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Dolphin Killing Methods in Taiji – Who is Responsible?

Taji drive hunt

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 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.

Taiji - striped dolphin with dowel in blow hole

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 visit 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.