Nancy Pennington (b. 1938) is a Seattle animal rights activist who has twice donned a sea turtle costume to protest the policies of the World Trade Organization -- first during the 1999 WTO conference in Seattle and again during the "N30" demonstrations marking the first anniversary of the conference, on November 30, 2000. The sea turtles’ whimsical, colorful costumes made them a symbol of WTO protests, so much so that the Smithsonian Institution asked to have one for its collection. In this interview, conducted for Historylink by Cassandra Tate on December 5, 2000, Pennington discusses the costumes, the message, and the future of the marching turtles.
“I’m an animal rights advocate and the part of the WTO that upset me the most was what’s happening to the environment and the animals as a result of WTO policies.
“Two years ago, the WTO overruled a law passed by the United States that banned imports of shrimp from countries that don’t use Turtle Excluding Devices on their nets. These devices allow turtles and dolphins to escape from the shrimp nets. They work fine. But a few countries — Thailand, India, a couple of others — appealed to WTO and said, we think it’s unfair to use these devices. And WTO superseded the U.S. law. Consequently a lot of sea turtles are caught and killed in shrimp nets for no reason other than the WTO overruled the U.S. law.
“Turtles are very slow moving and benign and don’t hurt anyone. They were a good symbol for our objections to WTO.
“Ben White is the genius behind the whole turtle thing. He lives in Friday Harbor. He had an artist friend make the pattern. He started collecting cardboard -- freezer boxes and appliance boxes -- big things like that. We traced the pattern onto the cardboard and then cut it out. We started work in the spring of 1999. We did two mockups here at my house. We painted them, and figured out how to put them together.
“The costumes are like turtle shells. They’re held together with green ripcord nylon at the shoulders and waist. The mask is a separate piece, also cardboard, with eyeholes. The eyeholes are a little small, so it’s hard to see out. It’s easier to push the masks up on your head. Last year we started out with the masks down, but we were stumbling into each other and couldn’t maneuver very well, so we ended up just wearing them on top of our heads.
“We had several work parties, including one in a warehouse. I remember it was very cold there. That’s where we painted them. We spread them all out and let them dry for a few days. Some of them were really beautiful. We made about 250 costumes, and we thought that would be plenty, but we ran out, so many people wanted to be turtles.
“I think they were very effective. We made a statement without hurting anyone. The labor people loved the turtles. There was so much emotion during WTO last year but the turtles were a noncontroversial element. People didn’t react in a negative way. But I think it was still a forceful statement about what the WTO is doing to the environment by superseding national laws.
“The media of course love something that is visual, and we certainly were visual. It helped people who didn’t know anything about WTO, because it can be very dry, very boring. There are of course many many other things going on that the WTO is responsible for, but the turtles -- this is an easy issue to glom onto.
“Our original idea was to put all the turtles on skate boards. We figured that would really snarl up traffic, However, we might also lose a few turtles. So we just marched down the street instead.
“The costumes are awkward to get out of. They have to go over your head. You can’t sit down in them. We warned people to go to the bathroom before they got into them. But some people didn’t listen, and they regretted it later.
“This year we had fewer marchers -- about 70 to 75, compared to 250 last year. We were limited by how many costumes we had left. It was still enough to make a statement. The whole scale was much smaller this year. There wasn’t the presence. Last year was such a huge thing. This year we did the same kind of thing but on a smaller scale. Last year we actually shut them down, and that was the point. The WTO had been so secret. The demonstrations really brought it out into the open for everybody.
“The adrenaline was really flowing last year. You didn’t know when you were going to get arrested. I never got arrested but I’m 61 -- they usually don’t arrest 61-year-olds. It’s easier to get away with stuff when you’re older.
“There was a little bit of a let down this year, but it was also rather festive, at least until late in the evening. Earlier, there were a lot of people down in Westlake Center, and there was a festival spirit. It was like a carnival.
“However, I did get shoved around a little this year, and that surprised me. We had finished marching [down 4th Avenue from Jackson to Westlake] and had doubled back a little to 4th and Union. The street was blocked off and people were milling around. The turtles were all there. All of a sudden the police said ‘On the sidewalk, On the sidewalk!’ and they started shoving us. They didn’t need to shove like that — we were going. This must have happened at about 5 or 6 p.m. That was the only ugliness I encountered this year.
“On the other hand, there were some nice things, including some nice cops. It was a lot of fun. We really enjoyed it.
“Will the turtles live to ride again? Absolutely. Although I didn’t do anything to organize it, I was thrilled that the anniversary of WTO was marked, and I hope it will be every year until we manage either to improve it or end it.”