Home Tech Eyes in the sky: why drones are ‘beyond effective’ for animal rights campaigners around the world

Eyes in the sky: why drones are ‘beyond effective’ for animal rights campaigners around the world

by Elijah
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Eyes in the sky: why drones are ‘beyond effective’ for animal rights campaigners around the world

Late last year, UrgentSeas received an anonymous tip from a former Miami Seaquarium employee about animal tanks out of public view. The interest group investigated.

In November, they posted a short clip of what they found when they flew a drone over the property: an elderly manatee living alone in a dilapidated private pool. Within a month, the clip had been viewed millions of times and the outrage had become so intense that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved the manatee, Romeo, and his mate, Juliet, to a sanctuary.

Over the past decade, drones have become irreplaceable tools in activist and conservationist circles. In 2013, the animal rights group Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) was founded a drone campaign tracking illegal bow hunting in Massachusetts.

Drones have been used to take pictures ever since factory farm pollution in the American Midwest, sea lice outbreaks in Icelandic salmon pens, and deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Drones are popular because they are relatively cheap and easy to use and extend a person’s range in difficult or inaccessible terrain. They also provide a bird’s-eye view of the scale of a problem, such as an oil spill or illegal logging.

When it comes to the captivity of marine mammals, the aerial perspective can be invaluable as it reveals the cramped conditions and limited life of the animals in the tanks.

In some cases, the drones capture the secret lives of animals hidden from view, such as Romeo the manatee in Miami. “These are the images people need to see to realize how cruel captivity really is,” said the drone pilot who captured the footage at the Miami Seaquarium, and who prefers to remain anonymous.

Another early adopter of drones is Sea Shepherd. The marine conservation group began filming illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in international waters. As technology has improved, drones have become quieter and more stealthy, says Simon Ager, long-time volunteer with Sea Shepherd. This is critical for sneaking up on ships and capturing crimes in progress, he adds.

“In my experience, drones have been extremely effective because you can never get close enough to a ship where illegal activities are taking place. They see us coming and then they turn around and burn over the horizon, and you have nothing to go after these guys,” Ager says.

A Sea Shepherd thermal drone monitors the vaquita refuge in the Gulf of California, during an operation to protect the world’s most endangered marine mammal from illegal fishing. Photo: Eli Hausman/Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Off the coasts of Mexico and Ecuador, Ager recorded tuna fishermen pulling up nets tangled with accidental bycatch, such as sharks, and throwing miles of fishing line into the water, trapping and killing even more marine life. Off the Galápagos Islands, he tracked a huge fleet of Chinese squid fishing vessels with a night vision drone. That campaign was exposed rampant environmental and human rights violations on boardincluding slave labor and the dumping of unwanted catch.

Drones also allow activists to safely distance themselves from the risky situations they film. During a campaign to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise in the Gulf of California, cartel-funded fishermen shot Sea Shepherd drones out of the sky and threw Molotov cocktails at their ship.

“Conservation can be a very dangerous activity and more environmentalists are killed every year,” says Ager. “Drones are a perfect way to study something without endangering yourself and then decide if it’s worth the risk.”

The high seas is a largely lawless frontier where drone rules and regulations are blatantly violated. It’s a different legal landscape on land, where activists use drones to film zoos and aquariums. The UrgentSeas pilot says she uses an app to determine where drones are allowed and does her best to follow applicable laws.

“You obviously don’t fly with these drones,” she says. “You don’t stand outside the facility and send your drone there. Sometimes you hide in a bush. You pay attention to cars. It’s a kind of mission.”

After Romeo’s drone footage went viral last November, the Miami Seaquarium filed for a protective order against Phil Demers, the co-founder of UrgentSeas. The measure was part of a larger lawsuit the aquarium filed against the animal activist in May 2023, alleging defamation, public nuisance and trespassing — largely by flying drones and recording the property.

Romeo, the manatee from the Miami Seaquarium, moved to a pool at ZooTampa, Florida, last December. Photo: Zuma Press Inc/Alamy

The Miami Seaquarium did not respond to several Guardian requests for comment, but has said in the legal complaint that Demers “repeatedly and without authorization flew an unmanned aerial vehicle over (Seaquarium) property during regular business hours.”

As a relatively new technology, drones still exist in a legal gray area. “The issue of drones, laws and privacy is a new question,” said Benjamin Christopher Carraway, an attorney with the Animal Activist Legal Defense Project in Colorado and Demers’ attorney. There are a few state torts and statutes regarding drones, but he hasn’t seen much case law working its way through the courts.

Activists argue that drones are necessary for freedom of expression and democracy, but opponents say they invade privacy and, in the case of aquariums and zoos, disrupt animals, customers and staff.

Carraway hopes that any drone laws will address the competing concerns in a nuanced way. “The whole concept of drones requires a lot of innovation in the law and raises another question, namely the trade-off between privacy, which is a legitimate interest versus the public’s right to know.”

Romeo, the rescued manatee from the Miami Seaquarium, sticks his nose out of the water in his new home in ZooTampa. Photo: Zuma Press Inc/Alamy

The trial against Demers and the Miami Seaquarium is scheduled for May, but it is doubtful the facility will still be operating by then. The death of the orca Lolita last year and the report on the living conditions Romeo faces have increased public pressure on the already beleaguered aquarium. On March 7, Miami-Dade County issued an eviction notice ordering the aquarium’s operator to vacate the county-owned property by April 21.

“The Dolphin Company has repeatedly failed to meet the contractual obligations of their lease,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. “From the inability to maintain the grounds in good condition to the inability to demonstrate their ability to ensure the safety and well-being of the animals in their care, the current state of the Miami Seaquarium is unsustainable and unsafe.”

Every month, UrgentSeas receives five or six tips from whistleblowers, most of whom are former or current employees of zoos and aquariums around the world. According to Whale & Dolphin Conservation USA, that is now the case 56 killer whales in captivity worldwide.

UrgentSeas plans to document every facility with drones (although the group discourages supporters from flying drones themselves). “It’s the drones that can show you everything,” says the anonymous UrgentSeas pilot. “But it comes with a lot of risks.”

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