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Scourge of the Shedd

Can Steve Hindi save the whales?


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Waves are smashing against the breakwater behind the Shedd Aquarium and it's threatening rain as a small cell of demonstrators gathers for its usual Sunday protest against the museum. The group carts out signs and poles and rests them on a narrow section of sidewalk backing up to the Oceanarium, the $45-million home of the Shedd's marine mammals. "Oceanarium My Ass," reads the T-shirt worn by Steve Hindi, the 39-year-old leader of the group, the Chicago Animal Rights Coalition (CHARC, pronounced "shark").

As the rain starts to fall, two security guards emerge from a door to the north to keep an eye on the protesters. One of them shoots videotape of the demonstrators as they get their banners in order.

"Look at those guards," says Hindi. "They're paranoid." He waits a moment, then shouts, "Hey, dude. How'd that video you took of us last week come out? Did it come out nice?"

There are new signs on the stretch of lawn separating the walkway from the Oceanarium. The walkway is Chicago Park District property, but the lawn belongs to the aquarium, and the signs advise visitors to stay off the grass. To hammer home the point, a Shedd security supervisor approaches Hindi.

"I'd request that you stay off the grass," says the guard.

The balding, well-built Hindi, eyes flashing, says he has a letter from William Braker, the Shedd director, allowing the CHARC members to be on the grass as long as they aren't demonstrating. "Hey," says Hindi, edging into a harangue, "when are you going to take responsibility for turning the sprinklers on my 8-year-old daughter? When is somebody going to be fired for swearing at a 14-year-old girl?" The supervisor strides off. "Just another patronage bum," says Hindi.

So finishes yet another skirmish in a war CHARC has mounted against the Shedd since April, an uphill fight at best. The Shedd Aquarium, home to the world's largest indoor exhibit of aquatic life, is one of the city's premier cultural attractions, esteemed by the public and hard to wound. Others have tried: earlier groups of protesters wailed and carried on for two years as the Shedd acquired its marine mammals and opened the Oceanarium, but they've long since dropped out of sight. The cetaceans remain, and aquarium attendance is riding high.

Lately, though, CHARC has had some good luck: Free Willy, the summer movie about a boy freeing a whale from a Washington State aquarium, has heightened public interest in the welfare of marine mammals. The Shedd has made a few ham-handed moves against CHARC. And most important, Hindi and his troops have come up with an especially visible way to bollix the whale and dolphin shows that are the aquarium's pride.

The Shedd Aquarium may have met its match in Steve Hindi, as rabid an animal rights activist as these parts have seen lately. After a summer of considerable publicity, Hindi curbed his campaign against the Shedd in late September. But he promises to be back in the spring. "The Shedd Aquarium is a crown jewel of Chicago," he says. "It wasn't built in a day, or a year, and it isn't going to turn down quickly either. The first step is to ruin its luster. We're doing that by showing up the place as a third-rate circus."

It's hard to think of the Oceanarium as a third-rate circus. The original Shedd Aquarium, a beaux arts building consisting of six galleries and a rotunda, cost $3.25 million to build in the late 1920s. Almost all of the money came from John Graves Shedd, a longtime president of Marshall Field & Company, in gifts made just before his death in 1926. Built 50 years later, the Oceanarium cost 14 times more to put up and reflects the contributions of considerably more than one person. The Chicago Park District and the state of Illinois gave $5 million each to the project; the aquarium, in addition to contributing $8 million of its reserve funds, raised $27 million in a fund-raising campaign that received gifts from 1,100 individuals, corporations, and foundations.

The Oceanarium was the longtime dream of William Braker, who's been at the Shedd's helm since 1964. "This was an idea hatched many, many years ago," says Braker, "an attempt to bring to Chicago a vision of what an aquarium should be." To Braker's mind, the Oceanarium's most important audience would always be Chicago schoolchildren. "What chance are [most of those] children ever going to have to visit either of the coasts to see these animals up close?" he says. "They aren't, and the way I've always seen it proximity helps. You can see a picture of Mount Kilimanjaro, but when you stand at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, then you get a sense of it."

The Oceanarium was built on some two acres of landfill over a period of three and a half years. Lohan Associates, the architects, designed a grand structure that projects out from the east side of the aquarium and uses white Georgia marble from the original building's east wall. At 170,000 square feet, the addition increased the aquarium's original size by 75 percent. It opened in April 1991, and is now residence to four beluga whales and four Pacific white-sided dolphins, not to mention sea otters, harbor seals, and penguins. Visitors can observe the animals in five exhibit pools and a dramatic underwater viewing area.

The three million gallons of water that course through the Oceanarium's nine miles of pipe are filtered every two and a half hours through 27 high-quality sand filters, the sound of the motors cut to a minimum by special baffling pads. The water temperature never reaches higher than 55 degrees, mimicking the ocean. The open-air section of the Oceanarium, rising up three stories, contains artificial trees and brush (and real hemlock trees) that give the visitor the impression of being in the Pacific Northwest, the native habitat of the Shedd's whales and dolphins. The rocky outcroppings--made of concrete--feature characteristic grooves and faults, small waterfalls and streams, and piped-in bird and cricket sounds. The central pool, Whale Harbor, lies at the foot of a 1,200-seat terrazzo amphitheater. Lake Michigan is brought in by 215 windows set off by bronze-colored mullions. Looking out through these windows from the vantage point of the amphitheater, there is no place in the city where the majesty of Chicago is more apparent.

While Steve Hindi is outside in the rain cursing the aquarium's "patronage bums," hundreds of people have been guided into the Oceanarium by a greeter. Many visitors are families with children, out for a pleasant excursion on a day otherwise consigned to dreariness; others are tourists, eager to take in what their guidebooks have told them is wonderful.

By 10:30 the visitors, nestled into their seats in the amphitheater, look out the windows to see several signs, mounted on long poles and hoisted high by the CHARC demonstrators. "Captivity Kills," reads one banner. "Thanks but no tanks," says another. Hindi's personal favorite, made of bed sheets by the CHARC leader and his eight-year-old daughter Meghan, says "Welcome to Whale Hell." The spectators in the Oceanarium are puzzled, but not for long.

"We apologize for the distractions," says a young trainer, dressed in a wet suit with a microphone attached so his hands are free. "These are a small group of protesters who are opposed to the very existence of zoos and aquariums. We feel very strongly that it's the role of institutions like the Shedd Aquarium to explain to as many people as possible about the animals here. Our hope is that when you leave here today you will come away with a better appreciation of these animals and of the environment in which they live.

"We strongly respect the opinions of some of those who are protesting, and we encourage you to hear both sides of the issue. If you have any questions about any of the things the protesters are saying, I will be available afterwards to answer questions."

With that, the trainer launches the show. The dolphins (marine biologists call them "lags," for their species name Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) have learned to do various tricks on the basis of hand signals, and as the lead trainer talks on--touching on cetacean facts and on the research the Shedd is doing on the animals--the dolphins do their stuff. In pairs they leap into the air, walk backward along the surface of the water--called "skywalking"--and propel themselves through the water on their backs, using their tails as flippers. The dolphins synchronize their motions in exact tandem, much to the delight of the crowd, and the Oceanarium is filled with popping flashes.

The flashes signal the group of teenagers standing on the grass outside, part of the CHARC group, to start tossing inflated plastic porpoises high in the air, mimicking the jumps of the real dolphins. "Now this is the way to get our message across," says Hindi to his younger brother and aide-de-camp Greg. The rain is coming down in torrents (even the videotaping security guard has run for cover), and though the protesters are sopping wet they manage to manipulate the toy dolphins like puppets in an especially impressive version of skywalking. Inside, the dolphin show comes to an end with the announcer underlining the need to preserve the environment where the whales and dolphins normally live.

Hindi marches around to the front of the aquarium to hold a press conference outlining his objections to the Oceanarium. Then he and fellow CHARC member Debra Leahy go inside to test a dress code the aquarium has been fiddling with. The weekend before, Leahy was barred from entering the Shedd wearing an "Oceanarium My Ass" T-shirt and handed a policy statement that read, "No person is allowed to enter the Shedd Aquarium wearing clothing or otherwise displaying words, messages, graphics or pictures that are obscene or offensive to our family-oriented audience or are inconsistent with the Aquarium's mission." Since then the Shedd, criticized for abridging First Amendment rights, has rescinded the last part of the policy, the one that requires apparel to square with the museum's mission. Hindi and Leahy wander around inside for several minutes, and this time no one stops them.

It's approaching noon. Usually between dolphin shows the CHARC demonstrators pass out a double-sided flyer condemning the display of marine mammals; on one side is an article by Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, headlined "Magnificent dolphins deserve better than captivity." But because of the rain, Hindi and company are prevented from keeping their normal schedule. Instead, they'll spend the rest of Sunday out back interrupting the four afternoon dolphin shows--and trying to destroy the reputation of the $45 million Oceanarium--with some signs and the dancing plastic porpoises.

CHARC's principal problem with the Shedd concerns the restricted environment of the aquarium. "You take dolphins that travel 100 miles a day in pods, with their own children, and now they are going to spend the rest of their lives in a concrete coffin, eating dead fish and swimming in circles," says Hindi. "The Oceanarium is a chlorinated toilet bowl compared to where the whales come from, and now they're swimming in circles, too, or they just lay there."

Exhibit number one in Hindi's prosecution of the Shedd is the mental health of Naluark, the aquarium's 1,400-pound male beluga. According to Hindi, Naluark, who's been in captivity for a little more than a year, is severely depressed. The evidence, says Hindi, is that Naluark exhibits what's called "caged neurosis," swimming back and forth repetitively in his tank for hours. Hindi has a videotape that shows Naluark repeating the same cycle over and over: surfacing in one corner, diving toward the bottom, turning upside down, beating his tail six times in a trip across the tank, turning over, and coasting back to his original corner.

Ken Ramirez, the Shedd's assistant curator of marine mammals, takes great exception to Hindi's contention that the whales and dolphins are depressed. What Hindi describes as depression Ramirez calls altogether normal. Belugas, says Ramirez, typically go into what he describes as "autopilot," a resting stage where they execute patterns over and over. "Belugas [in the wild] swim that way," Ramirez insists. "[The repetitive movement] is natural for a beluga."

According to Ramirez, the whales and dolphins are adequately fed--on a fish diet more balanced and consistent than they'd have in nature--and mentally stimulated. Hindi claims the Oceanarium is too restrictive, but in fact, claims Ramirez, the facility is geared to excite its residents. The various pools the animals occupy fall to various depths, and gates between the pools are periodically opened and closed to create different configurations. "The animals have visual separation from each other," says Ramirez.

Ramirez calls the Shedd's cetaceans "fairly intelligent creatures" with ample curiosity and good memory, and he says the extent to which the handlers work with the animals keeps them mentally nimble. Beyond perfecting leaps and walks, the dolphins become adept at submitting to teeth exams and ultrasound tests. They're also schooled to give blood; each dolphin learns to place its tail (from which the blood is drawn) in the lap of a trainer. While the lags submit to an actual blood test only once a month, they practice their part in the procedure a half dozen times a day, which often includes a crowd-pleasing turn during the shows. "To them it's a game," Ramirez says.

That's a bunch of hooey, thinks Hindi. "To suggest that training, plus five shows a day, would be the same as those animals being out in the ocean, swimming many miles every day and catching fish, is stupid arrogance," he says.

Ramirez thinks Hindi glamorizes the animals' existence in nature. "It's important that an animal be given a rich and full life," he says. "But living with ocean pollution, drift nets, and predators is not a good situation to be in." Hindi argues as a Darwinian: "With animals out in the ocean, the strength of the species is insured. The whole idea is that nature tests things, and if it's good it survives. It's the utmost in arrogance and elitism for Ken Ramirez to suggest that he can improve upon nature."

Ramirez hails his institution for the research it's doing on cetaceans. The aquarium is now using the animals in some 15 studies in all, among them a test on the hearing threshold of the lags, a look at beluga DNA, and a comparison of blood from Shedd belugas with that of wild belugas in the Saint Lawrence River in Canada. The blood study particularly rankles Debra Leahy, CHARC's research expert, who believes the blood chemistry of captive whales just isn't comparable with that of wild ones. "These results [of the study] aren't surprising," she says. "If you compared the blood analysis of someone who sat around all day, drank beer, and ate frozen pizza for dinner every night to [that of] someone who ate a healthy diet and exercised regularly, you'd see differences in their blood profiles, too."

Hindi contends that mental understimulation, a sedentary life-style, and a dead-fish diet are shortening the life span of animals in captivity. His source is a study by the Fund for Animals in California. Pacific white-sided dolphins survive 30 years in the wild, says the fund's marine mammal coordinator, Jerye Mooney, but a study of 58 young lags captured and exhibited since 1972 shows that the average dolphin has lasted less than 4 years in captivity. Mooney says belugas have a life expectancy of 30 to 50 years at sea, yet they too die early when captured; of 58 put on exhibit since 1972, mostly as young animals, only 30 remain alive today.

Ken Ramirez faults the Fund for Animals figures as misleading. First off, he says, in the two decades since 1972 the Shedd and other aquariums have learned a lot about cetacean husbandry and consequently improved their practices. In addition, over the same period the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act has mandated periodic inspections of facilities like the Shedd. Ramirez says marine biologists now expect captive whales and dolphins to live as long or longer than their wild counterparts. As evidence he cites a 1988 study by Douglas DeMaster and Jeannie Drevenak of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission that puts the annual survival rate of the country's captured animals at more than 90 percent (meaning nearly all the mammals alive at the beginning of the year are alive at the end), about the same as it is in the wild.

But there's a shadow over the Shedd's record: the September 1992 deaths of two belugas an hour after they were injected with an antiparasite medication. "Two of our whales had an adverse reaction to the drugs," says Ramirez. "It was very tragic for us. All of us who worked with the whales were devastated--it was like losing a member of your own family." Though the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which monitors aquariums for the National Marine Fisheries Service) found the Shedd and the attending doctor blameless, Hindi is still incensed: "If those two whales had been left where they were at, they wouldn't be dead today."

Part of the Shedd's mission is to educate the public about the animals, says Ramirez; thus the whale and dolphin shows. The dolphins are the more frequent stars, but the whales, equally well trained, make their appearances too, spitting water from their mouths or delivering the multitude of sounds--chirps, clicks, and whistles--that have given the belugas the nickname "canaries of the sea." A varying cast of trainers work from a half dozen different scripts; sometimes the 15-minute spiel concerns the animals' natural history, sometimes the Shedd's research, but the talk always drums home the need to protect the environment of the Pacific Northwest. "When there's a major oil spill somewhere, we can talk about that," Ramirez says.

"An institution like the Shedd Aquarium goes a long way toward instilling a sense about these animals and their plight," he says. "There are wonderful books and videos on the subject, but do you really reach people with them? I don't think so. But a live show like ours can prompt interest." Even despite the protests. The trainer's remarks about the protests, written by Ramirez, sometimes draw applause. Some in the audience are irritated at the protests, but more often people approach afterward with questions. "This has turned into a positive for us, in a weird sort of way," says Ramirez.

Hindi maintains that whatever environmental message the Shedd thinks it's imparting is totally lost on visitors. "I have stood outside on two different occasions and expressly asked people what they learned from the Oceanarium and the shows. Basically the answer was absolutely nothing, though people were entertained."

"If even a fraction of what the protesters are saying were true," says Ramirez, "we'd be out there with them. No one cares more about these animals than we do. What they really believe, for whatever the reason, is that bringing animals out of their environment is wrong--that the animals should be free."

"Yes, I don't agree with zoos or aquariums," says Hindi. "Animals ought not be caged, no more than humans should be. But if animals are caged--and they are physically and psychologically content and there's educational value to it all--that would be a mitigating factor. That would be less heinous. But that's not the case with the Shedd Aquarium."

Hindi grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His father abandoned the family early on; Hindi's mother, Esther, reared Steve and his brother Greg on welfare, briefly in the slums and then in the Roosevelt Homes, a public housing project on the east side of town. "As poor as we were," says Hindi, "my mother taught us to care about animals. We always had stray cats and dogs around, which was against the rules in the housing project. Some animals stayed with us, and some didn't." Living in a housing project was tough, "but as young kids our mother didn't let Greg or me go too wild," says Hindi. "We were fairly quiet in a lot of ways, so we wouldn't get hammered on more than necessary."

That changed in junior high. "This guy Scott was always hitting on me," Hindi remembers, "and one day I stood up to him. Scott backed down, and I discovered one truth of life, that often when you stand up to a bully he backs down. But then I became a bit of a bully myself." Hindi describes himself and Greg as "pretty incorrigible" as teenagers. Both of them got into trouble; Steve engaged in petty theft and spent time in a youth detention center and a couple of foster homes.

After high school Hindi worked as a bus driver for United Cerebral Palsy of Minnesota and as an aide at the Union Gospel Mission in Saint Paul. Around 1978, in his early 20s, he moved to Chicago to try to make it as a rock musician.

"I played guitar in a group, and usually I was the singer, too," says Hindi. "We played at clubs around Chicago, but eventually I got the nagging feeling that this wasn't going to work out as I had planned." In what Hindi describes as "an acceptable change of course," he hired on as a shipping and receiving clerk at Allied Tubular Rivet, a maker of all-purpose rivets in the far western suburbs. Hindi moved up to operate the Allied manufacturing shop and in time to run the whole business, for an owner he describes as lackadaisical. In 1982 Hindi's father-in-law purchased the company, and five years later Hindi bought out his father-in-law and became the company president. Allied Rivet, now located in Geneva, boasts sales of more than $2 million annually . It employs some 20 people, including Greg, whom Steve describes as "a supersalesman."

"Greg and I are both energetic," says Hindi. "I guess you could say we turned our aggressive natures into something positive, in business and in helping animals."

Hindi had always been a fisherman (though he insists he "never let the fish suffocate on the stringer. I would hit them over the head to kill 'em"). As he achieved business success, Hindi took his hobby a step further by hunting for shark off Montauk, Long Island. He caught a 230-pound mako shark in a 17-foot aluminum boat; thrilled by the feat, he bought a 23-foot boat and set a new goal: to hook a great white shark, just like in Jaws. "I wanted to do that desperately," he says.

In 1989, however, he heard about a pigeon shoot held each Labor Day weekend in Hegins, Pennsylvania, where birds were catapulted into the air out of spring-loaded traps and then shot; young boys would finish the job on those pigeons that survived. "The boys stomped on them and pulled off their heads," claims Hindi. "I had never fathomed something like that happening in this country. Now I had pulled out shark guts--and held a shark's beating heart in my hands--but this was worse than that." The plight of the pigeons replaced catching a great white as Hindi's obsession.

In 1989 Hindi made his first trip to Hegins, where he watched the shoot and engaged a few of the participants in debates about the ethics of what they were doing. Before his 1990 trip to Hegins--this time with his brother--in a grand, tough-guy gesture, Hindi challenged Bob Tobash, a leader of the shoot, to "a physical confrontation . . . without time limit, rules, officiating, or any protective gear whatsoever." If Tobash won, Hindi would pay $10,000 to the community park association that benefited from the pigeon shoot. If Hindi won, the pigeon shoot would become history. Tobash never took up the offer. Instead, about 300 other protesters showed up, and the demonstrations that September "turned into a near-riot, but everybody came out alive except for the pigeons," says Hindi.

On the way back to Illinois Hindi underwent a conversion: "I was never going to kill another animal. I was now an animal rights activist instead of a sportsman." Two years ago he helped form CHARC, a small, loosely composed group of activists based in the western suburbs, and he emerged as the leader and spokesman. "I'm the guy with the loudest mouth," he says, "and the most openly aggressive."

CHARC has flailed away on several fronts locally, beginning with an assault on pigeon shoots. In April 1991 the organization mounted a campaign to stop pigeon shoots in Canton, Illinois. Hindi claims it was because of CHARC's protest that the Illinois legislature revoked the ability of the Department of Conservation to hand out permits for the shoots. The group's next target was the Seneca Hunt Club in downstate Seneca.

On mornings of the Seneca pigeon shoots, held three or four times a year at the club, CHARC demonstrators would show up with bullhorns to berate the hunters. "Pigeon geeks," the protesters would yell. "Hunter wannabees." The tactics still enrage club manager Larry Higdon. "Four to six people would come out on a Sunday, and they'd yell their lungs off," Higdon says. " It was ridiculous. They were a bunch of morons. These are nuisance birds we're talking about, and the way I look at it birds, and most animals, were put on earth for man's consumption anyway. Besides, after we killed the pigeons they were given to Chinese people in Chicago, who ate them. They didn't go to waste."

In April 1992 Hindi and his allies took videotape and photographs of pigeon shoots at Carpy's Cove, a restaurant-bar near Wilmington, before a committee of the Will County Board. The committee asked for an opinion from the Will County state's attorney, who in turn asked for an opinion from the Illinois attorney general. In September the attorney general issued an opinion to the effect that pigeon shoots violate the Illinois Humane Animals Act. His opinion was unofficial, as he felt the law was so clear on the subject there was no reason to file an official one. Notwithstanding, pigeon shoots continued at the Seneca Hunt Club until late December, when LaSalle County sheriff's deputies shut down a shoot on a complaint from Hindi and an investigator with the state Department of Agriculture.

CHARC has also protested the hatching and raising of pheasants by the Department of Conservation for release at state-authorized hunting sites. Hindi says the birds are sent to their deaths wearing plastic visors across their faces that allow them to see sideways but not straight ahead. DOC spokesperson Anne Mueller explains that the visors--which offer the birds "protection from each other in confinement"--are removed before the pheasants are released into hunting facilities. This past year the department cut the number of pheasants it raises and distributes from 98,000 to 52,000. Hindi attributes the cut to CHARC pressure; Mueller says it was due to budget constraints.

In early 1992 Hindi ran in the Republican primary for state representative in Kendall County. He called for vouchers in education and for "responsible" economic development that would result "in good jobs, not a zillion jobs." "The farmers, being hunters, hit me up real good on animal issues," Hindi says. But he also had other political deficits--he was self-financed and lacked organizational backing--and he lost badly.

This year CHARC turned its attention to a program to trim the deer population at the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, a 2,500-acre tract near Darien. The Du Page County Forest Preserve District used lone sharpshooters to kill the deer; in addition, animals were lured to a site in the forest preserve, captured with net, and then instantly killed by marksmen firing steel bolts into their heads. In January CHARC activists went to the lure sites and replaced the alfalfa and corn put out by the forest preserve staff with "evidence of human beings," says Hindi. "We put down soap shavings and urinated on the spot."

Such derring-do had "zero effect" on the number of deer the sites attracted, insists Brook McDonald, a Forest Preserve District spokesperson. In all the district slaughtered 253 deer and contributed 9,000 pounds of venison to a local food depository. Hindi's high jinks got him arrested for trespassing, and in February a judge barred him from going within a mile of any county forest preserve. Yet the Du Page County Forest Preserve Commission voted to end the deer kill six days ahead of schedule, a move Hindi calls victory. McDonald says the Forest Preserve District had simply reached its goal.

Last spring, says Hindi, "the pigeon shoots had been knocked out, the pheasant season was over, and the deer kills were history. It came time to decide what we were going to do next. CHARC considered protesting the captivity of marine mammals at either the Shedd or the Brookfield Zoo, which had on exhibit six bottlenose dolphins (a seventh was born there in September). The group also considered going after Northwestern University for its experiments on monkeys (in the department of communication sciences and disorders) and cats (in the department of neurobiology and physiology). But the Shedd seemed like the biggest target. "We decided to go after the Shedd, even though it would be our biggest project yet," says Hindi.

Protests against the Oceanarium date back to 1989, when the aquarium set about acquiring two belugas from the Churchill River in Manitoba. The Shedd had taken four lags from Monterey Bay in California in late 1988 with nary a peep, but the belugas caught the attention of environmentalists. Ed Morlan, an engineer and founder of the Midwest U.S.A. Whale Protection Federation, pressured the Canadian Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans to deny the Shedd a permit to take the whales. The ministry did delay issuing a permit; there was concern, says Ramirez, that the Miami Seaquarium, where the whales were to be held until the Oceanarium was completed, had no prior experience with belugas. Finally, after Governor Thompson interceded with Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, the ministry granted permission for the Shedd to take two whales and lodge them at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington.

When the Oceanarium opened, on April 27, 1991, with the two belugas and four lags on hand, a handful of protesters maintained a sad vigil in the rain. In time only two protesters kept the faith, a retired businessman named Steve Simon and Sydney Dent, a British-born hospital X-ray technician. "We were speaking for animals who had no one to speak for them," says Dent. "Some days we were absolutely freezing, and other days it was terribly hot. We tried to be positive about what we were doing, but you've got people asking, 'Why aren't you helping the homeless? Why aren't you out stopping abortion?' They referred to us as goofballs. It gets to you." In February 1992 Dent moved to San Francisco with her husband; Simon continued to spend his weekends at the Shedd for another month, and then he too gave up the ghost.

That next August there was no outcry when the Shedd acquired four more belugas, including Naluark, again in Manitoba. A month later, when the two belugas died, 30 activists materialized for a candlelight vigil. But otherwise it grew quiet at the aquarium, the most common cry on the steps coming from vendors hawking StreetWise.

CHARC went where others had tired of treading in April, distributing its fliers Sundays in front of the aquarium. "It wasn't until early May when one of our people said, 'Hey, why don't we stand in the back with banners during the dolphin show?"' says Hindi. CHARC members made some banners themselves, special-ordered others, and five times every Sunday held them up, directly in the sight lines of the people in the amphitheater. Hindi says he only realized what a brilliant piece of strategy the banners were when "the security people started going nuts, bobbing off to the side with their walkie-talkies."

As the summer passed, there were various set-tos between the Shedd and CHARC. According to Hindi, on July 3 a security guard told a teenager protesting with CHARC to "shut the fuck up." A few days later aquarium director Braker wrote to the girl's mother, a Lincoln Park minister. "I am sorry if you or your daughter were offended by certain language used by one of our employees," read the letter. "The Aquarium does not approve of nor condone such language. However, given the extreme provocation by certain individuals under the guise of first amendment rights of freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, it is understandable why a person, so provoked, may resort to intemperate language. If the assembly was indeed 'peaceful,' there would have been no reason for our employee to request your daughter to be quiet."

Another day, says Hindi, "we were standing out back and they turned the sprinkler system on the lawn in our direction. My daughter fell on the concrete and bruised herself." Shedd spokesperson Martha Benaroya says it was nothing personal; a groundskeeper was merely realigning the sprinkler heads.

Then there was the battle of mails. At his home in Plano, Hindi suddenly began receiving lime green postcards. "Dear Animal Rights Activist," began each card. "I have just visited the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and had a wonderful experience. I believe the marine mammals there are well-adjusted, well cared-for, comfortable and healthy. I would like to ask you to stop interfering with the Shedd's efforts to educate the public about whales and dolphins and their habitats. Without continued public education, there won't be any more animals to defend." Benaroya concedes that the aquarium had placed a table containing the prestamped postcards in the Oceanarium and had invited the public to fill them out. Hindi slugged back by sending a CHARC flier to anyone foolish enough to use a return address.

The Shedd promulgated a new dress code, then revised it (now visitors are only prohibited from displaying obscenities). And security guards started videotaping the CHARC demonstrations, "so we know what's going on," in Benaroya's words. "Perhaps they thought we were going to attack the building," cracks Hindi. Up went the keep-off-the-grass signs, which CHARC has ignored. The group became adept at issuing press releases and holding press conferences, many of them getting play in the daily papers and on television on slow summer news days.

Lately CHARC's complaints have escalated. It takes the Shedd to task for hiking Braker's salary to $146,000 a year ("It's comparable with [other] institutions of our stature and size," says Benaroya) and for using mahogany in the Oceanarium (it's endangered according to the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network, but not according to the Nature Conservancy in Washington, D.C.). The Shedd is a nonprofit corporation, "and so any money we make goes back into the building for the welfare of the animals," says Braker. But Hindi argues that the Shedd considers the Oceanarium a money-making venture.

Hindi charges that the Shedd's investment portfolio contains companies unpopular among environmentalists, such as USX, Mobil Oil, Texaco, and the Monsanto Company. Hindi calls Monsanto the worst. Gary Barton, a spokesperson for the Saint Louis-based chemical giant, says the firm cut its toxic output from 277 million pounds in 1988 to 123 million pounds in 1992, and that instead of being a big polluter of the Saint Lawrence River, as Debra Leahy alleges, Monsanto has in fact reduced all emissions out of its Quebec plant by 86 percent in just two years. William Braker feels CHARC's carping over the portfolio is a cheap shot. "I would bet--though I can't prove it--that our investment portfolio was essentially the same in 1986 and '87 as it is right now," he says. "If you buy [CHARC's] arguments--that the companies we have invested in are not responsible--then where [was CHARC] when we were exhibiting only bass and bluegills and guppies? These people are Johnny-come-latelies." Notwithstanding, Benaroya says, "our board is reevaluating our investments."

The box-office success of Free Willy has gone unnoticed by no one. CHARC took 30 kids from the Evanston Children's Center to a showing. Ken Ramirez once worked with bottlenose dolphins at Reino Aventura, the Mexico City theme park where Free Willy was filmed. Proud of his service there, he dismisses the movie as "a Hollywood fantasy."

Hindi is a zealot. "This is marinara sauce," he says, finishing a spaghetti lunch in his office one afternoon. "This belt is not leather, and these"--he points to his sneakers--"are not, either." Though he has six dogs, "they're mutts," he says, and his car has cloth seats. He found time this summer to bedevil Thyrl Latting, the owner of a Crestwood-based rodeo company, over his treatment of steers and bucking horses. Latting says he never used prods to move his animals, as Hindi contends, and if he twisted a steer's tail he was well within acceptable practices. "They are accusing me of wrong where there is no wrong," complains Latting. "These are the same people who spray paint people's fur coats at the airport, and don't like hunting and fishing."

CHARC, having stopped its demonstrations at the Shedd for the season as of September 29, is currently turning its attentions to pheasant hunting in Will and Kendall counties and a bow-and-arrow deer hunt in downstate Dixon. But Hindi is still consumed by the whales and dolphins. "They should be treated fairly," he says. "They feel pain and fear and happiness, just like humans do. The argument of places like the Shedd is, if we don't take care of them, who will? That's garbage. They said that about black people, American Indians, and women. Women driving, the same as you and I, or voting! Blacks voting! Heavens no! I say free the whales and dolphins from slavery."

Richard O'Barry, once the dolphin trainer for the TV series Flipper and now a marine mammal activist, reports that this year a Brazilian university professor won his lawsuit against an amusement park there for release of a dolphin; O'Barry supervised the release of the animal into the ocean on August 2. Voluntary releases are practically unknown in and around the United States; O'Barry is currently targeting domestic amusement parks and shopping malls to release animals because he judges only those battles winnable. "I don't go after the Shedds, because places like that will go to their deaths saying they are doing the right thing." Nevertheless campaigns exist to pry the release of both Keiko, the killer whale who portrayed Willy, from Reino Adventura and Corky (stage name Shamu), the oldest female orca whale in captivity, from Sea World in San Diego. (On October 13, the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums announced that veterinarians would study and treat the ailing Keiko and as likely as not transfer the whale to a facility in the U.S. within a year.)

Activists recently managed to convince the South Carolina legislature to outlaw the display of marine mammals, perhaps not such a hard job considering there aren't any on display anywhere in the state. Some aquariums in other parts of the country have elected not to display sea mammals, but often the decision has been based less on the ethics of doing so than on other factors. Colorado Ocean Journey, scheduled to open in Denver in 1996, won't display cetaceans, says founder Bill Fleming, because of cost and the fact that whales and dolphins "don't square with our concept." The Monterey Bay Aquarium, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean, has never displayed cetaceans, "but the primary reason is that right off our deck we have 27 species of mammals--sea otters, harbor seals, lags, and gray whales," says spokesperson Hank Armstrong. "We would prefer not to keep them, but we're not opposed to the practice, if an aquarium follows federal guidelines and provides adequate medical care." The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service conducts unannounced inspections of the Shedd once or twice a year. "We find that Shedd is doing an excellent job," says Laurie Greene, an APHIS assistant sector supervisor stationed in Minneapolis. "There are no problems with the care of the mammals."

Meanwhile, the Shedd is poised to acquire more dolphins. The Shedd has a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to harvest three dolphins off the coast of California by the end of the year. Ken Ramirez says the Shedd "fully intends" to catch the dolphins, though Peter Wallerstein, head of the Malibu-based Whale Rescue Team, vows to foil the attempt. "We're going to keep the dolphins away from the aquarium's boats as best we can," says Wallerstein. "I'm not going to let Ken Ramirez grab those dolphins away from their families."

Long-term, Ramirez has high hopes for the Shedd's animals; they are just now reaching sexual maturity, and he foresees the arrival of babies within six years, despite activists' doubts about the ability of captive creatures to reproduce.

Hindi thinks CHARC's chances for success hinge on its ability to dent the Shedd's attendance. "We want to hit them in the pocketbook," he says. Hindi claims that on Sundays he has noticed an increasing number of visitors electing not to go inside. But Martha Benaroya says the Oceanarium has regularly sold out all summer despite the demonstrations. In 1992 1.6 million people visited the Oceanarium, according to the Shedd's annual report. Overall, aquarium gate receipts rose 7.6 percent over the year, to more than $9 million. "What they do is to distract from our presentations," says Benaroya about CHARC. "We get complaints. But in terms of a threat to the institution, I wouldn't say this has been a problem."

"This is disheartening," says Braker, "but, then again, there are maybe 15 people out there protesting on a given day. Look at the lines going into the aquarium--it's a full house every day. That indicates we are doing something right. Nobody likes criticism. It's difficult to realize there are people who oppose what you're doing, but that's the reason they make vanilla and chocolate ice cream. Steve Hindi can stand out there for as long as he wants, but let me tell you there's no way on God's green earth that those animals are going to be returned to the ocean."

Ramirez views Hindi as the Shedd's own personal class clown. "He's one of the more tenacious animal rights activists and one of the least well-informed. He seems very earnest and sincere in his efforts, and I choose to believe that he is simply misinformed. He hasn't hurt our efforts here, but he takes up our time, time we could better spend on animal care and conservation issues."

But Hindi is convinced that CHARC's time has been well spent. "I don't enjoy small battles," he says. "If it's a small battle I don't fight it. In effect I have hooked my great white shark. This isn't going to be easy, but this is one we're going to win. In fact, I'm surprised how much we've wounded them so far."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.


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