Imagine you are in your home and you live with your entire family: your siblings, your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and even a few friends. Perhaps you have children, and they are at your side. They are playing with your nieces and nephews, and perhaps second cousins as well. You and the other adults are making dinner, getting ready to enjoy a large feast with the entire family. Out of nowhere, a group of men who you have never met burst into your home, and begin shouting, and hurting you and your entire family with sharp weapons. They make noises so loud you have to cover your ears, and they keep getting closer and closer as you try to flee. You and your family have no choice but to get out of the house, and head for the highway behind your house. You cannot pass the highway, and now you are all trapped between it, and these horrible, loud men.
Some of you are greatly injured, and even bleeding, as the loud noises continue. The men begin grabbing some of your family. Your cousin is taken, and then your sister, followed by your uncle. They call out in fear as the men take them away from the rest of the group, and out of sight. Then, the men begin slaughtering your entire family, including the children, your grandparents, and your parents, right in front of you, as you continue trying to escape to no avail. They soon have you by your legs, and the world goes black. An entire family, generations, wiped out of existence, for no apparent reason.
This sounds like something out of a horror movie, or the latest book from George R.R. Martin. But sadly, this is the reality for hundreds of dolphins every single year during the annual drive hunting season in Taiji, Japan. Every single year, entire family pods of dolphins are killed for their meat within a small cove, while some of the “better looking” ones are shipped worldwide to live out their lives in captivity. Dolphins are highly intelligent animals, on par with humans and other primates, and they are subjected to torment that isn’t even seen in the slaughter house. Not only is the final method long and painful, but the dolphins are chased for hours from open waters into the cove.
I will never forget when I saw “The Cove.” I cried, hard. This film tells the true story of a small fishing town in Japan, called Taiji. The story is told with the help of Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer turned activist. He is the man who trained five dolphins to star in the movie “Flipper.” It seems as though he had a change of heart about his profession after learning the truth behind it.
O’Barry has been arrested a few times while protesting in Taiji. As a result of such protests, the Taiji dolphin hunters have become somewhat secretive. In the film, they stand in front of the cameras to block the view, and yell at filmmakers to get away. One man is actually nicknamed “Private Space,” as he utters these words quite often. There are also large tarps blocking views of the area where meat is cut up.
The film follows O’Barry and other activists as they fail to get footage of the dolphin slaughter. Fishermen deny the hunt, even though the cameras film packages of dolphin meat in the market.
Sometimes the fishermen became violent towards protesters. A group paddled out into the cove on surfboards to sit, hold hands, and sort of have a prayer for the dolphins. They were met there shortly by fishermen who proceeded to yell at them to leave, and then began to hit them with boat paddles. At this point in the film, one can only wonder why they are so defensive.
One night, while the small fishing town was sleeping, O’Barry and his team climbed up a tall ridge to place cameras pointed down at the cove in the hopes of catching the next day’s hunt. They succeeded. The climax of the film is the graphic footage itself, showing about a hundred dolphins being brutally slaughtered by the hunters with spears.
I have only watched “The Cove” once and cannot bring myself to watch it again. I thought it may be helpful for writing this blog, but I just can’t do it. As a dolphin lover, this footage was just too graphic. You can hear the dolphins squealing in pain as they try to get away after being stabbed, only to be stabbed again. There is one sequence that is engraved in my mind. A baby dolphin was stabbed and continues repeatedly to flare about in and out of the water, only to not come back up in the end.
As horrific as the images in “The Cove” are, I encourage everyone to see it. It is an important piece of film that documents, in great detail, the horrors of Taiji. When I tried to find some sort of logic in the actions of these fishermen, I came up empty handed. In fact, with every “reason” given by the Taiji community, I found rebuttals that made much more sense.
For starters, the fishermen in Taiji claim that hunting dolphins is a local tradition and that it’s part of the culture. There are actually very few members of this area, less than 50, that participate in the hunting. Many other Taiji residents, and much of Japan, are not even aware that the hunting occurs. In terms of time, the hunting of dolphins in the cove has only been going on since 1969. To me, this does not seem like a long time at all. With all that we have learned about dolphin intelligence, it seems that this small fishing community may need to change their ways.
Another argument I discovered was the overall point of this slaughter: meat. Turns out, dolphin meat is considered “trash meat” in Japan, and not many people actually enjoy it. In fact, the main method of selling it is by disguising it as more expensive, more valued whale meat. DNA tests on meat labeled whale in a Japan fish market determined that it was in fact dolphin meat. So, these fishermen are subjecting these animals to a cruel death, and then disguising the meat because people don’t even want it. Even if people did want it, it is incredibly toxic. The mercury levels are extremely high due to the compounding effect of the chemical traveling up the food chain. It is similar to what happened with DDT here in the United States. Fish have relatively high mercury levels, and these levels rise as the fish travel up the food chain to dolphins and eventually humans. High mercury levels have been shown to cause brain damage, cerebral palsy, and mental retardation. So again, I found myself asking, what’s the point?
I’m wondering now if the goal of these hunts is really just about money. The fishermen get a decent amount for the dolphin meat, and even more for the animals they deem worthy enough to be trained. These animals are kept in sea pens in the cove until they are ready to be shipped. The same cove where the rest of their families were killed. Japanese trainers work with the animals before they are sent elsewhere. I am starting to regret our trip to Discovery Cove, a SeaWorld park. While SeaWorld has come out saying that none of their animals are from the Taiji hunts, I’m not sure I can trust anything they claim after the release of “Blackfish.”
Since these hunts are legal and government sanctioned, perhaps the biggest weapon available for stopping them is raising awareness. Just like with Cecil the lion, social media can be a great ally. Ric O’Barry’s dolphin project and Ric himself both have Facebook accounts that are updated with statuses on the hunt multiple times a day. They document when the boats leave in the early morning, and when they return with or without dolphins. While reading these updates can be upsetting, it does help give me the strength to find ways to fight. The release of “The Cove” was perhaps the best way to raise awareness. Since its release, the fishermen now hide the dolphins under tarps when they are killed so they are not seen. To me, this shows that maybe deep down they know what they’re doing is inhumane. Why else would they try to hide it?
Ric O’Barry led a protest at the Japanese embassy in London on October 16th. The event was a success and hundreds turned out in support of the cause. Perhaps the easiest thing we can all do is never buy tickets to dolphin shows, dolphin swim experiences, and parks that house dolphins. This may seem a bit harsh, but unless you can find out without a shadow of a doubt that the animals in a particular park did not come from Taiji, you don’t know what you’re really supporting. You can go on Ric O’Barry’s dolphin project’s Facebook page right now and see pictures of dolphins in pens at the cove, ready to be shipped to parks. It’s happening right now. You can watch it live.
“Blackfish” has been able to raise enough awareness that SeaWorld is seeing its profits drop. Films like “Supersize Me,” “Earthlings,” and “Food, INC” have caused McDonalds to see its first drop in profits ever. And hopefully soon we will see a decline in the canned lion hunting industry in Africa as a result of the new film “Blood Lions,” which seems to coincide perfectly with the tragic death of Cecil. We are in the future now. We know more about animal intelligence and behavior then we ever have and this can work right alongside this interconnected world of social media that we have created. We have the power to change forever our relationship to the rest of the animal kingdom. It starts with you, with me, with all of us. I have done my part in writing this blog, what will you do to help animals?
Nicole is currently employed at a university, caring for lab animals. She has always been an animal lover, and more recently an animal activist.