June 16, 2005

Crusader begins fiercest fight yet -- against cancer
Animal activist Ben White never expected a health battle

By M.L. LYKE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER

SAN JUAN ISLAND -- He scaled tall buildings to hang anti-fur banners in New York, cut open Japanese dolphin-holding nets under cover of night, broke into a rundown zoo in Grenada to free monkeys and -- in his least risky and most publicized act -- led an invasion of cardboard turtles at the WTO protest in Seattle.

Ben White, intrepid animal activist, has fought too many battles to keep count.

This new one -- the fight for his own life -- caught him by surprise.

photo--Longtime animal activist Ben White, who lives in Friday Harbor, was diagnosed with stomach cancer in Apri (June 16, 2005)

"I feel like my bluff has been called by the Great Spirit," said the Woodstock-Gen rebel during a recent afternoon of thin sun and long memories on the island he now calls home.

A philosophical White juggled stories, images, history, mystery, poetry and humor as he talked about a life spent "pushing the envelope" and "challenging the machine."

"Early on, I made a decision not to hold back -- to go flat-out," said White, who has been arrested 12 or 20 or maybe 30 times in the line of duty. "You kind of lose track after a while."

His cheeks were gaunt, the sinewy tree-climber arms grown thin over a painful belly swollen with cancer. "I look like a Martian now," joked the wry 53-year-old who once locked himself to a floating cage to protest the capture of sea lions feasting on steelhead at the Ballard Locks.

After police cut him free, he did what he always does: met reporters, pressed the cause.

Messages need messengers. "You learn to set up a scene -- like the turtle outfits at WTO," said the media master, who choreographed a line of turtle can-can dancers at the protest. "You imagine it as the picture on the TV, then set it up just like a producer."

This time around, there are no showy costumes, no cameras to record sound bites and publicity stunts, no messages on banners.

In early April, White, international organizer for the Animal Welfare Institute and single father of two, was diagnosed with an aggressive stomach cancer. Oncologists in Seattle gave him three to six months to live without treatment. He opted for an intensive procedure at Cancer Care Northwest in Spokane that involves removing his bellyful of tumors and bathing the abdominal cavity with a warm chemotherapy solution. He's in Spokane recovering for the next few days. Some patients, expected to live a few months, have survived three or four years after the treatment, according to the cancer center. But the procedure's expensive. And White, with mounting medical bills, has no health insurance. "I always thought medical insurance was like gambling against myself. I thought it was a rip-off. Why not spend the money on something else?" he said quietly

"It was a foolish choice."

The island community has rallied 'round. A fund-raising poster at the local Market Chef cafe shows a photo of him under the banner: "Endangered." It describes him as "Activist Originalis," 70-72 inches, 180 cm, with sparsely tufted crest, prominent beak, penetrating gaze and an ability to touch souls and consciences. "This island is definitely doing everything it can to cure Ben," said Rebecca Barnard, who created the poster with husband, Bryn. "He has given his life to keep other creatures out of pain and suffering.

"Now he's on the other end of it."

Catching courage

Hollywood screenwriters are already at work putting White's story to script. The material is rich, the plots tense, the spirit large.

"I think Ben causes a lot of other people to catch courage from him," said Seattle lawyer Helga Karr, who has represented White. "Most humans, when they think about a problem and what to do, they debate it to death. Ben's beyond that. He is just fiery about what's right."

She describes him with the Latin term "sui generis" -- unique, one of a kind.White grew up a military brat, son of an Air Force officer who moved the family from the States to Europe and back again. "It was my dad who taught me to challenge authority by being so authoritarian," said White, who protested the Vietnam War, even as his father served in it.

He was pumped for action by age 16, when, as part of a class project, he infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in north Virginia. "They'd bring in a preacher to explain that Bible references to the devil really meant blacks, or they'd bring in doctors to say that blacks are anatomically different than whites," he said. A fired-up White was soon organizing a student chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, the increasingly radical anti-war group.

White's father urged him to attend college in Virginia. It wasn't a fit. White dropped out and tuned in to an alternate vibe, joining a political commune in Berkeley, going back-to-the-earth on a collective homestead, living with a Native American medicine man and training as a professional arborist, learning tree-climbing skills that would come in handy during sit-ins to stop logging of old-growth forests.

White was living off the land on the island of Hawaii when an unexpected encounter changed the course of his life. His "epiphany," he called it.

Swimming about a mile out off the Kona Coast, he found himself in the middle of a school of spinner dolphins. They shot out of the water around him, coming down in curtains of rainbow bubbles. "They moved like watermelon seeds squirted between your fingers," said White. "They were huge, and I felt really little and clumsy and stupid."

One, he said, moved in toward him, turned sideways and looked at him. Or looked into him. "There was no question at all there was a person in there regarding me," said White. "My world view came crashing down around me. I was suddenly aware that the entire world is conscious."

It was at that moment the tree-climbing, anti-authoritarian, envelope-pusher vowed to dedicate his life to the wild things, to be a "voice for the voiceless."

In the process, he would raise a thousand eyebrows -- and, occasionally, change a mind, or 12, or 20. Who keeps track?

War against nature

Supporters have called White a "genius." Detractors use terms like "mouthbreathing enviro-nut." The controversial activist is a man on a mission, a self-made warrior in what he calls a 300-year war against nature.

He comes to battle with his own rules of engagement: no firebombs, no sabotage, no property damage. That doesn't include his "underwater-obstacle removal." Free-diving in the dark with a bolt cutter, knife and no lights, he has broken open dolphin nets in Mexico, Japan, Florida and the Bahamas. Some animals are captured for slaughter, some for sale to amusement parks or tourist "swim-with' attractions -- where White said he can hear them screaming, "Get me out of here!"

Liberation isn't always all it's cut out to be. After White and crew slashed open a net in La Paz, Mexico, several years ago, dolphins refused to leave. "You have to get the dolphins when they're first captured or they get acclimated to the nets."

Failure -- immediate and long term -- comes with the job. "It's a truism in this business," he said, "all our victories are temporary; all of theirs are permanent."

photo--Costumed Sea Turtles were front and center in a protest march downtown. Left to right: A.J. Jiminez, Seattle; Sloane Whitaker, Seattle; Frankie Lind, New York; and Allison Barros, Eugene, Ore. (November 29, 1999)

 

It made the triumph of the turtles at WTO all the sweeter.

White called it a "stupid publicity stunt that worked." He dreamed up the turtle costume while soaking in the bath, his favorite place for contemplation. The World Trade Organization had overruled a U.S. law that required countries selling shrimp here to use excluder devices on nets so endangered sea turtles weren't trapped in them.

Globalized turtle abuse was a concept people could grasp.

The costume idea didn't immediately fly. "When I first heard he wanted to make some 250 turtle costumes, I said, 'Well, Ben, that's not possible,' " said Bob Chorush, a longtime animal activist based in Seattle who has stood beside White in numerous protests. "But every time I've said something is impossible to Ben, he says: 'This is all we have to do to make it happen.' "

White and crew salvaged cardboard from a freight company, gathered hot-glue guns, staples, exterior green latex paint and nylon ties to join the shells together. Costumes were constructed at dozens of parties on the San Juans and in Seattle, and, on D-Day in fall 1999, volunteers hit the streets with instructions to act peacefully and "Comport yourself as a turtle"

Within days, they'd become icons for a showdown that shook up a city and opened eyes worldwide to international trade issues. During the height of the "Battle of Seattle," a jubilant White jumped up on a flatbed truck and yelled to the crowd:

"Welcome to the revolution!"

'So much love'

The stomach pains started in January when White was in Mexico trying to stop a scientific research vessel from firing seismic waves underwater. It was sent to explore the almost 8-mile-deep, 65 million-year-old Chicxulub crater.

Critics of underwater testing with sonar and seismic waves have linked it to the strandings of dozens of whale and dolphins over the past decade, and White has waged an aggressive battle to stop it.

At first, White thought the pains doubling him over at night were a tropical bug. But he grew progressively sicker, and by early March, he was back home on San Juan Island, unable to keep down any food.

Word of the globetrotting activist's cancer has quickly spread worldwide. Prayers for him go out from a community of Mayans in Mexico, Buddhist monks in Oregon, Catholics in Georgia. He receives hundreds of letters from around the world, many with dolphins and whale drawings, that begin "I never met you, but ... ." They thank him for saving the animals and send him "healing energy and thoughts," "courage and freedom from suffering."

On the island, locals have organized fund-raising auctions and food brigades to bring him organic meals and "magic elixirs." One even donated a pretty waterfront cottage for him to stay in -- his own rural cabin burned down five years ago.

Friends advise on alternative treatments and anti-oxidant diets. The vegetarian is reluctantly eating meat to combat his disease -- "I have to eat it, but I don't have to like it.' He has tried visualization, immune-building pills, herbal remedies.

"I've been deluged with every quack nostrum in the world," said White, pausing and swallowing hard.

The human kindness is overwhelming. He spent his life embracing wild things, wild places. "Now, at the end of my life, I'm falling in love with people, because they have been so sweet to me," he said softly.

"There's so much love -- so much love."

Death, said White, doesn't much scare him. He'd like to live long enough to see the kids of his kids -- he has a son in high school on the island, a daughter who graduated. But the "Activist Originalis" has never been one to back down from a challenge.

"I have a lot of curiosity about what happens with death -- what happens when you turn that corner," he said, rubbing the swollen belly with a bony hand.

"It could be a whole new adventure."

P-I reporter M.L. Lyke can be reached at 206-448-8344 or m.l.lyke@seattlepi.com