Churchill 2014 Archive

Activism, Animals, Blog, Churchill 2014, Reviews

The Ghosts in Our Machine


There is a guy sitting in front of me crying. He looks like the kind of person I’d be friends with—I don’t know why, it’s just a look. I later find out his name is Dan, he’s a schoolteacher, and just a year ago he met the woman sitting next to him, with her hand on his shoulder, at a half-marathon race. She was vegan at the time, active in animal rights; he was vegetarian, sometimes. (Over the next year Dan turned vegan, dropped ten pounds, took ten minutes off his half-marathon time. He speaks of quickened muscle recovery and ‘living aligned’. They both think that each of them has lucked-out in finding the other. He tells me all this the next morning as we run together. Near the end of the run he stops, waits for his girlfriend, and I go on alone.) There is a fresh and loving intimacy between them, as she cares for this man crying in her arms, that I crave. It is perhaps a little of why I’m crying too, because what I’m watching is hurting, and I need support.

It’s the scene in the fur farm. It’s Jo-Anne McArthur’s still pictures, used so affectively as they are woven into the urgency of having to break in to the farm facility, take her pictures, and then leave without being discovered, and without saving a single one of these scared creatures. It is what McArthur says in the foreword to her book We Animals: for all those I could not save. It is why I am crying now (watching the film; writing these words). For every good thing we do, we don’t save these individuals in front of us. They are already dead. The use of the stilled images makes this point strongly, sadly.

Still life. It makes me think of when my grandmother died. I was in Australia on a gap year, travelling. My family told me not to come back, to continue on my journey. My grandmother was ill, cantankerous, gave up on life early, except her sherry and her cigs. The only affection she ever really showed late in life was not towards us, but towards Scruffy and Tigger, their cats. So I did not go back. I send instead to my grandfather a condolence card with the image of a bowl of fruit on the front. On the back, it’s title: Still life. But she was dead. I don’t think my grandfather ever forgave me for not returning, for doing everything I could to get there. This is strangely the same feeling the film leads me to: please, let me go back to this farm, save them, do more. This is perhaps why Dan, I, others, so many others, are crying here as we watch The Ghosts in the People Barn at Farm Sanctuary. Have we done everything we can? For these foxes in the fur farm, death is not still life. Who will forgive us for not doing more?

The Ghosts in Our Machine is an elegy. A plaintive poem, a funeral song and lament for the dead. And because it is this, it knows it needs to hold its nerve. To stay in this tone of the elegiac, edited to perfection in the film, never missing a melancholic beat. To break this tone will be to lessen the story’s power. Even when animal protection workers know that a single story is more powerful than the facts and figures (85 billion animals each year, one cow every 12 seconds…) or a combination of both, they cannot seem to resist drawing us back to the incomprehensible, the overwhelming. I don’t know why this is. It’s like that episode of Friends where Monica wants to make everyone cry at her parents’ wedding anniversary. Perhaps the animal rights campaigners and communicators secretly want to not only stir emotions in others, but overwhelm us, be the one who has the power to do that. Secretly, they all want to be Ross (his first word has everyone crying; Monica flounces off). Ok! I admit it—I want to be like Ross, to write with impact. Comically, Ross has ‘it’. The Ghosts has ‘it’ too, but with a markedly different soul. What makes The Ghosts exquisite is that it holds its nerve all the way through, beyond the credits. The tone never wavers. And so, pure, it will linger on in ways that is, most of all, respectful to the lives lost, of all the lives lost.

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Animals, Blog, Churchill 2014

On Board the Soundwatch Boat

The Soundwatch Boater Education Progamme has been running for nearly twenty-five years. Eric Eisenhardt, the current director, is into his third season. Before that, the previous incumbent had run the programme for twenty. It feels, though, as if Eric has all the decades’ experience in his eyes and memory. He knows all the boats and most of their captains, can identify the individual orca, knows the waters around San Juan Island, the rips and tears, and small passages, the quadrants split up into hundreds of small squares, the lines of sight and the landmarks. We’re about the same age, perhaps he’s a year or two older or younger, it’s difficult to tell, the thing that swings it for me are his good teeth, a kind smile hidden in his sun-tempered beard. The sun does this to people, it seems: makes you both older and younger than you are.

Soundwatch educates people on the water about the correct whale watching guidelines, the same type of programme as run by CETUS out of Victoria. And indeed later that day we see Leah Thorpe and her crew on the water in their new boat, borrowed from the Canadian DFO. It is a slick black zodiac with brand new CETUS Straitwatch insignia. CETUS are dressed up in orange waterproofs and have an official-looking life jacket. It is much more formal and authoritarian than Soundwatch’s battered old skip, its backup, as its first boat is in the shop for repairs, and us, the four crew, two of us in shorts, Sarah in her running gear, and only John fully crewed like a fisherman in waterproofs, gumboot and hat. Although our faded blue life jackets all have the Soundwatch logo. But authoritarian isn’t always best in these delicate waters, where the work of both projects, to engage the public in what’s best for the whales, can be a nuanced, tactful business. The public, and this genuinely shocks but does not surprise me, isn’t always interested in what’s best for the whales.

This is a wholly different type of programme to what I was invited to take part in the day before, in the belly of the Whale Museum. This is at the sharp end, where the actual welfare of an endangered species is at risk on a daily, often minute-by-minute basis, from boaters. Harassment of the orca in the waters can directly impact on their survival, and is a crime in both US and Canadian waters, but easier to police in US waters, because of the clear regulations. So Soundwatch and Straitwatch, as monitoring and research programmes that deliver just-in-time education, along with the Washington Department of Fisheries and Waters (WDFW) and NOAA, the “big cheese” explains John, the two proper enforcement bodies, police these waters and stop people from harmful boating behaviours.

Around 9am we motor out of Snug Harbour on the west of the island and stop for fuel in Roche Bay. It is a prissy, pretty resort, with at least a billion dollars’ worth of yacht moored along its quays. As we refuel, the waste removal boat The Phecal Freak pulls in to clean away the resort’s effluvia. I think this is genius and want to take a photo, but am slightly embarrassed of what my fellow volunteers for the day, Sarah, an intern from Cal State Channel Islands, and John, a former IBM manager and now a board member of The Whale Museum, might think. (I also think Friday’s Harbour waste removal boat, The Pumpty Dumpty, is even more genius. I’ll get a photo of that instead, later.)

P1040415Then we leave Roche Harbour. As soon as we’ve trundled out of the harbour’s limits Eric asks us if we’re ready to go faster, and then throttles the Yamaha engine. A moment later the prow is up in the air and my hat is threatening to fly off and I can’t open my eyes for the wind, but it’s exhilarating, and I love it, especially as the water’s rough and we bounce along with my stomach rising and dropping, every now and then catching air, and once or twice really taking off, landing each time with a thud that jars the backbone.

“It’s a little choppy,” Eric apologises. But it’s fun. The water is more like a river, roiling and rolling around, and throwing us with it. As we head south to find the whales we enter the fog we’d seen earlier that morning, but which cleared up as we went north. Immediately the whole atmosphere changes. It’s mysterious, heavenly, ephemeral. Like being inside a thought and seeing it for what it is. And then out of the fog we begin to see boats. These are whale watching tours out of San Juan, out of Victoria. The international border is a few miles away, cutting the waters down the middle between land masses. And where there are whale watching boats, there are, because of the excellent and connected whale spotting network, whales.

P1040422There they are. Their dorsal fins breaking surface as they come up for air. The spumes of water a dozen feet high, wisps of mist, and then their backs curving back into the sea, a sight of their saddle patch, a fluke breaking cover and slapping down. There are about ten or twelve orca, males, females and calves, in three or four groups. Eric and Sarah do their first boat count of the day. EC 6. (Eco Tour boats from Canada). EU 3 (the same, from the States). PM 2 (private motors). Others. MM, such as us, monitoring motors. Much of the work of Soundwatch is the recording of this data, the two pillars of the work of The Whale Museum being education and research.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. But whenever we spot the whales and when the different types of boats, the eco tours and the private boats, also spot the whales, there is a ruckus on the water to get close and to follow the orca as they head north along the west side of San Juan Island. It is a fleet, and I feel, more than fleetingly, sorry for the whales, whose lives are constantly under rowdy surveillance. They are followed all day, every day, but do not leave, because this is their home.

P1040410But we’re here to help. Immediately we are in action, approaching a yacht that is half the distance from the whales as the whale watching tour boats, many of whom are part of the Pacific Whale Watching Association and, mostly, follow the Whale Wise Guidelines. We approach and the captain is, if not friendly then at least neutral, and says he knows the guidelines. We don’t ask him why he’s not following them. He says something about trying to back up, but those weren’t his boating actions. We offer him a brochure with the guidelines on it, and he says he doesn’t want them, before a member of his party says she does. My job today is to hand over the brochures on the end of a telescoping fishing pole, and I do this, I’m relieved, without missing or falling in. We spin around and head off, Eric shaking his head a little. John writes down the encounter on the recording sheet. The Whale Museum and the Soundwatch Programme has been recording this type of encounter for more than twenty years. It is this data that was, in part, critical to having the orca population here registered in 2005 as endangered, which led to the regulations being updated and, now, enforced. The whole encounter took less than a minute. That’s all the time that the Soundwatch team have, with the boats moving on the water, with the distance between crews, to get across the basics of the guidelines, and to hand over the materials. It is intense education.

But there’s actually no time to stop. We’re now heading over to a two-tiered power boat that comes at the whales along the coast from the north, directly in their path. When they pull up they are well short of 400 yards, which is unacceptable behaviour. If NOAA were on the scene they could issue a $30,000 fine for this. Soundwatch can only monitor and advise. We’re not there quick enough to intercept their course, but we pull up alongside. There are nuclear two families, two couples and their netball team of teenage girls, all sitting along the back of the boat with their camera-phones out, snapping away.

“Hey there,” shouts Eric. Steely faces. “We’re from The Whale Museum, we’re here to educate boaters about the regulations for good practice around the whales.”

“Yeah I know them,” says one of the guys. “We just came from over there,” he says pointing to the west. It’s a blatant lie, as we watched them steam in from the north and pull up.

“Okay great, you know the guidelines,” says Eric, as our boat, a tenth of the size, manoeuvres around theirs. “But then you’re not doing it right.”

The steely faces continue. We don’t bother offering them a brochure. Eric runs through the guidelines, and then pulls away.

“I get tired of their inventions,” Eric says when we’re out of earshot. But he smiles all the way through the encounter. His job is a diplomatic one. Not for the first time on this trip I come to believe that one of the most important assets a human can offer for the benefit of the animals they are trying to help is a smile. As Mary-chris Staples said, a smile can be an invitation to engage. Without this opening up, change is often impossible.

P1040414John is scribbling down on the encounter sheet. He looks up at Eric.

“How would you rate that?” John asks. There is a scale of human interaction for the encounter that needs recording. Eric thinks about it.

“Poor,” he says, after a while. A little while later when we look back, we see the boat has pulled out of the line of the orcas’ progress.

“Well that’s what matters in the end, ay?” says Eric. “They’ve changed their behaviour.”

Later on I keep a check on that boat, and yes, they stay with the fleet after that warning. The intervention made a difference, for now.


The next few hours are filled with boat counts every half hour, the recording of every incident one of us spots, and a number of interactions with private boats and yachts who seem not to know about the guidelines. Some, like the Wind Witch, out of San Francisco, are genuinely unaware of the whales. They leave Mosquito Pass, a notorious point for boats crossing the whales’ path, heading for California.

P1040420“Are there whales here?” asks the woman on board. She immediately turns to her partner at the wheel. “We’ll cut the engine to neutral.”

“That’s great,” says Eric, although they’ve essentially already crossed the orcas’ path. We move around to the other side and pass them a leaflet, which they take gladly, smiling, and follow Eric’s guidelines to wait with the fleet.

Others suggest they know the regulations—one guy even waves his brochure at us while barely stopping from his photo-taking—without strictly following them. Each time, Eric instructs John to write down another incident in the shorthand code that makes the job easier. Eric knows each of the codes by heart, of course. “That’s a 3.1 and a 5.3, PM, transiting,” he says. John marks this down, as well as the name and registration of the boat, on his two sheets, incidents and encounters.

Sometimes we have to put our own boat down on the incident sheet because in attempting to get to the private boats before they infringe the regulations and get too close to the whales, we’ve done so as well. Once or twice we’re right in the whales’ path. “MM 3.1” says Eric.

“One of the other drivers says if you’re not infringing once or twice a day, then you’re not doing your job,” says John.

Eric agrees. If you’re too far back then you’re not close enough to get to the private boats before they do harm. It’s a fine balance, but a risk that has to be taken sometimes.

Because it’s a tricky business. The whales are not all in one group, and can change direction at any time. Sometimes the private boats and yachts get genuinely caught up in the swings and sashays of the whales. But then you get some boats that are reckless and arrogant, like this one, as we watch it literally chasing behind the very line of the whales’ path, less than a hundred feet behind. This is cutting right over the whales, and is beyond unacceptable. It’s one of the times we also get too close to the whales. Eric approaches but the captain palms us off and swings away. I watch as a couple on the prow use their high-powered lens to get their photos. They don’t back off, but we do, of course, needing to get out of the way of the whales. But then the WDFW have seen what happened, and approach us, and Eric explains. “That’s what we needed to know,” one of the officers says, and goes after the boat. We watch as the WFDW officers give the boat a $1000 ticket. A wildlife crime has just been committed, and the perpetrator has been punished on the spot. I feel strangely righted.


P1040423When the orca need to rest, they line up flipper to flipper. They are voluntary breathers, unlike us, for whom breathing is automatic. So when they are ‘sleeping’ one of the pod stays awake and breathes, and in their almost-unconscious state, the others hear this and come up for air as well. Eric flaps his arms around as he tells me this, imitating a dozy orca, and it makes me laugh, as if we can all understand the state they are in, that relaxed type of napping that we experience on a warm sunny afternoon, or in the morning after not enough sleep.

They are lined up like this for much of the latter part of the day while we are on the water, as they follow the coastline up to Boundary, on their way to the Fraser River. We are in Canadian waters now. This is the most peaceful part of the day, when the whale watching boats simply chug along four or five hundred feet away in a line all heading north and east, and the orca are all together, so it makes it easier to stay away from them.  This is the moment when we sit on the water and get a little drowsy ourselves. In twelve minutes Eric and Sarah will do their last boat count of the day. John has no more incidents to report, and Eric is unworried, as all the PMs have disappeared, so we will head back in time for the Whale Museum’s softball game in the Island League. For the rest of their circuit with the flow tide northwards, the orca will remain relatively unbothered, and then return south overnight with the ebb tide, with almost no boats to contend with, with no surveillance of their passing.

“Well what do you think?” asks Eric as we’re almost ready to head back.

“It’s intense,” I say, and all three of them laugh.

“Yep,” he agrees. The work puts you in the present moment, making decisions based on what is happening that minute, as to what to do that’s best. And it is directly beneficial to an incredible wonder, this endangered species with its own social system, its dialects of communication, its greeting rituals, their distinct culture. It is also the accumulation of the data which continues to play a crucial role in the protection of this endangered species.

“One possibility for what was going to happen when they were given protected status,” explains Eric, “is that this whole west side of the island, for half a mile out, would be boat free. But a lot of the tours come out of this side, and so they were vocal, of course, in opposition. So the idea was dropped. But it could still happen.”

It would be comfortable to imagine that. The resident orca having their favoured paths through the water untouched by tour boats or private, not relying on this intense, fast turning monitoring and intervention. The Whale Museum, like many, if not most, organisations of its type, never have enough funding to do all the things they would like. Eric is both Soundwatch Coordinator and Research Curator, and the two jobs are too much for one person. Of course during the summer the whale watching tours run into the evenings, when Soundwatch are not on the water. And private boats can come out any time. One of the most obdurate populations to shift, both physically in their boats and in terms of mindset, are the fishermen. The only thing to move them, usually, are NOAA. But Eric doesn’t give up on them. Conversations can make effective conservation, even with the fishermen who want to be in the same waters as the orca, both, of course, being after the same pink prize: salmon.

Back at Snug Harbour we tie up the boat and stow away our life jackets and head back to the truck. On the way we stop and talk to a guy at the resort, who asks who we are and what we’re doing. Eric explains, talks about the different volunteer roles that Sarah, John and I have been playing that day. The guy looks up at Eric.

“You mean if I have to come out with you I have to work?” he jokes. We all laugh.

“Sure,” says John. “You don’t get to whale watch. I had my nose in a spread sheet all day.

“But you do get to be with the whales for longer,” says Eric. “We’re with them all day. The tours are only there for an hour.”

And it’s true. I didn’t get to whale watch. In fact, for a long while, I was focused more on the boats than the whales. Even though I did get to think a bit longer about the experience, ponder on my questions, take a few photographs. We were never, intentionally, as close as any of the whale watching tour boats. Once or twice we were incredibly close, but moved away as quickly as possible. And yet if my day was not spent watching whales, that was because it was a day of being with them, in their environment, in a way that was respectful, even beneficial, to their needs and their survival. In the evening I feel good. Working for the whales does this to people, it seems: makes you both less and more significant that you really are.

Animals, Blog, Churchill 2014

Beeping Hearts: in the Whale Museum

A little way into Cindy’s presentation to this group of college biology majors from the local university I suddenly notice the beeping of one of the students’ watches, and realise it has been beeping for quite a while. I look over and the student, a tall young girl with blonde hair and a red dyed fringe is trying to hide the watch in the folds of her t-shirt, with that half-embarrassed and half-pleased smile that says she knows, innocently, she’s the centre of attention, and not what Cindy is presenting.

A few moments later one of the two professors catches her eye and mouths her to take the watch off. The student does so and hands it along the line, where the professor presses a button and the beeping stops. The professor gives the student a smile, and the student smiles back, and then all attention is back on Cindy, who is now telling us all that Eschrichtius robustus, the Gray Whale, has come back from the edge of extinction twice.

The first time was a recovery from whaling, where, as coastal dwellers feeding in shallow waters, the Gray was easy prey to the great whaling traditions of both First Nations and then European settlers. The second great trauma for the whales was the 1999-2000 season, where around a third of the population died, the scientists agreeing due to mass starvation. During the event the Gray Whales photographed looked emaciated—you can tell a whale is starved if you can see its shoulder blade, which should be covered in blubber. (Whales have the same bones in their flippers that we have in our shoulders and arms, right down to the thumb bone, because many millions of years ago, they too lived on land and used their forearms to move about, as we did, when we were apes.) But since then the population has bounced back to around 20-25,000 individuals in the population along the US and Canadian west coast (and another smaller population in Asia). The Atlantic Gray Whale never recovered from whaling, and remains extinct.

It’s probably because they are opportunistic feeders, Cindy explains, that the Gray Whales have done so well, whereas other populations, such as the resident orcas in these waters, which feed exclusively on salmon, and preferably on Chinook salmon, are not doing so well. When the salmon population drops, the orca suffer. Since 1990 the salmon along this stretch of the Salish Sea, the collective name for the waters from Alaska to Puget Sound, have been dying in massive numbers. A new documentary film, Salmon Confidential, by the director Twyla Roscovich, featuring the BC marine biologist Alexandra Morton, lays the blame for this directly at the door of the aquaculture industry—the farmed salmon business—and its protectors in the DFO (Department for Fisheries and Oceans), and its paymasters, politicians in the Canadian Government. The evidence seems almost incontrovertible that farmed salmon fishing has introduced devastating pathogens into the indigenous wild salmon populations. And yet to protect its trade deals with the US and China, the Canadian government is engaged, the film claims, in a massive cover up.

Cindy introduces us to two individual Gray Whales. The first is ‘Little Patch’, with a white patch, obviously, on its side. Patch has been back to the same feeding grounds in Puget Sound for twenty-three years running. The second individual is Stinky Pete, not such a lucky whale, (and not the Frasier-voiced character from Toy Story 2, either) whose one-year-old skeleton fills the room in which we are sitting as Cindy gives her presentation, not nicely lined up but set down in pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, waiting for the college students to put the skeleton together and, doing so, figure out what it was that killed Stinky Pete.

While the students are putting together the skeleton, I chat with the two professors. The main purpose of their daytrip to The Whale Museum, on Friday Harbour, where I am working for a few days to learn about their best practice in education, and about the success and strategies of the museum itself, is for biology class; while the students don’t know that much about whales, they do know about the different bones, the cervical and thoracic, the lumbar and caudal, about the atlas bone at the top of the spinal cord and the axis at its end, the processes of the lumbar and thoracic leading to the ribs, all beautiful words to me, words I recognise from my own limited knowledge of the human body, words that connect this great Gray creature and my own existence, we have the same bones, we both crawled, we both breathed. (Later, however, Cindy will chide the students for beginning the rib cage too high, at the cervical bones. “The ribs come out of your neck, do they?” she laughs.)

However the second reason the students are here, or the benefit of the trip, and one that delights me beyond what it should, is that their biology class is being combined with physical education. Their heart rates are being monitored: hence the student not knowing how to switch off what I thought was her watch. I look around. Yes, they’re all wearing them, some have two watches on, of course, a detail I did not at first notice. Later, they will stop for lunch, and its nutritional value will be calculated. This doubling up of educational experience, the first professor, a tall man with a calm face and a poker hat, explains, will, he hopes, make links between the sustainability of the whales and the sustaining of the students’ own bodies. It is a wonderful experiment, I think, artistic in its composition, if art is or can be about the revealing of what is hidden about our connected living.

The students don’t have much trouble piecing together the skeleton, and from there its quite clear to discover, from the broken bones along one section of the thoracic spine and ribs, that Stinky Pete died from boat strike, a disease of trammeling modernity, glimpses of which I will see the following day when out on the Soundwatch boat patrolling the western side of San Juan Island, when a private yacht practically runs right over the passaging orca (and will be given a $1000 dollar ticket for it by WDFW, Washington’s water police) to get its holiday pictures. The boat was probably a big one, a tanker of some sort, with a huge propeller, and one which Stinky Pete did not hear, perhaps because of the huge amount of noise pollution in the water, or simply because he was a juvenile and had not yet learned how to discern threat and danger.

But in fact Stinky Pete did not die from boat strike. He died from starvation. Some of the broken bones, one student notices, have healed. Which meant Stinky Pete probably lived for another six months from being hit. He starved, because his way of feeding—rolling in the shallows, digging and wriggling right into the mud to reach his prey, crab, crayfish, human rubbish—would have been too painful for him. Stinky Pete died because it was too painful to eat. Stinky Pete felt and responded to pain. And yet people still ride their boats over whales so they can show off their photos to friends and family when they’re finished with the charter.

“So what are the things we can do to help protect the whales?” asks Cindy, near the end of the session. Reduce noise, says one. Protect their migration routes, says another. This has worked for the critically endangered Atlantic Right Whale, whose numbers have started to rebound after boat paths were rerouted to get out of the whales’ passage. To reduce pollution and clean up the oceans: when a necropsy was performed on another dead Gray Whale, half a ton of litter was found in its stomach. Clear up old nettings so that they don’t get entangled: a new disentanglement unit has been put in place in Baja, California, where the Grays mate and give birth. Although not much can be done about predation from other whales: the transient orcas are responsible for about a third of all Gray whale calf mortality. Although perhaps something can still be done about the 140 Gray Whales permitted to be slaughtered each year by Russia as part of its traditional peoples’ rights. Half a percent of a population of families each year.

Cindy then takes the group on a tour of the museum. I went earlier on a private tour and learned much about the resident orca populations, so duck out to get some lunch, let the knowledge settle in, think, and write. A story is filtering through me about the forty-five resident orcas that were captured and taken from the waters, and the dozen or so more who were killed, by the sealife centres such as SeaWorld, which has been struck by so much negative publicity recently since the release of the film Blackfish. Of the forty-five who found their way into the captive system, only one remains alive, Lolita. Considering orca can live up to 103-years old, so far, and counting, in the wild, their premature deaths in captivity is only one indicator of its banal wrongness. The fact that Lolita still uses the same calls as her L-pod family is another. The fact that she swims around in an illegally-sized bathtub is another. There are at least forty more. I go online to try and discover the names of all the other wild orca who were captured. Nowadays, when a new calf is born to the pods in the wild, The Whale Museum runs an adoption programme to raise money and there is a competition to name the new arrival. It seems an intelligent and generative idea to connect the local populations with their water neighbours.

The Whale Museum itself is a successful institution. Established in 1976, it runs education programmes and conducts research into the resident orca, and is one of many marine organisations in the region who have successfully contributed to the identification of the orca as an endangered species, therefore demanding special protection. Such protection was given in 2005, after a long thirty years of data collection and a battle to have them protected. The local volunteers, the NGOs, the organisations, even the government, all work together to protect the orca. No wild captures have taken place for decades. Although sadly some aquariums still take wild caught cetaceans, these orca in the wild are protected from that horrific separation at least.

On the earlier tour we listened to the acoustics of the orca. There are three pods in the Southern Resident Population, J, K and L, and each of them have distinct calls or dialects. “We call the K’s the kittens,” says Cindy, and you can hear why; high pitched mewling, one of the other women on the tour can’t help but “Ah” at the sounds of it. We listen to J and L too, and to the transient orca who pass through but do not live in these waters, whose calls are much deeper. We also listen to what a super-pod sounds like, when J, K and L all come together. Cindy asks us to listen out for what sounds like laughing. We hear it, a kind of cackle, deeper than the usual calls.

“That’s the one universal call,” she says, “it’s done by most orca we know of, here, in the Arctic, in Russia, populations that have never met.” It’s the innate call of the orca species, something they must have genetically, the same way some bird calls are made up of genetic and learned parts. It means, of course, that language is part of the orca genome.

We also learn about what Cindy proudly calls the “culture” of the orca, one of the aspects of their lives that earned them the status as a distinct species, which was necessary for NOAA to give them protected status. This is something only the southern resident orca do. When two pods meet after a while separated, say J and K, what they do is this: they talk and talk and talk under water for a long time, until they come and line up, face to face to each other, and then go completely silent. They face each other in the water in these lines for a few minutes, before they swim together and intermingle, and their calling begins again. They do this each time. What is this if it is not a ritual, memorised and repeated, something essential to their “cultural” life, something that benefits their social experience. Something they value?

As the students disappear I am left with Stinky Pete, who usually resides in his pieces in bins behind educational banners, but who will be left out because there’s another school group coming in, this time third graders, who will be put through the same exercise in a few days. I think about Pete since his death. How he washed up on shore, how his body was saved for educational purposes, how his skeleton was put in a cage in the water to let other ocean creatures pick his flesh bare, how the more fragile bones were transported to the Burke Museum in Seattle to let the beetles in their cases do the final cleansing work, how in this way his dead flesh benefits other creatures in the ecosystem. How his bones are then coated in a solution of Elmer’s glue and water every five years to stop them from falling apart. How his mother may have lamented. How the heart rate of perhaps one young student may have increased on hearing his story. How the beeping of that heart cannot be stopped.

Animals, Blog, Churchill 2014

Storying with CETUS, Victoria BC

NewCetusLogo2010It’s nice when someone gets it. Not only get it, but when what you want to do is something the people you’re talking to want as well. That’s what happened with Leah Thorpe from CETUS, the Cetacean Research and Conservation Society based on Vancouver Island, when we met for lunch at the beginning of the month so I could hear what their organisation is achieving with its education programmes to help support the resident orca and cetacean populations.

Leah has been working with CETUS for a while now. She came in originally to run the education programmes and has found herself, with her co-worker Megan, running the organisation at a challenging time, when the Canadian government has slashed its funds for theirs and similar programmes. With some last minute funding, Leah and her staff have been busily getting ready for the summer preparing boats and crew to get out into the water and support the protection of the Salish Sea’s whales.

The waters from the Puget Sound north, around the Islands, and up to Alaska, are home to 33 different cetaceans and marine mammals. There are gray whales, humpbacks, fin and sei whales, as well as harbour and Dall’s porpoises, and minke whales. But the undoubted stars are the orca – the killer whales (actually dolphins, but who’s quibbling?).

There are two resident orca populations – the Southern (PDF) and Northern residents, each made up of a number of families, or pods. Both have declined in numbers over the last few decades, mainly due to difficulty finding their preferred food source, Chinook salmon. The salmon numbers have fallen because of, predictably, overfishing by us, and also, according to the marine biologist and activist Alexandra Morton, because BC’s wild salmon are testing positive for dangerous European salmon viruses associated with salmon farming (the salmon farmed in the US and Canada is Atlantic salmon). Either way, salmon numbers are down 92% on previously recorded populations. And the orca are suffering.

But human activity also threatens the pods. This is where CETUS, and the Soundwatch Programme at the Whale Museum in Friday Harbour, come in. Their main education programme is face-to-face with boaters out on the water, educating the boaters on the Be Whale Wise guidelines for safe engagement with the orca and other cetaceans and marine mammals.  CETUS works on a daily basis to monitor boat activity around the orca, and approach boats where there are signs that the guidelines—which are legal regulations in US waters, but only guidelines in Canadian waters—are being transgressed, and the orca are being harassed.

“One of the hardest things is that even if people do know about and understand the guidelines, they don’t understand orca behaviour,” says Leah. “People think that if the orca are coming towards their boats, then that’s okay, the orca are not bothered by their presence. But I try to tell them, well, people do lots of things that aren’t good for them too, and sometimes we need to back away from those people; it’s the same with orca.”

CETUS run a number of programmes such as the Straitwatch and BC marine mammal response network, as well as the Robson Bight Warden Programme, and also the removal of old fishing gear from the water. This last one is a successful programme, and one that is easy to communicate and sell to people about the value of CETUS’s work.

“And that’s because people can see it,” says Leah, “it’s clear to them what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and the potential results. Old stuff that whales get tangled up in gets taken away: clear.”

But with the boater education programme, there are still ways in which CETUS wants to tell its story more clearly, as boaters, often fishermen or visiting tourists—not usually the locals—can respond negatively to what appears, at first, like an official boat approaching across the water. What Leah and her crew try to do is always start by talking about the whales first, and using the anecdotes and stories of the whales, to engage the boaters and watchers.

“We sometimes tell them about the mother orca who lost her son, and the three brothers who lost their mother,” Leah begins. “And then, a few months later, we find the four of them together. The single female was actually their aunt. But to see them come together as a pod was wonderful. People like that story.”

It’s only then that CETUS discusses the whale wise guidelines.

And beyond this, strategically, as with many environmental groups, the ‘selling’ of its value to stakeholders, donors and government funding bodies, either direct or through public pressure, is a critical part of how CETUS manages its future.

And this is where a writer and storyteller can come into the picture. Without getting weighted down with the formalized languages of fundraising or communication, marketing or social media, how can a creative writer come in and work with an organisation such as CETUS to simply tell a story about themselves in a way that is both authentic and that helps them realise their aims? That translates the wealth of research about orcas and their behaviour, and their decline, into something the boaters and public get immediately, and which changes their behaviour. And it’s here where things click.

“We’d love you to come out on the boat with us and help us work out what story it might be that works best,” she says. It’s gratifying that so early on this trip the whole idea of a creative writer working with an environmental organisation to tell the story better to help animals and nature seems to be one that could work. [I’ll be out on the water with the Friday Harbour Soundwatch people on Weds 9th July]

Leah and Megan have been working on this, and in a few weeks they go live with their first viral video about the dangers of not properly monitoring and protecting the orca from overzealous or ignorant human interaction. As a mainstream organisation—a registered charity, and not a campaigning or pressure group—Leah is both hesitant and excited about what will happen when the video is launched.

“But with less funds, we may need to take more risks,” she says. And we talk a little more about the aims they hope to achieve through the video. Wider recognition for CETUS’s work; wider public awareness; a clearer story. “Whatever makes it easier for the whales,” she finishes.

It’s obvious with the decline of the orca populations, and their cultural, economic and ecological value to the region – although of course the orca are valuable in and of themselves, not in any metric that can be measured by us – that any and all attempts to protect their habitats and keep human-whale interactions to a safe minimum level is necessary. CETUS’s work, then, is necessary. So how to better tell their story, so their work not only continues, but grows?


P1040302The next day I travel out with Five Star Whales on an evening whale watching trip. CETUS work closely with the whale watching industry, and there is a Pacific Whale Watching Organisation with the registration of 33 tour operators who all work together to ensure the safe and sustainable practice of whale watching. Most are part of the Orca Spotting Network, set up by Ron Bates, who comes out on the boat with us, voluntary now in his retirement, to help the boat find the orca. There are two other biologists on the boat, Kaegan, and Sarah, a young marine biologist with a BSc, moving on to do her MSc research on sticklebacks, but with, having grown up on the island, a healthy knowledge of the orca and of the surrounding ecosystem.

Today we’re lucky. One in a hundred lucky, according to Captain Trevor. When we find the orca we find them happily fed, gorged on salmon, and in a playful and sociable mood—both with each other, and with us. We see pretty much the whole of J-Pod, including the oldest orca on record, Granny (pictured above, identifiable from her saddle patch) who is 103-years-old, and who has children’s books written after her. They spyhop, tail strike, and breach, the adults and calves, all around us. It’s a mesmerizing display, everyone on board becoming, for the moment, children again as we stand and watch and take photos and cheer and gasp as we spot one, then another, then closer, then further away.

I count 12 tour boats in the water in a half-mile radius around the whales, although really the whales are around us. They dive and reappear in far places from where they went under, and are always on the move, and when they are done playing (with us), they all dive and swim away, and we don’t see where they go—ready to move on to the next feed, or, having played, ready for other activity.

P1040286Being with the orca, and on the best (the oldest, family owned) whale boat, with the man who set up the original spotting network (left, he looks asleep but he was just twiddling with the radio) feels a great privilege. When I told people all about the trip, this was the part they were most jealous of. It certainly made better for the jetlag and lonely intensity of the first few days of this seven-week journey. Stopping to think of the orca, being close to these incredibly sentient, emotional, social animals, thinking of what I learnt by watching Blackfish and by working with ORCA Your Seas in the UK, and what I’m already learning here, the reasons to be here make more sense.

Blog, Churchill 2014, Running

Vancouver Canada Day 10k, race report

spirit park trailSmall world. You travel half way across the top of the globe to take on Vancouver’s finest* in the Run Canada Day 10k, and what’s actually going through your mind on the start line is the need to beat the guy from Wallington in the Great North Run t-shirt.

To be fair, Vancouver’s best weren’t going to be beat (by me, anyway). The eventual winner of the 10k through Pacific Spirit Park was Tony-Carter lookalike Jeremiah Johnson, who won in 33:11, about five minutes ahead of the 2nd place runner. Second place was a Kenny Mac-lookalike, Adam Morgan, six foot something and lithe, and when the gun went, they both flew off, leaving the rest of us to battle out for the rest of the top ten.

33:11 on this course? This hot day? That was some going. I went out for a quick reconnoitre (as they say in this bilingual city) of the last mile of the course, which was an easy incline, although if I’d feel the same after 9k was debatable. I was already suffering with the humidity and heat – by 10am, when the races (beginning with the kids’ 1k) got underway, it would be in the low-20s, and climbing.

And climbing. And climbing. Although not, the race organiser at Vancouver’s Running Room, warned us, until 5k, as the first half was downhill through the trails of Spirit Park, so to not go out too fast and pace it. We’d also be overtaking the fun runners/walkers on the 5k race before us, so to keep an eye out as we were letting the brakes off down the slopes.

Once the 5k runners were off the first straight road, the 10k runners lined up and waited for the lead bike. I had a funny feeling I might do okay. Despite my chronic hip strain seeming to have moved from the right leg to the left in the past two weeks, apart from the first twenty or so runners, the field didn’t look very fast. And so it turned out – or, my increase in training in the past few weeks, with a firm foundation of Pilates over the last six months laid (Pilates is absolutely the future people. Fill your glutes!) is starting to pay off.

Fortunately most of the race was in the shade of the magnificent Pacific Spirit Park trails. This is a park that sits next to the campus of UBC, but was part of the traditional Musqueam peoples’ territory. During my reccy earlier I’d stopped for what I realise now was a rather sacrilegious pee in the forest, and having stopped running for a few moments I was struck by the absolute silence of the place. It was a good place to find that peace of mind that running in nature, whether it be fells, trails, beach, mountains, can provide. Although there wasn’t going to be much of that after 4.3k.

Because at 4.3k that’s where the climb began. Up to that point I’d gone well. Turning into the first corner in about 12th, I picked off the two Swedes, and the heavy Wallington boots of my fellow Brit were nowhere to be heard. Then over the next 3k I slowly reeled in a Gateshead Conrad lookalike (what is it with all the lookalikes?) who I’d expected more of, for all the handshakes on the start line, and then also took a guy wearing a Spartathlon headband. But it was downhill and I was making the most of the freedom to breathe in the shade of the tall pines.

Then we turned. It wasn’t a straight uphill but a twisty-turny climb, all the more difficult for not being able to see the crests of the rises. About 5k we left the shelter of the trees and hit the road, where the heat and the climb really hit hard. Luckily we were only off for 500m or so, before we turned back into the park, but then also back up. Even so, I managed to pull in the guy in front of me, until about 7k when the hilly run got the better of me, and he pulled away. I looked behind to see if I could see Conrad/Spartathlon guy, to be surprised to see a runner in yellow.

Over the next kilometre he reeled me in, especially as around 8k the race took a deep incline followed by the related climb. Conditions underfoot were almost perfect. This was a really well looked after trail, solid and dry, and even though I had an ankle-wobble around the corner, that was my only mishap. It was enough to let the guy behind me pull me in, however, and when we next left the trails and got back onto the road, I let him take me, with the plan to sit on his shoulder.

Mentally, here’s where I made my mistake. Because I’d planned my long run back to the other side of town to follow the race, I had an excuse for not giving it everything. It was too easy an excuse, and he pulled away. Only five seconds gap or so, but it was enough. Luckily, when we finished, I discovered he was in the 40-49 category, so it wouldn’t have made a difference to getting a top 3 in the 30-39 category. Even so, it was a mental error in a race, one not to be made again.

The final kilometre was back onto the road and into Wesbrook Village and a twisty, turny path up to the finish line. I ungraciously barged my way past two slow finishers on the 5k (a mother and her six year old; hang your head in shame, young man) for a finishing time of 41:36. That’s a way off the PB, but on this course, in this heat, I was pleased with that, and knew I’d have a top 10 finish. Fourth M30-39, and most importantly for general reputation, first international finisher, all in the TBH vest. See all the results here.

A well organised, enjoyable race and a good way to start the tour of Canadian and US races over the next few weeks. Next up: the Windhorse Half Marathon in Bellingham on Saturday 19th July. Prizes for all runners are Mongolian khadags. As they say in these parts, “Go Figure, ay.”

* not actually the reason I’m here, boss. It’s work.

Image (c) of the magnificently named Presley Perswain

First published on

Churchill 2014, Running

Running the Trail, Vancouver

I knew I was in trouble when I asked for their times. Patrick was sub-36m for the 10k, 1.18 for the half and 2.49 for the marathon. Unluckily (for him) he’s been out for three years with a torn patella tendon. He’s currently undergoing a new form of blood surgery which should supercharge a recovery. Sheila, however, was more than willing to take me out for a trail run. A former member of the V-Fac coached by John Hill, her PB was 36m for the 10k and sub-3hrs for the marathon. As a Vet she is a formidable runner. Both trained regularly on the steep sides of Lynn Canyon. Oh, good then.

I wasn’t to worry though, she said. She’d not been out enough recently: a new job and other life travails had gotten in the way. She was sure I would be fitter. I looked up to the mountains on the other side of Burrard Inlet. The mountains clad in a thin strip of cloud. Rainy, rainy Vancouver. That’s where we were heading, she said. Hills? Hills. Trails? Trails. Okay, then.

That was going to be Saturday morning. Friday I warmed up with a 14-miler around Stanley Park and English Bay at the far west end of downtown Vancouver. Stanley Park is cut in two by the Causeway that takes people out to West Vancouver, the expensive area, and North Vancouver, where people have begun to move now they cannot really afford to live in central Vancouver any more. The Lions Gate Bridge’s history is itself linked to wealth. The Guinness family had their summer homes over in West Vancouver, and to make it easier to reach they invested to have the bridge built. Now it’s a rush hour ruin, and to get to the North Shore mountains it’s easier to take another bridge further along the bay. That’s if you want to get out there during the week after work. And why would you not want to? Stanley Park is fine, and a great regular, close-by track. I ran around its edge and saw herons and an eagle (but no seals). But the mountains are the mountains. It’s why people live in Vancouver.

So Saturday morning, having Vitamixed the green smoothie and downed the Vega Prepare pre-run energy mix, I met Sheila outside the Vancouver Aquatic Centre at 830am and we headed to the mountains.

On the drive over we discussed what seemed to be a common topic for runners in both Canada and the UK: why aren’t people as good as they used to be in the 70s and 80s? Despite the advances in technology, shoes, training science, nutrition and psychology, as well as general improvements in health and longevity, the American and European long-distance runners have been going backwards, in terms of times. It seems also the arguments are the same on both sides of the Atlantic. That there is more choice for people in terms of sport; not as many people are running. And they are not running as much, in terms of distance. Where people used to train twice a day as normal, or run between work and training, and do many more non-sedentary jobs, nowadays people train less, sit down more, and run fewer miles. There are less good people in the top bracket (sub 2.40hr marathon runners) and so not as much competition or people to learn from.

lynn canyonIt was a cool, wet morning. It had rained overnight, but had stopped. We were some of the earliest people to the canyon. Just us, twenty or so fire-fighters practising abseiling off the suspension bridge, and half a dozen Twitchers with very high-calibre camera gear trained on the marvellously nonchalant young woodpecker poking its crested red head out of a hole at the top of a dead pine trunk fifty feet above us.

We began the run downhill, and then down steps, to the bridge over the Twin Falls, a yellow torrent that made me think of what mashed potato would look like if it were fizzy, and then into one of the loops. That began with a long, steep uphill. I let Sheila do most of the talking as I struggled to pull myself into a rhythm. We weren’t running at any great pace, but this was the beginning of the run, I shouldn’t be out of breath yet! I could feel yesterday’s 14-miler and the slightly broken, jetlagged sleep, more in my lungs than in my legs. I didn’t think it could be an altitude thing, although straight away, from the regular mist, it was clear even to a novitiate such as myself that we were running through cloud.

But once we got going, the reason why we were running here, and not through the city, began to exert itself. I could see it in the way Sheila opened up to the trail. As with all good runners who I’m lucky enough to run with, I tried to watch her form. She used her arms particularly well, and rotated the thoracic spine well as she hopped over roots and rocks. Downhill she took the lead, having a lower centre of gravity that I did, and let her stride extend to a full pace. We spoke about the quality of downhill runners, and compared ‘trail’ to ‘fell’ running, where of course discussion of quality runners such as John ‘The Badger’ Tollitt came up, and how proper off-road runners lean into the descent and let their feet tuck in under them as their body leads the way. It’s not unlike downhill skiing, explained Sheila. No wonder I stopped at snowboarding, I thought. Downhill skiing terrified me.

We ran up and around a number of loops, and while my sense of geography and lay is normally quite good what threw me were the inclines and descents, the ups and downs. It felt at times like one of those magic stair paintings—I swore we only went up and up and up, and yet then without the down, down and down we were at the same beginning of the loop. Not so, I was told, and then we took again the descent, the long, steep, fast run that I’d forgotten about but felt a whole lot better—and braver—about, second time down. We came back to the start of the Rice Lake Loop and then headed for the suspension bridge, forgetting we couldn’t get across it because of the fire-fighters. So we came back again and headed another way, jumping from foot to foot over the rooty, rocky, trail floor, all the while being brazened by the pinch of pine and uplift of moss in the air, being among the green without want or care.

Taking all the loops made me think about something the ‘runner geographer’ Hayden Lorimer had said to me during a break at the Run3Fest at UCL a few days before. He’s working on a (popular, not academic) book about running based on, or rather growing from, the essay he did for Radio 3 a few years ago on ‘Running the World’. But he’s having trouble getting the thread of the narrative together. That’s because, he says, he writes in swirls, and as he says this, he moves his hands through the air in swirling motions, a bit like the Karate Kid learning how to polish the bonnet of a car: wax on, wax off.

These swirls were the same shapes Sheila and I were making through the forest trails; the same shape our footfalls were leaving in the leafy, wet paths. Or maybe the swirls were just in my mind as I tried to remember the run even while running it, thinking about writing it down later. Like Lorimer, I’m interested in “how I can write running into being” and I want to “experiment with forms of writing about running”, not only because of the dissatisfaction with the forms of writing about running available, but also because there is something in the expressing of writing that adds to its value for me. (Perhaps this is something of a positive-multiplier-of-meaning-effect: that when put together, two things I find meaning from, running and writing, will increase the meaning of both. A strange, serendipitous benefit of combining forms.)

An hour and six miles in we were headed back, but somehow took a wrong turn over the Twin Falls bridge and climbed a steep set of stairs only to then take two more hills (inclines really—was I getting a bit more used to the ‘hill’?) which both turned out to be wrong turns. But then these wrong turns are part of the swirl of running off-road. The line is not so easy to grasp, nor is the meaning of the narrative, but then why should it be easy, always thought of in advance? Each foot fall is spontaneous on the trail, responding to the uneven world.

Then we were back at the Ecology Centre and the fire-fighters packing up their ropes and carabiners and then back past the photographers still trained on the still proud woodpecker, its head turning back and forth like a film star for its paparazzi on the forest red carpeted floor (it turns out to be a pileated woodpecker family). A quick stretch and a (vegan) home-baked cookie and a change of top and we were back in the car heading down the hill to the city.

Activism, Animals, Blog, Churchill 2014

Forty-five days

The chickens are 20 to a crate, and the crates are moved in piles of 2 x 5 by a fast-moving forklift truck driver in dark blue overalls and a thick white mask over his mouth and nose. We’re in the (public) lane between the two buildings of the chicken packing factory at the corner of Hastings and Commercial Drive in East Vancouver. The building on the right as we look up the lane is the warehouse where stacks of crates, some 20 or 30 high, are kept in holding. On the left is the slaughterhouse.

warehouseThe forklift brings 40 or so crates from the towering columns to the open door of the warehouse, and from here he maintains a steady speed of loading the 2x5s onto the automated conveyor belt on the other side of the lane, into the open end of the slaughterhouse. The chickens are now minutes from death. They are 45 days old.

“Just babies,” said Mary-chris Staples, a maths teacher and organiser of the weekly vigils outside the slaughterhouse. She holds up two fingers to the birds in the crates as they are transported between the two buildings, a victory sign. “Bye babies,” she says as we take their pictures. The thought flashes through my mind that the ultimate sponsor of my trip, Winston Churchill (on this Churchill Fellowship), also used, became famous for, using this V-for-victory sign, long before victory was ever in sight.


A truck loaded with chickens will travel hours from the many broiler farms around Vancouver and beyond to this chicken processing plant. Earlier we watched one turn off Hastings into Frasier, but it looked empty. While we’re in the alley another, presumably full, pulls in, ready to unload. I’m with the 2×5 crates, the 200 chickens, that have just been loaded onto the heavy duty conveyor belt. Taking pictures. Mary-chris points past it.

chicken crate“In a minute that one will tip up 45 degrees and empty them all out into the processing line,” she explains. A moment later that’s what happens. The 200 birds are unceremoniously dumped out of the crate – and disappear from sight. The floor of the conveyor drops, the crate is rolled back and moved out of the way back to the open side of the space, so the forklift can come pick it up and return it to the warehouse, where it can either be repaired, or loaded back onto an empty truck and taken back to the broiler farms, for repacking. The other crates, still full of birds, move one space along in the line. The chickens I have been taking photos of, the ones I have been watching, slip slowly to the side, slip slowly away on the floating, buzzing machine.

Behind me the forklift driver quickly drives across the lane and loads up another 2×5 in the empty space. The next 200 chickens, to make sure the processing does not stop.

“Be careful,” says Mary-chris. “He won’t slow down for you.”

If this is the input line, round the corner, where a large refrigerated lorry container is fixed to he building, is the output. And the door adjacent to where we’re standing is in effect the garbage chute. The garage-style door is open and we watch as a huge container is loaded with animal slurry, chicken-flesh pink, pouring down funnels and pipes, some into the container, much of it simply onto the floor.

slurry guyWe take videos and photographs until the container is full, the waste products bound for dog food or some other product with standards lower than what is expected for human consumption, and the slaughterhouse worker shuts the roller door, Mary-chris still filming until its fully closed. I wonder why the forklift driver wears a mask but the slurry guy doesn’t. In the lane it smells but not as bad as I’d imagined.  The smell is not the worst thing. Even the confusion and fear in the eyes of the chickens is not the worst thing. The worst thing is the mechanisation. The numbers. It’s the first time I’ve seen it up close. I want to cry and I also don’t want to cry. I do not want to seem as if I’m shocked.


Earlier I’d joined Mary-chris on this regular Friday vigil at the corner of Hastings and Commercial Drive, where every week she and others from Liberation BC and the other animal rights groups in the city meet and bear witness so that others also might not forget what happens behind the walls of this nondescript building, hidden on the slope down to the traffic lights by 12 broad-leaved trees. A dozen placards are tied to lampposts and electricity boxes so the commuters on their way to work can see the messages: “Honk to stop the abuse”; a picture of a dog and a chicken with the now well-served slogan “Why love one and not the other?”.

Mary-chris stands with another placard around her neck, smiling and waving at the passing traffic. “It’s an invitation,” she explains. “If you don’t make eye contact with the drivers and passengers, they don’t really respond. But if you smile and wave, it’s an invitation. People can see you’re not here to shout at them. They can see that, ‘look, here’s a happy person doing something for the animals’ and that’s the invitation, to see what we’re saying. There’s a place for all types of activism.”


This one clearly works. While we’re talking Mary-chris keeps smiling and waving and she gets plenty of people smiling and waving back, and a regular orchestra of honking horns. She tells me about one young boy whose car had stopped at the lights, who read the placard and then whose eyes lifted to the building, and she could see something had happened in his mind.  “Even if it’s just one person…” she adds.

And then it’s my turn. “Can you hold this while I run to the washroom?” she asks, taking off her placard and handing it to me. Of course, I say. And then she runs up the street, leaving me standing on my own. I’m too self-conscious to wave. But I stand there and I face the traffic. No one honks. I’m not smiling, so no one smiles back. But then a bus driver, who pass by here every day, raises his hand to me, and I think, yes, okay.

When Mary-chris gets back she thanks me for doing my bit. It’s nearly 9am now, and Mary-chris is off to join the striking teachers on the picket line, defending Canada’s free education. She tells me that in fact as of today she’s officially retired. She wanted to retire early so she could spend more time on her animal rights work. We collect in the placards from along the street, and load them in the back of her car. The boot is covered with animal stickers, the back seat already down and the car half-full with other posters and the paraphernalia of an activist’s cause. Some of the pictures are of the abuse uncovered in the Mercy for Animals investigation last week at the Chilliwack Cattle Sales.

Before Mary-chris heads off to her picket line she gives me a hug and tells me that coming out here in the rain, all the way from the UK, has made her day, already an emotional one, even better. As she drives off I change into my running gear. Landed only last night, I don’t know my way around the public transport, so the best way, anyway, to discover a new place is always to run through it. I’ll leave here and do another 11 miles around the beautiful Stanley Park and English Bay.

As I leave I cross the alley again and look up. The forklift is still crossing back and forth, back and forth. The cages empty, full, full, then empty. This is what he will do all day. It is hard labour, and Mary-chris, as with Timothy Pachirat’s book Every 12 Seconds, about his year as a slaughterhouse worker, is at pains to point out, the activists’ vigils and protests are not aimed at the workers, but at the system.

As I’m watching two crows swoop down the lane and one dives and picks up a small morsel of escaped chicken flesh. The other crow bombs its back with its talons, hoping to make the first bird drop its prize. And rather than think how awful this is, I’m thinking why don’t people eat crow instead of chicken, or seagull, or eagle—the eagle I saw a few hours later surrounded by crows out at the very tip of Stanley Park. Why is it the chicken—the hundreds of millions of chickens—are the ones who only get to live to be 45 days old?

Click through for more images.

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Churchill 2014

Conversation for Humans and Nature

LogoBoth Barack Obama and I visited Tasmania in 2012. One night back at my hotel I was watching the news on TV and the lead story was about that evening’s state visit. The great and good of the Australian civic society were invited. As the presenter announced, “the business people, politicians and academics are all here to welcome the President of the United States.”

I sat up. Academics? Invited and up there with business people and politicians? I was amazed. It struck me as something that would never happen in the UK; that academics would be invited, or that it would be reported on the news in this way. And I felt immediately deflated about the status of the general academic in Britain, and the value of deep thought to our collective future.

It’s a question that was on my mind as I landed at Cedar Rapids airport, just outside of Iowa City, where I was headed for the Affect and Inquiry conference this March, to debate the nature of inquiry as engaged with the feelings and motions of affect in everyday life, such as Ann Cvetkovich’s simple question in her book Depression: A Public Feeling: “How does capitalism feel?”.

And who else should be in Cedar Rapids that morning? Obama of course. My coach ride down to Iowa City was disrupted by his cars crossing the highway. Apparently he comes here a lot, as Iowa, the first caucus to announce its support in the US election primaries, is a key state in their political system. But I couldn’t help but think: twice? Okay, this is getting to be more than a coincidence.

But the highlight of the ten day trip, and as the question continued to percolate through my mind along with the Java House’s excellent coffee, was a visit to see the work done by the Centre for Humans and Nature, based in Chicago. As another part of the process in refining some thoughts around my Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship this summer, in April this year I met with Brooke Hecht and Kate Cummings from the Centre. They are, in their words,

a group of engaged and curious thinkers who understand that ideas matter. We invite Fellows to work with staff to broaden and deepen our Project work.

They have a set of outputs focused on the role of the thinker/academic/writer in the debate on the relationship between humans and nature. Their organisation is particularly interesting as they are invested deeply in a belief of the value of engagement through this kind of deep thought that is often best done by those paid to think, and think critically, for a long time: academics, philosophers, and writers/artists. For them, academics and deep thinkers should always be at the table when these issues of our future are being thought out. Their questions include

(I think also there are important questions here about what it takes to form an “us” who can together ask these questions.) It was a full and engaging talk with Brooke and Kate in particular, with other colleagues joining us when they could, and I was hugely grateful for the time they provided to talk with me, which only modeled their ethos of being invested in and generous around the value of thought and conversation. What I gathered from our talk were four questions they were facing that could inform my Churchill project about “The Creative Writer in Conservation / Nature / Animal Education” and the potential structure and forms any work or outcomes could take, and what to take into account when assessing the cultural value of art and thought in these fields:

  1. How to evaluate the work you do
  2. How to develop a strategy for a portfolio of products to have strong conversations that lead to action (e.g. blog posts, journals, events)
  3. How to link into creative activity and output from learning
  4. How to pick an organisational structure (charity, non-profit, tied to academia?)

It was a long and lovely meeting, not least because I got some tips for the best raw food and vegan restaurants in Chicago. It’s helped me think about two key things, re-emphasised in meetings I’ve had since with other organisations, including William Fiennes’ First Story charity, and Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts. (More on those to follow). Those two things are:

– how do we value thought, and the role of the thinker, in debates that are central to our collective future?

– how do I play with and connect what I am doing here on this project to the work I want to produce, and what is its value?

And that night, as my friends and I made our way across town to a Buddhist vegan cafe and then onto Al Capone’s jazz club, The Green Mill, guess who should turn up again, but my buddy Barack. The metro station was cleared so Obama’s motorcade could pass under the bridge. We jumped on the last train out of there before the station was cleared, but I couldn’t help think the guy was following me. Perhaps academics and writers are wanted people after all…

Churchill 2014, Nature Stories

Conversations with ORCA (the charity, not the whale)

Recently I met with Alison Lomax, the Community Engagement Officer for ORCA here in the North East. I worked with Alison on the Your Seas schools programme, where she and her team would spend time with school groups in a number of settings, but especially by taking them on mini-cruises to Amsterdam(!) to spot whales and dolphins on the route. I would then go into the school afterwards and conduct creative writing workshops to get them to reflect upon and write about their experiences and the conservation messages at the heart of ORCA’s work. This was such fun and rewarding work, and when we worked with Moorgate Primary in Newcastle’s East End, we also brought the students up to Sunderland University and produced a magazine together from the experience.

I met with Alison to pick her brains on what would be useful for her if she was going on this trip rather than myself. (Fortunately Alison and her partner were heading off on their own adventure of a lifetime, to India; I’ve learnt that in fact this question, putting the other person into the shoes of going on this trip, is not a particularly lucrative way to phrase it, if you don’t want to fill that person with envious thoughts. Rather unfair of me…)

I did this in part because organisations such as ORCA and people such as Alison are my intended audience for the report that I will write at the end of the trip. But it was also a welcome celebration of the work we did together which was in a large part the inspiration for this fellowship abroad.

So this Churchill Fellowship to explore the role of the creative writer in marine conservation and humane education is working in three different areas, reflected in the three different types of organisation I’m  visiting (marine education groups; animal rights and welfare organisations; and writing and communication foundations, mainly 826 but also museums and societies). ORCA obviously lies very much in the first type, and these were the types of question that Alison helped me shape up about the marine education organisations that I’ll be working with in Canada and the US:

–       how do they mix field work with school work

–       what do they get or feel about the benefits of doing work offshore (most marine conservation education is done onshore, or in classroom, because of the costs and logistics of going offshore; and yet the feeling is from ORCA that offshore work is more impactful)

    • if they do, how do they ‘sell’ offshore experiences to schools and children and parents
    • if a school, how does the school engage

–       how do the organisations structure their programmes with schools

  • see how they work before and after the interventions

–       how do schools or educators pull marine science, ocean literacy and conservation messages into the rest of the curriculum (e.g. there is lots of science based opportunities, but what about in English, Maths, Religion?)

    • is this done through data collection?
    • How to use data in other areas of the curriculum
    • How to run mini projects

–       How do they teach human-animal interaction so that people become more connected with the marine environment

–       What are the start and end points of the engagements and how are they measured?

    • In terms of skills and/or literacy development (writing literacy, ocean literacy)
    • What has been learnt and pledged in terms of behaviour change
      • Does this behaviour change actually happen? How is it captured and measured?

–       How do they work with volunteers in marine education?

–       Do they use wildlife guides and officers?

–       Are there on-deck/ferry resources and lectures on the different routes about marine education and conservation?

  • (in comparison to simply wildlife watching)

–       How do they make the most of the experience? How do they do the most with the data they have?

I’m working with a number of marine education groups such as the Monterey Bay Research Institute, where they have been kind enough to let me crash their Earth 2014 Workshop, where thirty or so marine educators are coming together for a week at the end of July to focus on many of these same questions. (They’ll have had a very busy couple of weeks, as the Atlantic Marine Educators’ Network annual conference takes place the week before in Maryland.) I’m very much looking forward to picking their brains too and, as I’ve been invited to, share our work from the ORCA project and my ideas on where the creative writer fits into all of this, and why creative writing is a valuable practice for reflecting upon and embedding the conservation messages

Churchill 2014, Nature Stories, Projects

Churchill Fellow for 2014

Winston Churchill memorial trustSometimes when you have an idea, you don’t know where it’s going to go. Sometimes, it goes straight into my ideas box (a small, silver gift box I didn’t send the gift in(!), but kept and is now full of post-its and scraps of paper with ideas that I wanted to not lose, but needed to park for later). Sometimes you act on the idea, and it takes off. It forms a trajectory of its own. And it begins to change from a trickle to a stream in your life. And then who knows, perhaps to become the whole ocean of what it is you are, or what you do.

That seems to be the way my writing work around animals and conservation is heading. With the wonderful news that I’ve been awarded a Churchill Travel Fellowship for 2014, to research best practice in the USA and Canada in the field of writing practice as it takes place in the field of conservation education.

The Fellowship, one of 137 this year, out of around 1,200 applications, gives me the opportunity to spend six weeks developing knowledge and practice in conservation education, learning from some of the world’s leading organisations and individuals in taking conservation education to school and community groups.

The main focus of this work so far has been on marine mammal conservation. It began when I got involved with the charity ORCA and their cetacean data project in the North East of England–whale and dolphin watching, basically, to gather data about the populations in the sea along the North East coast, and in the North Sea, seen from the DFDS Ferries that cross to continental Europe.

But I wanted to do more, and learn more. So I applied for a small grant from HEFCE via the Unlimited Fund, which supports new social enterprises. And I was successful — and Nature Stories was born. ORCA already did school visits, taking the school kids out on the ferries to Amsterdam, to see the whales and dolphins. I then proposed writing workshops with them afterwards. You can read more about that on the project overview.

This work seemed so important I wanted to take it further. And the Churchill Fellowship looked like a good way to do that. And I was delighted when I was awarded the grant.

So I’m beginning to plan out the trip, which will take in some writing for/at the Vancouver Aquarium; joining Jackie Hildering the marine detective on some killer whale education boat tours with the Killer Whale Center; a visit to San Juan’s Whale Museum; attending the Mid-Atlantic Marine Educators Network Conference in Maryland; and then back over to Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (with, I hope, time for a trip to Farm Sanctuary and Animal Place in between).

I’m also going to spend a week of my own time in Toronto with the marvelous Toronto Pig Save people, and Jo-Anne McArthur, the author of We Animals, and who runs the Humane Education project, because I want to extend this work into writing practice around farmed animals too, seeing how writing (my own, inspiring that of others) can generate greater awareness and deeper reflection, leading to change, in people’s treatment of animals, and an improvement in the recognition and interests of animals, especially those billions (fish, farmed animals) who are all but invisible to us as living, sentient beings. Who are, as the film suggests, the Ghosts in Our Machine.

I’ll be using the Nature Stories site as my project blog to record the experience and connections, ideas, and discoveries — of which I hope and expect there to be many.