AN INTERVIEW WITH SYLVIA GRIMALDI GOMEZ, ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVIST
By Melanie Oliva
Sylvia Grimaldi Gomez is a self-proclaimed “citizen of the world” who dedicates her free time to the liberation of her fellow citizens. These citizens once knew true freedom but are now contained within manmade borders – hard, unforgiving tank walls that amplify the smallest sound, cold metal bars that keep out the screaming crowds or forests dense with loud, startling shots and the smell of blood.
I met Sylvia last year through Imagine Our Florida when my municipality, the Village of Biscayne Park, passed a Resolution against the FWC Florida Black Bear hunt. Sylvia and a group of dedicated activists came to the commission meeting in support of the Resolution. Sylvia and I kept in touch afterwards, and I learned about her efforts on behalf of Lolita (Tokitae), the Orca at Miami Seaquarium.
She and a group of activists spend their weekends outside the Seaquarium educating potential patrons on the terrible conditions in which Lolita is suffering. She’s been kept in the world’s smallest Orca tank for over 45 years, with no shelter from the intense Miami sun. While other groups and activists speak out for Lolita, this group of individuals are perhaps Lolita’s most consistent and dedicated advocates. They convey her pain to the humans who don’t understand. They are her voice.
Sylvia’s efforts inspired me to paint Lolita in “Miami After-Image #3” (shown). In hopes that visualization may lead to manifestation, Lolita is depicted without her boundary walls that keep her from her family, who are awaiting her return in the Puget Sound.
I’m grateful that my and Sylvia’s paths crossed, and I don’t think it was by coincidence. Sylvia sees the world differently and has the ability to help others see – not so different than what I do as an artist. In Sylvia’s world, compassion reigns. Perhaps Sylvia’s ability to envision this world keeps her going. Maybe that’s what keeps Lolita going, too.
Where do you live and where are you from?
I live in Miami, Florida. I am Cuban-American, but a citizen of the world. In my world there are no boundaries, no borders…we all should share this planet in harmony with each other and with our brothers and sisters, the animals.
How long have you been working on behalf of animal rights?
I started getting involved during the years I lived abroad, mainly in Istanbul. I became outraged by the way animals were treated there. One day I found myself in a war of words with an Imam who had kicked newly born kittens out on the streets in the middle of a blizzard. I fed their mom every afternoon at the park where the mosque was. I even looked up the verse where the Prophet tears his own long sleeves so not to bother a cat that had fallen asleep on it. The Imam threatened me, I continued feeding and rescuing cats/dogs in hopes of finding homes for them, paid for their vet visits, etc.
What inspired you to get involved?
The fact that animals don’t have a voice. The fact that we take advantage of their innocence and inability to stand for themselves. Then I became their voice, their advocate and along with many other activists, their only hope for change.
What animals and/or issues do you speak out for?
Lolita is my main focus right now. This poor girl needs out asap. Her retirement is long overdue. I also speak out against trophy hunting, the cruel treatment of primates, against aquariums, the bloody dolphin drives in Taiji, the Florida black bear hunt, animals used in the entertainment business, such as the case of the tiger used for shows at Tatiana Russian Nightclub. The Miami Herald wrote a nice piece about the demo staged there. I have also protested against Ringling Brothers, Santa’s Enchanted Forest (they also had to remove the tiger show) and most recently the Pegasus race at Gulfstream Park. I was escorted out of Seaworld last April when I tried attending Joel Manby’s town hall meeting. I believe I have been banned from the park!
How have your actions made a difference?
In the case of the tiger at Tatiana Russian Nightclub, after the Miami Herald picked up the story and the restaurant was about to be fined, they decided not to have the tiger as part of their show any longer.
What methods have you found most effective?
Education one-on-one. It doesn’t matter how many leaflets are distributed, we need to take time educating others. The same way we were blinded once, so are those we are intending to persuade. Do not give up – use scenarios others can identify with. Most people can relay to that message, especially children.
Have you attempted to change local legislation, in regards to animal rights or protection? If so, what action did you take?
I have written to several commissioners, congressmen and City Mayors about banning orcas in Dade County, the animal cruelty at Santa’s Enchanted Forest and the primates used for lab research in Hendry Country, FL.
How do you use creativity in protests?
Every situation calls for a different approach. Fake blood works wonders. I participated in the Zika protest organized by Peta in Wynwood last year. We all had “fake bumps” at the demo. People understood the message right away.
Who have you met along the way? Who have you collaborated with?
Former Governor Bob Graham, Chuck O’ Neal of Speak up Wekiva
Tim Canova, Howard Garrett, Ric O’Barry, Robyn Kaamil, Samantha Berg and Dr. Naomi Rose.
How do you think artists and galleries can help activists?
Find your inspiration, execute your vision and ask local galleries to showcase your work. We can work on so many fronts together.
What pushes you to keep going? Who inspires you?
Seeing progress keeps me going. Every activist out there inspires me.
What was your reaction to Tilikum’s death?
One word, he is finally free.
What was your reaction to the news that Ringling Brothers And Barnum & Bailey Circus will be closing after 146 years?
Although in part this is good news, we are now faced with yet another battle, the animals must be moved to real sancturies, not sold to other circuses, etc.
What would you like the world to know about Tokitae (Lolita), of the Miami Seaquarium?
Tokitae deserves her retirement. Her pod still swims free in the Salish Sea, she is healthy, Ocean Sun is calling her daughter back to her native waters, the ocean is claiming her return. We don’t own her, no one does, she was born free, freedom is her birthright.
What would you like to tell people about animals in general?
We are in this planet together, animals are not ours to exploit, torment, eat. We are all part of a perfect ecosystem, in which animals are part too. We can all live in harmony, we are not that different after all, we all feel love, pain, sorrow and fear. Animals want to LIVE and they have the same right to it as we do.