08.28.10

Reality TV's Animal Activists

Forget rich, bored housewives, Animal Planet's reality series Blood Dolphins follows people as they try to stop a bloody hunt. Andy Dehnart talks to the activists behind the series about how they want to change viewers’ attitudes.

When it debuted almost two years ago, Whale Wars took Animal Planet, and reality television, in new direction, one that’s embodied in the network’s new tagline, “surprisingly human,” and evident in its newest series, Blood Dolphins. Both follow people who are dedicated to protecting marine life from humans, and for them, television may be the most effective form of activism available, because when reality becomes narrative entertainment, people pay attention.

Whale Wars is produced for Animal Planet by executive producer Liz Bronstein’s Lizard Trading Company; its independent camera crews shadow Sea Shepherd crews during their campaigns in the Southern Ocean to stop Japanese whaling, campaigns that have increased in intensity and violence in the show’s three seasons, including a collision that sank one of Sea Shepherd’s newest vessels.

“It’s really about educating the public so they can make up their own mind and make intelligent decisions as consumers. Once they see Blood Dolphins, they will have more information, and they might not buy a ticket for a captive dolphin show,” says Ric O’Barry.


Blood Dolphins: A sad sight in the cove

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Blood Dolphins takes a larger step toward activism by being produced by actual activists themselves. It picks up where the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove left off: The slaughter of thousands of dolphins in a hidden cove in Taiji, Japan, was captured on film by an activist filmmaker who was following dolphin trainer-turned-activist Ric O’Barry. Following his time as Flipper’s trainer, O’Barry spent the last 40 years of his life working to end dolphin captivity and the related slaughter of dolphins, as The Cove details in a combination of a real-life thriller, investigative journalism, and documentary.

But O’Barry says the film and television series will actually have more of an effect than his day-to-day work these past four decades. “This little town, this tiny little down, has become infamous. People all over the world know about Taiji, and I think because of the filmmaking it’s going to stop. They can’t withstand that kind of pressure,” Ric told me. “External pressure” in Japan, he said, has “brought about more change than anything else.”

Likewise, he thinks “ Blood Dolphins will have a huge impact on the captivity issue. It’s more effective than what I’ve been doing. That’s the new activism, with cameras. I used to do it with a protest sign, he does it with a camera.”

Ric is referring to his son, Lincoln, the creator and executive producer of Blood Dolphins, which debuts tonight. Lincoln said “the filmmaking aspect is so powerful, it’s such a powerful tool. The camera represents millions and millions of people.” I think we’ll see a side of dolphins and the dolphin industry people didn’t even know exists.”

It remains to be seen if viewers will change their plans to visit a local aquarium or Sea World. After all, extensive media coverage of the death of an Orlando Sea World trainer, who was brutally killed by an orca, didn’t stop tourists from filling the Shamu stadium every day to watch marine mammals perform tricks.

Lincoln acknowledges that people rarely ask, “Where did these dolphins come from?” Instead, he said, “People always ask, ‘What are their names? What are the tricks?’ They just imagine the dolphin appeared one day in this tank. When you actually see the dolphin capture and how it’s tied to the dolphin slaughter, you’d just be shocked to realize what these dolphins go through.”

Ric said that “dolphin captures are the economic underpinning to the dolphin slaughter. Had it not been for the Westerners and the dolphin parks buying dolphins from the Taiji dolphin hunters, this probably would have stopped a long time ago, because it’s very expensive.” He added that today, “most of the dolphins these days are born in captivity; they’ve stopped capturing them from the wild, but it really isn’t any different for the dolphin, whether it was born in captivity or whether it was captured in the wild… the suffering is equal,” he said. “It’s like saying, ‘Yeah, well, we’re not capturing slaves from Africa any more. This one was born on the plantation, this is OK. Well, there are some ethical considerations that’s never been addressed, and we hope to address that with Blood Dolphins.”

O’Barry talks about the new show like it’s a weapon. “We’re fighting with Blood Dolphins. When people see that television series, I think they’re going to think twice before they buy a ticket to these dolphin shows. People just don’t have the information.”


The Cove Trailer

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Although there are plans for future installments, right now, Blood Dolphins is just three episodes, and is being advertised as a miniseries. The first episode follows the O'Barrys as they return to Taiji to see if the film stopped the slaughter there, and was previewed Friday, prior to Animal Planet's Sunday basic-cable debut of documentary. It even seems like a condensed version of The Cove, except with overwritten and sensational narration that only highlights the fact that this is not The Cove. ( Blood Dolphins may grow as a series in its second and third episodes, which follow the O’Barrys as the travel to the South Pacific and the Solomon Islands.)

Unlike Whale Wars, Blood Dolphins isn’t really focused on characters, nor does it build narrative arcs and dramatic tension around the activism. Perhaps that’s just illustrative of the difference between the activists’ work—or the consequence of being produced by activists themselves instead of outsiders. Or perhaps the difference is attributable to Ric’s attitude and approach toward his work. “I’m not even conscious of doing a television series. [My son] has to keep reminding me, ‘Dad, we’re doing a television series here!’ I’m just doing my normal day job,” he said.

That’s even how the O’Barrys viewed The Cove, which is almost impossible to believe now considering its success as a film. “Pretty much all the time, my dad’s got camera crews following him around, and they were just one of many film crews. We didn’t really know until it came out that it was going to be the movie it was,” Lincoln said.

“It was not any different than the interview I’m doing with you,” Ric said, overstating the case, but pointing out that interest from People magazine and other media were a direct result of the film. Attention can often be the point for activists, as Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson illustrates. Whale Wars documents his frequent and fervent use of the media, and Watson often shows more passion and life when he’s doing an interview than when he’s commanding his ship to engage the Japanese whalers in dangerous ways.

O’Barry is just beginning to experience the impact that kind of attention can have, and is clearly excited by the possible impact. “For 40 years, I did this work, and was like the tree that fell in the forest and nobody heard it fall or saw it fall: Did it really fall? Now it’s all very visible. It’s really about educating the public so they can make up their own mind and make intelligent decisions as consumers. Once they see Blood Dolphins, they will have more information, and they might not buy a ticket for a captive dolphin show once they get that information,” he said. “Up until this point, this multibillion-dollar industry has been able to send out this propaganda, and everybody believes dolphins actually belong in a concrete box doing stupid dolphin tricks. They believe that’s the right thing to do, and they just don’t have the information.

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Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.