Friday, April 17, 2015

Simcox Child-Molestation Case Underscores How Court System Can Be Manipulated by Extremists

Chris Simcox during an earlier hearing in his child-molestation trial
Nobody in the suburban Phoenix neighborhood knew who Chris Simcox was, at least not by the Minuteman movement persona he had cultivated on television only a few short years before. As far as Michelle Lynch knew, he was just the dad who would hang out and watch the kids play outside, like involved dads do

“I had met him just a few times,” she recalled in an interview, describing the period in early 2013 when they lived in the same suburban Phoenix apartment complex. “He was always outside the apartments that we lived in. There were a lot of families like that, especially around 4:30, 5 o’clock, all the families would come outside and the kids would all play. There was always a ton of children outside, and he was always outside with his kids.

“I remember once he said to me, ‘You know, my motto is, if there’s light outside, there’s no reason to be inside.’ … And I thought, ‘Oh, you know, he’s an involved father,’ but that didn’t last long.

“All of a sudden they were always inside. And you know, he had kid stuff on his back porch, and my daughter liked going over there because they could paint and stuff.” The girls enjoyed each other’s company. There were sleepovers. There was candy.

That all culminated – after months of manipulation of her daughter – with the then-5-year-old girl telling her mother about how Simcox had molested her one night in February. It happened as they were going to bed together one night in May – three months later.

Even after she informed police and they began investigating Simcox, the manipulation continued.

After his arrest in July 2013, his ability to toy with her daughter changed dramatically, but not entirely: Simcox has delayed the trial multiple times, and eventually asserted and obtained his right to represent himself in court, raising the specter of the alleged perpetrator cross-examining his victim on the witness stand.

To Michelle Lynch, that was the final manipulation, and a chance for Simcox to traumatize her daughter a second time.

And until the Arizona Supreme Court intervened last week, that prospect very nearly became a reality after both the trial judge and an appeals-court panel decided to let the trial proceed with Simcox having the right to cross-examine all witnesses, including a third young girl who is expected to testify about his similar attempts to abuse her.

Meg Garvin
“This is just crazy,” says victim’s rights expert Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute. “We shouldn’t ask the victims that much, and we don’t need to ask them that much. Because you can balance these easily.

“I actually don’t think this is as hard as some courts are making it,” Garvin explained in an interview. “The individual’s right to self-representation has well been acknowledged to be limited. You can put reasonable limits in place. And when those limits are necessary to protect someone else’s constitutional rights, particularly a state constitutional right, which is the one at issue here – although at other times it can be a federal constitutional right to privacy, depending on the type of question being asked – then the answer should be pretty straightforward: have a standby counsel ask the questions.”

Daphne Young of Childhelp, an Arizona nonprofit that advocates for abused and neglected children, said that permitting such a situation would be a gross mistake.

“When a potential predator has the opportunity to cross-examine a child victim of sexual abuse, there’s a great risk for intimidation, manipulation and re-victimizing of that young victim,” Young told KPHO-TV. “When you consider all the verbal and non-verbal cues that a predator uses to groom a young victim, there’s a lot that can happen under the nose of the judges and even experts in the field because of the intimate relationship that abusers use to create silence.”

The trial judge in the case, Superior Court Judge Jose Padilla, is no stranger to controversy. In 2009, he came under harsh criticism for having refused to allow a Phoenix woman named Dawn Axsom to move herself and her son out of state to avoid violence that she feared at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, who a short while later shot and killed both Axsom and her mother before killing himself.

Michelle Lynch said that her greatest concern in all this is that, if Simcox gets his way, he’ll traumatize her daughter all over again. She described to Hatewatch how her now-7-year-old girl broke down in hysterics when informed recently that Simcox might be asking her questions directly.

“I am concerned that the system will make my daughter a victim again,” she said. “There’s no reason for this to be happening. If there is this consensus as to it not being appropriate, I don’t understand why it is happening.”

She looks back on the situation now with a mother’s guilt, knowing there were abundant signals that something was amiss. “I felt bad because I trusted him,” she said. “There was this candy thing. The kids have all mentioned candy, which was how he lured them.

“I remember one day the doorbell rang and my son answered the door, and Chris and his daughter were standing at the door, and Chris handed my son a two- or three-pound bag of Skittles, and told my son to give it to my daughter for being a good girl. And at the time I couldn’t understand why someone would give that much candy to a child. It didn’t even register.”

That happened sometime after the February molestation, but before Lynch finally learned in May from her daughter that Simcox had molested her. “It had been happening for a couple months,” she said.

Then came what seemed like an interminable period between her report to police and Simcox’s arrest. “When I told police, and they were investigating him for over a month, my daughter and I were dodging him,” she said. “I mean, he would walk by our house and we wouldn’t go outside. The minute we got home we would run up our stairs and close the door.

“His daughter gave mine this handmade birthday invitation. And I told [my daughter] she couldn’t go, and she wanted to write a letter. I actually have the letter she wrote. She responded with, ‘I’m sorry, [Girl 2], I can’t go to your party because your dad is doing disgusting things to me.’ ”

No one in the neighborhood seemed to have any idea that the person they were dealing with was Chris Simcox, the onetime nationally famous leader of the “Minuteman” nativist border-watch movement. As early as 2005, Simcox’s erratic behavior – including allegations of an attempt to molest another of  his daughters – had been explored in detail by the SPLC. Even as late as 2010, he had managed to remain in public view, running briefly for the U.S. Senate in Arizona.

Yet in the little neighborhood where he moved after divorcing his third wife, Simcox was just another guy. It never crossed Lynch’s radar, at least not until she reported him to police, that he was someone quite well-known.

“My older [teenaged] son, once he looked up who this guy was, after the Scottsdale police department told me who he was, my son started sleeping with a knife under his pillow,” Lynch recalled.

Once Lynch realized who he was, though, more of the pieces fell in place. “Those personalities like Chris have the narcissistic traits, and that’s the first thing I think of when it comes to him, you know,” she said.

“I really feel like because of the kind of person he is, I think he’s trying to make a comeback to being a nationally known person again. Especially with representing himself and all that. In all honesty, he’s going to make a mockery of himself. Because once people start to hear what he is going to throw out there as his evidence – it’s absolutely ridiculous.” Indeed, Simcox has hinted that he plans to present a “grand conspiracy” defense predicated on the idea that he is being persecuted by nefarious forces.

Seeing justice served on Simcox is only part of her intent, though. Her chief focus is seeing that her daughter is treated the right way by the justice system. As she explained to Judge Padilla in a letter pleading to keep Simcox from questioning her daughter directly on the stand:

I understand that within the justice system, all accused have specific rights that officials do their best to uphold so to be fair and maintain the integrity of the Constitution, but it is my hope that my daughter’s rights are also taken into consideration and [she] is given the opportunity to progress and not regress due to the ensuring of one individual’s rights over another.

Meg Garvin says that these kinds of conflicts in pro se cases happen on “a not-infrequent basis.” She says that while it’s rare, there have been cases where accused perpetrators directly cross-examined their ostensible victims. But she insists that there’s no reason for that to happen.

“This isn’t that complicated. To ensure that the defendant’s rights, the real test is if he is directing his representation, and he would still be able to direct the questions,” Garvin said. “The victim would not have to be subjected to a very intrusive, invasive and harassing moment where the perpetrator is essentially assaulting again.”

Yet even though it seems simple, instances such as this one happen all too often in the American legal system, Garvin says. “Courts routinely defer to defendants’ rights without doing an appropriate calculus of the victims’ rights,” she said.

Michelle Lynch believes there’s a real cost to that. “There’s a lot of people out there that don’t even pursue stuff like this because they’re frustrated with the criminal-justice system,” she said. “And I get it. I fully understand, now that I’ve been through this process, why people would just give up and not do anything about it. But I’m a very strong-willed person.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Evidence Mounts: Big Ships Are a Noisy Problem for Orcas

Back when I was putting together a piece for Seattle magazine about the threats posed by increased shipping in orcas' territory to the endangered Southern Resident population -- particularly the lethal specter of increased oil traffic -- I noted that one of the secondary threats posed by these large ships (including, possibly, coal ships coming from Cherry Point, north of Bellingham) is the terrific amount of racket they put up:

Along the western shore of San Juan Island, across Haro Strait, the view that most people observe when the killer whales are present is generally a placid one: The only noises are the sounds of the currents rushing, the “koosh” of the whales as they surface and blow plumes into the air—although at times, the calm is broken by the engines of the boats, sometimes 30 vessels at a time, that come crowding around the whales to get a close look at them. If there are large ships in view, they are mostly distant and seem almost silent as they glide past.

But drop a hydrophone into those same waters and the picture changes dramatically. There will be whales, all talking in their distinct Southern Resident dialect to each other and echolocating for fish. There will be the whale-watch boats, whose engines are mostly short-lived whines and low-level thrums. And then there will be large cargo ships. Because sound travels so well in water, a ship or a orca can be heard across great distances. The underwater sound of a loud ship passing a mile or two away produces a sound that compares to the sound a chainsaw might make in the air.

Val Veirs, a semi-retired physics professor, listens to all this racket, and monitors and records it with an array of hydrophones he has set up off his waterfront home on the west side of San Juan Island. What he and his fellow scientists have found is that killer whales will more often than not increase the volume of their vocalizations when there is higher background noise from boats and ships around them. Researchers at NOAA Fisheries are still studying whether whales fall completely silent because noisy ships are around.

But, according to Veirs, it’s inevitable that these noise levels—particularly the high-frequency component of ship noise—are going to affect their abilities to communicate and hunt, both of which are closely connected to sound. Vocalizations not only appear to play a role in the social component of their salmon-hunting behavior, the orcas also rely directly on echolocation.

Veirs says the ship-noise potential for all this traffic worries him when it comes to the whales. “Right now, about 60 percent of the time, there’s no ship within hearing range,” he says. “But if you put a couple thousand more ships per year in there, it seems to me you’ll end up with about 30 percent of the time...that the whales are able to communicate without interference from vessel noise.”
At the time I put the piece together, the conventional wisdom among whale scientists (including those at NOAA/NMFS, who I queried regarding the issue) was that whale-watching tour boats were a bigger problem for whales, because the frequencies of noise they created were more in the zone used by orcas and dolphins, whereas big ships created lower-frequency noise that was less likely to interfere.

Now, there is further research to corroborate Veirs' views:

Marla Holt, a research biologist with NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, has found that loud boat noise forces endangered orcas to raise the volume of their calls.

But the question, Holt says, is "so what? What are the biological consequences of them doing this?”
To answer that question, Holt and her NOAA colleague, Dawn Noren, a research fishery biologist, studied captive bottlenose dolphins.

They had the dolphin swim into a floating plastic helmet device and whistle at a normal level for two minutes. Then they rewarded the dolphin with fish. The device measured how much oxygen the dolphin used to accomplish that task.

Here's the dolphin whistling at a normal level (audio).

Then by knowing oxygen consumption, the scientists calculated the metabolic rate of the dolphin while making calls at a comfortable level.

Next, they had the dolphin whistle more loudly for two minutes (audio).

Holt and Noren found that when the dolphin was whistling harder and louder its metabolic rate rose by up to 80 percent above normal resting levels.

Just like with humans, when marine mammals' metabolism goes up, they burn more calories. Dawn Noren calculates that a dolphin making the louder call for two minutes would burn the same amount of calories it would get from eating half of a small fish.
These studies mainly looked at vocalizations, which appear to be the main way that orcas communicate. But even more important is the effect on their echolocation sense, which is fundamental to their ability to hunt prey. As Veirs explained it to me, some of this is just the sheer physics involved: When the volume of noise is that high, the amount of loss in the signal return from an echolocation click can be enough to render their ability to see underwater almost useless.

The studies also did not distinguish between noise from whale-watching boats and from large freighters. But what Veirs told me was that while the whale-boat noise could be intense, and it made a significant contribution to the problem, the biggest and most constant contributor to background noise, by far, was large shipping vessels.

My own experience corroborated what Val Veirs was saying. I own a hydrophone (thank you, Cetacean Research Technology) that I take kayaking with me, and I drop it in whenever whales are present (and sometimes even when they are not, just to see if I can catch any sound of them from a distance), and I've been using it for a number of years. That experience has made it clear to me that large vessel noise is far, far more likely to disrupt and disturb orca communication. After awhile you have to take the headphones off for some ships because they throw up such a racket. 

[You don't need to go out in a kayak to experience this for yourself. You can listen to the stationary hydrophones at Veirs' observatory overlooking Haro Strait at the Orcasound link here -- or to the Lime Kiln Lighthouse hydrophone at the same website. Even if it's quiet when you start it up, leave it on for awhile and a ship will come by,]

It seemed obvious to me that the sheer volume issue alone was going to interfere with orcas' abilities to get clear signals back from their echolocation clicks. The volume of large-vessel noise was much more intense, and much, much more sustained.  

And indeed, I have heard orcas shut up when big ships were present, and start vocalizing again when their noise went away. An example of this occurred the same summer I was out gathering some of the material for the Seattle article, and I described it there:
In calm seas off the west side of San Juan Island, my kayak bobs gently in a kelp bed. In the water about a quarter-mile distance from me, orcas mill and frolic, most likely hunting their favorite chinook salmon. I drop my hydrophone (an underwater microphone) into the water to listen to their distinct calls.

A low clanging—whang, whang, whang—fills my headphones. It is the steady and overpowering sound of a cargo ship, one of the regular features of underwater life in the San Juan Islands’ Haro Strait.

At first, a quick scan of the horizon doesn’t reveal the source of the noise. Finally, I spot it: A lone log-bearing ship heads out to the open sea around the very southern tip of Vancouver Island. Whang, whang, whang. It is at least nine miles away.

Finally, the ship rounds the bend, and the sea quiets for just a moment before the orcas’ distinct whistles, grunts and rat-a-tat-tat-tats fill the water. These are J pod whales from the Salish Sea’s famous and endangered Southern Resident orcas, and they are making the well-known calls known as “S1.”

Seemingly energized, the whales head toward my kelp bed and surround it, chatting loudly and rolling in the kelp. It crackles and pops underwater as the orcas rip up fronds while “kelping” themselves, something the Southern Residents are fond of doing, apparently for the massaging effect.
I recorded the whole event, which I've embedded below. This is the whole 24-minute recording. Now, I recommend using this file non-passively: trust me, you will want to skip over the clanging ship noise, which dominates the first five minutes. But I've included it here so you can get a sense of what I'm talking about regarding the incessant and pervasive quality of the noise from big ships. Once you get a taste of that, skip forward to about the 5:00 mark and you'll hear the orcas -- which had been milling off a rocky point, well within my view but not uttering a peep the whole time -- chirp up as soon as the ship noise fades away.

One of the fun things about this encounter was that I was indeed in a kelp bed, so when the orcas came by, I was well out of their way (you can hear me making some ungodly noise in a few spots on the recording as I repositioned myself into the middle of the kelp). What I also didn't realize is the amount of tearing and breaking of the kelp fronds that occurs when orcas "kelp" themselves, as they were doing here. That's all the crackling and popping you hear amid the vocalizations.

Here's a somewhat more pleasant version, with the extraneous ship noise and some of the silent spaces and paddling/repositioning noises edited out. This is the one you want to just hit "play" on:

The larger and more significant takeaway from this is that scientists should probably take a longer look at the effects of large ship noise, and begin thinking about ways to mediate that. Considering the amount of money that we're seeing go up and down Haro Strait, we have to know that making any changes there is going to be an uphill battle. But it may prove to be an important component of recovering this endangered population.

Mother of Simcox’s Alleged Victim Recounts Nightmare Scenario in the Court System

[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]

Ever since that night in May 2013 when her daughter told her that her friend’s daddy – the seemingly ordinary guy who hung out with the kids in the neighborhood, but who turned out to be former “Minutemen” leader Chris Simcox – had molested her the previous February, Michelle Lynch’s world has been an endless limbo of uncertainty while wrestling with her daughter’s pain.

It’s a feeling, she says, that has only been worsened by her experiences with the court system as she awaits the day when Simcox will stand trial more than two years after the event.

Lynch says her daughter, now seven, was a happy and well-adjusted little girl before that night in 2013.

“Before this event, [she] fell asleep with no problems and slept through the night,” explained Lynch in a letter to the trial judge, Superior Court Judge Jose Padilla. “She was very trusting; any complaints of feeling sick were far and few between and were due to true illnesses, and she was only emotional/angry when the time was ‘right,’ which was determined by your typical 7-year-­old child.

“She now has nightmares and does not fall asleep without complaining of her stomach hurting. She also complains of being ‘sick’ when I have to leave her. She does not sleep through the night and most nights she finds her way into my room, even though she has her own room and bed. She worries about the doors being locked and asks over and over if they have been secured.”

In her letter, Lynch went on to describe a litany of changed emotional behavior, including “extreme sensitivity” and frequent crying, as well as extreme anger and occasional hitting. She described what should have been a fun trip to Disneyland transformed into a series of panic attacks.

“I realize that nightmares and separation anxiety may be typical of a young child’s behavior and that many children will exhibit periods of emotional sensitivity and anger; these behaviors were never existent in [my daughter] prior to this happening to her,” she explained.

Lynch wrote her letter because she faces the horrifying prospect of having her daughter be cross-examined by Simcox himself, a prospect that very nearly became a reality when Padilla approved Simcox’s request to represent himself at his trial. Late last week, the Arizona Supreme Court intervened.

Lynch wrote the letter in March, hoping to persuade Padilla to agree to a prosecution request that Simcox be required to only cross-examine the girls through a court-appointed associate attorney.

“Her father and I continually do our best to help [the girl] through all of this by providing her with comfort, consistency, and other avenues that encourage her to work through this in a positive manner to where her daily life isn’t effected,” Lynch wrote. “Allowing Mr. Simcox the ability to address my daughter, I fear, will only set [her] back in her healing and quite possibly exacerbate her symptoms and anxiety/panic attacks.”

However, Padilla ruled in Simcox’s favor, telling Lynch and the other mother in the case that their letters did not constitute evidence that the girls would be traumatized: “With all due respect,” he said, “[the mothers] are simply not qualified to make that assessment.”

That ruling, and the subsequent decision by the state appeals court to allow the trial to proceed even as it considered the legal propriety of allowing a pro se defendant to cross-examine his alleged victim, was in many ways a culmination of Lynch’s nightmarish experience with the court system since Simcox’s arrest.

In interviews with Hatewatch, Lynch has described feeling “left hung out to dry” by both the judge and the prosecutors in the case. She’s especially harsh in her assessment of the performance of the county’s victims’ rights advocates unit, which she says “has just not done their job.”

At one point, Lynch became furious with prosecutors when Simcox was offered a plea bargain that would let him out of prison after 10 years, in exchange for not forcing the girls to testify. However, Simcox himself dismissed the offer, and it was eventually taken off the table.

Lynch was also outraged at the way evidence was handled in the case, particularly the fact that Phoenix detectives failed to seized Simcox’s computer – the one on which he allegedly showed Lynch’s daughter pornography. Prosecutors reportedly explained it away by saying that he was only watching adult porn, a legal activity, on the computer, and so no search warrant for it was ever issued.

Lynch described feeling abandoned by the system. “Over the whole two-year process, victims’ rights in general have just not been followed,” she said. “I’ve gotten more information from reporters and television than I’ve even had with my own victim’s advocate. And I do all the reaching out to them, they never reach out to me.

“My daughter has only met her two times, for a maximum of two hours. So Padilla wants the victim’s advocate to be up on the stand with my daughter, but that’s a stranger too. So you want a stranger to sit with my daughter so that a man who has hurt her can question her. It doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

“You know, she’s not going to want to reach for somebody she doesn’t know, while somebody she does know who hurt her gets to talk to her.”

Lynch did, however, credit Phoenix New Times reporter Stephen Lemons with keeping her informed on the case, saying Lemons texted her with vital updates on the various court rulings and had apprised her of other developments in the trial as they occurred. At other times, she said, she was informed through the social media grapevine.

“I found out about Chris representing himself two weeks after it was filed and approved, through a television news picture that my boyfriend sent me,” she said. “I had a panic attack at work, because nobody had told me about it.

“I went on the county website and found that it was all there, but no one had given me a heads up,” she added. “I should have gotten a phone call the day that he filed to represent himself. I shouldn’t have to do all of that work. I shouldn’t have to become my own legal aide.”

The most difficult part, she says, has been helping her daughter – who gets counseling weekly – heal from her trauma.

“It’s definitely no fun,” she said. She described the recent upheaval in the case as especially trying, since her daughter had not yet been told that Simcox would be asking them questions.

Her daughter was shocked. “She was hysterical. She started crying. She didn’t want to talk to him, and she cried herself to sleep in the car. And then it was an hour later that the advocate texted me and said there was nothing going to happen on Thursday and the judge was going to wait until Monday. So after all that I had to go in and tell her it wasn’t going to happen.”

She is elated that Phoenix attorney Jack Wilenchik (who had been referred to her by Lemons) was able to stop the train wreck from happening, at least for now, by persuading Arizona Supreme Court Justice John Pelander that, in the words of his petition, “if the court allows the child victim to be subject to cross-examination by her abuser, then the victim’s constitutional right [under the Arizona Constitution] to be free from harassment and intimidation will be permanently violated.”

“It’s been really, really difficult,” Lynch said. “I honestly am pleased about the delay, because it’s about making sure that my daughter doesn’t suffer more trauma than what she has been going through."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why SeaWorld's Ads Claiming 'Our Whales Live as Long As They Do in the Wild' Are False

J2, aka 'Granny, estimated to be over 100 years old, plays in the kelp
A lot of my non-dorca friends have been remarking about how frequently they have been seeing the SeaWorld counteroffensive to the #Blackfish Effect on their teevee sets these days, especially on sports and news programs.

What they mostly remark on, in fact, is just how utterly insincere the people they are putting onscreen are coming off. "There are people who believe the crap that Sea World says," says my friend Michael Rogers. "The people in the ad are not two of them."

That's just the tell, though. If you dig into the factual content of these ads, what you'll discover is that they are deeply misleading, bordering on the outrageous.

See for yourself. Here's the most frequently seen ad, featuring a SeaWorld veterinarian and the company's animal-rescues chief, Pedro Ramos-Navarrete (which is kind of weird, considering that SeaWorld has never rescued an orca nor does it support people such as New Zealand orca scientist Ingrid Visser, who actually is engaged in orca-rescue work).

You'll notice that Ramos-Navarrete says the following:

"And government research shows they live just as long as whales in the wild!"

This, over a text that reads:

"Survival in the wild is comparable to survival in captivity." -- Wall Street Journal

Note the little sleight of hand there? The first statement actually describes longevity -- how long the whales live. The second statement in fact is about survival rates -- that is, the likelihood of a whale surviving any given year. These are completely different things.

Then there's the longer SeaWorld propaganda ad addressing the same topic, appended to the above video. It features Chris Dold, SeaWorld's head veterinarian, holding forth to a confused member of the Twitter public, deriding their critics' claims that SeaWorld whales don't live as long in captivity as "false":

You don't need to take our word for it. Some of the best marine mammal researchers in the world work for the federal government at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. You know what they found? That killer whales that live at SeaWorld live just as long as killer whales in the wild. One of the authors of that report told the Wall Street Journal, "Survival in the wild is comparable to survival in captivity."
You'll note that it indulges the same sleight of hand -- assuming that people will believe that survival rates determine how long a whale lives. But they are completely separate measures.

SeaWorld's claim, you see, rests entirely on the work of Alaska scientist Doug DeMaster, who has been compiling statistics on annual survival rates. These are handy numbers and probably give us an accurate picture of the likelihood of any given orca surviving the year, both in the wild and in captivity.

Back in 1995, DeMaster and his partner found that there was a significant difference in those rates between orcas in captivity and those in the wild, favoring wild orcas by a large percentage (as differences in these rates go). But by 2013, he explained to Politifact, he had found their annual survivorship rates to be comparable. That's the study cited in the WSHJ piece as well.

But what SeaWorld isn't telling you is that there's a caveat to DeMaster's observation, and it's a big one:
"[A]s long as you use data from 2005 to 2013."
That's an eight-year data sample to assess how likely an orca is to survive in an institution that has been in operation for over fifty. In statistics, that's what we call a "skewed sample", or more precisely, an "inadequate sample.

That's SeaWorld saying, "Hey, we may have been insanely awful in how we handled orcas before, but we've been doing much, much better the last eight years!"

More to the point, annual survivor rates won't tell you how long the animals will live -- which is, of course, exactly what both Dold and Ramos-Navarette were claiming. All that number gives you is a kind of snapshot of the current health of the population, how likely their animals are to live through the year. If you want to know how long the animals will live, you need to look up longevity statistics.

Now, let's be specific: We don't really have a complete longevity picture for the orcas in SeaWorld's care, in part because they have only been in business for a little over fifty years now, and orcas in the wild (particularly females) are known to live often into their eighties, and even beyond. Atop the post, you'll see my 2013 shot of Granny, the matriarch of the Southern Residents' J clan orcas who is believed to be over 100 years old (though her age is in fact an estimate).

A whale whose age we know a little better is this one: L-25, believed to be about 85. She is also believed to be the mother of Lolita, the L-pod female who has been held captive at the Miami Seaquarium for the past 45 years and counting.

The oldest SeaWorld orca, by contrast, is the female Northern Resident orca Corky, who was captured as a 2-year-old calf from the A5 pod, whose whereabouts remain well known (though in fact her mother has since passed away). She is 47 years old.

The next oldest are the Icelandic orca females captured on the same day in 1978, Katina and Kasatka, who are estimated to be 39 and 38 years old, respectively. The oldest male in the collection, Ulises (another Icelandic capture) is 37.

Those are, however, the outliers when it comes to longevity at SeaWorld to date. The bottom line is much more grim.

As Naomi Rose has explained in detail, SeaWorld is even distorting the annual-survival-rate (ASR) data, which still does not favor SeaWorld:
However, the most recently presented ASR – not peer-reviewed, but presented at a scientific conference (Innes et al. in prep – this is for the period 2005-2013) – calculated from captive killer whale data in the Marine Mammal Inventory Report is lower, at 0.983, than the Alaskan ASR for both sexes aged 1.5-2.5 (0.997), females aged 15-19 (0.996), both sexes aged 10.5-14.5 (0.992), both sexes aged 3.5-5.5 (0.991), females aged 25-29 (0.990), both sexes aged 6.5-9.5 (0.989), females aged 20-24 (0.987), and even males aged 15-19 (0.986). It is higher than all other age classes (mixed and single sex) in Alaska. The Matkin et al. paper did not calculate an overall ASR, so none of these comparisons (a mixed age/mixed sex group vs. a specific age/sex class) is actually valid. Regardless, they are not similar. (Note: the MMIR ASR for the decade 1995-2004 was 0.968, lower than most of the Alaskan values.)
Meanwhile, as she notes, the average life expectancy for wild orcas is “around 50-90 years for females and 30-70 years for males."

So what does it look like for SeaWorld orcas?

I've compiled a database of SeaWorld orcas, living and dead, wild- and captive-born. I've specifically left out other marine parks' orcas from the database, given that the record there is downright horrific, particularly during the 1960s and '70s, and granting SeaWorld's argument that its superior care should not be tainted by what occurs in other parks. Nor does it include the many calves who died stillborn.

Here's the final tally:
-- Over the years (since 1965, beginning with the first Shamu), SeaWorld has possessed a total of 66 live killer whales. Of those, 29 are still alive. Shamu died after six years in captivity, a victim of SeaWorld's dubious breeding program.

    -- Wild-born captives have both fared the worst and lived the longest. Of the 32 wild-born orcas in their collection, only six remain alive. Those six, as noted above, are also SeaWorld's longest-lived orcas. The average age of death for wild whales at the park is 14.5 years.
    -- The average length of captivity of all of SeaWorld's wild whales, including those still alive, is 15.375 years. And the average longevity for all 66 of SeaWorld's whales tallies out at 14.03 years. For males, the average longevity of all orcas living and dead is 14.78 years; for females, it is even lower, at 13.92 years (the reverse of what occurs in the wild, where females enjoy much longer average lifespans).

-- Captive-born orcas have been a mixed bag. Of the 37 who have survived infancy, 11 have died. Those deceased orcas have averaged 9.8 years alive. Of the 26 remaining in SeaWorld's collection, the oldest -- Orkid and Kayla -- are 27 years old. The average age of all their current captive-born orcas is 14.1 years (the number drops to 12.76 if deceased captive-born orcas are factored in).
In other words, it should be obvious that captive wild killer whales have not fared well historically at SeaWorld, especially when compared to the wild. There, the Southern Resident killer whale population that founded SeaWorld has, while officially endangered as one of the effects of that capture period, at least maintained relatively stable numbers. In contrast, 81 percent of SeaWorld's wild population has died, all at ages well below what is considered a normal lifespan in the wild.

And while SeaWorld loves to tout its now-increased standards of veterinary care and husbandry as the reason for arguing "Hey, we've done lots better in the last eight years!", there really is no guarantee that these short-term gains of the recent past will translate into actual longevity for the orcas, including those born in captivity.

They still are subject to the extreme stresses caused by their sterile and extremely limited environment and the obliteration of orca-society norms that they have been wired for over millions of years. They still lead the lives of slaves. There's no doubt the company has light years to go before it can even come close to replicating the complexity of environment and surroundings, as well as the multiple layers of orca social organization, that they can experience in wild waters, even if (in the case of the captive-born whales and damaged goods like Tilikum) that only means life in a seapen similar to Keiko's.

I've always felt the real bottom line for orca captivity lies in the complete history of the affair, and as I note in Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us
Study after study has demonstrated that whales in captivity are more than two and a half times more likely to die than whales in the wild. All the care in the world cannot compensate for the stress brought on by placing a large, highly mobile, highly intelligent, and highly social animal with a complex life into a small concrete tank.

Of the 136 orcas taken in captivity from the wild over the years, only 13 still survive. The average lifespan in captivity so far is about eight and a half years. In the wild, the average rises to thirty-one years for males and forty-six for females. Then there is the upper end of the spectrum. In the wild, males will live up to sixty years, and in the Puget Sound, there is a matriarchal female named Granny who is believed to be a hundred years old.
And let's remember one last stark number: Of the 55 whales the SeaWorld and other marine parks removed from the Southern and Northern Resident populations from 1964-1976, exactly two remain alive. One is at SeaWorld: Corky. And the only surviving Southern Resident is Lolita. She's not even in SeaWorld's collection.

Full database here.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Did SeaWorld Send Out 'Social Communism' Trolls With Signs at Protest?

Anyone know what 'Social Communism' is? From Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project.
They held a nice protest out in front of SeaWorld Florida in Orlando on Saturday, and some uninvited guests showed up. Actually, they apparently were invited -- by someone associated with SeaWorld.

"Support Social Communism" the signs read. They featured both a Russian hammer and sickle and a Chinese star. Or something like that.

The invitations came with paychecks to go stand among the protesters with signs that would at once make the protesters look bad and simultaneously express the company's opinion of the dirty hippies marching out front.

Soooo .... does anyone know exactly what "Social Communism" is? Ever hear of it? Me neither.

And neither, apparently, had the people carrying the signs. Lincoln O'Barry, writing over at his dad's Dolphin Project website, and one of the people protesting, asked the guy carrying the sign if he actually knew of any communists:
When Dolphin Project spoke with one of them, the unnamed Communist admitted to “just doing this as a job to make so extra money.” When we asked him to actually name a communist, he “couldn’t.”
We also noted that the pre-made sign he was holding was manufactured in Texas. When we suggested that this might, ” not look good to some,” should he try to get a job or decide to run for office in 10 years, he began to hide.
Hey, if I had worn black socks with shorts in public, I would try to hide too.
Via Facebook.

Mind you, the sign carriers never openly admitted to being paid by SeaWorld to stand there with those signs. But who else would do that -- with prefabricated signs made in Texas, no less? Certainly the other protesters had their opinion about whose work the "Social Communists" were engaging.

So, let's check the scoreboard on SeaWorld's continuing attempts to push back against the "Blackfish Effect," the rising tide of anger over the clearing understanding that orca and dolphin captivity constitutes animal cruelty.

-- The response website, "The Truth About Blackfish": Epic fail.

-- The proposal to make their sterile pools bigger: Epic fail.

-- The "Ask SeaWorld" Twitter campaign to change their image. Epic, hilarious, profoundly embarrassing fail.

-- Their attempts to push back against ex-trainer John Hargrove with a cheap video smear: Epic and disgusting fail that makes them appear stupidly evil.

I think I'm detecting a pattern here.

Now SeaWorld and its defenders are making clear that the fight over orca and dolphin captivity is becoming your classic Culture War battleground. They're casting their critics into the same basket as LGBT and civil-rights defenders and themselves upon the same pedestal as the geniuses who run Indiana.

Yeah, that should do wonders for their stock price.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Arizona Supreme Court Intervenes, Delays Simcox Trial to Mull Victims’ Testimony

Chris Simcox during an earlier court hearing
[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]

The Arizona Supreme Court intervened in the child-molestation trial of onetime Minuteman leader Chris Simcox on Thursday afternoon, calling a halt to the proceedings until it can consider whether Simcox – who is insisting on his right to represent himself at trial – should be permitted to cross-examine the young girls he is accused of molesting.

KPHO-TV in Phoenix reported that Justice John Pelander of the state’s high court granted a stay in the trial at the request of Phoenix attorney Jack Wilenchik, who is representing the parents of one of the girls pro bono. Wilenchik had filed an emergency motion on behalf of the victim with the Arizona Supreme Court on Wednesday night, after the state appeals court declined to stop the trial while it considered whether or not it was appropriate to allow Simcox to cross-examine the girls.

Maricopa County prosecutors had asked Superior Court Judge Jose Padilla, who is overseeing the trial, to require Simcox to cross-examine the girls through court-appointed associate counsel, but Padilla had refused. And when the appeals court declined to prevent the trial from proceeding while it waited to consider the prosecutors’ arguments, Wilenchik stepped up with what he admits was “a Hail Mary pass,” in an interview with Stephen Lemons of the Phoenix New Times.

“If the court allows the child victim to be subject to cross-examination by her abuser,” Wilenchik argued in his motion, “then the victim’s constitutional right [under the Arizona Constitution] to be free from harassment and intimidation will be permanently violated.”

Justice Pelander agreed, ruling that “the stay shall take effect either immediately or upon completion of the ongoing jury selection process in superior court.” Jury selection in Padilla’s courtroom ended Thursday with only five jurors having been examined, four of those rejected. The trial is now expected to resume sometime after the end of this month.

“Simcox caused this all himself,” Wilenchik told Lemons. “It was him who decided after two years of pending charges to make the decision to represent himself a month and a-half before trial. I think the prosecution moved pretty quickly to ask for this accommodation that [Simcox] not cross-examine his own molestation victims.”

Victims’ rights advocates had earlier voiced their outrage to KPHO reporters about the possibility that Simcox might cross-examine his alleged victims. Daphne Young of Childhelp, an Arizona nonprofit that advocates for abused and neglected children, told the reporters that permitting such a situation would be a gross mistake.

“When a potential predator has the opportunity to cross-examine a child victim of sexual abuse, there’s a great risk for intimidation, manipulation and re-victimizing of that young victim,” Young said. “When you consider all the verbal and non-verbal cues that a predator uses to groom a young victim, there’s a lot that can happen under the nose of the judges and even experts in the field because of the intimate relationship that abusers use to create silence.”

In this case, the girls were ages 6 and 5 when the alleged incidents occurred, in 2013. They are 8 and 7 now.

Simcox was originally charged
with also molesting a third little girl, whom Simcox allegedly bribed with candy to expose her genitals, but those charges were dropped after the grand jury chose not to indict him in that case. However, that girl is expected to be a prosecution witness as well.

According to the papers filed by prosecutors, Simcox “is alleged to have digitally penetrated his biological daughter’s [vagina] on two occasions, penetrated her vagina with an object on [one] occasion and to have fondled the genitals of his daughter’s friend on two occasions.”

Simcox had initially been offered a plea bargain that would have required him to serve 10 years in prison, but he refused and insisted on taking the case to trial. Eventually, after months of disputes with his court-appointed attorneys, Simcox decided to assert his constitutional right to defend himself in court. Padilla granted him that.

Simcox rose to national notoriety in the early part of the previous decade by leading vigilante border watches that attracted a steady stream of media attention, culminating in the 2005 Minuteman Project event at the border that he and cofounder Jim Gilchrist promoted as a national anti-immigration event.

All along, however, there were allegations of sexual misbehavior. A 2005 report by the SPLC noted that Simcox had been previously accused by an older daughter of attempting to molest her, and his third ex-wife – mother of his current accuser – obtained a restraining order during their 2010 divorce.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Arizona Judge Rules That Simcox Can Cross-Examine Young Alleged Victims

Chris Simcox during his border-watching days.
[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]

The oft-delayed Arizona trial of erstwhile Minuteman leader Chris Simcox on child-molestation charges has blown up once again, thanks primarily to Simcox’s insistence on having the right to personally cross-examine his alleged victims — two young girls aged 7 and 8.

Simcox had previously raised the possibility that this might occur when he announced that he intended to represent himself at his trial, something he has a constitutional right to do. However, Maricopa County prosecutor Yigael Cohen requested before the trial began that Superior Court Judge Jose Padilla require that Simcox’s two “advisory” attorneys question the girls, one of whom is Simcox’s daughter.

Now, according to a report by Stephen Lemons of the Phoenix New Times, Judge Padilla has conceded to Simcox’s counter-argument — namely, that he should be permitted to directly cross-examine the two girls because doing so is “a crucial cornerstone of his desire to present his best defense.” Padilla ruled in a hearing Thursday afternoon that Simcox would be allowed to question the girls, who were 5 and 6 years old when the crimes allegedly occurred.

But Padilla refused to remove himself from the trial, which Simcox had also requested.

According to The Associated Press, prosecutors plan to immediately file an appeal of Padilla’s ruling, meaning the trial — which had already been delayed nine times since Simcox’s arrest in July 2013 — is likely to last into the summer. Lemons reported that deputy county attorney Kelli Luther argued strenuously against allowing Simcox to “control his own victims in the courtroom,” pointing to U.S. Supreme Court and federal appellate court rulings allowing for special accommodations to be made in similar instances.

However, Padilla said he would need evidence that the children are traumatized at the prospect of being interrogated by their alleged molester, and brushed aside letters from the girls’ mothers attesting to that effect: “With all due respect,” he said, “[the mothers] are simply not qualified to make that assessment.”

In the filing made this week, Simcox argues that the children “were never subjected to … harm in the first place,” so the county attorney is “asking the court to find the defendant guilty … before the trial has even begun.”

Simcox was originally charged with also molesting a third little girl, whom Simcox allegedly bribed with candy to expose her genitals, but those charges were dropped after the grand jury chose not to indict him in that case. However, that girl is expected to be a prosecution witness as well.

Simcox’s trial was most recently scheduled to begin March 24. However, when attorneys gathered in Padilla’s courtroom that day, they were informed that Simcox was in the hospital, for reasons that could not be disclosed under medical-privacy laws, and would be there for a week. At a pretrial conference on Thursday, Judge Padilla scheduled jury selection to begin on April 6.
But if the prosecutors proceed to take the ruling on the girls’ testimony to an appeals court, that schedule seems unlikely at best.

During his heyday as a Minuteman leader, Simcox
liked to pose for reporters with a gun down
the front of his jeans.
These developments are the latest in a long and twisted road to trial for Simcox, who previously had suggested he would present a “grand conspiracy” defense that he had been targeted for prosecution, and the evidence against him invented, because of his prominent role as a leader and co-founder of the nativist extremism group called the Minutemen. The judge later informed him that such a defense would not be allowed.

At the height of the border vigilante movement, Simcox was president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a nationwide, anti-immigration organization that led armed “citizen border patrols” in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, along with a smattering of states on the Canadian border where Minutemen had deployed to protect America from northern invaders. Never modest, the cigar-chomping Simcox was a hyper and relentless self-aggrandizer who came across with the smug egotism that quickly earned him the nickname “The Little Prince.”

He was known for over-the-top claims, like his repeated assertion that he had seen Chinese Red Army men at the Mexican border, preparing to attack the U.S. Nevertheless, he was featured repeatedly on Lou Dobbs’ CNN show and a plethora of shows on Fox News, where he was treated as a serious critic of immigration policy.

But even then, there were allegations of sexual abuse. As the SPLC reported in 2005, Simcox was accused by his first wife of molesting another daughter when she was a teenager, although no complaint was ever made to police. His second wife also sought custody of their teenage son because, she said, Simcox had become violent and unpredictable. His third wife — the mother of his current accuser — took out a restraining order against Simcox in 2010 when she divorced him.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Paranoid Anti-Obama Ad Keeps Calling Alarm On Ammo Proposal Even After It’s Withdrawn


[Cross-posted at Crooks and Liars.]

Beneath ominous music, the voice of the narrator strikes a strident chord, feverishly warning viewers: “Attention! President Obama is exercising another executive power grab! And this time, he is going directly after your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms!”

Sounding for all the world like an Alex Jones or Oath Keepers production, the video ad then launches into a paranoid description of Obama’s supposed plot to destroy the Second Amendment.

“The Obama administration was unable to impose gun restrictions and confiscation through the legislative process, so now it’s trying to ban commonly used ammunition through regulation. Obama must be stopped now! If we allow Obama to ban ammunition through executive fiat now, it will lead to the loss of our Second Amendment rights by the time Obama leaves office!”

Of course, as with most similar efforts at fearmongering over the Obama administration’s handling of gun rights and gun control, the reality regarding the supposed plot to destroy Americans’ gun rights is a far cry from what’s depicted in the ads: There was never an executive order being considered about the ammunition, as the ad suggests; and the brief consideration by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) of altering regulations of a narrow bandwidth of armor-piercing bullets had already been abruptly abandoned several weeks ago.

Indeed, with only 19 months remaining in office, the long-feared Obama “gun grab” that gun-rights and antigovernment “Patriot” groups (not to mention Jones and Co.) have feverishly warned the public against since at least 2008 appears far from ever materializing. The organization behind the ads, however, is not a run-of-the-mill far-right “Patriot” group, but presents itself as a mainstream gun-rights group, the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF).

The regulation in question – actually an ATF proposal to alter its regulation framework for certain types of ammo used in AR-15 semi-automatic weapons, especially those such as armor-piercing types that seemed unlikely to be used “primarily for sporting purposes” – was met with fierce opposition in early March by the Second Amendment Foundation, who launched the ad campaign with the incendiary video in early March.

However, the ATF recoiled quickly from the negative response generated by the video ad, and on March 10 withdrew the proposal and closed off comments by noting that “the vast majority of comments received to date are critical of the framework.”

Nonetheless, the SAF’s ads have continued to run, appearing on national media outlets such as CNN and Fox News, as well as at conservative outlets such as The Blaze. They direct viewers to an 800 phone number that, if dialed, collects the callers’ names and adds them to an SAF petition opposing
any regulatory change for the ammunition, as well as the outfit’s potential donor database.

SAF spokesman David Workman told me that the non-profit organization had invested “several hundred thousand dollars” in the campaign, and the ads would cease appearing once the ad buy had expired, probably in early April. And besides, he added, his organization didn’t believe that the administration had fully retreated yet.

“When ATF pulled back on it, they didn’t say the idea was dead,” Workman said. “They’re going to go back and re-examine it, see how to present it to the public so it doesn’t generate 310,000 comments. We don’t believe this is a dead idea.”

ATF spokeswoman Danette Seward told the Washington Post that the proposed "green tip" ammo ban came from the ATF's decision to review all ammo exemptions to a 1986 law that had sought to crack down on “cop killer” bullets. Seward said the agency had seen a recent increase in the number of "sporting purposes" exemptions requested by ammunition manufacturers for the AR-15 ammo. Moreover, she said, the agency wanted to strip the “green tip” armor-piercing ammo because AR-15 handguns capable of firing the rounds have recently become available.

The White House had issued a statement calling the regulation change “common sense,” but at no time did it ever indicate that the president would make the regulation through executive action. Press Secretary Josh Earnest, likewise, had told reporters that this was an action by the ATF under its standard procedures, noting: “I’d put this in the category of common-sense steps that the government can take to protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans while also making sure that our law enforcement officers who are walking the beat every day can do their jobs just a little bit more safely.”

Workman explained that the seemingly hysterical conclusion of the ad’s narrator that the failed change in rules for the AR-15 ammunition could doom every citizen’s guns rights could be seen as rational, if one saw any gun regulation at all as a kind of slippery slope.

“If people can be convinced that it’s OK to ban one type of ammunition, it will be easier to sell the idea that it’s OK to ban another type of ammunition,” Workman said. “And then we’ll get right back to where we were before, he’ll want to ban a whole class of firearms. They’ve tried to do that before.”

He thought that raising fears about an Obama plot against citizens’ gun rights was legitimate, regardless of Obama’s prior lack of action on gun control. “You can go ahead and think what you want, but there are a lot of people out there who are very concerned about this administration’s designs on gun control,” he said. “Whether it starts with an ammunition ban or some other sort of regulation, it is still viewed by millions of people as an attempt to erode their basic right to keep and bear arms.”

Thanks in no small part to a barrage of misleading ad campaigns.

Going Clear, SeaWorld Style

Trainers and orcas perform at SeaWorld Orlando's G Pool,
the tank where Dawn Brancheau was killed.

An odd thing happened the other night at Seattle's Town Hall, during John Hargrove's appearance in support of his superb new expose, Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish.

Midway through the Q&A, a woman no one knew stood up and waved some papers and asked Hargrove if he had been arrested for domestic violence and assault against his sister. Hargrove made clear to everyone that this was a baldfaced falsehood. There were some boos, and the woman shrank away into the woodwork. 

Mind you, I am friends with some authors who attract controversy -- especially Rick Perlstein and Max Blumenthal -- and so of course there are always some kooks at their public speaking appearances, at least in Seattle. But they're usually of the black-helicopter variety, if you know what I mean. I'd never seen anyone try to smear an author in public with an unprovable and ugly accusation that had nothing to do with the subject at hand.

Well, let me correct that: I have seen this kind of intimidation by smear campaign previously. It's the kind of thing that everyone who has ever dealt with Scientology has had to confront, particularly when it comes to former members exposing their secrets.

And make no mistake: Hargrove has been scoring consistently against SeaWorld, particularly as he discusses the difficulties orca trainers face, embodied by the 2010 death of his colleague Dawn Brancheau at the hands of the largest orca in captivity, Tilikum, at SeaWorld Orlando. His appearance with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show was also a smash hit:

All the week I had been making jokes on Facebook comparing SeaWorld to Scientology -- a timely comparison, given the appearance of the documentary Going Clear on HBO. The film is in many ways just a distillation of Lawrence Wright's magisterial work of investigative journalism of the same title. "I'm becoming convinced that SeaWorld is the theme-park equivalent of Scientology: a cult that relies on abusive practices and intentional self-delusion/prevarication to sustain itself," I wrote. OK, I wasn't really joking.

And then on Monday night, there was that strange woman trying to smear him with an accusation that, even if true, has not a single freaking thing to do with the issue that Hargrove has been confronting -- namely, the abusive and coercive and ultimately inhumane practices in its treatment both of its captive killer whales as well as the people who have the jobs of handling and caring for them. 

Analogy confirmed. In spades.

And the craziest part is that the smear artists were just getting started.

The very next day, one of the more pestilent corners of the wingnutosphere posted a video showing a drunken John Hargrove harassing a friend on the phone with the repeated and thoughtless use of the N-word, delivered with a Texas twang. Within the day, even as one San Diego area bookstore canceled Hargrove's appearance, the video was then being promoted to various media outlets avidly by none other than Fred Jacobs, SeaWorld's chief communications officer.
SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs said in [an] email that “we believe it is important that you see this video we received just this weekend from an internal whistleblower.”
“Anyone interviewing the “Blackfish” star should certainly be aware of it,” Jacobs said in the email. “We are offended by John’s behavior and language. The video is particularly reprehensible since John Hargrove is wearing a SeaWorld shirt. SeaWorld would have terminated Hargrove’s employment immediately had we known he engaged in this kind of behavior.”
Hargrove was appropriately embarrassed, as well he should have been. It's a video that shows him at his worst -- thoughtless, arrogant, ignorant, and mean. And his initial response -- "I remember parts of that night and drinking, and you can clearly tell we definitely had a lot to drink. But that video is taken completely out of context. There’s not a proper beginning or end" -- was inadequate.

But he's since been more forthcoming, more like the John Hargrove most of us who have met him know now. He told KPBS:
“I don’t think that it will for the people who truly know me ... It’s certainly offensive language and it should’ve never been used. I was so heavily intoxicated — I barely recall any of those events. Clearly, it’s not funny.”

Last night on Naomi Rose's Facebook page, Hargrove went into even greater detail:
First I will make clear I take full responsibility for my actions and I cringed when I watched the video from 5 years ago- a night I barely remember when it happened and even less of 5 years after the fact. There is no place EVER for the N word. This is a word tied with a horrific history that as a white person I cannot even fully understand the depth of pain this caused black people. I certainly regret my actions that night. I would not expect anyone to defend that conversation where I used the N word. I am extremely disappointed that my words could cause more pain to a minority group. Regardless if you are in a private home and drunk and think you are harmlessly being funny- this word should never be used.

Tonight at my book signing in LA, I had an exchange with an black man that will stay with me for the rest of my life. He was intelligent, articulate, and completely genuine. He began by saying that he and his friends have followed and supported me from the beginning I began to speak out and admired my courage by doing so. They believe in what we are all fighting for and have held me in high regard and respected me but when he saw the video he looked me straight in the eyes and said that it truly hurt him and wanted to hear directly from me what I had to say regarding that video and if I was willing to personally apologize to him. 

I was both impressed and humbed and felt even worse actually seeing a face of this young black man who respected me but had now been hurt by me. This was an amazing human being and without hesitation or making any excuses I sincerely apologized to him to his face and explained as I said earlier that even though I know it is NEVER acceptable to use this word that as a white man I don't pretend to ever be able to fully understand the pain this word has caused him personally or any other black person.

He had already bought my book and stayed to go through the line to have me sign his book. We shook hands and had a real and genuine understanding and forgiveness in the end. I was humbled and had so much respect for him in how he chose to conduct himself. I will never forget that exchange. He deserved my answers and my apology and he accepted them and chose to forgive me. And for that I am very grateful. That exchange was truly powerful and witnessed by a packed room in the book store.
As someone whose regular business entails confronting racism, there's nothing amusing about the video or Hargrove's participation in it. But as someone whose work also entails assessing evidence regarding whether someone is a serious racist, I have only one question: What, are you freaking kidding me?

This video was recorded five years ago. Hargrove is clearly intoxicated. He clearly thinks he is being amusing. The only other person who seems to think he's amusing is the person recording the thing, who we can all similarly presume to be the person who leaked the video of their onetime friend. Clearly the woman on the other end is not much amused, especially as Hargrove makes fun of her for dropping the N-bomb as well. 

This is ugly stuff, but I can also assure you that it is common, everyday stuff that a million thoughtless white Americans privately indulge every single day. It's also an extraordinarily transparent smear attempt with "gotcha" video, the kind that actually sheds little light on the issue of racism and its institutionalization, and in the end is a shallow distraction that does more to dilute a serious discussion of the underlying issues. It's certainly not the kind of talk that would attract the attention of organizations such as the SPLC or the ADL, which are dedicated to combating hate speech and racial extremism in its many manifestations, and are logically and necessarily focused on dealing with hatemongers who spew hate over the public airwaves to large audiences every day. This is small-time, petty racism that is meaningless unless it can somehow demonstrate that Hargrove is a practicing racist today (not likely) or that it reveals a character flaw that he has never outgrown.

Part of the story that Hargrove has to tell, in fact, is all about his personal growth and the immense changes in attitudes that he has undergone. At one time, Hargrove was the consummate Company Guy, happily shilling the SeaWorld official line about the killer whales in their care and dedicating his body and his physical well-being to a company that saw him and the whales as commodities, for years at low salaries made endurable by their idealism and the ego satisfaction that came with the job. He made fun of the dippy hippies who used to protest outside SeaWorld venues for the freedom of the animals in his care, including one of the oldest wild whales in captivity, the Northern Resident (A5 pod) Corky.

And then, like someone awakening from an abusive cult because the personal toll -- including the death toll of friends and colleagues -- began to mount, Hargrove grew up and out of the corporate cocoon he had placed himself in. To say that the Hargrove you see onstage today is nothing like the punk in the video is an understatement. In fact, it's also clear that this Hargrove -- the cocky, thoughtless racist -- is the Hargrove who also defended orca captivity to the hilt.

In the end, it reflects far more directly in a negative way on SeaWorld's culture, because the Hargrove in the video is the Ultimate SeaWorld Guy. And that same culture seems to think that smearing him with the video -- given that it has zero bearing on his knowledge of the company's orca-captivity programs -- will convince people that Hargrove has a credibilty problem.

No, it's the company that would trot out that kind of petty, crude, ham-handed smear that has a credibility problem (and note that they don't even have enough class or smarts to do it on the sly, letting their defenders in the wingnutosphere do the dirty work for them; no, their comms chief is the guy out there on the front line, openly circulating the smear). Especially because it reminds us all so closely of how Scientology, the ultimate fear-driven cult, has operated for years.

What Wright's book details exhaustively is how the church assiduously gathers information, especially lots of private information, on all of its members and recruits, especially through the ritual "audits" conducted by the church that are essentially tell-all confession sessions, and then exploits that information and their insecurities to drive them deeper into the cult, making it so that the threat of cutting them off from the cult is like cutting off their air. Tellingly, Hargrove's book describes a culture among SeaWorld employees that worked in similar ways.

And woe betide anyone who should fall from favor in the cult of Scientology. They would be subjected to all kinds of ritual humiliations, demotions and even abusive degradation. Again, not entirely dissimilar from SeaWorld.

Eventually, some would try to break away, but if they ever tried to reveal to the public the facts they had learned they would be confronted with the most ferocious personal attacks, in which literally nothing was out of bounds. Of course, they would first mine all the personal information revealed during the church's "audits," which then were used in attempts to blackmail their critics into silence. If that failed, the church often resorted to even more frightening personal attacks.

In the end, the phrase "going clear" is now a stand-in for anyone overwhelmed by Scientology's fraudulent spiritual nonsense, someone who believes in the church's overtly insane theology without question as an act of pure gullibility. The church itself is shrinking, but it's intensifying its hold on the believers it has remaining.

SeaWorld isn't as deeply deformed as Scientology, perhaps because its pseudo-religious components are limited, as is its reach. But it's become abundantly self-evident that SeaWorld's self-contained and rapidly collapsing bubble of badly constructed reality is approaching its final throes as well. And lashing out as it does so. 

It's an ugly sight, really. Much uglier than a stupid video.