Ben White Dies; Had a Passion for Protecting Animals

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 7, 2005

Ben White, 53, an arborist who became an animal rights activist after an encounter with a dolphin in the waters off Hawaii, died of abdominal cancer July 30 at his home in Friday Harbor, Wash.

Mr. White was known internationally for his idea of having activists don turtle costumes during the 1999 Seattle protests of the World Trade Organization. The WTO had overruled a U.S. law that required countries selling shrimp domestically to use turtle excluder devices. Mr. White called the peaceful protest "a stupid publicity stunt that worked."

In addition to staging protests, Mr. White documented illegal whaling off the Soviet Union and the killing of harp seals in Newfoundland. He also worked to stop the capture of dolphins, the use of fur by the fashion industry and logging of old-growth forests. He was a nonviolent activist, but he didn't hesitate to challenge property laws or confront those whom he regarded as animal abusers.

"Ben had such a fire burning in him, a raging fire, driving him to do whatever he could to make this world a better place," said Cathy Liss, president of the Alexandria-based Animal Welfare Institute, for which he worked. She said he would climb a tree to prevent it from being cut down, rather than spiking it, which could harm a logger or millworker.

Some of his actions included scaling New York skyscrapers to hang anti-fur banners, cutting underwater dolphin-holding nets in Japan, breaking into a run-down zoo in Grenada to free monkeys and chaining himself to a cage of captured sea lions at Ballard Locks in Seattle. He told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer two months ago that he had been arrested "12 or 20 or maybe 30 times in the line of duty. You kind of lose track after a while."

His passion for animals, he said in an article for the Animal Welfare Institute's newsletter, was sparked 30 years ago, when he swam a mile off the coast of Hawaii to swim with a pod of dolphins he had spotted.

"I am not a 'new-ager,' " he wrote. "As a lifelong professional tree climber and longtime single daddy, I love solid and sure things, like the steel snap of a climbing clip telling me I am safely tied in. I believe in the tangible."

But when a dolphin regarded him, Mr. White said he realized that he had "never seen such complexity, humor and recognition in the eyes of any creature other than humans, and rarely enough in those. Inside that sleek gray dolphin body was a person. No doubt about it: a self-aware, evaluating, conscious, thinking, playful and accepting person."

He took up the cause of animal protection, joining Sea Shepherd Conservation Society trips and later working for that organization as well as for the advocacy group In Defense of Animals. He co-founded the Cetacean Freedom Network and had worked for the Animal Welfare Institute since 1997, with responsibility for whale, dolphin and forest issues. He was the institute's representative to the International Whaling Commission and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Most recently, he worked to stop the use of underwater sonar and seismic waves by military and research vessels.

A nature-loving native of Portsmouth, Va., Mr. White moved to Northern Virginia as a child. While a student at W.T. Woodson High School, he infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan for a class project and was so incensed that he started a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, the radical anti-Vietnam War group. After graduation, he lived on communes in California and later moved to Hawaii. From the 1980s through 1995, he founded and operated Growing Earth Tree Care in Northern Virginia. He moved to Washington state in 1995.

Several years ago, he began training high school students in Friday Harbor to be certified arborists. He founded a tree-care company, the Natural Guard, which is now owned and operated by those students.

Last month, In Defense of Animals presented him with a lifetime achievement award. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced that it was naming a park at its Norfolk headquarters for Mr. White. He was buried in a coffin made of salvaged wood, including mahogany from the original Sea Shepherd ship.

His marriage to Ann Essman ended in divorce.

Survivors include two children, Julia White and Ben White III, both of Friday Harbor; his mother, Jean White of Annandale; his father, Benjamin White Sr. of Norfolk; a sister, Beverly White Mefferd of Falls Church; and a brother, Wesley White of Fredericksburg.

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