Nature Stories Archive

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.

Activism, Nature Stories, VB40

‘Don’t tell me that, I’ll never go to Nando’s again’

Or why did the chicken cross the road…

As said by Nicky Campbell, Radio 5 Live DJ and “animal lover” this morning at around 7.56am. It was in response to an item on the Radio 5 breakfast show when the director of Omlet, the company behind the eglu and now a hi-vis jacket for chickens crossing the road, was asked what type of companionship chickens provide as pets.

‘You’re doing the chicken a disservice,’ said Johannes Paul, the director of Omlet, who make the jackets. ‘Chickens are great companions, they’re sociable, they come to the sound of your voice, they…’

Not hearing the voices

‘Don’t say that!’ shouted Nicky. ‘I’ll never go to Nando’s again.’ He then actually went ‘La La La La La…’ so as not to hear anything else the Omlet director said about the intelligence, sociability and sentient behaviour of the chicken.

And there it was. The meat eater’s response to the knowledge of cruelty and injustice: I don’t want to know. La la la la la. Rather than listen, and face the terrible knowledge of who, not what, these nonhuman animals are, it’s so much easier to maintain the dissociation.

It’s a strange one for Nicky Campbell. On his Twitter account, he calls himself an “animal lover” and retweets the stories of animal abuse from other Twitter followers.

If you are an animal lover, Nicky, I’d like to challenge you to think about the chicken in the way you think about your dog or cat. Just for five minutes. Think about the reasons not to eat chickens. Can you do it?

For many it can take strength of will to overcome all those obstacles to knowing–and feeling–what happens to the animals that are consumed for food and products. It is difficult, for so many reasons. To begin to face the truth about nonhuman animals, particularly those used for food, is to acknowledge your role in their ill treatment and abuse, before turning to a plant-based diet. That can be an emotionally traumatic process.

But small steps. As Johannes Paul pointed out, chickens are now in the top 10 pets kept in the UK. They are kept for companionship as well as by those people who want to harvest their eggs, often as a way to bypass the cruelty or antibiotics that are inherent in the egg industry. That means more people are living with chickens and seeing their personalities and having to face, perhaps, the choices of eating chicken, perhaps the most hard-done by of all the farmed animals we as a human species consume.

(By the way, the hi-vis chicken vest is not a new story – most other media outlets ran this story back in October 2013.)

Finding voice

After hearing Nicky Campbell do the ‘la la la’ to maintain his cognitive dissonance, I picked up my phone and wrote out a text to Radio 5 to comment on what had happened. And then I deleted the text, and carried on with my morning.

It was the same yesterday, when I posted on Facebook challenging people to ‘carry on, you have your bacon sandwich’ after reading about the tragedy of the pigs who are being live transported to the slaughterhouse in Toronto in the polar vortex that’s hitting North America, of temperatures as low as -23C.

There was the witness account of one pig having to be scraped off the side of the metal truck to which it had frozen with a big wooden panel. This pig was still alive. Most of the pigs had chilblains and purple frostbitten ears. The witnesses of Toronto Pig Save ran to the slaughterhouse to hear the worst screams from the pigs they had ever heard. Pigs who are as social and as intelligent as a three year old child.

And I wrote all this in my post on Facebook to share the story. And then I deleted it. La La La. Let people carry on with their bacon sandwiches.

Why did I delete both? Because I’m wary of being the vegan killjoy. I’m tired of living in a world of meat eaters who will not show compassion towards these nonhuman animals with needs, desires and a will to live, and who clearly suffer a great deal of pain at our hands.

Or rather, I was tired yesterday. Just very tired, due to work, starting running again, getting into a routine. And I do care what people think of me, and don’t want to alienate people. I want to ‘save face’. And am also, I suppose, coming to the knowledge that such anger is not productive in changing people’s attitudes. But it’s something I feel rise up now and then.

It all goes into the pot to think about, and help me answer the important questions. What can I do to stop this? What is the maximum impact I can have?

I thought that I was being less courageous. But silence isn’t always about losing your voice. It can be about having patience, and finding the right voice, much like a writer needs to sometimes not share what she is saying, to speak only to herself, hear the voice in her own head first, and then speak.

(A shorter version was published on the Animal Welfare Party’s website this morning)