One might think it is a scene from a horror movie. Rather, it is video taken from Taiji, Japan depicting the almost unspeakable acts that occur beneath the tarpaulins from September through April each year in the dolphin drive hunts there. A recently published clinical analysis of the killing methods utilized in these hunts reveals their extreme cruelty.
Anyone familiar with the old Quaker philosophy of ‘bearing witness’ will know that it is often embraced by advocates and other humanitarians working to expose and rectify injustices through personal testimony and presence on the ground where atrocities are occurring. Fundamental to this philosophy is the cultivation of personal integrity and faith by speaking the truth, even when it is difficult; taking responsibility for one’s actions and consequences; and confronting others who are committing wrong or unjust acts.
Here, bearing witness takes on new meaning as the intimate details of the actual killing procedures utilized by the fishermen have come to light in a recently published clinical analysis of the methods in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS) and through the video documentation of the hunts, forcing us all to confront this unnecessary cruelty. The public is now exposed to a close-up view and detailed understanding of the trauma experienced by the dolphins in their last moments, and having already endured the arduous process of round-up and confinement in the killing cove.
With gratitude to Atlanticblue.de for providing the video footage, and utilizing the expertise of veterinarian Andy Butterworth and dolphin scientist Dr. Diana Reiss, we have been able to challenge the data collected by Japanese researchers that suggests the methods being utilized are humane and result in a swift death. This analysis and video has pulled back the curtain and given us an unfortunate front-row seat to the killing. The analysis and video provides the world with a better opportunity to see what is happening underneath the tarpaulins in Taiji, and to better understand the extreme suffering that is occurring during these hunts. These abhorrent procedures were tested on a variety of species, and deployed as the primary method of killing dolphins in the drive hunts. The original data can be found posted on the Taiji fishing Cooperative’s very own website.
I was in Taiji in 2006, alongside Hardy Jones and Ric O’Barry. At that time, the fishermen were just starting to use tarpaulins to shield the view of the shoreline in the killing cove, and would even wait to slaughter the dolphins until we (the witnesses) left town. There have been some changes since then, including this newer slaughter method that was introduced more fully in 2008, as well as new structures along the rocky shoreline to prevent frantic dolphins from bashing themselves against the rocks (as if this is any more horrible than the fate which awaits them), coast guard surveillance of the hunts, and even discussion of a proposed whale farm that might hold whales and dolphins for the public’s amusement and ‘education’ and to line the town’s coffers with yet another form of dolphin exploitation. Public awareness has also increased, with annual pilgrimages to Taiji being undertaken by citizens from every walk of life, many of whom saw the documentary The Cove and find travel to Taiji where they can bear witness to the hunts is the most tangible thing they might do to confront them. Even more promising, citizens within Japan are also becoming involved by launching peaceful walks and protests against the hunts. Surveillance by Cove Guardians provides daily video feeds of the hunts as they occur in real time and as the season unfolds. And more dolphins are being taken into captivity from the hunts than ever before.
But what hasn’t changed is the desire of the fishermen to keep the activities in the cove hidden from public view. If culture and tradition, why such secrecy and shame? Albert Schweitzer, in a call to unveil the cruel activities in the name of tradition everywhere, stated “The thinking (person) must oppose all cruel customs, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition and surrounded by a halo. When we have a choice, we must avoid bringing torment and injury into the life of another.” What is deplorable is the disparity between how dolphins and other animals are treated, even within Japan. The current techniques employed in the drive hunts violate even current animal welfare regulations within Japan where domesticated animals are afforded protection under their equivalent of the Animal Welfare Act. These guidelines intended to minimize pain, suffering, fear, and “agony” are outlined for species such as horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, dogs, and other animals under human care or management. Dolphins and whales are not protected by this law, nor are they afforded protection under the wildlife protection and hunting laws. Instead, dolphins and whales fall under the jurisdiction of the Fisheries Agency under the Department of Agriculture, which affords them little protection. This is in sharp contrast to the protection for dolphins and whales in legislation in other parts of the world where the slaughter of whales and dolphin is strictly prohibited and even their harassment incurs penalties.
Even Japan’s stranding guidelines, issued by the very same agency (Japan Fisheries Agency) responsible for issuing quotas for the dolphin hunts across Japan, cite the necessity of involving a veterinarian in the humane euthanasia or slaughter of a stranded dolphin, and only under extreme circumstances where the individual animal is not likely to survive. Here, the stranding manual suggests that the spinal incision method, similar to killing method in the drive hunts (without the utilization of the wooden plug), ‘gives psychological damage to observers’ and that spectators should be eliminated from the site, and drugs used instead to “execute” small cetaceans such as dolphins. In the drive hunts, dozens are killed at a time, dragged to the shoreline by their tailstocks after an exhausting round up at sea. Under many commercial slaughter regulations, and even compassionate euthanasia standards, it is required that animals should not be in close proximity when killed to avoid the distress associated with the sight, sounds, and smells of slaughter. For example, in the US and UK, the regulations and guidelines governing the humane treatment and slaughter of animals prohibit the killing of an animal in the presence of other animals. From a scientific, humane, and ethical perspective, the treatment of dolphins in these drive hunts sharply contradict current animal welfare standards employed in most modern and technologically advanced societies.
And who is complicit in supporting this horrible slaughter? Beyond the whaling politics of Japan, we are faced with a harsh reality that implicates many in the cycle of violence at Taiji. The airlines that continue to carry dolphins from the drive hunts within Japan and to international destinations around the globe support a deadly international trade in dolphins that fuels these devastating hunts. The captive facilities that continue to acquire dolphins from the drive hunts sustain this cruel practice. So, too, the patrons who vi sit captive facilities that either acquire dolphins directly from the hunts, or whose programs support the continuation of captivity worldwide, are ultimately complicit. And any of us that continue to remain silent in the face of such horror and yet choose not to act or deny the obligation that comes with bearing witness to a wrong that needs to be made right.
“Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight”--Albert Schweitzer. WDC continues its call for an end to the drive hunts on welfare grounds alone. In the end, it is not just about the metal rod and dowel, it is about the entire process of the hunts which is inhumane and that involves extreme suffering. The stress and acute trauma that is experienced by the dolphins as they are rounded-up at sea, driven miles by speedboat into a tiny cove, and the panic that ensues as they are then dragged to shore, is all part of the killing process. The bottom line is that these hunts are both unethical, and unnecessary.
Find out how you can help our campaign to end these hunts.
One might think it is a scene from a horror movie. Rather, it is video taken from Taiji, Japan depicting the almost unspeakable acts that occur beneath the tarpaulins from September through April each year in the dolphin drive hunts there. A recently published clinical analysis of the killing methods utilized in these hunts reveals their extreme cruelty.
Never underestimate the efforts of a single individual, or a small group of committed individuals, especially in this day and age of electronic media. Shona Lewendon’s recent efforts to mobilize the international community to press the issue of the dolphin slaughters in Japan as Tokyo seeks a bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics have been met with a crescendo of international support. Labeled the Global Taiji Action Day, or Olympic Challenge, Shona’s enthusiasm and networking efforts have spawned over 42 local and coordinated demonstrations to occur on February 22nd in more than 21 countries. Currently, Shona’s petition to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has received over 250,000 signatures and continues to grow. WDC support’s Shona’s approach in encouraging the IOC to consider the brutal dolphin drive hunts in its forthcoming meetings to discuss Tokyo’s bid for the Olympic games, and believes this form of political leveraging is critical to raise this issue with the highest levels of international diplomacy.
And this approach is not only strategic from an international relations perspective, but is guided by the Olympic Charter itself. The guiding and binding principles of the official Olympic Charter and bylaws, meant to govern not only the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but also the national Olympic Committees (such as the Japan Olympic Committee-JOC), govern the organization, action and operation of the Olympic Movement and sets forth the conditions for the celebration of the Olympic Games. It is the constitution for the IOC and other Olympic committees. Within this charter is specific language relating to the IOC’s roles and responsibility regarding the environment, mandating the IOC to “encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues.” In this regard, the IOC and JOC are obligated to address this very significant environmental issue of the dolphin drive and other hunts that occur around Japan’s coastline and that have become the focus of international concern and local conflict on the ground in Taiji, just 160 miles from Tokyo.
As a candidate city for the 2020 summer games, Tokyo should be prepared to address the international concern surrounding the annual dolphin hunts that occur in its waters, where up to 20,000 small whales and dolphins are permitted to be slaughtered each year through a variety of methods. Decades-long condemnation of the dolphin drive hunts that occur primarily in Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture has undergone a resurgence of interest as the issue moved to the big screen with the release of the Academy-award winning documentary, The Cove, in 2009. WDC has been involved in actively opposing the dolphin drive hunts for nearly two decades and has been working on a number of levels to nurture lasting change within the hearts and minds of those within Japan and elsewhere that are opposed to the hunts.
More importantly, as symbolized by the Olympic Games themselves, cooperation and collaboration in addressing controversy on the international stage is necessary and possible. With continuing strife, stalemate, and growing tensions on the ground in Taiji, international activists continue to affirm their commitment to bearing witness to these brutal hunts through their occupation of this coastal village. At the same time, the central Government of Japan continues to ignore the growing international debacle at its doorstep through its persistent flouting of not only international conventions and global environmental treaties addressing its whaling activities, but its spurning of world opinion in an attempt to maintain its political leveraging over matters involving the utilization of global fisheries and other natural resources. As the Government of Japan continues to cling to an outdated practice that most of the civilized world, and most likely a majority of its citizenry, finds appalling and that brings unnecessary shame to an entire country, the need for international diplomacy is ever-present, providing the Olympic Committee with an opportunity to engage in peaceful and balanced dialogue on this issue.
WDC took a similar tack in leveraging the power and influence of the Olympic Committee by engaging with the UK Olympic Committee regarding any potential sourcing of Icelandic fish products from the HB Grandi company (or its UK distributors) as this company has proven links to whaling in Iceland. Through our constructive dialogue with the organizing Committee, and their mandate to comply with the spirit and intent of the Charter regarding environmental responsibility, the London 2012 committee agreed to conduct an internal audit of their fish supplies for the Games (all fish intended for athletes, staff or the public). This audit confirmed that the Games were indeed ‘Grandi-free’ and therefore clear of links to Icelandic whaling.
If Japan wishes to be seen as a responsible global leader, and a welcomed host for an event such as the Olympics, then it must look closer to home and end this archaic practice. Shona’s efforts help to highlight the conflict that the Japanese Government faces in trying to divorce itself from the brutality of the dolphin hunts and its industrial whaling policy while projecting its global credentials as a potential host. This approach challenges the issue of global governance and the IOC’s mandate for environmental responsibility opens the door.
Another swim-with-the-dolphin facility has been proposed in the Caribbean. WDC is no stranger to the seemingly perpetual proposals from existing facilities to either expand their dolphin programs in their current locations, or extend them to other islands, such as what Dolphin Cove Jamaica is attempting to do on the Turks and Caicos Islands. A swim-with dolphin program has been proposed at Coral World Ocean Park on St. Thomas, USVI, using all of the traditional arguments that such a program is necessary to enhance both education and tourism. Although these are usually the two primary justifications for siting a dolphin program in the Caribbean, or anywhere for that matter, we encourage the authorities to consider whether these programs are harmful not only for the dolphins involved in these programs, but the people of St. Thomas and all that travel there.
It is no secret that many of us want to be close to dolphins. The honest truth is that most of us want to be close, sometimes without thinking about the costs to the animals involved, the environment, or personal safety. In fact, I believe captive facilities have catered to and exploited our love for these animals by packaging an experience that appears to be made from heaven—an opportunity to get up close and personal with these animals in what appears to be a controlled setting and where the animals choose freely to engage in a relationship with us. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The project’s champions state that only captive-borne dolphins will be utilized, assuming that these statements will be enough to preempt the community’s concern that dolphins will be captured from the wild to stock the facility, or from the dolphin drive hunts in Taiji, Japan.
Unfortunately, facilities that promote dolphin swim-with programs suggest that the interactions between humans and dolphins are reciprocal—that dolphins seek out these interactions through their own will and desire. Rather, these dolphins are motivated by food in a severely restricted environment, not by a reciprocal desire to be near us. No matter how we might justify these attractions, whether through a veneer of education, or with the hope of attracting tourist revenue and bolstering the local economy, these programs are self-serving prisons for a species that naturally roams hundreds of miles a day, and should never be forced to seek an encounter with us except on its own terms. These programs are nothing more than our entertainment and amusement, at the dolphins’ expense, no matter where these animals come from, and regardless of the facts put forward by Coral World.
Furthermore, dolphin swim-with programs are not all rosy for human participants, either: injuries occur frequently, and can be serious. An unsuspecting public is not ready for a dolphin that becomes aggressive and either bites, rams or pushes them underwater. These incidents are too numerous to count, but more recently a Swedish tourist was injured near Cancun, Mexico in Isla Mujeres and has vowed never to swim with dolphins again. One high profile incident that was profiled in the media occurred in 2002 where ‘Inside Edition’ journalist Nancy Glass was severely and permanently injured by 500-pound dolphin that fell upon her during a swim-with encounter in the Bahamas.
Furthermore, Coral World’s insistence that it will only utilize captive-born dolphins in its programs should be questioned. We have seen other swim-with facilities within the Caribbean struggle to find captive-born dolphins for their programs, and have resorted to taking them from the wild, primarily from Cuba. I am certain that although Coral World claims that it will bring in only captive-born animals to its proposed facility, it may indeed end up sourcing these animals from the wild now, or in the future when its dolphins die and need to be replaced.
Whether they take them from the wild or not, Coral World and other swim-with facilities sustain an international trade in dolphins as they perpetuate the very demand for these interaction programs that instigates captures from the wild and transport throughout the Caribbean, and elsewhere.The dolphin trade is indeed lucrative, but many Islands throughout the Caribbean have refused to implement dolphin programs, including Antigua (who had even once proposed capturing dolphins in their waters), Dominica, St. Maarten, and Costa Rica. Others have banned additional imports or exports of dolphins and other marine mammals, including Mexico.
Furthermore, captive dolphin tourism is being questioned and the cruise industry has shown signs of change. More enlightened cruise lines are turning away from promoting swim-with and other captive programs to their patrons. Recently, Carnival UK noted its change of policy in promoting swim-with activities at ports of call by announcing in their 2010 Sustainability Report that as part of their green initiatives and as a reflection of their commitment to the environment, they have elected not to operate tours which involve interaction with captive dolphins. They join Regent Seven Seas, formerly Radisson Cruise Lines, who made the same decision in 2005 when they took a stand against the capture and exploitation of dolphins by announcing that they would be dropping all swim-with excursions from their rosters.
Inconceivably, many swim-with facilities are located on or near the coast, oftentimes just yards away from where these animals swim free within their family groups. I think Coral World underestimates the concerns of a public that is keen to choose environmentally-responsible activities, and contribute to the welfare and sustainability of both the local environment and a species better left and seen in the wild.There certainly are better alternatives that Coral World could pursue that don’t contribute to the destruction of the marine environment and its amazing inhabitants, and perpetuate a more compassionate ethic that isn’t reliant upon the imprisonment of another sentient species.
On November 21st , an unsuspecting 8-year old girl, Jillian Thomas, was bitten by a dolphin at the petting and feeding pool at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. This comes as no surprise to WDC who published a report on the injuries and other risks to both humans and dolphins that occur at dolphin petting pools that primarily exist at SeaWorld parks in the US, and based in nearly 100 hours of undercover investigation at these pools. We have been monitoring these pools since the mid-1990s, and have revealed not only a disturbing frequency of bites and aggression by dolphins in these pools towards the public, but also the disturbing treatment of dolphins at the hands of patrons at these parks. This is, of course, not the first incident at this and other SeaWorld parks: it is just that it happened to be captured on video and for the entire world to see.
As a result of these investigations, WDC launched a campaign, and alongside HSUS, released its report in 2003. Our studies have recorded and assessed human and dolphin behaviors which present direct or indirect risks to the health and welfare of visitors or dolphins, including biting and butting/bumping, and the feeding of foreign objects and contaminated food items. Other factors that were looked at include gull harassment at these pools, feeding regimes, access to refuge areas, overcrowding, and potential for bi-directional disease transmission. The conclusion of this report is as relevant now, as it was then: the physical interaction between humans and dolphins may pose serious risks to the health and welfare of both parties. Abrupt movements by, and aggressive competition between, dolphins can result in physical injury to visitors. Many of the dolphins in these pools also bear wounds.
The words of this young girl in response to her injury also reveal the other side of this issue, and that is the welfare of the dolphins involved in this program. She stated that I was afraid that the dolphin might get sick because of the paper carton.” WDC’s investigations reveal that up to 17 dolphins, including calves can be in the petting pools at any one time. Too many dolphins in an overcrowded pool are subjected to not only stress, but the potential to be fed foreign objects or contaminated food items from the public, where inadequate supervision not only may lead to injuries, such as the bite experienced by Jillian Thomas, but the ingestion of objects that could prove fatal to the dolphins if undetected. There is more to be concerned about for these dolphins than just the paper fish carton. The government-maintained Marine Mammal Inventory (MMIR) report reveals that the ingestion of foreign objects is a common cause of death in captive marine mammals.
Through the life of our campaign, and the long history of meetings with the relevant regulatory agencies, the only change that has occurred at these pools is a restriction of access to the dolphins around a portion of the perimeter of the pool, and signage at the pools that indicates “feeding dolphins in the wild is illegal.”
What does feeding dolphins in the wild have to do with an 8–year old girl being bitten at SeaWorld in Orlando? For one, feeding dolphins in the wild is illegal. However, perhaps less obvious is the connection between these interactions in public display facilities, and problems for wild dolphins. I suggest that this mixed messaging within the context of interactive programs not only confuses the public, but is responsible for significant conservation issues in the wild: you can feed dolphins or swim with them here, but don’t feed them or swim with them in the wild. It is this ‘do as I say, not as I do’ mentality that is leading to a real regulatory nightmare in the wild.
Dolphins are being harassed and fed, especially around the coastline of Florida and throughout the Gulf, and the conflicts between humans and dolphins are intensifying. Individuals in Louisiana who are eager to interact with a solitary sociable male dolphin have been bitten and sent to the hospital. Swimmers in the hot zone of Panama City, Florida, known as a mecca for swimming and feeding wild dolphins, have had threatening encounters with aggressive dolphins that have pushed them underwater and away from the safety of their boats. Interestingly enough, it is in these areas where dolphins have been injured by human interaction and directed vandalism, and where individuals have been convicted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act for crimes against dolphins, including shooting and throwing pipe bombs at dolphins.
In fact, interactions with wild dolphins have become so prevalent, and the consequences so serious, that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) launched a public campaign in the late 1990s to deter feeding, touching and swimming with dolphins in the wild. This ‘Protect Dolphins Campaign’ deals directly with human-dolphin interactions and harassment in the wild, and seeks to educate the public about the risks to dolphins and the public in interacting with dolphins, pointing to the grave consequences that can result. Provisioning (feeding) dolphins modifies their natural behaviors and leaves them at increased risk for collision with boat propellers, vandals, recreational and commercial fishing operations, and may prevent them from foraging on their own. Similarly, swim-with activities can harass and harm wild dolphins.
As people are participating in more encounters with captive dolphins, there is an unmistakable trend of people seeking out close encounters with free-ranging dolphins in the wild. We believe this trend is increasingly harmful to wild dolphin populations, as evidenced in Hawaii with the spinner dolphins, in southeastern US with bottlenose dolphins. Swim-with activities can target vulnerable populations and disrupt normal behavior. For instance, in Hawaii, spinner dolphins are targeted by swimmers and swim-tours in their resting bays during the day (they feed at night). Recent research in this area has revealed that some populations are being displaced, and population level impacts are becoming evident, altering behaviors and distribution of these populations in the longer term.
The seriousness of feeding wild dolphins is also the focus of another NMFS public-facing campaign developed in collaboration with, ironically, public display facilities. WDC declined to be a part of this collaborative initiative because of our very concerns about the connections between these activities at public display facilities and what is occurring in the wild.
The ‘Don’t Feed Wild Dolphins,’ campaign which includes a very clever and graphically-appealing Public Service Announcement and accompanying website makes it very clear that feeding dolphins in the wild is not only illegal, but pretty much a death sentence for the dolphins that subsequently become habituated to human hand-outs and find themselves at risk of boat propeller injuries, or worse, the vandalism of irritated fishermen or recreationalists. In certain areas, dolphins may frequent angling areas, follow commercial fishing boats looking for an easy catch, and become the target of a public eager for close interaction in coastal areas. Media reports about dolphins being fatally targeted in the Gulf region, some with guns, another with a screwdriver, have intensified in the media since last June and continue to today. The poster child for this campaign was Beggar, an adult male bottlenose dolphin that was infamous for his begging behavior around boats, and that eventually led to his demise.Beggar was found dead in October, and was likely the most observed wild dolphin in the world. Focused observation of his activities over 100 hours and conducted in 2011 identified 3,600 interactions between Beggar and humans (up to 70 per hour) and 1689 attempts to feed him 520 different food items, from shrimp to hot dogs and beer. In addition, during just those observation hours, researchers logged 121 attempts to touch him, resulting in nine bites to people. Beggar reportedly spent much of his time a short distance from shore, where he was frequently approached by boaters. As a result, Beggar stopped foraging on his own and stopped socializing with other dolphins.
The connection is obvious to us. It is time for NMFS and SeaWorld to acknowledge the real link between the close interaction between dolphins and the public at these facilities, and the problems of managing these same activities in the wild. Opportunities for physical contact with dolphins, including touching, feeding and swimming with both wild and captive animals are increasing in range and intensity. From our perspective, these programs stimulate the public’s demands to get closer and closer to these unique animals, increasing the risk for injury to both the public and dolphins, both in the wild and in captivity. By promoting and reinforcing the acceptability of feeding and touching dolphins, captive feeding programs will continue to encourage the public to repeat their experiences with these animals in the wild.
Although the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) stopped requiring the reporting of injuries in 1999 with the suspension of regulations governing interaction programs in public display facilities, these suspended regulations, which were opened for public input in 2002, are due to be released as newly proposed and revised regulations in the spring of 2013. WDC has been critical of these regulations, providing our recommendations for their improvement over 10 years ago, requiring the specific redress of petting pools within those guidelines, or their closure. However, we have been informed by APHIS that dolphin petting pools are no different than any other interactive program and pose no greater risk, and will therefore not be specifically addressed in the proposed regulations.
And this brings us back to the ‘Don’t Feed Wild Dolphins’ Campaign. NMFS is placed in an untenable and difficult position, where it works in partnership with public display facilities, that through lip service appear ‘supportive’ of the agency’s role in cracking down on illegal activities that harm and harass dolphins in the wild, but that actually perpetuate and propagate the very activities that NMFS must regulate in the wild, such as feeding, swimming and petting activities, at their facilities. And we are not the only ones that see this connection. A detailed survey of public display facilities conducted in 1989 reveals that many zoos and aquaria have eliminated their petting and feeding programs, citing the unacceptable risks associated with such attractions. In addition, individuals from within the public display community itself have questioned whether they are part of the problem in promoting these activities that are illegal and detrimental to dolphins in the wild. It is time to acknowledge the risks that captive dolphin interaction programs pose to humans and dolphins, both in captivity and in the wild. In the clear absence of a willingness to specifically regulate and acknowledge the risks associated with petting pools, and continuing injuries at these attractions, WDC continues our call for their immediate closure.
As filmmakers and celebrities prepare to flock to the south of France for this year’s Cannes Film Festival (May 16-27th), among the films to make their debut at the 65th annual 12-day event is ‘Rust and Bone.’ The film is an adaptation of ‘Rocket Ride,’ one of the stories found within Craig Davidson’s 2005 short-story anthology, also titled ‘Rust and Bones’. In the story a young man loses his leg to the orca he performs with and tries to rebuild his life through amputee-support groups and other therapy, ‘Rust and Bone’s’ storyline unfortunately is closer to fact than fiction and serves as a reminder of the unfortunate risks inherent to holding these huge, socially complex marine mammals in captivity.
Although WDCS is unable to review the film prior to the festival's opening, the film’s general storyline as reported in the media involves a female orca trainer (Marion Cotillard) who loses her legs in a horrific accident involving the whales. Scenes for the movies were filmed at Marineland Antibes (France), a captive facility currently holding five orcas, including one wild orca captured in 1982 from Iceland. Another Marineland orca, Shouka, remains isolated and alone at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California.
We expect this film to stir public emotion and generate comparisons and renewed attention to the tragic and violent deaths of Dawn Brancheau and Alexis Martinez that occurred just over two years ago. Both trainers were killed by the orcas they worked with at SeaWorld Florida and Loro Parque on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, respectively, within just a few months of each other. Although I am not certain how the trainer and her relationship with the orcas is depicted within the film, if it is anything like ‘real life’, the job of a trainer will be portrayed as glamorous, dazzling, and exciting, suggesting trainers benefit from a privileged and reciprocal relationship with these huge, attractive and awesome animals. Or, perhaps the silver screen will reflect the truer image of this profession, telling a different story where trainers can be injured or killed, and where ruined lives, both human and orca, are the real drama behind the shows.
Whether it intends to or not, this film serves to further highlight the uncomfortable realities associated with the capture, confinement and exploitation of these magnificent creatures for our entertainment. Because regardless of the nature of the event causing injury and death, whether from orcas attacking their trainers or loss of limb during performances or other accidents, all result from the unnatural confinement of these large, intelligent and powerful animals. This practice is dangerous and deadly to both the orcas and the humans working with them. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has even found this to be true, citing and fining SeaWorld in August 2010 for knowingly and irresponsibly exposing its trainers to known safety hazards (orcas) that could result in injury or death.
As WDCS awaits the judge’s decision in the OSHA vs. SeaWorld hearing that concluded in November 2011 where SeaWorld contested OSHA’s citation, ‘Rust and Bone’ is an unfortunate reminder of the true costs of captivity to both humans and whales.
Irrespective of this film, and considering the sordid realities of captivity and the more recent tragedies that have unfolded, it is difficult to understand how anyone can have a clear conscience about captivity. WDCS opposes the confinement of whales and dolphins in captivity, and is committed to exposing and sharing the truth. If you care about whales and dolphins, question the culture of captivity and take the pledge not to buy a ticket to zoos, aquaria or marine parks that profit from the exploitation of whales and dolphins.
It is no secret that many of us want to be close to whales and dolphins. The honest truth is that most of us want to be close, sometimes at any cost. Until we know the truth, we might even feel entitled to it. We have a natural affinity for these animals that extends back centuries into the cultural heritage of our modern civilizations, and it is undeniable. Past public opinion polls have recognized this desire, including a fairly recent BBC poll identifying the number one activity that people wanted to do before they died: swim with dolphins. Captive facilities have catered to and exploited our love for these animals by packaging an experience that appears to be made from heaven—an opportunity to get up close and personal with these animals in a blatantly unnatural, but seemingly attractive and controlled, setting. As a society, we have been seduced by the lights, the shows, the spectacular tricks, and the glamorous and intimate relationships between whales and humans that are manufactured for our consumption.
Now, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquaria have released a new Harris Poll that indicates the public endorses captive facilities, and believes them to be more educational than even the classroom. And it also seems to support the BBC poll’s conclusions that swimming with dolphins is high on the public’s list of things to do. However, the poll leaves out a lot of important points, and is merely reflective of a public that only knows one side of the story. The poll asks no questions about seeing marine mammals in the wild, or questions that might suggest there are other ways to learn about and experience marine mammals outside the confines of a facility. Many of the questions are leading or flawed in producing a predetermined positive conclusion that captivity is the best or only way to appreciate marine mammals and learn about them. The poll’s first question leads the responder to necessarily support captivity because it suggests that this might be the only way a child might see them in his or her lifetime (“aquariums are important because children might not get to see them in the wild”). More realistically, if the public can afford travel to SeaWorld or most other aquaria, they have traveled far enough to see these animals in the wild. Many of these facilities are located on or near the coast, oftentimes just yards away from where these animals swim free within their family groups. Furthermore, ‘seeing’ these animals in person is certainly not a prerequisite for loving them or being concerned about their wellbeing and protection.
And missing are the questions regarding the unspoken conflict between what is best for us, and what is best for them. These misleading figures reflect the responses of a propagandized and programmed public, spoon-fed from birth that it is acceptable and ‘normal’ to see these animals confined in a zoo or aquarium. We have been pre-programmed to believe that it is natural to seek entertainment and an escape to a place where these animals are accessible and willing to interact with us, and where we have been told they are happy, content, and even better off than if they were in the wild. We are so accustomed to these messages generated by SeaWorld and other marine parks’ public relations machines that our perceptions and beliefs have been shaped without our active participation. The seduction even greets us at the airport baggage claim of many major tourist destinations through attractive advertisements for captive facilities where you can swim with the dolphins. Through no fault of its own, the public has been denied the truth and has been swayed by the alluring messages of a multi-billion dollar commercial enterprise capitalizing on our love for these animals.
My four plus decades of life have provided me an opportunity to not only walk the varied paths of a dolphin lover and advocate, but to encounter many others along the way that have shared stories about their affinity for these animals, their feelings about captivity, and the rationalized choices that they make for themselves and their families. Growing up, I was lured and drawn in, like many, by the opportunity of SeaWorld, a logical destination for many families in the United States. It was here that I met my first dolphins ‘in the flesh’ at the petting pool at SeaWorld California when I was just eight years old. I left there wanting to be a trainer, believing this would be the best way to get close to these animals. But the catch is that I loved these animals before I ever set foot in SeaWorld. Through a lifetime of encountering these animals in the wild, education and an inborn passion to seek out what is best for these animals, I quickly abandoned my support of what I now see as selfish and indulgent entertainment. Now, I work to shut down those very same pools where I first encountered dolphins in person. Is this a natural progression for most people who encounter whales and dolphins in captivity? If people are given the truth about captivity, will they make the right choice--a choice in the best interest of dolphins?
Although I have come to know the backstory of captivity over time and work to expose and share it, the truth is that I was always conflicted. Long before I witnessed the drive hunts in Taiji, exposed the conditions at the dolphin petting pools, or reeled with the news of Alexis Martinez and Dawn Brancheau’s deaths, I knew there was something not quite right about SeaWorld and the stories they, and other captive facilities, told. With new truths about captivity surfacing daily, I am not the only one that feels this way. Truths of sordid dealings, brutal captures, and the incredibly deprived lives of the perpetually medicated and stressed animals are starting to sink in. However, it is the demand of the ticket counter that has facilities laboring to stock their pools and continue the revolving door of death.
A few facilities are already turning away from traditional whale and dolphins shows, and questioning the sourcing of these animals from the wild. We applaud their movement in a positive direction, and encourage them to continue to phase out their collection of captive whales and dolphins.
It is time to get honest about captivity, and what motivates us. I believe those who attend these marine parks, spending almost any amount of money to flock to SeaWorld on family vacations, do so because they love these animals and because they do not know any other story. In other words, the public goes to marine parks because they love these animals; they do not love these animals because of marine parks. They go because they believe in what they have been told. The public does not know the story behind the individual lives in those barren and shallow aquamarine pools, and more importantly, many may not want to. But once you do know the story, it is hard to turn back, and to see these shows for other than what they really are. You don’t have to dig very deep, I promise. As modern day circuses have fallen out of favor, so too shall marine parks that rely upon the confinement of whales and dolphins for their profits. But there is another story, and there will be many more that will continue to reveal the real truth and face of captivity—a truth that will help to reconcile that personal discomfort and conflict that so many have shared with me when they speak of captivity.
It comes down to one simple choice to set you, and eventually the dolphins, free: Don't buy a ticket. We go to these parks like SeaWorld because we love the animals, but it is the very same reason why we shouldn't. It is time that we embrace the truth, and the conflict, and question our culture of captivity. And with time, I believe those public opinion polls will reflect a different set of beliefs--one that finds the imprisonment of beings so very much like our own an abhorrent and archaic trend of the past.
It really is a very simple step to resolve the conflict between our self-interested love for dolphins, and the love and appreciation that is in their best interest. It truly isn't counterculture or heretical to question SeaWorld, or the 'state of the art' Georgia Aquarium, or any of the other captive facilities that thrive on tourist dollars, however sacrilegious it might seem for those of us that have grown up with it.
The long-awaited hearing between the Occupational Health and Safety
Administration (OSHA) and SeaWorld started this week near Orlando, Florida. At the heart of the hearing are an administrative law judge’s attempts to evaluate whether the August 2010 citation issued by OSHA against SeaWorld is justified, and whether recommendations prescribed by OSHA to remedy the cited hazards are feasible. And we cannot forget that at the heart of this week’s review are the deaths of two beloved trainers, and the countless injuries of others. As I attend the hearing this week, it has become painfully obvious that SeaWorld is very confident: it is confident in its processes and protocols, and it is confident in its collective ability to control the behavior and responses of not only its trainers, but its orcas.
It is not merely arrogance that leads SeaWorld to claim a fool-proof system with a 98% success ratio between correct (desirable) and incorrect (undesirable) orca-trainer interactions while at the same time leaving its trainers to rely upon their personal judgments and abilities to remain calm in aversive or challenging situations with orcas. It is actually cavalier folly to rely upon a system that is based solely on the knowledge and judgment of individual human trainers. SeaWorld’s ‘system’ is based in the practice of operant conditioning (an animal training protocol based on positive reward and relationship building) and is comprised of ‘standard operating procedures’, ‘training the trainers’ and mentorship through on- the- job experience.
What is actually on trial is SeaWorld’s ability to convince the judge that in spite of ever-present human error, the unexpected behavior of a killer whale or even a perfect track record of performance between trainer and orca, the lethal or near-lethal events over the past twenty years are preventable and avoidable. That a captive orca can kill even the most experienced trainer grown in the SeaWorld system is explained away not as a failure of the SeaWorld ‘system’ and its safety measures,but as an incident borne of specific contexts and circumstances, a complex mix of trainer response and orca compliance, and one that requires each trainer to be fully aware of his or her surroundings at all times, accountable for every nuance of behavior of his or her whale in the vicinity. When the system works, SeaWorld claims that orcas are predictable. When the system fails, as it has done many times, SeaWorld claims trainer error, and moves forward with a blind eye toward the root cause of these calamities: the stress of confinement for the orcas in its possession.
SeaWorld may acknowledge the ultimate vulnerability of trainers, but cannot seem to find a way to acknowledge that its entire program is based upon a very flagrant denial of the risk involved in interacting with a wild and ‘caged’ animal. Orcas will never be domesticated, and to pretend that they are as predictable as your family pet dog verges on delusional.
In their testimony, SeaWorld representatives claim to have witnessed and identified every possible behavior a killer whale could express in captivity. There is little they haven’t seen. They work closely with these animals, they take into account their personalities and behavioral histories, and they know how to preempt an undesirable response from ‘their’ orcas. And yet, despite this professed familiarity with killer whales in general, and their individual orcas more specifically, they act surprised when an orca doesn’t respond like a predictable automaton, even as they have spoken out of the other side of their mouth that each interaction is variable and does not necessarily lead to an expected behavior or response. They claim that every killer whale has the potential to behave like any other, yet act surprised when an orca pulls a trainer into the water by her arm (a behavior that has been shown by another orca at another location). This also means they do not label a whale as aggressive, even with a history of deaths left in his wake. They label his behavior as aggressive, and continue to believe in a program reliant upon human judgment and interpretation, hoping and predicting that an aggressive tendency can be corrected or eliminated by the SeaWorld system.
Perhaps surprisingly, SeaWorld gives their orcas the benefit of the doubt. SeaWorld testimony suggests that captive orcas may respond aggressively in a certain stage of their life (like many of us do), they may outgrow certain behaviors (like many of us do), or they may learn from past ‘mistakes’ (also like many of us do). We are left to believe that the only weak link in the system is the trainers, and their ability (or inability) to predict the unpredictable. SeaWorld suggests that they ‘know’ whether an orca is enjoying an interaction, and are able to interpret every behavior to guide a favorable outcome. But a whale has to eat to survive, and the fact that he is performing a behavior for a reward or reinforcement of fish, ice cubes or gelatin is no guarantee that the whale is ‘enjoying’ the interaction, or that he will not someday, or in some instance, reject the relationship. And sometimes the rejection of that relationship ends in death.
Judge Welsch made a point at the very beginning of the hearing to clarify that its purpose was not to explore the issue of whether killer whales should be in captivity, or even whether SeaWorld is responsible for the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, but to examine the citations issued in August by OSHA. But I would like to suggest that the hearing is all about captivity, and whether or not whales should be there.
From my perspective, it IS all about captivity that Mrs. Brancheau is no longer with us and died a horrible and tragic death at the mercy of a 12,000 pound orca named Tilikum. It IS all about captivity that orcas have displayed serious acts of aggression and aberrant behavior towards their human caretakers on over 100 occasions, but yet such aggressive acts towards humans have not been documented in the wild. And it IS all about captivity that orcas are the subject of the hearing that began on Monday where OSHA is facing off with SeaWorld to defend the citation it issued just over a year ago and reprimanding the theme-park giant with ‘willful’ negligence in failing to protect animal trainers from hazards associated with working with Tilikum and the other orcas at SeaWorld. The two are intimately connected: holding orcas in captivity and the inevitability of trainer harm. To pretend that the welfare of these animals is not important is to ignore the root of the problem.
SeaWorld has historically held a special place in our society. It has been blindly accepted and promoted as a cultural icon of entertainment and a popular family vacation destination. This seemingly blind acceptance of captivity by society is supported by annual attendance figures in the tens of millions. Is there any place more idyllic than a marine amusement park, where visitors can get up close and personal with ‘Flipper’ the bottlenose dolphin or ‘Shamu’ the killer whale? Orcas are among the most popular of species in the dolphin family. They share the captivity stage with belugas and bottlenose, but are distinguished by their stark black and white form and immense size. It’s good family fun, at least on the surface, especially if you buy into the feel-good advertisements that adorn our magazines, billboards and television sets. SeaWorld is represented as being just about as American as you can get, joining the ranks of baseball and apple pie, and perhaps even a bit more magical.
But all of that changed over a year and a half ago when Alexis Martinez and then Dawn Brancheau were killed within a few months of each other, both by orcas owned by SeaWorld. Captivity is not an end product, it is a process. It begins with the inhumane and traumatic capture from the wild or transport from another facility and ends with a life sentence of medication, cramped spaces and forced associations. Once in captivity,
if it is not septicemia or pneumonia that takes the life of a stressed and medicated orca, it will perhaps be the ingestion of foreign objects, routine medical care, or a variety of hazards associated with confinement. Regardless of how ‘state of the art’ a facility is, and considering the decades of breeding technology and methodology employed by captive facilities, there will always be the need for fresh DNA to maintain a healthy gene pool. It is a fact that US facilities are contemplating future captures of belugas in Alaska to freshen their gene pools, and orcas are on the menu for captures elsewhere in the world to replenish dying breeding lines. This means captivity is not just a welfare issue, but a conservation issue. And it is not only about the individual animal taken into captivity, but the families that are left behind in the wild.
Media attention to controversial captures, unnecessary deaths, inhumane transportation and injuries incurred in whale and dolphin interaction programs has had an impact on the public’s perception of marine theme parks. Opinion polls conducted over the past decade reveal that most people now think that captivity of marine mammals is justified only when there are measurable scientific or educational benefits.
I argue that the exposure to whales in captivity does exactly the opposite of what SeaWorld and other marine parks claim—instead of sensitizing visitors to marine mammals and their habitat, it desensitizes us to the cruelty inherent in removing these animals from their natural habitats and holding them captive for our entertainment and self-fulfillment. Education is one of the most important ways we can instill the foundations for humane and ethical existence alongside the animals that share our planet. It should not be taken lightly. I am certain the trainers and staff of these parks love the animals in their care, but is possession in the best interest of the animals—and in the case of captive orcas, in the best interest of their trainers?
Corky (SeaWorld) and Lolita (Miami Seaquarium) have been confined for over 40 years since they were taken from their families in the Pacific Northwest. I am certain that they still remember, and still long for their family members and the expanse of ocean that nurtures their intended role in the ecosystem. Is not freedom, especially after the significant cost of a life in servitude to our entertainment, the best educational message we can send for all living creatures and future generations?
I hope for the day when the public will perceive the captive experience for what it really is. The repetition of a whale or dolphin jumping through a hoop, begging for dead fish pool-side, or swimming in endless circles is nothing short of an experience in despair and deprivation, despite the sugar-coating that is part of the captive experience. Plush toys, thrill rides and marketing can do little to erase the realities behind captivity.
Times are changing, and so are public attitudes. It is time that OSHA and the public demand a “product recall” on captive orcas. And it is time for SeaWorld to stop gambling the lives of its trainers and orcas while pretending it is an acceptable cost of doing business. No safety measures can ever fully mitigate the consequences and depravity of captivity.
Continue reading "Pulling back the curtain: why it took unthinkable tragedy to question our culture of captivity"
It has been nearly a year and a half since SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was tragically killed by a 12,000 pound orca named Tilikum. Preceding Ms. Brancheau in death was Alexis Martinez, who was killed at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands in December 2009 in a similar and unfortunate accident by Keto, a 6,000 pound orca on loan to the park since 2006 by SeaWorld. What has transpired since has been a mixture of increased public scrutiny aimed at the keeping of orcas in captivity and a flurry of defensive responses from the marine park giant SeaWorld. Ranging from a congressional oversight hearing questioning the educational value of public display (captive) facilities and their programs, to a series of orca deaths at SeaWorld parks in the US, to exploration of safety measures by SeaWorld seeking to ultimately reinstate in-water work with its trainers and orcas, this past year has exposed some of the shocking realities facing both orcas and trainers alike.
Thanks to the courage of former SeaWorld trainers, the public has been provided detailed information regarding the chronic stress that these orcas endure, exacerbated by and inextricably linked to the poor dental condition and chronic infections that occur in captivity and require constant regiments of antibiotics, and perhaps also contribute to their aggressive tendencies and shortened lives in captivity. News also came to light about the cause of death of an orca (Kanduke) that occurred over twenty years ago in 1990 at SeaWorld Orlando due to an encephalitis virus transmitted through a mosquito bite, further illustrating the risks to orcas in captivity.
WDCS was not surprised by SeaWorld’s immediate challenge to OSHA’s citation and fine issued in August 2010 which stated that SeaWorld acted knowingly and irresponsibly in exposing its trainers to known safety hazards (orcas) that could result in death. SeaWorld will appear before an administrative law judge this September to contest OSHA’s findings and to defend its position, outlining recent mitigation measures meant to create a safer environment for its trainers. The hearing before the independent US Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission was postponed from last April, and is slated to occur September 19th. It is uncertain whether the hearing will be open to the public.
Among the measures that SeaWorld has offered as abatement include the installation of railings at the orca performance stadium; a ‘net box’ that is intended to allow trainers to more quickly deploy safety nets in case of an emergency with an orca; and spare air devices that would allow life-sustaining oxygen to be incorporated into trainer wetsuits. Other measures that are being considered are a pool floor that can be lifted to quickly dry dock an orca, and underwater remotely controlled submersibles or robots that can be used to distract the animals. WDCS maintains that there is no way to reduce or remove the risks to trainers inherent to interacting with orcas in captivity, particularly physical injury from an aggressive orca.
SeaWorld has tried to address the elements it has control over (the pool and surrounding environment), but has done little to address the orcas or their circumstances in captivity. WDCS has documented over 40 separate incidents involving orcas and their trainers, ranging from the 1970s to present day. Other sources have cited higher figures, documenting the injuries and accidents between orcas and trainers that were never reported or revealed to the public through media accounts. SeaWorld boldly announced the reopening of the ‘Dine with Shamu’ show at SeaWorld San Antonio on February 26th, 2011, just a year after the accident that took Ms. Brancheau’s life in the same attraction in Orlando, and returned Tilikum to performances in April. Also in April, SeaWorld showcased its new One Ocean show as a replacement to its Believe show at its Orlando location, and to accommodate a new format where trainers do not directly interact with the orcas in the water during performances. However, SeaWorld has stated that it intends to have its trainers enter the water again as soon as it has exhausted every safety measure.
Furthermore, and perhaps in an attempt to convince the public that it is making significant contributions to conservation, SeaWorld is diversifying , including the recent announcement that it will open a dolphin rehabilitation ‘hospital’ at its Orlando location. While we would like to believe in the good intentions of SeaWorld, the real proof of their commitment to conservation and the welfare of the stranded animals it brings into this facility will be the release of these animals back to the wild, rather than their retention in marine parks across the US.
But SeaWorld’s troubles are far from over. SeaWorld is also involved in a court case with Marineland, Canada and has been thrust into the spotlight again with more orca troubles. Despite SeaWorld's claims of having their orcas' best interests' in mind, an argument that is being used to justify its request to cancel its breeding loan with Marineland and return an orca named Ikaika (Ike) back to one of its US facilities, Ike is only one example of an orca born at a SeaWorld facility and moved to another. Ike was taken from his mother Katina and father Tilikum in November 2006 at the age of 4, disrupting their family unit, and shipped off to Marineland from SeaWorld Orlando to breed with the now 36-year old Kiska. A recent article focusing on the troubles at Loro Parque, where Alexis Martinez was killed by an orca on loan from SeaWorld, details the lethal potential of orcas being trained for our entertainment, and the inadequacies of the facilities holding them.
Through the affidavits associated with the Marineland case, WDCS has learned that SeaWorld has inadvertently validated the very arguments that WDCS and others have presented against keeping these large predators in confinement: citing aggression, poor dental health, stress and other factors as the basis for their concerns over the welfare of Ike at Marineland, SeaWorld is demanding that Ike come home.
The struggle for control over Ike clarifies for us that orcas are the property of no one. They are part of the public trust, and any public display facility is accountable to us--all of us--in its treatment, transfer and ultimate wellbeing of these animals, whether they were originally taken from the wild, or whether they were born in captivity. Furthermore, human lives are also being weighed against the costs and benefits of maintaining these valuable, yet dangerous, orcas in captivity
Further illustrating our assumptions regarding SeaWorld’s attempts to acquire and control valuable orca assets, and in blatant conflict with growing public opinion in opposition to holding orcas in captivity, SeaWorld has announced its intent to acquire Morgan, a juvenile orca rescued from the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands and transfer her to Loro Parque. WDCS, along with a coalition of partners, submitted a plan for the rehabilitation and retirement of Morgan, as an alternative to keeping her in captivity. With the troubled past and current orca issues at Loro Parque, including aggression and questionable care, and the likelihood that Morgan will eventually end up as a performing orca at SeaWorld in the US, WDCS opposes this transfer.
This past year and a half has brought us a personal glimpse of the truth, tragedy and risk associated with the confinement of orcas in captivity. It has also revealed the quality of life and welfare concerns that orcas in these theme parks must endure for our entertainment. And the stories are not over. As more and more details surface from the orca trainer and research communities, through lawsuits and media inquiries, and even from SeaWorld itself, WDCS is certain that the mounting pressure against holding orcas in captivity will serve to provide the public with an aversion to these shows and outdated practices, and serve as a tipping point in the right direction. WDCS continues to call for an end to the confinement of whales and dolphins in captivity.
For the love of whales and dolphins? An alternative perspective on Japan
Recent news reports from Japan verify that the government ended their southern ocean whaling mission early, citing harassment by anti-whaling activists. The Japanese whaling fleet managed to kill 172 whales in the waters off Antarctica over the last three months, only around a fifth of the quota Japan had set for itself the season. The Japanese whaling ships may, or may not, return to the whales’ Antarctic feeding grounds next year. Reports from Taiji also indicate that the drive hunt season has ended a bit earlier than usual, as the season usually extends through March (and into April for pilot whales).
We know that a decision to end cetacean killing altogether will be based on more than reaction to public protest, whether it is on the high seas, or in Taiji. Unsustainable government subsidies, waning interest and appetite in whale meat, increasing public awareness, and politics are other reasons Japan may be realigning its fleets and its whale-hunting strategies.
But it is an even more recent report from Japan that also has us encouraged: it was reported on Friday night that approximately 50 melon-headed whales stranded on the shore in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture in eastern Japan. The stranding is not the encouraging news: it is the response of the locals that is. Apparently 22 whales were rescued and returned to the sea on Saturday through the efforts of some 200 people including city government officials and local residents and surfers near the Oritsu coast.
This is not the first time Japanese citizens have risked personal safety or worked at great lengths to assist stranded whales and dolphins. Stories of divers and surfers, even fishermen, in Japan pushing stranded whales back to sea have surfaced in the press over the years. And whale and dolphin watching is popular in Japan, as it is all over the world. These stories just underline the complexities of the whaling issue; it is not possible to simply assume from Japan’s whaling and dolphin hunting policies that the public are not inspired and amazed, like us, by whales and dolphins, or would not run to their aid.
Despite the public’s notion that all of Japan is against these magnificent animals, with the ill-fated confrontations of Sea Shepherd and the Japanese whaling ships clashing each spring in the southern ocean taking center stage, and where even WDCS policy teams battle it out annually at the IWC side-by-side with diplomats and activists alike, trying to stave off another ‘research’ hunt by Japan-- we know better. We have met, and work with, so many dedicated individuals in Japan that want to see an end to whaling, and dolphin hunting, and that stand side-by-side in our understanding of the need and desire to protect these sentient animals.
At WDCS, we are seeking ways to spread these seeds of change that will nurture the hearts and minds in Japan. And the real stories of individuals in Japan rescuing these animals, instead of slaughtering them or consuming them, are potentially the seeds of true change. It is clear, whatever the motivation, that there is a love of whales and dolphins already existing in Japan, and we must find a way to encourage it, and nurture the compassion that continues to reveal itself. We must continue to condemn inhumane practices, such as the coastal drive hunts or the offshore harpoon hunts, in all of their forms, while acknowledging that not all people in Japan eat whale and dolphin meat, or participate in these hunts. And the lives of those whales saved in this most recent stranding, and the individuals responsible, are the difference.
As the drive hunt season continues, and comes nearer to its end in April, we are still left with the challenge of how to expose these hunts, and work for their end. International protests, embassy meetings, media exposure, on-the-ground negotiations and dialogue, and even an Oscar award-winning documentary seem not enough to change the course and put an end to these hunts. All sorts of creative and inspired ideas have fallen short, as the hunts are a complex combination of nationalism, pride, pest control, food, profit, tradition and most importantly, resistance.
And yet, there has been some response to the pressure, however frenetic and temporary. The reaction we have seen from the fishermen and local authorities ranges from at times releasing some of the dolphins after selecting others for slaughter; developing a ‘new’ killing technique that may actually prolong the suffering of dolphins, but is an attempt to keep blood out of the water; and even trying to round up dolphins offshore, out of view from the killing cove. Ultimately, the only response we will accept is for the killing to stop. And whether the government of Japan will continue to ignore world opinion, and the growing preferences of its people, and continue the hunts in spite of all of us, will define the long road ahead.
Being on the ground in Taiji, being present, is important. Showing the world what is happening in Taiji is necessary, and the spotlight needs to continue to shine on these activities. However, bearing witness is only part of the story, and what is happening behind the scenes is even more important. Video footage of the slaughters has been coming from Taiji for decades, along with direct action. WDCS has been on the ground in Taiji, and continues to be, including most recently through our support of Hans Peter Roth. However, often it is the quiet back story of campaign work not often seen by the public, that is the critical component in the work to change the hearts and minds of Japanese authorities and the Japanese public. Outreach and engagement through our diverse Japanese partners is guiding our attempts to connect with hearts and minds in Japan, to open the dialogue, to instill the love and appreciation for these animals that will bring about change.
WDCS will continue to work for an end to these brutal drive hunts. We have been active in confronting the dolphin drive hunts in Japan on a number of levels, from raising awareness of the hunts, taking part in peaceful protests and visiting Japan to document them. We have worked with the marine mammal scientific community to garner a public statement against these hunts, and helped secure a congressional resolution condemning the practice. WDCS has also worked to secure the acknowledgement of the public display industry of its complicity in fueling the dolphin drive hunts through the demand generated by marine parks and aquaria that either directly, or indirectly, source live dolphins from these hunts. And within Japan, we have developed an educational campaign with our Japanese colleagues to educate the public about whales and dolphins, their beauty, their biology and the threats that they face. And most recently, we contributed to the development of the Beautiful Whale Project, an attempt to bring art, science and communities together in search of common ground in our love and appreciation for whales and dolphins.
So what is the answer? Don’t give up. It will take all of us, and all of our solutions and strategies working in that hopeful elixir that eventually can move mountains and eradicate inhumane practices and traditions that have plagued humanity since its inception. We will continue to expose these hunts, resolute in our call for their end on the grounds of welfare of the animals, the complex ecosystems being devastated by these activities, and the human health implications of consuming mercury-laden meat. These practices wear the cloak of tradition, but ultimately destroy our humanity, and the amazing web of life that sustains us all.
And in the end, the only thing that may stop Japan killing whales and dolphins is the realization and acknowledgement that its people no longer want these practices to continue. The tide will turn when the Japanese policymakers face the full force of international pressure and also look inward to what the people of Japan want and need for the 21st century. And that change must happen in Tokyo, not just in Taiji.
Many of us have had the opportunity to come to know the individuality and character of dolphins, to know their personalities and stories behind their lives, and as campaigners, we are compelled to honor their intelligence and sentience with our humanity and best efforts toward their protection. Because of these videos, and the personal accounts of individuals in Taiji, the dolphins are not just statistics and numbers. It is now not just thousands of dolphins dying every year in Japan, but rather individuals, babies, mothers and families thrashing against the nets, crying out as they are lifted out of the water for marine parks, or as they are separated for slaughter. Dolphins have complex social lives, have families, and science has shown us that they even have culture and traditions, too. The videos and images coming from Taiji provide us with the stories of these individuals, and all of us become campaigners as we continue to call for an end to these hunts.
Albert Schweitzer said that a thinking person must oppose all cruel customs no matter how deeply rooted in tradition or surrounded by a halo. We should not give up, and opposing cruelty on ethical grounds alone does not require an explanation or even justification. Traditions and cultures evolve, and we are hopeful that the hearts and minds in Japan will move towards a kinder and gentler future for dolphins.