(Publisher’s note: This is an abridged update from a 2014 article. Unfortunately, it’s that time of year again in Taiji, Japan)
A group of adoring animal lovers applaud as Gypsy leaps through hoops, spins in circles on command, and takes treats from the trainer’s hand. Right behind Gypsy are more performers eager to please the crowd and their master. There will be no first place ribbons or trophies awaiting these animals when the show is over. They aren’t dogs–they are dolphins. These mammals weren’t purchased from a pet store or rescued from a shelter. They were hunted down in foreign waters. They were present when their pregnant mothers, along with their fathers and siblings, were butchered by the score or trapped in nets. They have swum in a sea of their own family’s blood.
During the months of September through April, thousands of dolphins are slaughtered or captured in an annual dolphin hunt off the coast of Taiji, Japan. Erwin Vermeulen and Susan Hartland spend their days living with these images. They maintain vigils along with other members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) in order to document and stop atrocities against dolphins and whales. Until recently, the primary method of killing these intelligent, sentient creatures was to slit the dolphins’ throats and allow them to bleed to death. After that practice was banned, the Japanese government sanctioned the “more humane” method of driving metal pins into the dolphins’ necks to sever the brain stem.
Following the 2009 debut of the Oscar-winning anti-slaughter documentary film, The Cove, a large number of activists began to visit Taiji annually to protest or film the dolphin hunts in an effort to draw attention to these brutal practices. Vermeulen is one of these Cove Guardians. “These slaughters started as pest control,” claims Vermeulen. “Japan is dependent on the sea as a food source. There is only a small amount of arable land and the fishing industry is being depressed. But it’s the humans that have wiped out the (fishing) industry, not the dolphins that they (the Japanese) consider as predators. In Taiji they are wiping out entire families and pods of whales and dolphins. These mammals also face other issues like getting tangled in fishing nets, ship strikes and climate changes.”
While dolphin and whale meat has been historically used as a minor food source in Japan, in recent years concerns about levels of mercury toxicity have arisen. Food, according to Susan Hartland, is not the main reason dolphins are being hunted in Taiji. “Those mammals that are not being slaughtered are being forced into captivity”, Hartland says. “They capture the dolphins for the entertainment industry. For the dophinariums. “Dolphins are more developed than humans on an emotional level. They have names for one another. They talk using clicks and whistles. They are socially complex animals. They can live for thirty years, yet their families are being ripped apart so people can go look at them in a tank for an hour or so.”
According to Vermeulen, a dead dolphin at the local meat market brings in five hundred dollars whereas a live dolphin can bring in ten thousand dollars in the marine entertainment industry. He likens the dolphin training that begins on the spot in Taiji to enslavement. “You can clearly see how the process starts. The dolphins are driven on to the beach, then taken in slings and put into pens. First, they are starved for a few days. Then the trainers start throwing dead fish into the pens. Most will take it, but the ones who won’t will starve and die. They are cut up for the market. The ones who don’t die will start coming to get the food from the hand. The trainers then take a long pole with a ball on the end. They teach the dolphins to touch the ball to get a dead fish as a reward. So starts the training. That’s how they become slaves.”
The dolphins that aren’t taken for entertainment value are dragged by the tail—paralyzed and drowning—from the Taiji cove to the slaughterhouses. “We’ve proven that,” he claims. “We have videos. We know that they are under attack. We’ve taken photos to show what is happening. We want to show the world what is going on.”
While a whole generation grew up watching the classic dolphin series Flipper on black and white TV, a new generation is being treated to heart-warming family movies such as Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2. None of these films are directly about dolphins being kept in captivity: rather they are tales of mammalian (human and dolphin) harmony and rescue, rehab and release. But, we all know there are murky waters in the vast oceans: and one might wonder what truly lies beneath.—Christine McKellarFor information on volunteer participation, current and past campaigns, and how to make contributions to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, please visit http://www.seashepherd.org/