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Speared. Shot. Celebrity. How one whale transformed the orca's public image

Fifty years ago, one orca named "Moby Doll" sparked whale entertainment and changed the public image of killer whales forever. 

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 In his study, Newman keeps slides of the multiple trips he embarked upon during his lifetime. Photo by Carlos Tello. 

As a child, Newman was fascinated by taxidermy-- even becoming an amateur taxidermist himself-- and he carried that passion into adulthood. Local newspapers voraciously covered Newman’s newest acquisitions: specimens he and his team collected from around the world, all dead and destined to be turned into statues and molds. One was a 900-pound, 12-foot-long sturgeon, an ancient specie of bony fish hoisted from the Fraser River. Another was a two-ton, 21-foot basking shark, which was harpooned off the coast of Vancouver Island. Even when Newman went down to Mexico, he returned with a manta ray and sawfish, frozen and ready to be cast into displays. Experts from the Smithsonian flew all the way out to Vancouver to help prepare the specimens. 

Building empathy for animals

It wasn’t that Newman was a cold-hearted killer. Quite the contrary. Newman traces his love of aquatic animals all the way back to his childhood, when he’d run downtown just to catch a glimpse of tropical fish at the pet store. But as an adult, Newman said he observed around him a culture that was killing off all of nature’s great predators. Wolves were being exterminated across North America. Mountain lions had bounties placed on their deaths. Even seals were targeted, simply because they share a taste for fish with humans. Their noses were cut off and turned in for rewards. 

These culls motivated him, Newman said. If only he could display these great animals, maybe the public—and policy makers—might be stirred to empathy. “They should know about the animals themselves,” Newman recalls thinking. “Perhaps it might bring about a better attitude on the part of the government with regards to the conservation of these things.”

Newman, long since retired, never thought of himself as an activist. But he was part of what he calls a “developing point of view.” And he was about to face an important decision on that summer day in 1964. A floatplane would take him to Saturna Island to inspect Burich’s catch. 

Their plan had failed. The whale wasn’t dead. Instead, a local newspaper reported that it dove and leapt to evade its attackers, “bang[ing] its tail angrily, the noise resounding across the water.” Burich and his colleagues on the island reportedly “pumped rifle shells” into the whale, to no avail. The whale was still very much alive.

Newman and his team suddenly faced a choice. Should they keep it alive, or find a way to finally kill the whale? “There it was. It was alive on the end of a leash,” Newman remembers. “It wasn’t attacking anybody. The whole idea of the killer whale was that it was a fiercely dangerous animal that would turn and kill you just as quick as it could. But it turned out that this one wasn’t interested in killing anybody.”

Newman admits he “didn’t have much knowledge” about orcas at the time. But he saw an opportunity. Sure, a dead whale could be dissected and made into a statue, but a live one could lift the veil on their mysterious behaviors. It was decided: the whale would be towed 20 miles to Vancouver and, there, make history. 

Only one orca had ever been held in captivity, back in 1961, and it died within a couple of days. Disoriented, it had repeatedly smashed itself against the walls of its enclosure. But the orca that was harpooned and dragged to Vancouver would become the first to live long enough to be displayed to the public. Moby Doll, as the whale was named, became an instant celebrity. A media frenzy ensued, taking a once-feared animal and transforming it into a creature of public delight. 

CBC image of Moby Doll

Controversy and whispers of doomsday 

But even then-- one of the earliest instances of a live captured orca--the modern debate over animal cruelty was already raging. The Vancouver chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) condemned the harpooning, saying, “It’s sadistic to let an animal suffer all that time.”

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