Environmentalist's activism stopped at cutting fences


"The real danger in what I do is getting addicted to danger. ... Living on the edge makes you so happy to be alive. I've gotten to enjoy that edge."

- Ben White, 1992

I HADN'T thought of Ben White for years. Then, for a time, the recent arson at a Charles County development seemed as if it might have been ecoterrorism - the torched homes threatened wetlands. That theory didn't hold, but it took me back to one of the more interesting stories I ever covered.

A men's magazine in New York assigned me to follow Ben on journeys that took us around the world. His dad was career military. "He dedicated his life to the national defense, and so have I," Ben said, "but the enemy is not the Commies anymore; it's the environmental destroyers."

My story never ran - not enough blood and guts, the editors indicated - and Ben has long since left the Chesapeake. Arson was not his agenda - he was vehemently against any property destruction that can endanger human life - but his story affords a glimpse into someone willing to risk death or jail on nature's behalf.

During the week, Ben was a successful businessman in the D.C. metropolis, a single parent with custody of two kids. His routine was up early, spoon hot cereal into both, comb the young girl's long, dark hair, wash the little boy's mouth, load them into the Volvo station wagon for the trip to the day care center. He strapped both in but never wore his seat belt.

Weekends were different. Bags packed with diving gear, bolt cutters and other tools of the trade, Ben was off to resorts in the Bahamas, the Florida Keys, Cancun - not to relax on the beach, but to bust dolphins and other marine mammals out of holding pens and tanks where they were on display for tourists or being held for shipment to stateside aquariums.

He could not abide, he said, turning intelligent creatures into circus acts, ripping them from complex social lives in the wild, to remain captive for decades. Even for animals born in captivity, it was "no different than slavery," he said.

Ben was good at his weekend job and cool under pressure. Once, after a narrow escape in an unsuccessful breakout, he decided he needed better equipment and walked into a hardware store near the aquarium.

"What bolt cutters would you recommend for heavy chain link, sir? Weight is a consideration for me, and speed. ... I won't have much time."

Ben was hard to pigeonhole. As a teenager, he infiltrated a white supremacist organization for the FBI. He was a Vietnam War protester and lived for two years as the only male in a lesbian commune.

He had also lived with an old Native American in Nevada, learning herbal medicine. His tuition fee was to shoot groundhogs, squirrels, jack rabbits and other small game for the pot each night.

He embraced aspects of conservative politics and felt that the animal rights groups could sometimes be "just silly. I believe a respectful hunter sees nature better than anyone," he said.

Yet, he had worked closely with animal rights activists.

In his journals, the theme of hiding out, living on the edge, observing unnoticed from a thicket, ran strong: "Camping above a small town, like the wolf, surveying the life below from a snowy ledge ... the sounds of life surround me but I am unseen."

It was orcas, the so-called killer whales, that commanded Ben's greatest passion. There was something "subliminally evil" about enjoying them in captivity, he said: "What animal more epitomizes freedom and power, and we reduce them to poodle tricks and giving us wet thrills. We say it's 'educational,' but it's about subjugation of nature."

I can't forget the night in Ben's motel room before his attempt to break some orcas free from a heavily guarded facility. He was on the phone with the kids, saying loving goodnights that might turn out to be goodbyes. How could he risk it?

He liked to think that "if you're doing nature's work she'll protect you, but deep down I expect Mother Earth doesn't give a ... whether individual humans live or die."

Ben seemed then less the wolf lurking in the thicket than a middle-aged man, muscle beginning to get a little paunchy, a bit lonesome and scared.

"I want desperately to be around for the kids," he said. "Their future is the whole point; but to be cautious belies the emergency nature of the environmental crisis. It's important they know some things are worth standing up for."

Late that night, as powerful, frigid currents swirled around the rocky ocean peninsula on which the orcas were held, the dark erupted with sirens, searchlights and boats full of armed security guards.

Sunrise came and no Ben. Later, I went down to the breakfast buffet. He was there loading his plate. "Good to be alive," he said, "but I failed the orcas."

He said he had to go. And that was the last time I saw Ben White.

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