Thoughts on Life Dissatisfaction & the Desire to Trade Places with Someone Else

I don’t have time to write a full blogpost this month, as I have several BIG deadlines to meet in the next week, but I wanted to post something, even if it was fairly short.

So I hereby present you with one of my absolute favourite poems.(I saw James Fenton read this poem at a live event a few years ago and it was wonderful to hear it being read by the actual author).  I love the subtle humour, especially the embarrassed-yet-defiant description of drunkenness and the author’s outrage at someone having stolen his life, despite the fact that he himself no longer wanted it! There’s something very human about his reaction there, with which I think pretty much all of us can identify.

 

“The Skip” by James Fenton

I took my life and threw it on the skip,
Reckoning the next-door neighbours wouldn’t mind
If my life hitched a lift to the council tip
With their dry rot and rubble. What you find

With skips is – the whole community joins in
Old mattresses appear, doors kind of drift
Along with all that won’t fit in the bin
And what the bin-men can’t be fished to shift

I threw away my life, and there it lay
And grew quite sodden. ‘What a dreadful shame, ‘
Clucked some old bag and sucked her teeth. ‘The way
The young these days…. no values……. me, I blame….. ‘

But I blamed no-one. Quality control
Had loused it up, and that was that. ‘Nough said
I couldn’t stick at home, I took a stroll
And passed the skip, and left my life for dead.

Without my life, the beer was just as foul,
The landlord still as filthy as his wife,
The chicken in the basket was an owl,
And no one said: ‘Ee, Jim-lad, whur’s thee life? ‘

Well, I got back that night the worse for wear,
But still just capable of single vision;
Looked in the skip, my life- it wasn’t there!
Some bugger’d nicked it – WITHOUT my permission.

Okay, so I got angry and began
To shout, and woke the street. Okay, OKAY,
AND I was sick all down the neighbour’s van
AND I disgraced myself on the par-kay

And then…. you know how if you’ve had a few
You’ll wake at dawn, all healthy, like sea breezes,
Raring to go, and thinking: ‘Clever you!
You’ve got away with it’ and then, Oh Jesus,

It hits you. Well, that morning, just at six
I woke, got up and looked down at the skip.
There lay my life, still sodden, on the bricks,
There lay my poor old life, arse over tip.

Or was it mine? Still dressed, I went downstairs
And took a long cool look. The truth was dawning.
Someone had just exchanged my life for theirs.
Poor fool, I thought – I should have left a warning.

Some bastard saw my life and thought it nicer
Than what he had. Yet what he’d had seemed fine.
He’d never caught his fingers in the slicer
The way I’d managed in that life of mine.

His life lay glistening in the rain, neglected,
Yet still a decent, an authentic life.
Some people I can think of, I reflected
Would take that thing as soon as you’d say Knife.

It seemed a shame to miss a chance like that
I brought the life in, dried it by the stove.
It looked so fetching, stretched out on the mat
I tried it on. It fitted, like a glove.

And now, when some local bat drops off the twig
And new folk take the house, and pull up floors
And knock down walls and hire some kind of big
Container (say, a skip) for their old doors.

I’ll watch it like a hawk, and every day
I’ll make at least – oh – half a dozen trips.
I’ve furnished an existence in this way.
You’d not believe the things you’d find on skips.

 

Actually, this idea of trading lives with someone else has reminded me of this gem from Jerome K Jerome’s “Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow”, which always makes me smile:

One wonders that fancy dress balls are not more popular in this grey age of ours.  The childish instinct to “dress up,” to “make believe,” is with us all.  We grow so tired of being always ourselves.  A tea-table discussion, at which I once assisted, fell into this:—Would any one of us, when it came to the point, change with anybody else, the poor man with the millionaire, the governess with the princess—change not only outward circumstances and surroundings, but health and temperament, heart, brain, and soul; so that not one mental or physical particle of one’s original self one would retain, save only memory?  The general opinion was that we would not, but one lady maintained the affirmative.

“Oh no, you wouldn’t really, dear,” argued a friend; “you think you would.”

“Yes, I would,” persisted the first lady; “I am tired of myself.  I’d even be you, for a change.”

 

Hopefully I’ll be back with a ‘proper’ post next month.

Thanks for reading!

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Overcoming Boggarts, Dementors & Roderick Spode: The Transformation of Emotion as a Coping Strategy

I have been meaning to write a new blogpost for months now, but due to the demands of my clinical psychology course I have been struggling to find the time. The evidence for my plea that this course seems to have taken over my life is clearly illustrated by the fact that even this blogpost has a psychology-related theme to it. It also, however, mentions Harry Potter and Wodehouse, so all is not lost just yet.

In case any of you have eyed the title of this post with scepticism and are concerned that it will in some way be celebrating the “power” of positive thinking, let me reassure you that this is absolutely not the case. I am a confirmed cynic when it comes to affirmations, mantras and “inspirational” quotes – and feel vindicated by studies like this, which demonstrate that positive thinking can actually be harmful rather than beneficial. But why should positive thinking be harmful? Why can’t we just wish our negative thoughts and feelings away? If it doesn’t work, how do we know if we’re just not wishing hard enough?

Having recently learned about emotion-focused therapy in one of my clinical psychology classes, I became interested in the concept of emotion transformation. This is the idea that in order to overcome a maladaptive emotion, it must be replaced with a more adaptive one. “Maladaptive” in this sense means unhelpful or not useful. Examples of maladaptive emotions: fear, shame, guilt etc. These emotions can lead to us feeling stuck and unable to move forward with our lives. Adaptive emotions, on the other hand, are those that help you to process the experience and move on: joy, humour, forgiveness – even anger, in certain cases. Leslie Greenberg (one of the founders of emotion-focused therapy) says that the philosopher Spinoza was the first person to point out that in order to change an emotion, it must be replaced with another emotion (Greenberg, 2002). In other words, all the rationalization and positive thinking in the world will not help you change your maladaptive emotion unless there is a stronger, more powerful emotion to take its place. Thoughts cannot change our emotions – only emotions have the power to transform other emotions.

Greenberg incorporates this idea into the theoretical orientation behind emotion-focused therapy. I won’t go into detail about this here because I don’t suppose it would be particularly interesting to anyone who isn’t studying psychology, but if you want to learn more about emotion-focused therapy and how it works, check out the article in the references section at the end of this post.

While transforming negative emotions may seem at first a purely psychological concept, it occurred to me, even as I read the article, that I had seen examples of this kind of emotional transformation before, in literature. Any of my readers who are Wodehouse fans will no doubt have spotted the Spinoza reference above. I have no idea whether Wodehouse actually read any Spinoza, so the fact that Jeeves uses the theory of emotional transformation to help out Bertie and his friends on several occasions may be a complete coincidence – I suspect it is.

Let me use a quote from Greenberg’s article and a quote from Wodehouse (“The Code of the Woosters”) to illustrate my thoughts on this.

“Thus in therapy, maladaptive fear, once aroused, can be changed by the more boundary-establishing emotions of adaptive anger or disgust, or by evoking the softer feelings of compassion or forgiveness.” ~ Greenberg

 

“Well, as I say, I went to Jeeves, and put the facts before him… He approached the problem from the psychological angle. In the final analysis, he said, disinclination to speak in public is due to fear of one’s audience…We do not, he said, fear those whom we despise. The thing to do therefore, is to cultivate a lofty contempt for those who will be listening to one…You fill your minds with scornful thoughts about them.”  ~ The Code of the Woosters

And there you have it. Gussie Fink-Nottle’s fear of Roderick Spode and Sir Watkyn Bassett is turned into contempt and dislike and he is able to view the prospect of making a speech in front of them with no qualms whatsoever. Jeeves really does know all about the psychology of the individual!

For those among you who have not yet read Wodehouse, I set forth another example – well, two, in fact, from a book series that is so popular, I have no doubt that everyone will be familiar with it. In the third Harry Potter book, Harry has to cope with several new challenges that are of a somewhat darker nature than those he has encountered in his first two years at Hogwarts. As well as trying to solve the usual mystery and intrigue, Harry also has to try to overcome his own fear, as illustrated by his encounters with Boggarts and Dementors. In the first case, Professor Lupin shows Harry and the rest of his class how to beat a Boggart – a creature that turns into the object or person that you most fear and can only be defeated by laughter. This is a perfect example of transforming the maladaptive emotion of fear into a more adaptive one – humour.

“Nobody knows what a boggart looks like when he is alone, but when I let him out, he will immediately become whatever each of us most fears…The charm that repels a boggart is simple, but in requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a boggart is laughter. What you need to do is to force it to assume a shape that you find amusing.” ~ Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Of course, when Neville Longbottom is forced to confront his greatest fear (Professor Snape), he manages to overcome his terror by imagining Snape wearing his grandmother’s eccentric and old-fashioned clothes, thus providing considerable amusement for the rest of the class, as well as himself.

The final example I shall mention is also taken from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In this book, Harry encounters Dementors for the first time – dark, soulless creatures who prey on human emotions by sucking all the happiness and hope out of anyone that comes near them. The negative emotions associated with them are fear and despair – both of which are obviously maladaptive. As with the Boggart, the way to defeat a Dementor is to summon up the opposite of despair – a powerful, happy memory:

“‘The Patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon – hope, happiness, the desire to survive – but it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the Dementors can’t hurt it….’

…‘And how do you conjure it?’

‘With an incantation, which will work only if you are concentrating, with all your might, on a single, very happy memory.’” ~Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Here again, we see that a powerful, positive emotion is used to displace a negative, maladaptive one. Even though Harry has to think of a memory in order to overcome his fear, it is the emotion attached to that memory, rather than the thought itself, that is the key to his success.

The musings that prompted this post have definitely helped me understand the theory of emotion-focused therapy a little better and I hope it might have entertained you as well. As much as I like studying psychology, it definitely adds to that enjoyment when I can also link it to my favourite books!

 

patronus6

 

References

Greenberg, L. (2002). Integrating an Emotion-Focused Approach to Treatment Into Psychotherapy Integration. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 12(2), 154-189.

Rowling, J. K. (1999). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Wodehouse, P. G. (1938). The Code of the Woosters.

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My Top Five Wodehouse Books

Greetings, dear readers! I have been away for almost the whole of August visiting family and friends back in the UK, so unfortunately I didn’t manage my usual monthly blogpost last month. Hopefully I can now get back on track with two posts in September.

I was thinking recently about my favourite Wodehouse books and decided to try and narrow my favourites down into a Top Five list. This includes two Jeeves books, one stand-alone, one Psmith book and the only full-length Ukridge book. I have not listed them in order of preference – that process would be too drawn-out and agonising – but I have composed a small summary for each one, detailing why I like that particular story and some of the stand-out moments in each book. I know this post will probably be much more interesting for my readers who also happen to be Wodehouse fans, however, I am also secretly hoping that some of you who have not yet read Wodehouse may be intrigued and try one of his books. I am issuing a SPOILER ALERT for all of these because I talk about most of the plots in some detail. 

  1. The Adventures of Sally

Sally

Many people who read Wodehouse do not go beyond the Jeeves and Blandings stories. This, in my opinion, is a mistake. PGW wrote several excellent stand-alone stories and this one is my absolute favourite. It features a superb heroine, the eponymous Sally, who is bright, friendly, smart and very kind, as well as being fiercely independent. You can’t help cheering for her right the way through the story. The hero, Ginger, starts off seeming somewhat diffident and a bit shy, but soon shows himself to be courageous, charming and, of course, hopelessly in love with Sally. Wodehouse stories generally feature one of two main types of love affair. Either there is love at first sight for both parties, or the boy loves the girl, but she isn’t interested in him – at least, not at first. This particular story falls into the latter category. It is unusual in that there are a couple of genuinely sad moments in the book – the most notable being when Sally realises that her previous boyfriend has been messing her about and she suffers real emotional torment over it, before finally being able to move on.

The story also contains some fabulously comic moments (the dog fight scene in particular is very good) and a thoroughly satisfying ending. What more could you want from a book?

  1. Love Among the Chickens

Chickens

This is the only full-length Ukridge story, the rest all being short stories. It is also the first one that Wodehouse wrote, which seems odd when you realise that Ukridge introduces his new wife Millie in the first few pages, but she is never mentioned in any of the other stories. I rather like Millie – she is so utterly trusting and supportive of her husband, in spite of his glaring faults and madcap schemes! In this particular story, Ukridge has decided to make his fortune by starting a chicken farm on the south west coast of England and inveigling his long-suffering friend Jeremy Garnet into helping him set up this new enterprise. Unsurprisingly, chaos ensues. The chickens cause far more trouble than one would have imagined, Jeremy falls in love with the neighbour’s daughter, their diets become increasingly restricted to seemingly endless variations on the theme of chickens and Ukridge manages to enrage all of the local tradesmen.

I took a while to warm to the short stories featuring Ukridge, but I have always loved this book. I am not quite sure why this should be the case – perhaps because there is more to this story than Ukridge’s usual bungling approach to money-making – for example, Jeremy’s romance with Phyllis, and minor characters such as Phyllis’ father, the peppery old professor who boils over at the least mention of his home country of Ireland. Lastly, there are (how could there not be?) some superbly funny scenes – including almost any that involve the chickens, particularly the supercilious Aunt Elizabeth, Millie’s cat Edwin getting stuck in the chimney and saving the professor from drowning to name just a few. It’s one of Wodehouse’s oldest works (first published in 1906 and later revised in 1921) but that just shows what a wonderful storyteller he was, even right at the beginning of his career.

  1. The Mating Season

MatingSeason

I have recently finished listening to the audiobook of The Mating Season for the umpteenth time. It is my favourite Jeeves book for many reasons, but primarily because of the village concert scene, which features the appalling Kegley Bassington posse, Gussie & Catsmeat’s tragic cross-talk act and Esmond Haddock’s smash-hit performance of “A-Hunting We Will Go”. Everything about this scenario is fabulously funny. If you have never read this particular Jeeves book, I urge you to go out and find a copy immediately. You will not be disappointed.

As well as the village concert, the book also features some outstanding supporting characters, including the aforementioned E. Haddock, Corky & Catsmeat Pirbright, Constable Dobbs, Sam Goldwyn and, of course, the ‘surging sea’ of aunts who reside at Deverill Hall, led by the magnificent Dame Daphne Winkworth.

There are no fewer than four active romances going on in this book, along with the ridiculous situation involving Gussie Fink-Nottle and Bertie having to impersonate each other for most of the story. I have absolutely no idea how PGW not only manages to come up with such a screwball plot, but keeps it all together perfectly and maintains such a high level of hilarity throughout the whole book. It really is staggeringly good. If I was forced to choose just one Wodehouse novel to take on a desert island, this would probably be it.

  1. Psmith in the City

Psmith

I think I am probably right in saying that the majority of Wodehouse fans rate “Leave it to Psmith” highest of all the stories featuring Psmith. I’m not entirely sure why I prefer this book to LitP, but it probably has something to do with the fact that the story is semi-autobiographical. I love getting a more direct insight into an author’s mind and that usually only occurs when a story is wholly or partly based on a phase of their own life. Wodehouse was not able to go to university after finishing school, so he had to go and work in a bank. He was not suited to the work and it was almost certainly a relief for both him and the bank when he finally left to become a full-time writer. The start of this book sees Mike being told by his father that he cannot go to university like his brothers, but must go and work in a bank. There is a rather beautiful, melancholy moment when Mike, having just moved to his rather depressing new lodgings in the city, sits on a bench and gazes longingly at the playing fields of a local school, wishing he was back there again. It is not difficult to imagine the young Wodehouse having a similar experience during the first few days of his new career. The story follows Mike and his friend Psmith as they settle in to their new lives as bank clerks. Mike muddles along fairly well most of the time, but Psmith – a person for whom the word effulgent might have been invented – is on his finest form here, as he gently torments their boss (the irascible Mr Bickersdyke) and cunningly befriends the jittery Mr Rossiter, so he will not report any of their minor indiscretions to Mr Bickersdyke. Anyone reading this book who works or has worked in a office job must surely have longed for their own, real-life version of Psmith, to help brighten up the dull monotony of office life and bring the sunshine back into their souls. The ending is everything it should be and Mike and Psmith’s final escape is positively heroic!

  1. The Inimitable Jeeves

Jeeves

I had serious trouble choosing the fifth book for this list. The first four were very easy, but this one was more of a challenge. I wanted to make sure I picked something that I would be happy to read/listen to over and over again, like the first four. But nothing immediately sprang to mind, unlike the first four, which were very easy to select. I had thought about choosing a Blandings novel, but (apart from Leave it to Psmith), none of the Blandings stories stand out for me. Then I realised that The Inimitable Jeeves was one that I had re-read on numerous occasions and contained several of my very favourite Jeeves stories, so this book won out.This Jeeves book is really a collection of short stories, which are all connected by Bingo Little’s seemingly hopeless romantic pursuits, finally terminating in his joyful union with the popular novelist Rosie M. Banks. My favourite story within this book is probably “Comrade Bingo”, in which Bingo pretends to be a communist in order to further his romantic cause with the ghastly Charlotte Corday Rowbotham. The exquisitely funny scene when Bingo, Charlotte, her father and Comrade Butt come to Bertie’s flat for tea is just superb.

Bingo’s uncle Lord Bittlesham is also a splendid supporting character – and he is wonderfully voiced by Jonathan Cecil in the audiobook. As most Wodehouse fans know, Bingo does finally find his soulmate and settles down to a life of married bliss.

So there you have my top five Wodehouse books. Do you agree with my choices? Which ones would you choose to go in your top five? Should we even attempt to single out favourites at all? Do let me know your thoughts!

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An Interview with M. Negrijn: Author of the “Pure Red Sand” Trilogy

Ahoy-hoy, blog-readers! For this month’s blogpost, I thought I would try something a little bit different. I’ve recently become interested in supporting self-published authors, so I was very excited to find out that one of my new friends here in Newfoundland was self-publishing her first novel – a thrilling tale of survival against the odds on an extraterrestrial colony. I read her book and to my delight, I enjoyed it very much. So I decided to ask her to do an interview with me and use it for this month’s blogpost. Here is the result – I hope you enjoy hearing some of her thoughts and if you also decide to buy a copy of her book, I promise you won’t be disappointed!

So, welcome to my blog Meghan! I’ve known you for a while now of course, but my readers have never met you. Could you start off by telling us a little about yourself and how you became a writer?

Thanks so much for the lovely compliments on my book and for interviewing me. I’m a bit of a reluctant nomad with a love for the written word. I think we communicate our lives through story. Whether it’s a grand epic or what we did last weekend, it’s a powerful medium.

I started writing poetry when I was nine. I didn’t really take it seriously until I was 14 and a teacher encouraged me to enter a contest. About a year after that I met a good friend, Jonathan, who is also a writer. Our discussions about writing and plot were invaluable.

I wrote short stories in junior high and high school and then when I was 21, I accidentally wrote my first novel. While I still enjoy short stories and poetry as a medium, I focus on novels. I write in the genres I enjoy for the most part (except horror) and I’m most interested in people, so that’s really my current focus.

Your author profile on Facebook states that you write science fiction, historical fiction, romance and horror – quite a range! Since your writing covers several genres, I’m curious to know, which authors inspire you the most?

I think the authors that inspire me depend on the genre. My favourites are Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen. I guess they would be my inspiration for romance, tension and character development. As for science fiction, definitely Lois McMaster Bujold and Elizabeth Moon. Historical fiction is a wide range. I have enjoyed some of Diana Gabaldon’s works, Sara Donati, Coleen McCullough, Bernard Cornwell. I could go on.

Okay, so now we know a bit more about you, let’s move on to talk about your novel. An Expensive Retreat (the first in the Pure Red Sand trilogy) is not the only book you’ve written. Why did you decide to publish this one first?

The first novel I wrote was a bit of an accident. It started out as a short story and kept growing. Since it grew so organically, it’s a little unwieldy at times. It’s a beautiful story and I’m currently working on a rewrite to tighten up the story arc. An Expensive Retreat was my second book and always intended to be a novel. While each book is a learning experience, it wasn’t the same. It was a more strongly written piece, easier to edit and rewrite when necessary. The other two books I have completed are the rest of the trilogy. There’s a romance nearing the finished stage as well.

An Expensive Retreat is unusual for a sci-fi novel in that it doesn’t feature any aliens or fancy futuristic technology, aside from spaceships. What made you decide to make this a sci-fi novel and why did you choose Mars as the main setting?

I’m not sure that I planned it to be set on Mars. The story just took place there. The trilogy is very loosely based on short stories I wrote as a teenager. As for technology, I think it becomes a part of life, something taken for granted. I wanted it to be that way for Nadine. Technology is the background, not the main character. Nadine doesn’t think about it because she’s grown up with it. The other side to this is that I write people. I’m more interested in relationships and development than I am the structure of spacecraft or the tools they use. Regardless of the ways we use technology, we’re still human. I think that’s the one connecting fact in all of the genres I write. It’s about the people and their stories.

The main character in An Expensive Retreat is Nadine Cloutier, a strong, resourceful, independent woman, who is also somewhat vulnerable and can find it hard to communicate with others. Is she based on anyone that you know? In fact, are any of your characters consciously drawn from life, or are they purely imaginary?

No one is ever directly based on another person. I borrow elements of people I know. Maybe it’s the way a smile made me feel or how someone reacted in a situation. I am inspired by those small gestures and they influence the creation of my characters. I think a big inspiration for Nadine’s strength was my friend Lucinda, although they’re definitely not the same person. Lucinda is a much better communicator. Nadine is her own person completely. She definitely doesn’t communicate well but that’s a product of her upbringing. It’s something that is hinted at throughout the books. She grows as a result of events of this book and that development continues throughout the trilogy. I’m excited about what people will think by the end.

The story is principally set on Mars (although some of the background events take place on Earth), where the only settlement on the planet is a relatively new colony that is very isolated and somewhat neglected by the government on Earth. Was this an intentional reference to your own province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which is also slightly cut off from the mainland and has to import a lot of resources, or is it mere coincidence?

Since I published the book, several people have asked me that or made the same comparison. It was never intended to be a reflection of Newfoundland and Labrador culture. That said; no one grows up in a bubble. It’s an interesting interpretation.

How do you know Laura Sou (the person who did the beautiful minimalist cover art for the front of the book)? Will she be collaborating with you in any of your self-published works in the future?

I met Laura when I lived in Alberta. She’s a brilliant artist and photographer. We spent a good bit of time together and when she found out I was a writer, she asked if she could create my cover art. I agreed, quite honoured. I’m amazed at the result. It feels as if she brought the images inside my head to visual life. I hope we can continue to collaborate for future works.

And finally, I know that the ending of the book was a shock for many readers (including myself!), who may have been expecting a slightly different conclusion to the story! When will the next instalment be published?

I find it so funny that people were surprised by the ending, as I thought it was quite expected. But then, I know where the story goes. The next instalment will be published sometime this fall, definitely before Christmas. The third and final book will come out in 2016.

Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed, Meghan! It was lovely to learn more about you as a writer – and I am now even more excited to read your future works!

Thanks so much for interviewing me. It was a real pleasure. You can keep up to date on my writing through my Facebook page!

You can download Meghan’s first novel from the following websites, as well as all amazon sites worldwide.

In Canada:

http://www.amazon.ca/Pure-Red-Sand-Expensive-Retreat-ebook/dp/B010IMLCV0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1435490457&sr=8-1&keywords=m+negrijn

In the US:

http://www.amazon.com/Pure-Red-Sand-Expensive-Retreat-ebook/dp/B010IMLCV0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1437067637&sr=8-1&keywords=pure+red+sand

In the UK:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pure-Red-Sand-Expensive-Retreat-ebook/dp/B010IMLCV0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1437067743&sr=8-1&keywords=an+expensive+retreat

And you can find out more about An Expensive Retreat – and about Meghan herself – by visiting the websites below.

Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/mnegrijn

Goodreads:

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25850350-pure-red-sand-an-expensive-retreat?fb_action_ids=10155797042615319&fb_action_types=og.likes

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World Refugee Week: 15-21 June

The organisation that I volunteer for (the Refugee & Immigrant Advisory Council) is marking World Refugee Week on 15-21 June with a range of activities and events designed to highlight the plight of refugees across the globe. In view of this, and the fact that there has been an upsurge in the number of refugee-related news stories recently, I felt that this would be a good opportunity to write a piece on refugees. I will first focus on how we define a ‘refugee’, then talk about why it is so important to listen to the stories of refugees and finish with a couple of links to TEDx Talks by and about refugees. These talks all featured as part of RIAC’s Monday event for World Refugee Week (we watched the videos and had a short discussion session after each one). They each illustrate a slightly different side of the refugee story. I’m giving the one by Carina Hoang a trigger warning for rape – however, for those who can, please do listen to it, because her story is a great example of what I talk about below regarding the importance of believing people’s stories even when they sound too horrific to be true. This post was originally going to be a lot longer and more in-depth, but in the end I thought that it would be more effective to focus on one theme, which is the importance of giving refugees a voice and recognising that even if we can’t understand what it’s like to go through such experiences, it is important for us to show compassion and respect by listening to their stories.

First of all, how do we define which people are classed as refugees? Here is the UNHCR’s official definition of a refugee, as per the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees:

…someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

There are two main types of refugees. The first group are refugees who have fled their home country and are applying for asylum in a different country. They are also known as asylum seekers. The second group are those who are displaced within their home country, or living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. The basic idea is that refugees are people who are leaving their countries because they fear for their lives. This is where refugees differ from immigrants – the latter group have chosen to leave their home countries in order to make a better life for themselves. The key word here is ‘choice’. One could argue, of course, that refugees technically also have a choice, since they could choose to stay in their home countries and risk death, but clearly this is not the same as deciding whether to move abroad in order to gain a better lifestyle for you and your family.

It is interesting to note that our views on certain groups of refugees can depend on how their situation is portrayed by the media, as well as how it has been viewed historically. For example, during WWII, hundreds of thousands of Jewish people fled Nazi Germany to escape the Holocaust. Because this genocide is so well-documented, almost everyone acknowledges that the Jews were at serious risk of death if they remained in their home country, so their flight now seems completely natural and justified. However, attitudes at the time were very different. Many people in France, for instance, described the 25,000 Jews who fled to that country as “economic parasites and undesirables” (Lamey, 2011), a phrase that seems shocking now, considering what sort of treatment they were fleeing from. After another wave of Jews arrived in France following Hitler’s invasion of Austria, laws were introduced that made it increasingly difficult for refugees to enter the country. In addition, Jewish refugees were barred from certain jobs and some were even sent back to Germany. Once France was officially at war with Germany in 1939, men of ‘suspicious’ political backgrounds – even those who had just fled from Nazi persecution – were interned and the Vichy government later handed over many of these prisoners to the Nazis for execution.

It seems absolutely incredible now that Jewish refugees, a group of people who had suffered so much persecution and discrimination at the hands of one government, should flee to a neighbouring country for sanctuary and encounter a similar level of hostility and ill-treatment. But this did not just occur in France. In Newfoundland, which was then a British colony, there were ambitious plans to settle several thousand Jewish refugees, but for some reason (it has been suggested the motivating factor may have been anti-semitism), these plans never came to fruition. Between 1934 and 1941, thousands of refugees applied for asylum in Newfoundland and Labrador. Only 11 of these applications were accepted. In addition, Canada only took in 4,000 refugees by the end of 1939. This record has been described as “the worst of all possible refugee-receiving states”. Several smaller, poorer countries took in large numbers of refugees during the WWII period – the Dominican Republic alone offered asylum to 100,000 and the city of Shanghai accepted 20,000 people (due it being under the control of three different factions in 1938-9, visas and travel documents were not required to gain entry to Shanghai, making it an ideal sanctuary for refugees). The generosity of these countries only serves to highlight the appalling actions of Canada, Newfoundland and several other countries who made it extremely difficult for those fleeing Nazi persecution to find sanctuary.

I have used the example of Jewish refugees to highlight two different points. The first is the fact that so many countries apparently failed to recognise (or simply chose to ignore) the real danger that the Jewish people were facing during WWII. Refugees are often reluctant to talk about their stories, partly because it is so painful to re-live traumatic experiences, but also because their accounts are so often met with scepticism. When people describe instances of torture, rape, abuse and murder, it can sometimes seem so horrific as to be unbelievable. We simply cannot grasp that such horrendous things can happen to a person, let alone an entire group of people. Our imaginations often do not stretch far enough to encompass such wickedness.

The second point is that, as I pointed out earlier on, the history of the Holocaust is extremely well-known and therefore largely accepted as true. This therefore makes it considerably easier for us to believe Holocaust survivors when they describe their experiences of concentration camps. But of course, the Holocaust is not the only example of genocide and persecution – or indeed the worst. There are many such horrors being inflicted on people around the world at this very moment and it is therefore imperative that we believe people when they tell us their stories of persecution and trauma. The Holocaust is presumed by many people to be the worst example of man’s inhumanity to man in history, but this is not necessarily the case – and even if it has been the worst so far, there is no guarantee that it will remain so. Human rights abuses are being inflicted every single day, in numerous countries throughout the world – and people fleeing that abuse are in vital need of shelter and protection. It is of course not possible to simply let everyone in regardless of whether they have a convincing story of persecution or not, but I would argue that it is better to have a bit more credulity and risk appearing too lenient, then to be overly sceptical and thus responsible for returning vulnerable people to violent situations.

If you are not otherwise marking World Refugee Week and you have been affected by the issues raised in this blogpost, I would ask you to please watch at least one of the videos below and listen to a refugee’s story. When a person leaves their home country, they lose all of their rights as a citizen of that country and have no status in the world until they are accepted by another country. There are currently 51 million refugees across the world and for the most part, they are a silent and, in many cases, an invisible group. If you listen to even one of their stories, you are helping to make all of their voices heard.

TEDx Talks

Being a refugee is not a choice” by Carina Hoang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwkVk16xecw

Promise and opportunity” by Parweez Koehestanie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gT8TQN-UHqc

Refugees starting over” by Kathryn Stam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gn3WhquBDBI

Breaking the mould for refugees” by Menes LaPlume: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-7nKdX3KtE

References

  • Lamey, A. (2011). Frontier Justice: The Global Refugee Crisis and What To Do About It. DoubleDay Canada.
  • UNHCR, (2015). Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. [online] Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html [Accessed 19 Jun. 2015].
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Recipe: Banana, Cranberry & Sultana Loaf

Last Christmas, a friend of mine gave me a blank recipe book, so I could write in my favourite recipes that I’ve collected from blogs, books, food packaging etc. It was a brilliant present and I am now slowly filling it with the recipes that I use on a regular basis, as well as ones that I have recently discovered. This year, I made a resolution to try and write at least one blogpost every month. So far I have kept more or less to this promise, but I knew from the start that there would probably be one or two months where I was simply too busy to read and research for my usual long and detailed posts. I decided that if and when I found myself at the end of the month with no major blogposts ready to publish, I would post one of the tried and tested recipes from my book – on the basis that food is great and most people enjoying reading, watching and doing food-related things.

Of all the recipes in my book, this is the one I use the most often, partly because it’s so tasty, also because it uses up old bananas (which would otherwise be chucked, because I hate eating over-ripe, squashy bananas) and finally because you can shove all sorts of extra bits in it to make it more or less exciting, depending on your preference. It’s based on this one that I found online a while ago, with a couple of minor changes.

Here is my version:

Ingredients

1/2 cup margarine

3/4 cup sugar

1 & 1/2 cups of flour

1 tsp baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)

1/4 tsp salt

3 over-ripe bananas (the browner and squashier they are, the better)

Miscellaneous bits added in for extra flavour – I usually use a handful of frozen cranberries and another handful of sultanas, but you can also add things like desiccated coconut or chocolate chips.

Method

Turn oven temperature to 180 degrees and grease a loaf tin (I think mine is a 2lb one).

Mix margarine and sugar in a bowl until texture is creamy.

Then add sifted flour, salt and baking soda and mix well.

Peel and mush the bananas (this could be done at the start if you’re more organised) and stir these in too.

Add the miscellaneous bits and mix until everything is thoroughly combined.

Bake in oven for approximately 1 hour.

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You may have noticed, if you looked at the ingredients closely, that this banana bread is actually vegan, if made with margarine. I am not vegan myself, but any recipes that don’t require butter – which is even more expensive here in NL than it is in the UK – and also happen to be suitable for my few vegan friends are always winners with me – provided, of course, that they taste as good as this one.

Let me know if you have a go at making it – and of course, if you have your own banana bread recipes, I’d love to hear those as well!

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Blackfish: A Considered Response

Ever since I first saw the film ‘Free Willy’ as a child, I have been fascinated by killer whales (also known as orcas). The idea of being friends with a whale, of getting so close to such a magnificent, wild creature was thrilling. But even then, I found the idea of being in the water with such a huge animal, however gentle, somewhat unnerving.

When I was a few years older, I began avidly watching BBC nature documentaries and unfortunately these programmes completely destroyed my mental image of killer whales being lovable, friendly animals. The programs showed that orcas are highly efficient predators, capable of taking on almost anything in the ocean – seals, penguins, other whales, dolphins and even sharks. One of the most horrifying scenes I have ever watched in a nature documentary featured a pod of killer whales hunting down a grey whale calf, separating it from its mother and drowning it. Almost the worst part of it was that, after all the effort they put in to catching it (around six hours in total), the orcas only ate its lower jaw and its tongue. There are also tales of a pod of killer whales off the coast of Australia in the early 20th century who helped whalers to kill other whales and were rewarded with the dead whale’s tongue and lips. I have no idea whether that story is in fact true, but if it is, it serves as a striking illustration of the two seemingly contradictory sides of the killer whales’ nature – they are fearsome predators, but can also be remarkably co-operative, particularly with humans.

Two years ago, I watched a documentary called Blackfish. And once again I was having to reconsider everything I thought I knew about these animals and our relationship with them. For those who haven’t seen it, I will outline the main points as briefly as I can, before discussing its impact and concluding with what I feel are the most important points highlighted by the film.

The history of killer whales in captivity starts in 1961, when the first orca was captured in California, only to die two days later. The second orca to be caught, (named Moby Doll), lasted 87 days, which was long enough to draw in huge crowds and establish that there was a market for putting the animals on display. Before this time, orcas had been viewed mainly with fear – people knew them only as deadly predators. But it soon became apparent that orcas were in fact sociable and friendly, not to mention smart. People began to recognise their potential value to the entertainment industry and started capturing them in large numbers. Pods of whales would be surrounded by boats and planes, bombs would be thrown into the water, nets dropped to separate young whales from the adults and these youngsters would be hauled out of the water and shipped off to various aquariums, chief among them SeaWorld, which became renowned for its pioneering work with orcas. It was not unheard of for whales to be accidentally killed during these hunts – and when several orca corpses washed up on a beach in 1970, their bodies having been deliberately weighed down by stones and dropped to the bottom of the ocean to prevent their discovery, the public began to realise something of the true cost involved in removing wild animals from their natural habitat.

But even this controversy was not enough to prevent the continued capture of baby orcas for the entertainment industry. After it became clear that this method of removal caused great distress not only to the young orcas being taken, but also to the adult ones left behind, catching orcas in Puget Sound (the main hunting-ground for collectors) was made illegal. Unfortunately, the collectors simply moved to Iceland (where there were no restrictions on orca removals) and began taking them from there. This is where a young orca, later known as Tilikum, was caught in 1983, along with two other whales. He was shipped to Sealand of the Pacific in Canada, where he lived in a tank with two female orcas. The Blackfish film features interviews with former employees of Sealand, who state that the attraction was badly run and the animals’ welfare not a top priority. From about 5pm in the evening till around 7am the next morning (14 hours) the orcas were kept locked in a tiny dark tank with virtually no stimulation. This was done to prevent any saboteurs cutting through the net walls of their larger main pool and releasing them. It is still not known exactly how this may have affected the psychological health and wellbeing of the whales, but it is certainly not unreasonable to assume that this treatment must have had at least some negative effects.

In 1991, a young marine biology student and part-time animal trainer named Keltie Byrne slipped and fell into the main tank at Sealand, just after a show had finished. Horrified onlookers watched helplessly as she was dragged underwater by the three killer whales. She managed to reach the surface again and screamed for help, but to no avail. Divers finally retrieved her lifeless body from the pool several hours later, but it was too late to save Sealand’s reputation and it closed down a year later, having sold its three orcas on to SeaWorld. This was the first instance ever recorded of orcas attacking a human. It is difficult to say for certain what motivated the attack – were the whales being aggressive or simply playful? Did they understand that they were harming someone, or did they not know their own strength? This question has still not been resolved decades later and is source of fierce debate among animal behaviourists, aquariums and animal rights activists. One preventative method that can be used to prevent such attacks is desensitisation training – in which the whales are trained not to react when someone falls into the water. This is highly controversial, however, as it is virtually impossible to guarantee the trainers’ safety during the desensitisation process. Because of the risks involved, many theme parks and aquariums, including Sealand of the Pacific, have decided not to use desensitisation training.

Following his move to SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum spent the next few years performing in shows with other orcas. In 1999, a man named Daniel P. Dukes somehow managed to evade SeaWorld security, remained in the park after it had closed and then got into the killer whale tank. The next morning his body was discovered draped over Tilikum’s back. The autopsy report showed that the body had received numerous bruises and contusions, but the main cause of death was recorded as drowning. However, the report seems to suggest that several of Dukes’ injuries occurred before death, which means that Tilikum may have been responsible for his drowning. Although SeaWorld has several nightwatchmen and security cameras on its sites, no one seems to know for certain what really happened to Dukes and whether Tilikum did indeed play a significant role in his death. Despite the mystery surrounding this incident, trainers continued to do waterwork with Tilikum and he still regularly performed in the orca shows – until five years ago, when Dawn Brancheau was attacked.

Dawn was one of SeaWorld’s top trainers. She was passionate and enthusiastic, with many years of experience and she always had a keen regard for safety, carefully following procedures and protocols. One evening in February 2010, after finishing the last show of the day with Tilikum, she lay down on a flat ledge just under the surface of the water to do some quiet social bonding with him. Eyewitness accounts differ on exactly what happened next, but all of them state that Tilikum dragged Dawn into the water and refused to release her. Just like Keltie Byrne all those years ago, Dawn drowned while trying to escape from the tank. Her autopsy report makes even grimmer reading than that of Daniel Dukes. Some witnesses said that Dawn was pulled in by her hair (she had a long ponytail) and there is some evidence to support this, because a portion of her scalp was completely ripped from her head. Others said that Tilikum had grabbed her arm and there is evidence for this too – her left arm had been torn from her body, or “avulsed”, in the words of the autopsy report. SeaWorld’s official statement supported the hair-pulling scenario. Many sceptics pointed out that this allowed the company to blame Dawn’s own actions for her death – the official line was that she had been lying too close to Tilikum and the sight of her hair drifting in the water had been too tempting for him to resist. Following Dawn’s death, SeaWorld mandated that all trainers should keep long hair in buns, rather than ponytails. For those who claimed that Dawn had been pulled in by her arm, this change would make little difference to the safety of SeaWorld’s trainers. Yet again, the differing accounts of what happened make it difficult to come to any definite conclusions about why the incident occurred. Tilikum had missed a couple of cues during the show and had therefore not received as much positive reinforcement as he might have expected. Had he simply attacked Dawn out of anger and frustration? Or was the sight of her long hair drifting in the water simply a new form of stimulation that had to be investigated? I personally find it difficult to believe that he would never have seen a trainer’s hair in the water before, so the idea of it being a novelty doesn’t seem to ring true – having said that, I am definitely no animal behaviour expert, so it is difficult for me to speculate.

Although the Blackfish documentary focuses on Tilikum, there have been many other incidents between orcas and their trainers – not least the death of another trainer at Loro Parque, in the Canary Islands, which occurred only two months before Dawn lost her life at SeaWorld. Blackfish also shows footage of at least two other incidents that resulted in major injuries – in the first, an orca slams its whole body down on a trainer riding on the back of another orca. The trainer sustained numerous fractures that required extensive surgery. The second incident involved an orca pulling a trainer under the water for up to a minute at a time, bringing him back to the surface and then dragging him under again, before finally releasing him – and even then the whale came after the trainer as he escaped from the tank. Apart from the death of Alexis Martínez at Loro Parque, which was during a show rehearsal, all of the other incidents mentioned occurred during or after performances – hence the fact that they were caught on film. But many more injuries occur during training, rehearsals, or even everyday interactions, when there is no audience there to film them. Despite the fact that trainers are no longer allowed in the water with any of their whales and do not have any physical contact with Tilikum, he still takes part in performances – this video shows him performing in January 2015, just four months ago. He seems to move in a very lethargic manner in comparison to the other orcas, possibly as a result of his current isolation.

Having discussed the content of the documentary, I will now briefly mention its impact. Blackfish received critical acclaim when it was first released in 2013 and is reported to have been directly responsible for a subsequent drop in SeaWorld’s profits, with fewer people attending the theme parks. In addition, several major bands, including The Beach Boys and Barenaked Ladies, cancelled their concerts at SeaWorld venues during 2014. Two upcoming movies – Paper Towns and Finding Dory – have had their marine park scenes altered or completely cut as a direct result of Blackfish’s impact.

Unsurprisingly, SeaWorld denounced the film, saying it was “inaccurate and misleading”. Of course, to a certain extent this may be true. After all, while documentaries are supposed to be factual, each film-maker has a particular story they want to tell and it is possible to cut and edit interviews and footage to make things sound more sensational and dramatic than they actually are. Film-makers are also free to indulge in cherry-picking, choosing the most dramatic pieces of footage and the most affecting scenes from various interviews. It therefore becomes difficult to say with complete accuracy exactly what is going on. Ironically, SeaWorld has also used this ambiguity to its own advantage, in order to play down the nature of killer whale attacks and claim that they are simply rare and regrettable accidents.

However, it is impossible to deny that there have been orca-related deaths at SeaWorld, as well as long list of injuries, ranging from relatively minor to extremely serious. Furthermore, both Blackfish and other similar documentaries (see links below) have highlighted the fact that even with the best care that humans can provide and despite all the controversy – SeaWorld’s facilities are world-class – orcas just do not do well in captivity. Tilikum has sired 21 offspring during his time in captivity, but only 11 of them are still living. This poor survival rate is just one indication of how difficult it is to keep captive whales alive. Some of them, such as Lolita (now about 50 years old) and Tilikum (now 34), can live for decades, but this does not necessarily mean that their quality of life is particularly good, especially when compared to wild orcas.

Orcas are highly social animals and remain with their family for their entire lives. Male orcas, in particular, stay close to their mothers. The capture of baby orcas and subsequent separation from their family means that their social structure is completely disrupted. This, on top of the stress of living in a small, artificial space, is said to lead to unnatural behaviours that are almost never seen in the wild, such as attacks on humans, repetitive swimming patterns and prolonged inert floating. The famous flopped-over dorsal fin is also mainly associated with captive orcas. Studies of wild orcas have shown that the rate of fin collapse in British Columbia waters is 1%, in Norway it is less than 5% and in New Zealand it is around 23%. The reason for such a high rate of fin collapse in NZ waters is currently unknown. In captivity, almost all male orcas have collapsed fins, as well as some female orcas. These two pictures illustrate the marked difference between the collapsed dorsal fin of a captive orca and the tall, rigid dorsal fin usually seen on a wild orca.

Dorsal Fin Collapse

Dorsal Fin - Wild Orca

In an attempt to be as rational and clear-headed as possible, I have made a note of what I perceive to be the three main facts that Blackfish serves to highlight.

1) Captive killer whales can and do seriously injure or kill humans. It is unclear whether killer whales intentionally attack humans, or if they perhaps just don’t realise their own strength/misread signals/become over-stimulated. Blackfish asserts that the first assumption is true, while SeaWorld avers that it is one or all of the other possibilities. In either case, the point seems to be largely irrelevant. The fact that such incidents happen at all demonstrates the importance of the issue. After an incident in 2006 involving trainer Kenneth Peters and an orca named Kasatka, an OSHA report stated:

“The contributing factors to the accident, in the simplest of terms, is that swimming with captive orcas is inherently dangerous and if someone hasn’t been killed already it is only a matter of time before it does happen. The trainers recognize this risk and train not for if an attack will happen but when.”

2) The unpredictable nature of such incidents makes it dangerous to be in the water with orcas. Blackfish seems to suggest that attacks are due to the long-term build-up of physical and psychological distress caused by being in captivity. SeaWorld would have it that such incidents are either accidents or due to ‘trainer error’. Whatever the cause, it seems to be virtually impossible to determine when and how killer whale attacks will occur – although whales that have shown previous aggression are, unsurprisingly, more likely to attack humans. Marine veterinarian Jay Sweeney wrote in the CRC Handbook of Marine Mammal Medicine in 1990:

“Aggression expressed by killer whales toward their trainers is a matter of grave concern…In a few such cases, we can attribute this behaviour to disease or to the presence of frustrating or confusing situations, but in other cases, there have been no clear casual factors.”

3) Orcas, on the whole, do not do well in captivity. All the evidence (based on observations of both captive and wild orcas) suggests that they are highly intelligent and social animals, who form strong familial bonds. Blackfish shows some absolutely heart-rending footage of orcas being captured in the wild, with the distress of orca family members being highlighted as particularly traumatic. It is also on record that SeaWorld separates babies from their mothers in captivity, something which can only lead to distress for the orcas, based on the strength of their family ties and the fact that they are already isolated from the rest of their natural family. In addition, there are reports of orcas self-harming or engaging in other unnatural behaviours, such as long periods of inertia (they can swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild) and repetitive swimming patterns. SeaWorld, on the other hand, insists that it provides the highest level of care for its orcas and that the animals do well in captivity. Whilst there are some orcas who have survived many decades in captivity, a great deal more die at very young ages – this is clearly illustrated by this comprehensive list of orcas that have died in captivity. The fact that even SeaWorld (which has arguably the most advanced cetacean care facilities in the world) does not have a good orca survival rate shows how difficult it is to keep these animals healthy and happy in captivity.

In conclusion, the fact that orcas are such intelligent, social animals and are clearly aware of separation from their relatives, when it occurs, suggests that they are poor candidates for captivity and I strongly believe that the capture of wild orcas and the continued breeding of captive ones should be banned as soon as possible. Many protest groups have argued for the release of captive orcas such as Tilikum and Lolita, who have spent the vast majority of their lives in theme parks, performing in shows almost every day. However, even people protesting against captivity recognise that many captive orcas are not good candidates for release back into the wild. The early death of Keiko following his release – and his failure to integrate with a new pod of whales – demonstrates that captive whales may not always do well if they are put back in the wild. Having said that, Keiko was not reunited with his own pod – if he had been, he might have been able to re-integrate properly. In any case, the best option for many captive orcas is for them to be released into an open water sea-pen, allowing them to be back in their natural environment but still under human protection – a kind of retirement home for performing whales. This would obviously be an extremely expensive operation and would probably result in a significant loss of revenue for SeaWorld and all the other marine parks, so it is unlikely that they will be spending any of their billions of dollars on this proposal any time soon. However, the story of Keiko illustrates that it is definitely possible – and could be achieved with the right amount of financial support and backing from various organisations. A law that would ban keeping orcas and dolphins in captivity has been proposed and although it is unlikely to be passed in the near future, perhaps one day our only interactions with these magnificent creatures will be on their own terms, in the ocean where they belong.

N.B. Although Blackfish is not (legally) available to view for free online, there are other documentaries about killer whales available on Youtube, such as:

The Free Willy Story: Keiko’s Journey Home – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYyU3USJ-8E
Lolita: Slave to Entertainment – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGxMLiL1uZI

You can also watch a few clips from Blackfish, with director’s commentary, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_gk1sVAyhU

And lastly, here is a link to a video of SeaWorld’s older killer whale show, Believe, when trainers were still allowed in the water: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uh5Eigt_dhQ

REFERENCES

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