Whatever | January 2009

Whatever | Animal racism
Is the gun-toting “management” of the grey squirrel class war?

WhateverShootingJan2009

This year I have mostly become obsessed by the Mitford sisters, those intrepid darlings of the decadent Vile Bodies era who dallied at both poles of political extremism, Unity befriending Hitler, Jessica running away to fight Franco, while Pamela, a lesbian, became an expert in rearing chickens. Their collected correspondence, Letters Between Six Sisters, spans virtually the entire 20th century, touching on everything from appeasement to the Kennedy assassination.

I should by rights be nauseated by the privileged, ball-going, cousin-marrying exploits of these tweedy scions of the gentry. Instead, they have captivated me. I like to think they represent the last of a doomed uberclass, their extinction predicted by Orwell in The Lion and The Unicorn and memorialised in 1954 by linguist Professor Alan Ross: “A member of the upper class is no longer necessarily better educated, cleaner, or richer than someone not of this class.”

But don’t be hoodwinked by John Prescott’s claim that we are all middle class now. I recently opened the Observer magazine and staring back at me was the objectionable 6th Baron Redesdale, a congenitally balding 41-year-old in checked shirt and hacking jacket, standing in one of his several hundred rural Northumberland acres and toothily guffawing for the camera as he held out a dead grey squirrel by its lifeless tail.

WhateverShootingJan2009

Redesdale, a Liberal peer, really hates grey squirrels. He and his all-weather army of volunteers have killed 19,500 of them in 18 months, ethnically cleansing England’s northernmost county. They are the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership, whose patriotic, conservationist aim is to restore the native red to rightful prominence by trapping and shooting greys “just behind the ear – if you hit them in the middle of the skull you can miss the brain”. Britain’s greys carry a strain of parapoxvirus that kills their shy, russet cousin, outnumbering them by around two million to 140,000. Thus, the population must be “managed.”

Now, I’m a townie. I’m typically squeamish about talk of genocidal culls. Worse, I’m one of those animal lovers who actually thinks the world would be a better place if it was run by cats. (Well, we’d certainly get more holiday.) I’m also a Darwinist, and if one breed of squirrel does better than another, who am I to arrogantly step in and redress the balance? Sorry to namedrop, but as the vegetarian Paul McCartney once said to me, “A fox’ll kill a sheep. It’s nature. I understand that a hawk kills something. It’s his gig.”

Equally, it’s the grey squirrel’s gig to be hardy and predator-free. Don’t start waving the blunderbuss around like you own the place – even if, due to some hereditary accident, the paperwork says you do. It’s like those simpletons who coo at a nice robin on their fencepost at Christmas but say they hate pigeons. The pigeon’s most heinous crime is to thrive. Why? Because we stuff muffins and croissants into our mouths while we walk along the street and strew crumbs everywhere. To favour one bird or squirrel species over another, particularly on the basis of fur colour, is surely a form of racism.

Listen to the braying Lord Redesdale: “Dipton woods: we took 2,000 out. If you clear a woodland you suck all the surrounding population to it. Then you hit ’em again. Suck ’em in, hit ’em.” Sorry, is he reading from Beatrix Potter or Andy McNab? “In the winter there’s no cover. They all get together in the cold. You can get eight or nine with a couple of shots. All huddled together. We annihilated them.”

WhateverShootingJan2009

At a decisive House of Lords debate in March 2006, one Lord Chorley warned of the grey menace, even now scurrying across Europe: “There are three colonies in Italy, at least one in the process of crossing the Alps. If they get to Germany there will be a complete invasion.” It’s an unsavoury mixture of incipient island paranoia (“They come over here, they take our dreys”), nostalgia for a lost, Baden-Powell era (It was the Scouts founder’s inaugural camp in 1907 on Dorset’s red squirrel stronghold Brownsea Island, which helped popularise Nutkin as a symbol of English heritage) and a macho trigger-happy bloodlust redolent of tiger shooting in the Raj. It could make class warriors of us all, even in a post-Obama utopia.

The killing joke is, it was the colonial toffs who brought grey squirrels over from America in the first place, as pets. And a pair escaped. Oh, and Baron Redesdale’s name is Rupert Mitford: he’s the great nephew of my six favourite aristocrats. Well, Unity’s pal would have been proud of him.

Published in Word magazine, January 2009

Campaign for real whale

BlackFish_Tilikum

I’m republishing this review which I originally posted on 14 June, as those in the UK who weren’t able to see it on the big screen during its arthouse theatrical run in July can now actually respond by buying it or screening it! (Also, it’s still getting some fantastically positive reviews, which vindicate my own feelings on seeing an early preview. Deep breath.)

Blackfish is one of the most heartbreaking films I have ever seen, and my favourite documentary of the year so far – despite strong competition. It tells the tragic tale of one specific captive killer whale, Tilikum, a 22.5 ft (6.9m) long, 12,000 pound (5,400 kg) bull who lives – if you can call it living – at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where he still performs for whooping audiences. His name comes from the Chinook word for “friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people”, which is ironic when you think for longer than a few seconds about the fact that whales in swimming pools are by definition separated from their extended families. (Tilikum was captured in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, aged around three years old, and has lived in swimming pools for most of his showbiz life. While held at Sealand in British Columbia, his first “home”, he and two other orcas were herded, every night, into a “holding” pool just 20 ft (6.1m) deep and 28 ft (8.5m) in diameter.)

Blackfish was made by documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who did not start out with an agenda. She had, in fact, taken her kids to SeaWorld and bought into the whole corporate myth that these beautiful cetateans are not “forced” to perform their tricks and do so willingly out of a love for their human trainers. (The word “killer” is usually dropped in the official commentaries at these shows.) Having done the same thing myself in 1994, no matter how conflicted I felt at the time about seeing two whales doing tricks for fish at what was then Marine World Africa USA in Vallejo, California, it has haunted me ever since and hardened my anti-zoo stance. I guess I am the choir to which the film could be accused of preaching to, although it’s hard to imagine why any right-thinking person would be happy about large, social marine mammals being kept in prison when they’ve committed no crime.

The orca is an apex predator, but has never attacked a human in the wild. Incidents of whales “turning on” their trainers, however, are more common than you might idly think. The engine that drove Gabriela to make her film was the awful death on February 24, 2010, of experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau at Orlando, which was witnessed, unknowingly, by a whooping audience. The precise cause of death is still murky, but Brancheau seems to have been pulled by Tilikum into the water by her ponytail, possibly in a moment of confusion over fish.

The whales performing on that occasion had been unresponsive and agitated, and only get fish after successfully effecting a trick, so they were especially hungry. Eyewitness accounts differ. Brancheau’s autopsy indicated “death by drowning” and “blunt force trauma”, and noted a severed spinal cord, and “sustained fractures” to her jawbone, ribs and a cervical vertebra.

SeaWorld was fined $75,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration but insists that OSHA’s findings are “unfounded”. The implication, as ever in cases like this, is that human error led to the tragedy. This was the story instantly spun around the death at a Cumbrian safari park of zookeeper Sarah McClay, killed by a Sumatran tiger. The news media ensures that our first reaction to the story is never, “What is a tiger doing living in Cumbria?”

Blackfish_poster

You will learn more about all this in the haunting film, which provides plentiful context: historical, behavioural, neurological (orcas have a section of brain that even clever old humans don’t have) and, yes, emotional. It may make you cry. I met Gabriela at a private VIP screening of Blackfish in June laid on by distributor Dogwoof for representatives of various NGOs and activist groups (you might say a “captive audience” if the phrase wasn’t so inappropriate!) and she is a calm, logical, unhysterical advocate of basic commonsense in this area. Here she is.

Blackfish VIP Event GC_AC

In her film, she speaks to a whole parade of ex-SeaWorld trainers, who confirm that incredible bond between animal and human, but who still question the motivation behind SeaWorld’s entire business model. The marine park chain currently has 22 killer whales in captivity, which remain big box office. For them, it’s all about money and turnstiles. And why wouldn’t it be? They’re a corporation. Blackfish is as much a critique of corporate America as it is of animal cruelty. (You won’t be surprised that SeaWorld refused to put up a representative to speak on camera, although transcripts of their defence at a previous court case speak volumes.)

Again, I refrain from urging anyone to see a film. There may be issues closer to home than Orlando that come higher up your priority list. You may simply think: well it’s obviously wrong that massive whales are kept in a zoo, I don’t need to see a film about it to have my beliefs hardened. It’s not a snuff movie – you don’t actually see any trainers die, but you do see the bloody damage distressed whales do to each other when cooped up, and you do see some unprecedented “behaviours” which rather suggest psychological damage. Poor Tilikum seems mostly to be kept as a sperm bank these days. (He’s “sired” 21 offspring in his time, 11 of which are still alive.)

Artificial insemination is a common practice in animal husbandry, on farms, at stables, in zoos and elsewhere, and it’s done for reasons of conservation as well as commerce. However, you might find the sheer scale of doing it to a killer whale rather disturbing. Maybe those are double standards, I don’t know, but I love killer whales. When I saw one in Vallejo in 1994 and sat right up against the glass of its viewing pool while it swam past my nose, I felt privileged to have seen it. And then sick that I had seen it in that unnatural setting.

I have a recurring dream which I’ve mentioned before, in which I am close to the edge of a pool in which huge killer whales are swimming. But it’s not a nightmare. I am terrified of falling in, and in awe of the whales, but I never do fall in, and they never harm me. No need to analyse that one, Freudians.

Oh, and I urge you to see Blackfish now that it’s available in armchair-friendly form. (Damn!)

I’m hired

I hope. This week’s Telly Addict represents my first birthday. I am one. Happy birthday to me. This is the 52nd Telly Addict that has gone out into the world. Alright, 53rd, as the lively and hardworking Guardian contributor Stuart Heritage did it for one week when I was away. (I won’t make that mistake again. It’s a doggy-dog world etc.) But it’s been a year for me, so … as well as randomly reviewing Week 7 of The Apprentice on BBC1; Foxes Live on C4; and the delectable Grandma’s House on BBC2, there’s an intricate “previously on …” montage, which I hope you enjoy. And congratulations to Cameron Robertson, who I believe is the heroic soul who edited it together. (See how I credit other people?)