Jo-Anne McArthur is an international photojournalist and animal rights activist. Her documentary project We Animals, explores our uses, abuses, and sharing of spaces with the animals of this planet. She is also featured in the award-winning documentary film “The Ghosts in Our Machine.”
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It’s summer in the Antarctic and on sunny days I can venture out onto the bow of our Sea Shepherd vessel, the Bob Barker, to let the warmth penetrate my bones. Between chores, the bow is a great place to spend a bit of idle time outdoors reflecting on life and on our mission here in the southern oceans.
Keep a sharp eye and you’ll spy dolphins, penguins, albatross, and southern petrels. These moments of quiet reflection give me time to reflect on how the heck I got to be on this boat of environmental and animal rights activists, and on how a few defining life decisions led me to this moment. Life won’t always be this idyllic aboard our boat, which the crew affectionately refers to as “The Bob.” We will have intensely dangerous confrontations with our rivals, the Japanese whaling fleet. Our boat is one of three on this 2009-2010 Antarctic Mission to stop the poaching of up to 935 Minke whales, which are hunted by the fleet and sold for meat in Japan.
The whalers hunt under the transparent guise of “research,” and though the countries who are members of the International Whaling Commission have imposed a ban on whaling in this southern sanctuary, no one is there to enforce the ban. Long time radical animal activist Paul Watson decided to take the matter into his own hands, sending ships down to the Antarctic to intercept the slaughter of these endangered animals. My title on board The Bob is “Sea Shepherd Crew Photographer.” It’s a role I almost turned down in lieu of a much-needed restful winter in Canada. When I think about a “fabulous” experience or moment in my life, he story of how I came to be on The Bob is one of those. I am a photojournalist and the work I do for animal rights is rewarding and exhausting. The year 2009 was undoubtedly the craziest of my 33 years. It began with a trip through Guatemala and Belize, followed by three months in Africa.
While shooting a photo story at a primate sanctuary in Cameroon, I contracted dengue fever, which left my body crippled with reactive arthritis. Refusing to return home for a rest, I moved on to Uganda to do photo work with the Jane Goodall Institute. There I asked a doctor to load me up with the meds necessary to allow me to continue my work. These meds were steroids, and I relied on them for close to four months. They helped me to walk and work, but slowed my overall healing significantly.
After a brief rest in Canada, I left for Spain and France to do factory farm investigations and a story about the brutal slaying of bulls during La Corrida. Night after night, with cameras in hand, I traipsed all over the country to document the extreme suffering of pigs, broiler chickens, egg laying hens, and bulls. From there I went onto Scandinavia where I documented mink farming. It was incredibly exhausting work, in both the emotional and physical sense. The traveling and all-night investigative escapades left me drained in a very profound way. I do all of this investigative work so that I can help expose the use and abuse of animals worldwide. The images I take have become part of my umbrella project on the subject matter, called We Animals, and dozens of animal welfare organizations use the images to promote their work. We Animals is my passions combined: my love for story-telling through the lens and my love for helping animals, seamlessly entwined, epitomizing that famous quote by the writer Kahlil Gibran, “Work is love made visible.” I feel very strongly that my work for We Animals is what I was born to do in this lifetime. I took action to solidify this belief when I wrote to Sea Shepherd that November.
The Sea Shepherd mission came on the heels of my European investigative work so I put off replying to them as to whether I would join. The opportunity stood before me as a chance of a lifetime: saving whales, visiting the Antarctic, living on a boat, working alongside other dedicated activists … incredible! Yet I knew that I had to say no for the sake of my recovering health and my sanity. I wrote a carefully crafted e-mail, saying that I would love to join future campaigns, but would regretfully decline this upcoming mission. I sat there at my computer before hitting “send,” feeling responsible but hollow. As I navigated my mouse to the “send” button, however, something happened. I quickly deleted that email and, with a smile and a sigh, wrote the words “Sign me up!” I hit send. My fate was sealed. I had a good cry at that point. I cried with happiness at the excitement of my work and the adventure ahead. I cried with sadness for the whales I might witness being slaughtered. I cried in anger at the acts of the greedy whaling industry. I cried at the possible stupidity of my action. I felt like I was also staring down a dark abyss of danger, seasickness, and sleep deprivation. Well, it was all that and so much more! By testing my strength beyond what I knew I could handle, I was filling my world with a new family of activists and filling my soul with more of the work that means most to me. At the time, I didn’t know how the adventure would unfold, but I knew the decision was right.
My “yes” to Sea Shepherd was a door thrown open wide. Not only did I have the adventure of a lifetime with inspiring activists and work that was meaningful to me, but my photos were also published by over two thousand news agencies worldwide. Though I was working for Sea Shepherd for free, it turned out to be a decent career move while helping to expose the poaching of whales in the southern oceans. I’m happy to report that my Sea Shepherd mission only somewhat slowed my recovery to full health. The dengue-induced arthritis lingers, but I have made a full recovery. There is, however, one last thing to relate on the physical front. I’ve saved my most brave and glorious 2009 DTBF moment for last: my elective surgery. One morning in September, 2009, I entered the hospital to have an elective tubal ligation. I had to be signed in, interviewed, and brought from room to room as I prepared for surgery. People were asking me the same questions again and again. Why was I having this surgery, they all wondered aloud. I just smiled and told them that I’d come this far, I was confident in my long-standing decision and that I wasn’t turning back now. On the operating room table, I could still hear the nurses musing over me, this childless woman, having such a procedure. I didn’t mind their misgivings, and I had a smile on my face as I was given the anaesthetic.
After the tubal ligation, I awoke in the recovery room and wept tears of joy and relief. I’d known for a long time that I didn’t want biological children. In keeping with my views regarding overpopulation and humans’ ruinous behavior towards the Earth, I knew the procedure was right for me. Many women have scoffed at me, said I’d change my mind, said the best thing in the world was having kids. Not for me. My work for animals is my love made visible; that is my role in the world. I really mean it, and it’s one of the many reasons I’ve chosen to opt out of child rearing. I know that women can have kids and be activists and traveling photographers, but I don’t want to wear all of those hats. The procedure was in keeping with my worldview and was symbolically important to me; part of demonstrating my commitment to my work, to my self and to the animals.
I’m more than fine missing out on kids, as I have plans and goals different from most, but equally as important as raising a family. Someone once said that my love for animals was a misplaced maternal instinct and I’ve come to understand that that sort of thinking is just a way for people to make sense of this different sort of life I lead. I think the important thing is not to focus on what we are missing out on, but ensuring that we fill our lives with what we hold dearest. For me, that means helping animals. I’m straying from the path of the nuclear family, but through my work to help animals I have loving and inspiring families around the world. I have many new families from 2009 alone because of my We Animals work: the staff and volunteers at Ape Action Africa, those at the Jane Goodall Institute in Uganda and my activist families in Europe, as well. Last but not least, I have a brand new family with the Sea Shepherd crew. After months at sea together, through camaraderie and strife, I will respect and love those people for life. Not everyone will understand this, but I do, and accepting that in myself was glorious.