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Interview with Dave Phillips, Director and Dolphin Defender - Part 2

| Sharon Ryals Tamm
Topics: Captivity Industry, Dolphin and Whale Trade, Keiko, Orcas

Sharon Ryals Tamm, a volunteer, skilled writer, and frequent blogger for the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), interviewed David Phillips, Executive Director of Earth Island Institute and Director of IMMP, in July 2018.  This is Part 2 of the Interview. Click here for part 1. 


Sharon Ryals Tamm (Sh): How important is building a team and alliances to solving intractable problems?

Dave Phillips (D): It has to be a team.  It’s absolutely the only way it works.  We got a reputation as a place that could take on big intractable problems. And that served us very well with other issues like Keiko—again, a huge intractable problem.

Most people ran for the hills and wanted nothing to do with Keiko.  “Are you kidding? We’re going to have to try to convince the Mexican government to give us this 8000 pound orca, and then figure out a way to fly him, and build him a whole new facility for rehab, and then we’re going to have to bring him out of there and try to get him into Iceland?  You’d have to be out of your mind. Who’s going to pay for all this? It’s never been done before. Maybe he’s going to die—maybe in transit. Why would the Mexicans give him to us, and why would Iceland let him come in?”

There were so many reasons to not do it, but we were willing to try.


Sh: Doing something that’s never been done is compelling to you and Earth Island?

D: Yes.  It is. We built an incredible team for Keiko.  It went all the way from the kids that were into the Free Willy movie to Warner Brothers and the studio, to the Oregon Coast Aquarium that was willing to build a tank as a rescue-rehab center.  All along the way, we picked up allies and people who got behind the idea—Craig McCaw, the telecommunications icon and his then wife, Wendy.  Without all of them we would have been stymied at step One.


Sh: It sounds like children, en masse, were an important part of both the Dolphin Safe Tuna campaign and with Keiko.  Would those have ever happened if there hadn’t been this huge outcry from young people?

D: No, absolutely not; without young people neither one of them ever would have happened.  The reason I got a call from Warner Brothers to help Keiko wasn’t all that different from the call I got from Tony O’Reilly.  Warner Brothers called us because we’d worked with them on the movie, just about education, dolphins and whales, not about Keiko.

Then, after the movie came out, Warner Brothers called us and said—“Oh my god, we’re getting hundreds of calls and thousands and thousands of mailgrams and telegrams and letters from people saying—‘This whale jumped to freedom at the end of Free Willy, but what about the whale in real life?’”

Warner Brothers didn’t know what to do.  They were great at making movies, but didn’t know what or how to try and do the right thing for Keiko.  So they asked us to step in. And that was all because of the kids.

Now we deserve a little bit of credit, because we got Warner Brothers to put the reply mechanism at the end of Free Willy.


Sh: From the very beginning? And they did it because you were the educational part?

D: Yes, the 800-4WHALES phone number at the end was our idea.

And there’s another connection here, too, with Ann Moss and Jerry Moss who had that key conversation in the tuna dolphin campaign.  Their absolute best friends were Dick Donner and Lauren Shuler Donner at Warner Brothers, who made the Free Willy movie.  Why did they make Free Willy?  They made it, because they got the bug about protecting whales and dolphins from the Mosses.  

Dick contacted us during the Dolphin Safe tuna campaign, and said he wanted to sneak a tuna dolphin scene into his Lethal Weapon 2 movie.  We thought he was out of his mind.  But he said—“No, no, no. Send me your Save the Dolphins t-shirts.”

So in the movie, Danny Glover’s character goes home in the midst of all this lethal weapon stuff and is getting ready to eat a sandwich.  His kid is wearing an Earth Island Dolphin Safe t-shirt and asks “What are you eating?” Glover’s character says, “My tuna fish sandwich.”  And she says, “You can’t eat that! That kills dolphins!”

It was such a little thing, we all thought no one would even remember it, but you know, Dick Donner got so many people coming up to him saying—Way to go!  And he and Lauren got so much positive feedback from it that Lauren said—Next time, let’s just make a movie about dolphins. And then she made Free Willy.


Sh: And then you got some basic facts about orcas into what was essentially a fairy tale, and you got the 800-4WHALES phone number in at the end of the movie.

D: Yes, and we thought that was going to get us calls from people wanting to help wild whales.  But the kids saw it very differently. Everyone wanted to know—“What about this whale?”


Sh: Yes, it’s personal.  The movie makes people care about a specific being.

D: Exactly.  That’s what we learned.  I had an aversion, many of us did—“Oh, this is just one orca, and we’ve got to save all the dolphins and whales and the whole eco-system.” But Keiko put the face on the issue; one orca trying to survive and return to the ocean and be free.  When people saw this orca, they started asking questions. “Why can’t he jump to freedom? You say it’s just a movie, but where is he? What happened to Keiko? Is he free?”


Sh: We still get Free Willy calls on 800-4WHALES all these years later.  I love how kids, even the ones that are crying on the phone, know the movie is a fairy tale and want to know about Keiko, the real orca.

D: Yeah.  Without the pressure that kids put on, Keiko’s freedom would never have happened.

Those were real landmark victories in terms of changing public attitudes and changing intractable problems.  Many people feel that as an environmentalist, if you have one of those victories in your career, you consider yourself lucky, because of how hard it is to solve an intractable problem and do something that radically changes things.  


Sh: To actually see one thing that you’ve worked on manifest in your lifetime, that’s extraordinary isn’t it?

D: Yes. And so now, we’ve won and, of course, you get the bug that you want to have more.  So, we have more campaigns in process that we think are really possible.


Sh: Like what?

D: We want to fundamentally change how people view captive cetaceans.  Again, we’re going up against multi-billion dollar SeaWorld and a world captivity industry that has completely captured and controlled the public narrative for many, many years.  They say that they are the ambassadors for cetaceans, and that what they are doing is great and that it’s wonderful to see these animals jump through hoops for food.

We are working to help speed the change in public attitudes to the reality that this is immoral.  It’s unscientific. It’s not sustainable. At some point in the future, we’re going to look back at this time and say—“I can’t believe we allowed orcas and dolphins and belugas to be held in tiny concrete tanks.  How could this have happened?“ We will be looked back at this way, in disbelief that we allowed this.

We have to speed that transition.


Sh: Given that kids were so important in the other campaigns, what can IMMP do so children are aware of the travesty of captivity?

D: We have to make it completely uncool for kids to ever go to dolphin shows.  Films have helped. Did you see Finding Dory?  That was good.  How we treat other animals, from big carnivores, elephants and cetaceans, to little fish, and our public attitudes towards how we treat animals are changing.  Kids are part of that change. The kids that are out there learning about protecting sea turtles or jellyfish, protecting all of that, help move this captivity issue forward.  Then, when you look at dolphins, orcas and whales in captivity, it becomes a much more glaring problem. Right now the change is happening at a much faster pace.

If you look at this issue 10 or 15 years ago, it’s shocking how far SeaWorld—the dominant player in the world captivity industry for cetaceans, the number one company and biggest marketer worldwide—has fallen.  The rise in public information and knowledge of how immoral and wrong it is to keep these animals in captivity is a huge change that wouldn’t have been predicted by anybody.


Sh: So how does that continue?

D: That has to continue and we have to continue watching out for things turning back around again. People forget, so yes, we need to keep finding new ways.  We’re consultants on a lawsuit suing SeaWorld for making fraudulent statements to the public like: “Orcas thrive in captivity.” All their claims are demonstrably false. We know that wild orcas live longer than orcas in captivity.  Wild male orca dorsal fins also never collapse like they do growing up in captivity.

The captivity industry’s whole narrative, their whole advertising campaigns, the whole material they put on their website, is based on lies.  We have a chance to unravel some of those lies. In so doing, we can help change this narrative. This suit could be an instrumental piece. We don’t know.  We have to keep trying different pieces in concert with each other.

Seaside retirement sanctuaries for captive whales and dolphins are also important.  There’s not a single captive orca that wouldn’t benefit by being in a seaside sanctuary.  We did it with Keiko in a one time netted bay, but there are no permanent retirement sanctuaries for cetaceans yet, like there are for gorillas, elephants, horses, and so many other animals.  If we can create such a place, we can show that it works, that captive cetaceans can be healthier, happier, and thrive, and we can change the entire dynamic.


Sh: Would having a component where humans can observe from land and be completely non-interfering make this more feasible?

D: Yes, that’s totally part of it.  The National Aquarium in Baltimore is moving all their warm-water dolphins down to Florida to a place that’s going to have remote viewing from a visitor’s center where you can watch the retirement of these cetaceans.

Another positive thing that’s happening is that keeping cetaceans captive is now seen as uncool in many other countries.  Europe is almost devoid of captive parks. Canada is almost out of the industry. Vancouver Aquarium won’t have any new cetaceans.  Marineland Ontario is facing huge changes now that the owner died.

The outliers are China and Japan.  Both of these countries picked up the whole captivity idea from SeaWorld and are still in expansion mode.  There are pockets of trouble out there, but the United States is still the driver in the captivity industry equation.  It still all comes from here.


Sh: In Finding Dory there’s a rescue, rehabilitation and release facility that’s going to a ship a bunch of fish to a permanent aquarium instead of releasing them.  The big theme is that everyone wants to be free. Couldn’t these magnificent aquariums with all that great staff, be repurposed to rescue, rehabilitation and release facilities?

D: That was our exact phrase when we were building the facility in Oregon—rescue, rehabilitate and release Keiko.  And we wanted the facility to go on to rescue, rehabilitate, and release other dolphins and whales, but it’s very hard to rescue cetaceans.  They rarely wash up on shore, and when they do they rarely survive. And rescuing captive ones is almost impossible because captive facilities hate our guts.  But we wanted to run a rescue, rehab, and release center and we still think it is a good model, a non-profit with the goal of actually getting rescued cetaceans up to the level of being releasable and getting them back out into the ocean.


Sh: It’s hard for people not to get attached.  Even with Keiko, everyone had their special relationship with him and wanted to hang onto him.  It’s hard to stay focused on the right of that individual to freedom.

D: With Keiko, we knew we were going to be slammed at every step along the way, but we kept with the premise that we were going to go as far as what Keiko indicated was as far as he could go.  This might sound anthropomorphic.  Some said he should never have left Mexico City.  But that’s ridiculous. He was going to die there within 6 months.  It made perfect sense for him to go the rehab facility in Oregon.

Then the question was what would he have to be able to do to demonstrate that he could go to a sea pen in Iceland?  He had to put on a lot of weight. He had to get rid of the papilloma virus. He’d have to show his ability to catch and eat live fish, so that he could survive in that environment.  And we had to see that he could to survive the trip there.

When we could see that he’d achieved all these things, then we knew he was ready to go.  Some said—“Let’s just leave him here in Oregon for the rest of his life.” But it was clear that he could go further, and we went with that. Then, once he was in Iceland no one thought he couldn’t go further.


Sh: So the big struggle for people was letting him go from that last tank into an ocean environment, in his home waters. But once he was out there, it was—of course, let’s see what he’s up for next?

D: Yes, exactly. And we always considered, on the success-failure scale, that each step along the way was a success in itself.  It was a success just getting him out of that tiny tank in Mexico City. When he was in Oregon, we felt that just getting him well and strong was success.  Then just getting him to Iceland was a success. Then, when he went out following boats and interacting with wild orcas, that was a huge success. If it only went that far then the whole program was a success.

If you define success as: Finding and inserting him into his original family, and they all bond and swim off into the sunset together—if you define success that narrowly, it’s hard to recognize all that Keiko accomplished as success, much less an essential miracle.


Sh: That narrow definition assumes that this poor captivity deformed orca suddenly recovers 27 years of missing orca language, cultural and social skills.

D: Yes, he was captured when he was only two years old.


Sh: So he had the language and social skills of a two year old.

D: That’s right.  So we didn’t have those expectations.  Would we have been thrilled if we’d found his family, and he’d swum off with them?  Of course, but it’s not fair to say that because that didn’t happen, it wasn’t a success.


Sh: You know, the Icelandic Orca Project and others say East Iceland’s orcas only began to be individually identified in the late1980’s, and there’s never been long-term monitoring like there has for North Pacific orcas.  When Keiko returned to Iceland, virtually nothing was known about those orcas.

There’s still not much known, but the past 10 years of research, using individual IDs of Icelandic fish-eating orcas, shows that their social groupings are unique and quite different from the tight matrilineal kinship groupings that define North Pacific fish-eating orcas.  So, it now looks like the type of family grouping some wanted for Keiko’s rescue to be called a success wasn’t even an accurate social model for Icelandic orcas.

D: Had Keiko been a Pacific Northwest Resident Orca, we could have immediately found his family and determined if he’d be accepted back in. We didn’t get to hand pick the best candidate for release.  We had Keiko. And his rescue was a big intractable problem where we had to accommodate a lot of risk, and there were going to be people who wouldn’t like what we were going to do at every stage along the way.  And that’s part of the deal.


Sh: Do you have a duck’s back?  How do you handle onslaughts of criticism?

D: You have to be ready for this.  It’s just part of the deal. I used to be sooo…well, at the time of the tuna dolphin fight we just could not believe that everybody didn’t see it exactly the way we saw it.  Right? Now, I’m just like—“If they see it our way, that’s fine. If they don’t, that’s fine.”

I find this work very invigorating.  We make a difference, and that helps prevent people from feeling powerless or that nothing we can do is going to make a difference.  That’s part of environmentalism that’s a good thing. People say—“Oh, you’re facing so many depressing things all the time; doesn’t it make you feel like there’s no hope?”

I say—“No.  We are making a difference.  We are part of a positive change, not just sitting on the outside thinking about how hopeless it is.”


Sh: I have one last question.  What do you want to see happen within your lifetime that hasn’t yet come about?

D: I would definitely like to see the end of cetacean captivity in US parks.  I think that is quite doable. I’d like to see an ongoing sanctuary program established.  I’d like to see the end of Mexican dolphin-deadly tuna fishing. We have 95% of the world tuna market that’s Dolphin Safe and 3 to 5% of the industry is still chasing and encircling dolphins.  I think we can end this in my lifetime. I’d like to see the end of the scourge of plastics in our oceans.

There’s a question you asked about how I’ve recently been acting in two functions here, directing Earth Island as well as the International Marine Mammal Project.


Sh: Right.  How do you do both?  When do you sleep?

D: What really helps me is that they are two of my biggest passions.  The International Marine Mammal Project is my passion in terms of working directly on environmental issues, and Earth Island because it’s a bold model—this whole idea of being an incubator for start-up groups, helping them move up the trajectory to be real players.  How can we show them and show the world that you don’t have to form your own 501c3 nonprofit? We have a much better system to take advantage of in terms of economic scale. Here, we have one set of audits and one payroll and one set of the financial documents for our 80 projects.

This way the people that are really good at program work are doing their program work while Earth Island provides critical metabolic functions, that they’d have to be doing on their own if they were a 501c3 organization.  I think it’s a great model, and I want to see Earth Island grow. At some point there will be other leaders running it. But at the stage we are in now, I think I can provide some help.


Sh: You carry the ‘Brower University’ model of nurturing great ideas and being passionate about nurturing those ideas.

D: I consider myself a carrier of the Brower DNA.  I knew Dave well and worked very closely with him.  I know what he was thinking about when he formed Earth Island.  I feel I can help carry that forward and keep us on that beam. It’s also good to have an institutional memory.

Earth Island is very much about recognizing youth, building leadership, and the whole idea that one person can make a difference.  That’s all embedded in our model. If you come in with a project idea, and it’s just you with no money and a great idea, you have a good chance of making it happen at Earth Island.  I don’t know of a lot of other places where you can do that. We want to be the place that is set up for that with our values, our mission, and how we go about helping to make it happen.


We encourage people to go to our new Earth Island website, find their passion, and join up.