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Our love of orcas is making them miserable

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Monday, December 4, 2023

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.

An illustration depicts two oversized people staring at an orca. One is holding their hand up to the orca.
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.

An orca jumps in the air above a pool. 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.

A black-and-white photo of an orca jumping into the air from a pool. 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.

An orca flipping in the air in front of a large stadium crowd. 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.

Three dolphins leap in the air out of a pool, surrounded by a stadium audience. 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.

A large orca is seen dramatically jumped out of the water in the ocean across a wide horizon Elaine Thompson/AP
A wild orca leaps from the water in Puget Sound.
Birdseye view of a large orca and a small one swimming together 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.

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An attempt to reckon with True Detective: Night Country’s bonkers season finale

Kali Reis explores the ice in True Detective: Night Country. | Michele K. Short/HBO What True Detective’s fourth season gets wrong about True Detective. To be a True Detective fan is to wrestle with uncomfortable contradictions. The first season is both a masterpiece of cosmic horror noir and a piece of art that feels like it was created not just by, but for men. It was a gritty treatise against toxic masculinity that still dehumanized women and ultimately reified the very thing it attempted to deconstruct. For all its critical acclaim and influence on prestige drama in the years that followed, True Detective also generated a deeply toxic fanbase. These fans were men who missed the point but who saw themselves as a vital part of the show’s metatextuality, the real “true detectives” all along. Ever since, that first season has primarily been remembered, not for its incredible acting, its brilliant aesthetic touches, that legendary six-minute tracking shot, nor even the now-ubiquitous line, “Time is a flat circle,” but for the misogyny. Its two subsequent seasons have mostly been forgotten altogether. All of these uneasy truths loom large over season four, True Detective: Night Country, 10 years after its progenitor. Every succeeding season of this anthology series has occupied a lose-lose position simply by not being season one. But season four, by virtue of being centered around two women — a local chief of police (Jodie Foster) and a state trooper (Kali Reis) trying to solve a mysterious set of murders in the unforgiving Alaskan north — has simultaneously raised the stakes for the series and revived all of True Detective’s messy paradoxes. Night Country’s new showrunner and writer/director Issa López needed to accomplish two risky, ambitious goals: The season had to justify itself as a creative follow-up to a work that’s very difficult to follow up, and rectify the notorious sexism of season one in a way that would hopefully allow the series to forge a new path. Its sixth episode, which aired Sunday on HBO, had to reconcile both goals in a satisfying finale. To many among True Detective’s original fanbase, outrage at the second goal has precluded an objective view of how well it’s succeeding at the first. By the same token, many longtime fans are so eager to see the second project succeed that they’re quick to dismiss all critiques of season four’s creative aims as pure misogyny. These seem like unbridgeable positions. But there’s unfortunately a third view: that Night Country’s creative flaws ultimately torpedo its efforts at feminist reclamation, shifting the season finale away from a compelling cosmic mystery and toward a hamfisted Me Too revenge plot that leaves a comic number of plot points unresolved and arguably weakens the whole series. (Note: Spoilers for Sunday’s season four finale abound.) Season Four’s clunky writing and direction never got what made True Detective work To be fair to López, this isn’t the first season of True Detective to miss the mark by a mile. Season two, a hasty, shoddy 2015 follow-up from series creator and season one writer Nic Pizzolatto, featured all the worst parts of season one on speed — the tortured masculinity, the presentation of women as little more than sexy window-dressing, and a poor imitation of all of Matthew McConaughey’s famous existential monologues as Rust Cohle shoehorned into vapid machismo nonsense from Colin Farrell’s dysfunctional detective. Perhaps to shift himself and HBO away from misplaced allegations of plagiarism, Pizzolatto cut out most of season one’s mesmerizing Weird fiction elements: murky occult figures, arcane Lovecraftian rituals, and worship of the “Yellow King.” If season two had too little of the supernatural, 2019’s third season was a true return to form, with Pizzolatto returning to the deep South and to a cold case tinged with occult horror, floating on a sense of nonlinear time, and backed by a soul-filled T Bone Burnett soundtrack. But by then, the world was a much different place, and True Detective had to compete with a field of its own descendants — shows as disparate as 2017’s Mindhunter and 2018’s The Terror, each successful at cordoning off a sliver of True Detective’s genius for themselves. Still, anchored by Mahershala Ali’s pitch-perfect turn as an aging detective who spends decades trying to solve a cold case, season three really clarified the True Detective formula: A labyrinthine mystery driven by deep characterization, replete with hints of a dark otherworldly version of reality, filmed with an attention to aesthetics, and written with a certain literary flourish. Perhaps most of all, True Detective has to have a philosophy — a commitment to engaging with those eldritch horrors, if only to nod to them and be on your way. On paper, Night Country ticks a lot of those boxes. Inspired by the recently solved Dyatlov Pass incident (an avalanche did it), the season follows a quest to solve the gruesome deaths of a team of scientists. The group was found naked, frozen, and apparently terrified to death in the tundra near the small town of Ennis, Alaska. Populated mainly by Iñupiat residents whose water has turned black due to pollution from an evil mining plant, Ennis has plunged into its annual winter stretch of sunless polar night, and tensions are high as the local police begin their investigation. Sheriff Danvers (Foster) and Trooper Navarro (Reis) work to solve the murders while navigating their own rocky history. The brutal, still-unsolved murder of an Iñupiaq activist has unexpected connections to the current crime; the women quickly realize they have to bury their differences and work together to solve all the murders at once. Michele K. Short/HBO Jodie Foster and Kali Reis explore the terror of the Arctic. Like season one, the finale brings us to a literal labyrinth, this time deep in the ice caves beneath Ennis. López has exchanged the Yellow King for an unnamed divine feminine spirit, perhaps Sedna or Mother Nature. (There’s also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the “Blue King” crab company throughout.) The locals all seem to be aware of “her,” and as our story progresses it becomes clear that some of them view the spirit of the murdered activist as synonymous with this ancient entity. In the final episode, we finally meet her — or at least we come as close to “her” as we can get. But the similarities to that first season are all surface. López didn’t originally plan to create Night Country as a part of the True Detective universe, and her efforts to incorporate callbacks to previous True Detective seasons make that painfully clear. Throughout season four, references to season one recur, but they usually lack context and aren’t justified by anything happening around them. We learn a season four character had a relationship with Rust Cohle’s father; but so what? We learn our evil mining corporation has ties to evil corporate overlords from previous seasons ... and? There are spirals everywhere, but we gain no enhanced understanding of what this familiar motif means. López picks up on the well-known line, “You’re asking the wrong question.” She has characters repeat variants of this statement over and over again throughout season four until it becomes preposterous, an annoying substitute for meaningful writing. Each reference, from “flat circle” to Funyuns, is purely fan service, a distracting blip on the map that contributes nothing to our understanding of the True Detective universe. The same goes for Night Country’s over-the-top horror elements, which range from pointless jump scares to spectral phenomena that appear for no reason. Where season two was completely devoid of the supernatural, Night Country is so full of ghosts that they lose all significance. Other aesthetic choices are so baffling as to be unintentionally hilarious. Night Country utilizes a bizarrely off-kilter soundtrack of somber minor-key covers of famous pop songs that are absolutely incongruous with the mood of the show, from Eagle-Eye Cherry’s 1997 bop “Save Tonight” to eerie Christmas music. In the finale, we get a dark emo needle drop of “Twist and Shout,” and the gravely intoned “Shake it up, baby” lands with such unbelievable dissonance that I burst into laughter. Night Country’s finale goes belly-up in the most frustrating way possible To be clear, both Foster and Reis are fantastic. Foster’s Sheriff Danvers keeps up a gruff loner hostility, pushing away her family, her partner, and her community, even as she works tirelessly to protect them all. When her exterior finally cracks open, it’s to reveal an unforgettable tapestry of grief and resilience. By contrast, Reis’s Navarro bleeds raw vulnerability throughout, running hot and then hotter as she gets closer to the truth in her long quest to find a killer, and perhaps an even more ancient quest to pursue the unknown spirit of the north. As individual characters, they fully fit into the tradition of True Detective’s spiritually clashing sleuths who galvanize each other through a charged mix of loathing and shared desperation. Yet Danvers’ cynicism and Navarro’s spirituality never satisfyingly cohere — a fundamental flaw that Night Country doesn’t fully overcome. For all that Reis is excellent, when she and Foster are onscreen together she seems stifled, limited to churlishness and sarcasm. In episode six, Foster delivers an acting master class as her character finally reveals a little of her personal heartbreak, only to be met with a disconnected non-response from Navarro. It’s as if López didn’t know how to follow her own mic drop, so didn’t bother trying. It’s a hesitance that encapsulates a season full of baffling choices and inconsistent characterizations. Perhaps the most baffling choice of all comes in the finale, when we finally learn that the murders of the scientists were facilitated by the women of Ennis, as payback for the murder of the activist — who, it turns out, the scientists themselves murdered and covered up, years ago. The show fully glosses over the improbable way the women learn about this cover-up to barrel toward what’s meant to be a righteous showstopper: They break into the science lab, armed to the teeth, and enact their vengeance, forcing the scientists to undress and fend for themselves in the brutal Arctic night. This climax comes off as a ludicrous, unearned payoff, with undeveloped cardboard villagers standing in as mouthpieces for larger political stances, as they have throughout the season for environmental activism and post-Roe medical care. Here, though, it’s as if López was determined to reverse-engineer a feminist morality play, even if it meant superseding all attempts at coherent storytelling. To add insult to injury, the biggest unresolved “mystery” of the show — the one we’re left to assume was the work of the mysterious Arctic god — involves a human tongue being dropped on the floor. That’s right. We’re meant to believe “she” made her presence known by ... spectrally drop-kicking a tongue under a lab table. (The season’s second-biggest mystery, Navarro’s fate at the end, gets left deliberately ambiguous in the finale’s closing shot. Did she walk into the tundra for good, following the siren song of the ice goddess a la Frozen 2, or did she come back alive? We can’t be certain, but the idea that she’s now a ghost herself would feel more satisfying if Navarro’s struggle and escalating mental breakdown had felt less like a casual aside every now and then.) This absurd plot resolution comes well after Pizzolatto himself reportedly shaded this season, calling the writing “stupid,” much to the delight of fanboys who couldn’t wait to bash the show purely on the basis of its female representation. Who do we root for? Of course we want to root for Night Country under these conditions, and the show has won a high score of “universal acclaim” on Metacritic. And yet I’ve got a dirty tongue backed by the world’s worst Lana Del Rey album that begs to differ. What’s most frustrating about all of this is that this mess needn’t have happened. There are plenty of examples of better written, better directed female crime-solving duos in communities of sisters doing it for themselves. Last year’s criminally underrated Australian dramedy Deadloch, for example, mined this formula for comedy gold and plenty of suspense alongside well-earned feminist proselytizing. But it did so by relying on whip-smart writing, a story that bears out the moral, and phenomenal acting and chemistry between its two leads — arguably the truest detectives of all in this farce. The downgrade from Pizzolatto’s season one craft to the clunky sophomoric writing of season four was probably avoidable. If Night Country had just been allowed to be its own thing, without any pressure to either live up to season one or abide by its Weird parameters, it probably would have been a much better show. We can’t fault HBO for wanting to revive one of its best franchises. But Night Country may ultimately go down as a reminder that sometimes it’s best to let sleeping eldritch creations lie.

‘Everything Here is Green’: Lithium Mining Complicates the Green Transition

In Covas do Barroso, a village in Portugal where a proposed lithium mine will irreparably alter the natural environment and the lives of its inhabitants, residents are pushing back on what the green transition really means.

Nestled between green mountains in northern Portugal, Covas do Barroso is a handful of stone houses gathered around the junction of two roads. A village of about 150 inhabitants, its economy is traditionally linked to livestock farming and agriculture. Here, since 2016, the British company Savannah Resources has been planning to create open-pit lithium mines. The company estimates that the mine can operate for twelve years, will employ 250 workers during that time, and will supply lithium for 500,000 electric car batteries. At the end of May 2023, the Portuguese Environment Agency gave its preliminary approval for the environmental impact assessment of the project, and construction is scheduled to start in 2024.  But in the opinion of many local residents, these mines should not be built. Once the plans reached the public, community members joined together to form Unidos em Defesa de Covas do Barroso (UDCB), and the group opposes this project with demonstrations, assemblies, tent camps, and legal actions.  Lithium mining in Barroso is among the projects at the center of a corruption investigation that engulfed the Portuguese government beginning on November 7, 2023. The fight over these mines is therefore not as local as it might seem. Indeed, the banner welcoming visitors to Covas do Barroso, “Não às Minas, Sim à Vida” (“No to Mines, Yes to Life”), poses inescapable questions about the global model of green transition. Classroom B.02 at the University of Vila Real is full, and all attention is directed toward the speaker standing behind a desk at the front of the room: “My name is Nelson Gomes and I live in Covas do Barroso.” Gomes is president of the UDCB and explains that the mines would completely disrupt the environment of the valley and the lives of its inhabitants.  “They accuse us of being unwilling to sacrifice ourselves for the planet,” says Gomes, “but we already sacrifice ourselves with our way of life and farming.” In the audience are students, professors, researchers, and interested people.  Mariana Riquito, a researcher at the University of Coimbra, said, “It is a falsification to talk about a right green transition. It cannot be just if it does not respect the autonomy of the local populations, it cannot be a transition if, to implement it, you intensify the consumption of fossil [fuel] energy. It cannot be green if it only considers the problem of emissions and not the consequences of the mining and extractive industry.”  A professor from the audience asks whether the mine project might represent a development opportunity for the area. Gomes calmly takes the floor to reply: “Covas do Barroso has been a [UN Food and Agriculture Organization] World Heritage Site for agriculture since 2018, the mine is incompatible with the development of the area. They talk to us about compensation, minimization, and landscape restoration. But the relationship with nature is the only reason to live in such an isolated place. What development is possible for an area where no one would want to live?”  According to Gomes, the problem that needs to be addressed is broader. “We need to question the energy transition, as it’s a model centered on extractivism. The alternatives are there, starting with the development of public transport.”  He concludes: “Keep in mind that such an imposition could one day happen to you too, where you live.” A stream, swollen after the rains, washes the road under the chestnut trees leading to the village of Alijò. A farmer named Paulo Pires approaches, smiling. “I come all the way here because I can use some pastures for grazing.” He has 170 sheep, and his business, like that of the other shepherds and farmers of Covas do Barroso, is threatened by lithium mining. “Part of my land is in danger of being included in the mine area. Where will I graze the sheep?”  Pires is worried that the valley’s water resources will be compromised. “With the drilling, some farmers are already now complaining about the lack of water in the wells,” says Pires. “What will happen to the troughs and streams?”  He explains that there are also plans to build mines in other regions. That is why, according to Pires, it is important to be able to broaden our perspective: “Of course lithium is needed for batteries. It is essential for the energy transition. But we should ask ourselves what we use this energy for. Is lithium supposed to make consumerism sustainable? And what green transition are we talking about if we destroy the green? Look!” he exclaims, laughing. “Everything here is green!” Sitting at his desk, Fernando Quieroga says, “From the beginning as the Municipal Chamber we have opposed the lithium mine.” He is the mayor of Boticas, the municipality to which the hamlet of Covas do Barroso, almost twenty kilometers away from this office, belongs. “It is a different kind of mining activity from those that were already present in the area,” explains the mayor. “It may affect the living conditions and health of the members of our community.”  Another issue concerns water. Quieroga and others are “very alarmed because there is a risk of compromising the phreatic level” and, consequently, the area’s water resources. “They say that such a sparsely populated area has only to gain from such a project,” he says with a bitter smile. “But if we look at the lithium value chain, in addition to mining, there is battery production, electric car fabrication, and finally battery recycling. All these industrial activities will be elsewhere. Nothing will remain here.”  Regarding future prospects, the mayor uses clear words: “As far as it is in our power, we will not give authorizations, but if the government decides to go ahead, it risks facing a popular uprising.” Riquito looks pleased at the entrance of the former primary school in Covas do Barroso. “Now it’s good!” she says. She and her friend Paloma have just finished cleaning the entrance. Closed for many years, the building has now been reborn and is called A Sachola, thanks in part to young people like them who moved here to support the struggle against mining. The banner at the entrance reads “Encontro Solidario Anti-Extractivista” (Anti-Extractivist Solidarity Meeting).  “We have to finish setting up the space,” Riquito explains, showing me the large room inside. “In a week’s time we will have a [film] screening. We want this space to be a place of aggregation and sociality for the inhabitants of the village, but at the same time also a meeting point between the local community and those from outside.” Aida Fernandes is president of the Baldios of Covas do Barroso, the organization that manages the common lands of civic use, which are among the most threatened by mining projects. “Savannah has bought some land, but a lot of drilling is taking place in the common lands, especially in the forests,” explains Fernandes. “So we come to stop the works, claiming the use of that land for the community.” From the top of the Olhar do Guerreiro viewpoint, the entire valley is visible, including the drilling areas—partly covered by vegetation—all around the village.  Fernandes points to a spot southeast of the village. “Over there is the area they are really focusing on. It seems to be the richest,” she says. It is an expanse of pine trees on a hillside. “Just think, that whole area should become an open pit, it will be dug up to a depth of 150 meters for a diameter of 500 meters. Eighty percent of the material will be waste, the remaining 20 percent will have to be washed, even chemically, to extract the lithium fitted there in less than 2 percent in any case.” In recent years, says Fernandes, the struggle against lithium extraction in Covas do Barroso has found broad support from the most diverse parts of society.  “This is not about slowing down the work and obtaining small results,” she says decisively. “It is not enough to win battles. You have to win the war.” The sun goes down. A farmer leads the cows to the stable with a hoe slung across his shoulder as he crosses the central village square. On one side is the sports field, where the summer camp against lithium mining was held. Countless colorful banners hang on the fence, against mining, for village life, for water, and for nature. Directly opposite, on the other side of the square, behind a dark door, guarded by cameras, is the small office of Savannah Resources. Photojournalist Giacomo Sini's work has been published in Vice, El Pais, Neon Stern, L'Express, Humanité Dimanche, Il Manifesto, Corriere del Ticino, NZZ, Die Zeit, Taz, National Geographic, The Week, and other outlets. He is based in Italy. Read more by Giacomo Sini February 16, 2024 4:26 PM

New Mexico May Finally Reform Oil and Gas Industry With Slate of Bills

Pennsylvania governor, who promised 30% renewable electricity by 2030, is suddenly silent. The post New Mexico May Finally Reform Oil and Gas Industry With Slate of Bills appeared first on .

Welcome to “Feet to the Fire: Big Oil and the Climate Crisis,” a biweekly newsletter in which we share our latest reporting on how the fossil fuel industry is driving climate change and influencing climate policy in five of the nation’s most important oil- and gas-producing states. In addition, we shine a spotlight on the financing of the fossil fuel industry, holding banks and other financial institutions accountable for their role and providing you with updates on their activities. Click here to subscribe to the newsletter in Substack. New Mexico’s Oil and Gas Industry Could See Big Change With Slate of Bills  New Mexico, the country’s second-largest oil producer, failed to take steps last year to reform its fossil fuel industry. This year, with the beginning of the state Legislature’s session, lawmakers  will see a half-dozen bills that could spell big changes for the oil and gas industry through new oil well placement restrictions, increased fines and higher royalty payments, among other possible shifts. The industry is keeping a close eye on the bills. A spokesperson for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association tells The Slick’s Jerry Redfern that the group “and its industry members support legislation that is grounded in science,” noting that the oil and gas industry funds much of the state’s budget. Decision to Scrap Resource Management Plans Confuses Both Enviros and Industry Also in the state, a quietly announced decision by a regional office of the powerful New Mexico Bureau of Land Management united both environmentalists and oil and gas industry leaders — in confusion. The announcement that the Farmington office of the agency was scrapping work on a long-awaited update to the district’s resource management plans — which would have overhauled the playbook for vetting new oil and gas development over more than 4 million acres of federal, private and Native lands in northwestern New Mexico — “allows industry to move at the speed of last century’s status quo,” a Navajo conservation activist tells Redfern. Pennsylvania Gov. Shapiro Promised 30% Renewable Electricity by 2030, But Little is Happening  When he took office, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro was resolute in setting an ambitious goal — making sure that 30% of the energy sold in the state by 2030 would come from renewable sources, up from 8%. A year later, his office has provided no updates on what the administration is doing to reach that 30% goal, reports The Slick’s Audrey Carleton. That includes not taking a position on a bill in the Legislature that would update the state’s energy standards to require that 30% of its energy sales come from renewable sources. Fossil Fuel Sector Loses Ground Again, Dragging Down Stock Market Returns Oil companies reported a 30% decline in annual projects in 2023, with the sector posting an annual loss of almost 5%, according to a new report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), which concluded that “it wasn’t just a bad year to invest in fossil fuels — but a bad decade.” The group’s energy finance analyst Dan Cohn said, “The era of stable, blue-chip returns from the fossil fuel sector is long gone.” In comparison, fossil-free equity indices are picking up steam and proving to be better investments. (See chart below.)   NYC Pension Funds Take Aim at Banks Over Fossil Fuel Financing The day after Europe’s biggest pension fund, Dutch ABP, warned banks that they might divest in banks that continue financing fossil fuel projects, New York City took a similar step. City  Comptroller Brad Lander and trustees of four NYC pension funds — New York City Employees’ Retirement System, Teachers’ Retirement System, Board of Education Retirement System and New York City Police Pension Fund — filed shareholder proposals with six major North American banks asking them to fully report their ratios of clean energy to fossil fuel finance and to speed up their stated goals of achieving net zero emissions. The six banking institutions are Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan Chase and Royal Bank of Canada. ING Threatened With Lawsuit Over Continued Financing of Oil and Gas Dutch banking giant ING is the latest to be threatened with legal action over its continued investment in fossil fuel companies. Milieudefensie, the Dutch branch of the nonprofit Friend of the Earth, announced that it plans to sue the bank, claiming that its financing of fossil fuel projects has increased carbon emissions and contributed to global warming. Last year, climate activist groups sued BNP Paribas, claiming that the French bank’s financing of oil and gas companies violated a French law requiring companies to draft environmental damage vigilance plans. It was described by Oxfam as the world’s first climate suit against a commercial bank. That case is ongoing. HSBC Accused of Reneging on Its Promise to Stop Financing New Oil and Gas Fields Banking giant HSBC shocked the finance world and won plaudits from climate groups with its announcement in December 2022 that it would stop financing new oil and gas fields. But that same day, HSBC bankers began selling shares in Saudi Aramco, one of the biggest oil giants in the world, sources tell The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), adding that “the bank’s policy has been cleverly worded to allow it to fund some of the world’s biggest polluters while boasting about its green credentials.” Since the announcement, the bank has helped raise more than $47 billion for companies expanding the production of oil and gas, per TBIJ. In response, HSBC said its policy allows the bank to continue providing finance “at a corporate level” and its approach “is based on the latest science for achieving net zero and follows the UN-backed approach for climate target setting and net zero alignment for banks.” Bank of America Backtracks on Its 2022 Vow to Stop Financing New Coal Projects At the start of February, Bank of America, one of the largest financiers of fossil fuel projects in the world, echoed HSBC’s backtrack. Two years ago, Bank of America won praise from climate groups for announcing that it would stop financing new coal mines, coal-fueled power plants or Arctic drilling projects. But in its latest environmental and social-risk policy, it pulls back from those commitments, saying only that such projects will undergo “enhanced due diligence.” The move comes in the wake of intense attacks on “woke finance” from conservative lawmakers targeting banks for their environmental policies, the New York Times reported. Barclays Says It Will Stop Financing New Oil and Gas Projects And British bank Barclays took a step forward by announcing Feb. 9 that it will stop directly financing new oil and gas projects, as well as restrict lending to energy companies involved in fossil fuel production. The move was outlined in its Transition Finance Framework amid pressure from climate groups over its energy policy. Barclays was Europe’s biggest financier of fossil fuel projects between 2016 and 2022, according to the Rainforest Action Network. In response to the new announcement, nonprofit ShareAction said it was withdrawing a proposed shareholder resolution that pushed for the bank to halt its financing of such projects. Copyright 2024 Capital & Main

Pipeline project in Mexico threatens vital coral reefs

A proposed natural gas pipeline off the coast of Veracruz, Mexico, by TC Energy, risks damaging a newly discovered, vibrant marine ecosystem, raising concerns among scientists and local communities.Avery Schuyler Nunn reports for Grist.In short:Scientists and activists reveal a thriving coral ecosystem where TC Energy plans to build a pipeline, contradicting the company's claim of only sand existing there.The pipeline could disrupt local livelihoods and exacerbate climate change impacts, despite TC Energy's claims of sustainable design.Environmental groups, led by Greenpeace, are mobilizing against the project, emphasizing its potential harm to marine life and community welfare.Key quote: “They aren’t giving access to enough of the information, and during the operation of the pipeline, there could be accidents that would come with great consequences for the corals and ecosystem.” — Pablo Ramirez, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace MexicoWhy this matters: This pipeline project not only threatens a significant marine habitat but also highlights the ongoing conflict between fossil fuel infrastructure development and environmental conservation. Its impact extends beyond environmental concerns, affecting local communities and Mexico's broader commitment to combating climate change.Major pipelines hit legal snags. But it’s business as usual in Texas.

A proposed natural gas pipeline off the coast of Veracruz, Mexico, by TC Energy, risks damaging a newly discovered, vibrant marine ecosystem, raising concerns among scientists and local communities.Avery Schuyler Nunn reports for Grist.In short:Scientists and activists reveal a thriving coral ecosystem where TC Energy plans to build a pipeline, contradicting the company's claim of only sand existing there.The pipeline could disrupt local livelihoods and exacerbate climate change impacts, despite TC Energy's claims of sustainable design.Environmental groups, led by Greenpeace, are mobilizing against the project, emphasizing its potential harm to marine life and community welfare.Key quote: “They aren’t giving access to enough of the information, and during the operation of the pipeline, there could be accidents that would come with great consequences for the corals and ecosystem.” — Pablo Ramirez, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace MexicoWhy this matters: This pipeline project not only threatens a significant marine habitat but also highlights the ongoing conflict between fossil fuel infrastructure development and environmental conservation. Its impact extends beyond environmental concerns, affecting local communities and Mexico's broader commitment to combating climate change.Major pipelines hit legal snags. But it’s business as usual in Texas.

A Loophole Got Him a Free New York Hotel Stay for Five Years. Then He Claimed to Own the Building

A man who succeeded in using a New York City housing law live rent-free in an iconic hotel has been charged with fraud after he claimed to own it

NEW YORK (AP) — For five years, a New York City man managed to live rent-free in a landmark Manhattan hotel by exploiting an obscure local housing law.But prosecutors this week said Mickey Barreto went too far when he filed paperwork claiming ownership of the entire New Yorker Hotel building — and tried to charge another tenant rent.On Wednesday, he was arrested and charged with filing false property records. But Barreto, 48, says he was surprised when police showed up at his boyfriend's apartment with guns and bullet-proof shields. As far as he is concerned, it should be a civil case, not a criminal one.“I said ’Oh, I thought you were doing something for Valentine’s Day to spice up the relationship until I saw the female officers,'” Barreto recalled telling his boyfriend.Barreto's indictment on fraud and criminal contempt charges is just the latest chapter in the years-long legal saga that began when he and his boyfriend paid about $200 to rent one of the more than 1,000 rooms in the towering Art Deco structure built in 1930.Barreto says he had just moved to New York from Los Angeles when his boyfriend told him about a loophole that allows occupants of single rooms in buildings constructed before 1969 to demand a six-month lease. Barreto claimed that because he'd paid for a night in the hotel, he counted as a tenant. He asked for a lease and the hotel promptly kicked him out.“So I went to court the next day. The judge denied. I appealed to the (state) Supreme Court and I won the appeal," Barreto said, adding that at a crucial point in the case, lawyers for the building's owners didn't show up, allowing him to win by default.The judge ordered the hotel to give Baretto a key. He said he lived there until July 2023 without paying any rent because the building's owners never wanted to negotiate a lease with him, but they couldn't kick him out.Manhattan prosecutors acknowledge that the housing court gave Barreto “possession” of his room. But they say he didn't stop there: In 2019, he uploaded a fake deed to a city website, purporting to transfer ownership of the entire building to himself from the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, which bought the property in 1976. The church was founded in South Korea by a self-proclaimed messiah, the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon.Barreto then tried to charge various entities as the owner of the building “including demanding rent from one of the hotel’s tenants, registering the hotel under his name with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection for water and sewage payments, and demanding the hotel’s bank transfer its accounts to him,” the prosecutor’s office said in the statement.“As alleged, Mickey Barreto repeatedly and fraudulently claimed ownership of one of the City’s most iconic landmarks, the New Yorker Hotel,” said Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.Located a block from Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, the New Yorker has never been among the city's most glamorous hotels, but it has long been among its largest. Its huge, red “New Yorker” sign makes it an oft-photographed landmark. Inventor Nikola Tesla lived at the hotel for for a decade. NBC broadcasted from the hotel’s Terrace Room. Boxers, including Muhammad Ali, stayed there when they had bouts at the Garden. It closed as a hotel in 1972 and was used for years for church purposes before part of the building reopened as a hotel in 1994.The Unification Church sued Barreto in 2019 over the deed claim, including his representations on LinkedIn as the building's owner. The case is ongoing, but a judge ruled that Barreto can't portray himself as the owner in the meantime.A Unification Church spokesperson declined to comment about his arrest, citing the ongoing civil case.In that case, Baretto argued that the judge who gave him “possession” of his room indirectly gave him the entire building because it had never been subdivided.“I never intended to commit any fraud. I don’t believe I ever committed any fraud,” Barreto said. “And I never made a penny out of this.”Barreto said his legal wrangling is activism aimed at denying profits to the Unification Church. The church, known for conducting mass weddings, has been sued over its recruiting methods and criticized by some over its friendly relationship with North Korea, where Moon was born.He said he has never hired a lawyer for the civil cases and has always represented himself. On Wednesday, he secured a criminal defense attorney.Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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