsible for most of the world’s emissions, and move to clean energy in a fair way

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Activists had a series of events and actions lined up Tuesday at the United Nations climate summit seeking to amp up pressure on conference participants to agree to phase out coal, oil and gas, responsible for most of the world's emissions, and move to clean energy in a fair way. The question of how to handle fossil fuels is central to the talks, which come after a year of record heat and devastating weather extremes around the world. And even as the use of clean energy is growing, most energy companies have plans to continue aggressive pursuit of fossil fuel production well into the future.A team of scientists reported Tuesday that the world pumped 1.1% more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the air than last year, largely due to increased pollution from China and India.Protests — which are limited to “action zones” around the U.N. site — centered on phasing out fossil fuels and calling for finance to ramp up the move to clean energy.Meanwhile, negotiations are well underway on the so-called global stocktake — a framework for new national plans so countries can adhere to capping warming to levels set in the Paris Agreement in 2015. A draft released Tuesday will be pored over by negotiators looking at how to stick to the goal.Over 100 countries have pledged to triple their renewable capacity and double energy efficiency by the end of the decade. COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber, who also leads the host United Arab Emirates' national oil company, was on the defensive on Monday over contradictory remarks about phasing out fossil fuels. Al-Jaber said his remarks had been mischaracterized and told journalists he is “laser-focused” on helping limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times.Much of Monday's meetings at the conference focused on climate finance.Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who has drawn attention as an advocate for changing the way global finance treats developing nations, said global taxes on the financial services, oil and gas, and shipping industries could drum up hundreds of billions of dollars for poorer countries to adapt and cope with global warming.“This has probably been the most progress we’ve seen in the last 12 months on finance," Mottley told reporters about pledges to fund the transition to clean energy, adapt to climate change and respond to extreme weather events."But we’re not where we need to be yet,” she said. World Bank President Ajay Banga laid out five target areas in climate finance. His bank wants to lower methane emissions from waste management and farming; help Africa with greener energies; support “voluntary” carbon markets such as for forest projects; and allow developing countries hit by natural disasters to pause debt repayments.The multilateral development bank, above all, wants to boost its role in climate finance in short order. “Forty-five percent of our financing will go to climate by 2025," Banga said, with half going to adapting to the warming climate and the other half on slashing emissions. "We cannot make climate only be about emissions. It has to be about the downstream impact that the Global South is facing from the emission-heavy growth that we have enjoyed in other parts of the world.”Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Our love of orcas is making them miserable

Vartika Sharma for Vox Whales and dolphins are smart, social, and thrive in the open sea. Why do we force them to live in tiny pools? Tokitae, stage name Lolita, was less than a year from freedom when she died. She had been captured in 1970, when she was 4 years old, and spent the remaining 53 years of her life performing for enchanted audiences at the Miami Seaquarium theme park, in what has been described by some as the smallest orca enclosure in North America. She was 22 feet long; her enclosure was only 80 feet long, 35 feet wide, and 20 feet deep. For a while, she had another orca, Hugo, as a companion, but he died in 1980, at just 12 years old, after a brain aneurysm many believe was caused by his habit of repeatedly bashing his head against the sides of the pool. Though orcas in the wild form close social bonds with family members whom they spend their lives with, Tokitae lived alone and, at times, with dolphins after Hugo’s death. Since the 1990s, animal rights activists pushed for Tokitae’s return to her home waters in the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea, to her mother and her family. She was a wild animal, a member of an endangered species — but she was also property. There wasn’t anything animal advocates could do as long as the Seaquarium didn’t want to let her go. But after Miami Seaquarium was acquired by a new owner in 2021, the park reversed course. Tokitae was to be released to an ocean sanctuary in the Salish Sea, where she would be able to properly swim and dive for the first time in 50 years. Like for most of the 166 orcas captured from the wild since the 1960s, mostly in the waters around Iceland and Puget Sound, that freedom never came. Tokitae died in captivity at the Seaquarium this past August from old age and multiple illnesses. (Miami Seaquarium did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.) All this because humans had fallen under the spell of marine mammals like orcas and wanted them in a place where we could see them on demand. Matias J. Ocner/Getty Images/TNS Tokitae performs a trick during a training session at the Miami Seaquarium. Tokitae’s death renewed public outrage over the conditions in which cetaceans — highly intelligent, social marine mammals like whales and dolphins — are confined for human entertainment. In the US, such sentiment has been brewing for at least a decade, since the release of the 2013 documentary Blackfish — an exposé of the marine park industry. It was prompted by the 2010 killing of Dawn Brancheau, an animal trainer at SeaWorld, the country’s biggest and best-known marine park chain, by one of the park’s orcas, Tilikum, in front of a live audience in Orlando. The film alleged that the inadequate environments and lack of natural social connections in marine parks were driving the animals to madness. SeaWorld Entertainment has called Blackfish inaccurate since its release. In an emailed statement to Vox on behalf of SeaWorld, Libby Panke, senior vice president for the PR firm FleishmanHillard, vehemently denied the claims made in the film, calling it “dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate.” SeaWorld also claims that some of the subjects appearing in Blackfish were “disgruntled former employees,” including some who “had never even worked with whales.” Nevertheless, the film struck a chord with the public. Twenty-one million people tuned in when it premiered on CNN. Musicians pulled out of performing at SeaWorld, and corporate sponsors like Southwest Airlines ended longstanding partnerships. Attendance and profits declined after Blackfish, and the year after the film, SeaWorld announced plans to double the size of its orca tanks. Now, the days of captive orcas are, at last, coming to an end — for the most part. China is the only country where orcas are still bred for entertainment in captivity. The last wild-caught orcas were captured and confined in Russia in 2018 and later released; in North America, the capture of wild orcas had ended by the 1980s. But thousands of other cetaceans, mostly dolphins and beluga whales, remain in marine theme parks across the country and the world, entertaining humans; for these species, there is no end to captivity in sight. Meanwhile, marine parks are struggling to justify their existence, increasingly couching their purpose in terms of education and conservation goals that appeal to present-day consumers. Panke pointed out that SeaWorld does conservation work that benefits wild populations, including wild animal rescue and rehabilitation, which, she said, has helped more than 40,000 injured or orphaned marine animals (although in some cases, SeaWorld’s website states, animals deemed nonreleasable are kept in captivity). But many critics still believe that these parks are about bringing in money, no matter the cost to the animals. A cetacean in captivity is “stripped of everything that makes it magnificent,” Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite told me. “We are not being truly educated about these animals when we see them in small tanks.” Parkgoers love watching marine mammals perform flips or splash them with their giant bodies, Cowperthwaite said. “Because we’re having fun, we imagine they must be having fun, too.” But the animals are just working for their keep. “Our whole lives, we’d been hearing animal rights folks and their protesting,” Cowperthwaite said. After Blackfish, the public was finally willing to hear what the anti-captivity crowd had been saying all along. Westerners used to hate orcas. Captivity taught us to love them. Americans have been paying to see cetaceans since 1861, when showman P.T. Barnum, a founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus, captured nine beluga whales off the East Coast. They were transported by train inside boxes filled with salt water, and eventually placed in tanks in the basement of Barnum’s New York City American Museum for spectators to view. Seven whales died one after another from the poor conditions; the final two died in a fire. In the late 1930s, tourists flocked to Marine Studios in Florida (originally opened to allow film directors to shoot underwater footage) to see the first captive bottlenose dolphin, author Jason Colby writes in his book Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator. By the 1950s, dolphin trainers were teaching the animals to do increasingly elaborate tricks like jumping over hurdles and through hoops or taking a fish dangling from a human’s mouth. Marine Studios rebranded as Marineland, the world’s first “oceanarium.” More soon followed. Between 1960 and 1970, aquariums and marine parks sprung up across the US, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere, displaying animals like dolphins, seals, walruses, and beluga whales. The first captive dolphin in the UK was displayed in the early 1960s; by the end of the 1970s, over 30 UK facilities were keeping cetaceans. Orcas, though, were still more commonly seen as pests. Pacific Northwest Indigenous tribes like the Lummi considered them part of their family, but Western fishers feared them or saw them as competition for salmon. Even their Latin name, Orcinus orca, is foreboding, translating to “belonging to Orcus,” a Roman god of the underworld. All cetacean species are carnivorous, but orcas were long singled out as hunters and killers, best to be dispatched before they could hurt human beings (though they’re colloquially called “killer whales,” they’re actually the largest species in the dolphin family). As a result, writes author David Kirby in his book Death at SeaWorld, “nearly one-quarter of all orcas captured for display during the late sixties and early seventies showed signs of bullet wounds.” The first orca to survive in captivity for longer than a few days was a result of one of these killings gone wrong. In 1964, Kirby writes, the curator of the Vancouver Aquarium commissioned an orca sculpture. Seeking out a model for the artist to work from, hunters shot a wild orca in nearby waters with a harpoon gun but missed his vital organs — so they towed the injured animal to shore using the harpoon rope as a leash. Thousands of visitors came to see the orca at a makeshift pen by Vancouver’s Burrard Dry Dock Pier, marveling at how docile the “killer” was. He died after 87 days in captivity. The orca, it turned out, wasn’t dangerous, but misunderstood — and people clamored for the chance to see one themselves. By then, many marine parks had captive dolphins or seals, but an orca would offer spectators something novel. In 1965, Kirby recounts, when a fisherman caught a male orca calf in a fishing net in Puget Sound, the Seattle Marine Aquarium paid $8,000 for the baby, whom they named Namu. Orca hunter and aquarium owner Ted Griffin became the first person to swim with and ride a captive orca — something that later became a staple at marine theme parks — when he got in the water with Namu. A few months later, a young female orca named Shamu (She-Namu) was captured to be a friend for Namu, but the two didn’t get along. She was sold to a marine park that opened in San Diego earlier that year and had already proven an immense success: SeaWorld. There, visitors watched trainers swim with captive orcas, igniting a dream the public never knew they had about taming these giant, magical animals. Avalon/Getty Images Shamu performing at SeaWorld San Diego in 1969. Her name was later trademarked by SeaWorld and used as a stage name for multiple performing orcas at the park. In the orca frenzy that followed, over a hundred were captured from the wild and transferred to various parks’ pools. Ted Griffin’s well-documented Pacific Northwest orca captures led to the accidental deaths by drowning of a number of orcas, who were tangled in the nets used to catch them and couldn’t reach the surface to breathe. In Penn Cove, off the coast of Washington state, where Tokitae was captured, four babies and one adult orca were killed this way. Captivity enabled scientific study of orcas — which fueled calls to set them free Marine parks enabled the scientific study of live cetaceans — leading to revelations about their remarkable intelligence that would ultimately contribute to calls to shut down the industry. Before captivity, scientists could only learn about orcas by killing and dissecting them, Colby writes. “We learned an awful lot about dolphins and whales from research with captive animals,” said Lori Marino, a scientist and president of Whale Sanctuary Project, which works to rehome captive cetaceans into seaside sanctuaries. Captivity taught us about cetaceans’ gestation periods, their sensitivity to human-created noise, and more about their physiology and life cycles — knowledge later used to monitor their population health in the wild. We also learned that dolphins and orcas are among a small number of species that can recognize their own reflections in a mirror — a test often used as a proxy for whether an animal has a sense of self. But now, Marino argues, captivity just isn’t necessary. “If you study what a dolphin or whale can do [under experimental conditions] in a tank, it tells you about captivity. But if you want to know what they do, you have to go to where they are doing it, and that’s in the wild.” Research on captive cetaceans drove interest in the animals in their natural habitats, too. The first scientific survey of Puget Sound’s orca population took place in the 1970s, an era when the wild whale-watching industry — now worth over $2 billion a year globally — got off the ground. Virtually everything we know about cetacean social and family relationships, culture, and tool use is from field study, Marino said. This past summer, for example, Iberian orcas started ramming into yachts, in what many scientists believed was a new cultural fad. After years of seeing the amazing things orcas and other cetaceans could do in marine parks, and having the chance to stand on the other side of thick glass and look into a killer whale’s eyes, the public wanted to protect them in the wild, Colby writes. In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed, providing ecosystem-level protection for aquatic mammals and making it illegal to harass or kill them. It was a groundbreaking piece of legislation that came after centuries of intensive commercial whaling in the US drove many whale species to endangerment. It was also a moment when the public was primed to care about conservation, with the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. But that didn’t mean the public was clamoring to release cetaceans from marine parks, where they were kept in pools that represented a small fraction of the range they would swim in the wild. It wasn’t until the death of the orca trainer at SeaWorld in 2010, as depicted in Blackfish, that a turning point came, said Naomi Rose, a senior scientist for the marine life program at the Animal Welfare Institute, who has been advocating to improve conditions for marine mammals for 30 years. The public reaction to Blackfish was so strong, Rose said, because it showed a side of captivity that wasn’t apparent before. The public perception had been that these mammals were happy to perform. “Not just happy, but thriving!” Rose said. Paul Harris/Getty Images An orca performs at SeaWorld San Diego in 1989. Blackfish alleged that orcas at marine parks frequently hurt their trainers — information that, some ex-trainers have said, was downplayed by SeaWorld. While there have been at most a handful of encounters with orcas in the wild that have resulted in injuries for humans, there has never been a documented example of an orca in the wild killing a human — but orcas have done so when kept in a concrete pool. In 2010, the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) brought a case against SeaWorld for “willful” safety violations (later downgraded from “willful” to “serious”). An OSHA news release stated, “SeaWorld trainers had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at its various facilities.” In response to claims that the company kept information about staff injuries from its trainers, SeaWorld told Vox that “there were only 12 incidents” of injury to its orca trainers between 1988 and 2009, most of which were not caused by orcas, and that “any claim that these injuries were somehow hidden from trainers is absolutely false.” In the wild, orcas live in stable, matrilineal family groups and have dialects and calls that are specific to their home range. Marine parks had little regard for these complex social arrangements, regularly moved animals around, mixed orcas from Iceland with ones from Puget Sound, and separated calves from their mothers. In the wild, they travel an average of 40 miles a day and dive up to 500 feet, but regulations for captive orcas only require that they have pools that are twice as wide as the orca’s length, and half their width in depth. SeaWorld employees has told guests that the average lifespan of an orca in the wild was only 25 to 35 years, Blackfish showed, making their lives in captivity seem better by comparison. In reality, they can live far longer lives, with females often living between 50 and 100 years and males living for 30 to 60. After the groundswell that followed Blackfish, California banned the breeding of captive orcas and the use of orcas already in captivity in theatrical presentations (educational programs are still allowed). In 2019, Canada made it illegal to keep any cetaceans in captivity; the country’s last captive orca, Kiska, died earlier this year after spending years alone in a concrete tank. In 2016, SeaWorld ended its captive breeding program for orcas, and the organization told me in a statement that all of its newly built parks will be “whale-free.” Experts say killer whales in marine parks more broadly will soon become a thing of the past. Despite a few breeding programs at other parks outside the US, more orcas are dying in captivity than are being born. Eventually, the only orcas humans will be able to see are those in the wild. But what does that mean for other marine mammals still living in captivity? Today, marine parks are struggling for relevance Today’s marine mammal parks have overhauled their taglines. They now state that orcas and other cetaceans aren’t there for entertainment, but rather serve as ambassador animals that play an important role in research and education, with the ultimate goal of helping wild populations. An orca show at SeaWorld today both is and is not different from what visitors might remember from before the early 2000s. There’s still a “splash zone,” where the water displaced by a large orca’s splash can get people in the front rows soaking wet. The orcas still do various tricks in exchange for food. Cinematic orchestral music still plays. The main difference is that, for their own safety, trainers no longer get in the water with the animals. Humans and orcas no longer perform “dances” together; trainers are not rocketed out of the water and into the air by the animals. It’s not as spectacular, but it’s still a spectacle. On a large screen above the pool, a video plays about orcas’ habitats, physiology, communication and hunting styles, and distinct sub-populations and cultures. At the end of the show, SeaWorld details some of the research their captive whales have participated in and how it helps wild whales. Watching a video of one of these “educational encounters,” I notice that the part people still cheer and clap for are the big splashes and the waves that leave small children soaking wet. SeaWorld told Vox that the changes made to its orca shows “reflect the evolution of how accredited zoos and aquariums care for and display animals, informed by experience and scientific understanding. These changes were not related to Blackfish … Evolving animal presentations into more of an educational experience for guests is consistent with a more contemporary view of how best to inspire the public to conserve wild species.” To me and others, this feels like a rebrand rather than a meaningful change in how marine parks treat their animals. “The reason they’re focusing on research and education is they know they can’t justify keeping these animals in tanks just for entertainment,” said Marino. In California, the only way to legally display orcas is by making the shows educational. Other cetaceans aren’t included in California’s law, but, Marino believes, the benefits of performances for those species is just as dubious. “It’s hard to find solid evidence that … seeing a dolphin jump in the air has educational value or translates to conservation of any kind,” she said. Because Blackfish focused on orcas, and because orcas’ size relative to the size of their enclosures can make people uneasy, most of the backlash to keeping cetaceans in captivity has focused on that species. Today, there are fewer than 60 orcas alive in captivity worldwide, compared to roughly 300 beluga whales and 3,000 dolphins. In the hierarchy of how cetaceans adjust to captivity, orcas do the worst, followed by beluga whales, and, finally, bottlenose dolphins. Dolphins are smaller, often swim in shallow waters, and live in fission-fusion societies where they are socially gregarious, Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute explained. Where orcas prefer to spend their whole lives with their families, dolphins in the wild mix and match who they spend time with. John Raoux/AP Dolphins perform at SeaWorld Orlando in 2020. “They cope better with captivity,” Rose said of dolphins. “It doesn’t mean they cope well.” Dolphins have higher mortality rates in captivity than in the wild, and are still forced to live in environments that are small and sterile compared to their natural habitat. “Safari parks can put zebras in a savannah and they have no idea they’re not in the wild,” said Rose. “But you can’t give cetaceans the ocean.” The Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys, a nonprofit research and education facility, feels more ethical to visit than a marine mammal park because of its apparent scientific orientation. Some of its 27 dolphins are rescues who were injured or orphaned in the wild, while others were bred in captivity. The center’s research focuses on dolphin cognition, behavior, and husbandry, marketing director Allie Proskovec explained in an email. Some of its studies — like one showing that interaction with a trainer can improve welfare outcomes for an isolated dolphin — seem only applicable to captive animals rather than to their health in the wild. Another Dolphin Research Center study that found human-made noise makes it impossible for dolphins to communicate, impairing their ability to socialize and hunt — the kind of finding that could lead to meaningful changes in marine policy. But we’ve known underwater noise is disruptive to marine life since the 1980s. Whether or not it’s worth keeping dolphins in captivity for findings like these is debatable — especially when some animals aren’t just involved in research. The Dolphin Research Center also offers “dolphin encounter” experiences for $225 per person. Such “swim with dolphins”-style programs are still quite popular among tourists, whether at a research-oriented facility or a vacation package in the Bahamas. Cetaceans are, admittedly, not inexpensive to feed and care for; maybe performing tricks or swimming through the water while a person holds onto a dorsal fin are just part of life under capitalism (although the Dolphin Research Center, as noted previously, is a nonprofit). Even anti-captivity activists recognize the role that marine parks have played in changing our view of cetaceans, particularly killer whales. “The fact that [wild] orcas are now totally protected by law and the slaughter of other whales has decreased is, to a large extent, because the public was given the opportunity to meet, know, and love whales,” Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a nonprofit that has employed radical direct action tactics to stop whale hunting, wrote in 1982. But why did humans need to put these animals in cement and glass pools to care about them in the first place? Humans love to see and be seen by our fellow creatures. What if we simply stepped away? “We always coexisted and never thought of [orcas] as a threat. We never thought of them as taking our fish,” Tah-Mahs Ellie Kinley, president of Sacred Lands Conservancy and an enrolled Lummi tribal member, told me. “It was all creatures’ fish.” The Lummi name for orcas can be translated as “our relatives under the waves,” Kinley explained, and there are many stories where killer whales become human. Yet for many Westerners, orcas were creatures we had to learn not to fear. “We don’t love anything we don’t know. We don’t protect anything that we don’t love,” said Richard Louv, author of Our Wild Calling: How Connecting With Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs. Humans, he told me, are desperate not to feel alone in the universe. We want to not just appreciate the natural world around us, but to have some kind of connection with it. Often this means harming the very things we’re trying to connect with. National Parks are being “loved to death” by tourists. Snorkelers can damage coral reefs through physical contact and runoff from sunscreens. Even whale-watching trips (boats that take tourists to see whales and other marine life in their natural habitats) are contributing to underwater noise pollution and potentially disrupting the animals with their very presence. “We’re well-meaning in so many ways, but our love is clumsy and can be disastrous,” said Cowperthwaite, the Blackfish director. Think of how visitors at the zoo, looking at our primate cousins, often can’t help but tap on the glass, she said. “We’re not only there to see them — we’re dying for them to see us.” It’s that desire to be seen in return that made so many children go to SeaWorld and dream of becoming orca trainers, what makes us imagine that animals would love us back if we only got close enough for them to have the chance. But “to truly understand a species and what a species needs, maybe the greatest thing we could do is step away,” Cowperthwaite said. Today, there’s a movement to free captive cetaceans from marine parks and bring them to sea pens and sanctuaries, where they can have an approximation of their normal lives. Because the animals have lived in captivity and rely on human care, they can’t survive fully in the wild. The Whale Sanctuary Project is working to establish a site in Nova Scotia that could become home to orcas, belugas, or a mix of both. Their hope is that it will become a model for more sanctuary projects — perhaps some even run by organizations currently putting the animals on display, Marino said. Elaine Thompson/AP A wild orca leaps from the water in Puget Sound. NOAA Fisheries/Vancouver Aquarium via AP A wild mother orca and her baby swim in Puget Sound. In September, I went on a whale-watching tour near where I used to live, in Washington state’s San Juan Islands, where so many orcas were captured a half-century ago. Our boat communicated with others to find out where the whales were. We sped over to the orca pods like paparazzi. At first, it was magical. Three generations swam and hunted together, including a young calf who was learning from her elders. Ten minutes passed, and then 20, and when the whales moved on, we followed them to a second and then a third location. I felt like we overstayed our welcome. Our boat drifted as we snapped pictures next to a few other boatfuls of passengers doing the same. Both the benefit and the drawback of seeing whales from a tour is that it’s on our schedule; many tours offer to let customers return for free if there aren’t whale sightings. I began to wonder if seeing animals on our terms took something away from the experience — whether in a cement tank surrounded by other people, or on a boat in the ocean, cameras and binoculars at the ready. A few times, the killer whales hunted close to shore. I saw kayakers who happened to be in the right place as the animals swam beneath them. People walked out from their homes to the beach to watch the orcas, who were no more than a few hundred feet away. A few hikers, ambling along the coast as the orcas passed, sat on the cliff to enjoy the moment. What a gift to encounter a wild animal by accident, just two species sharing the same part of this immense planet for a moment, before we go our separate ways.

US Military Affirms It Will End Live-Fire Training in Hawaii's Makua Valley

The U.S. military has confirmed that it will permanently end live-fire training in Makua Valley on Oahu

HONOLULU (AP) — The U.S. military has confirmed that it will permanently end live-fire training in Makua Valley on Oahu, a major win for Native Hawaiian groups and environmentalists after decades of activism.U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth filed a statement with federal court in Hawaii on Friday affirming the military’s new stance that it would “no longer need to conduct live-fire training at (Makua Military Reservation), now or in the future," Hawaii News Now reported.Under the terms of a 2001 settlement, the military hasn’t conducted live-fire training at Makua Valley since 2004. But the court filing “removed the threat that Makua will ever again be subjected to live-fire training," environmental nonprofit Earthjustice said in a news release.Earthjustice has represented local activist group Malama Makua in its long-running legal dispute with the Army.Makua Valley was the site of decades of live-fire military training. The training at times sparked wildfires that destroyed native forest habitat and sacred cultural sites, Earthjustice said.The Makua Military Reservation spans nearly 5,000 acres. It is home to more than 40 endangered and threatened species and dozens of sacred and cultural sites, according to Earthjustice.The military seized Makua Valley for training following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, “evicting Hawaiians with the promise that their lands would be cleaned up and returned,” said Malama Makua board member Sparky Rodrigues. “Almost 80 years later, we’re still waiting. Ending live-fire training is an important first step in undoing the wrongs of the past and restoring Makua — which means ‘parents’ in Hawaiian.”Friday's court filing came 25 years after Malama Makua sued the Army to compel compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. The law requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of proposed federal actions.The state’s lease to the Army for its use of Makua Valley expires in 2029.Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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