My compliments to The Cove for making “activism thriller” into a new documentary film genre. Not since Jaws 3 has there been such chilling ocean-inspired horror—except in this one it’s Japanese fishermen who are spilling dolphin blood into the waters. As the movie opens and dolphin activist and mission leader Ric O’Barry ominously recounts the death wishes pronounced against him, we realize that for an important few, dolphin fishing is very serious business indeed. Backing O’Barry up in his face-off against industry bad guys is an impressive team of OPS cameramen, free-divers and former army guys, staunchly aided by the newest technological developments in covert camera equipment (some of it camouflaged as rocks and nests). After some thwarted reconnaissance missions and run-ins with the police, the film culminates in an undercover night expedition that finally turns up some real dirt: a recording of the dolphin slaughter that takes place annually in the eponymous cove in Taiji, Japan. Tastefully, the scene cuts away from the coup de grâce to a shot of seaweed swaying gently underwater, rocked by bloody waves.
Ric O’Barry’s own background couldn’t be more tragically ironic if you made it up: the trainer who coached Flipper the dolphin into 1960s television stardom watches his bottlenosed associate commit suicide in his arms, and promptly does a 180 to devote his life to freeing dolphins from captivity. Now that’s a story! If only PETA would take note and revise their marketing strategy to woo the male demographic with action sequences instead of XXX hot & hungry vegan ladies.
The Cove goes deeper than dolphin slaughter, way deeper. Taiji, a small fishing village in central Japan whose dolphin drives kill 23,000 annually, is also a town that ostensibly loves dolphins and whales. You can go to the Whale Museum and dolphin shows to learn about these fascinating animals and watch them perform (as you watch, you can eat dolphin sashimi from the food stand). The entertainment business is connected to the slaughter of dolphins for meat, Ric O’Barry tells us, because without the income generated by the sale of dolphins to marine parks and swim-with-the-dolphins programs, there wouldn’t be an economic incentive to hunt dolphins for meat. A dolphin chosen by a trainer goes for up to $150,000, whereas the same dolphin for meat would get only $600. Though dolphin is prepared for consumption in Japan, it is only eaten by a very small minority.
…Which is why dolphin meat is often falsely labeled and sold as whale meat, which is commonly consumed in Japan (as you would expect, the film is also quite down on commercial whale fishing). Dolphin meat, however, has dangerously high levels of mercury; because dolphins are at the top of the food chain, the mercury amounts in their flesh are multiplied. For the horrors of mercury poisoning, see W. Eugene Smith’s photographs of “Minamata disease.” Fitting with the pattern of modern industrial farming, the economic incentives at work here are provoking environment degradation, disregard for the welfare of animals, and threats to human health.
Ironically, it seems that the whole catalyst for this violence against dolphins is people’s love of dolphins. Ever since Flipper’s cute smile, acrobatic flips, and uncanny intelligence were exposed to us on screen, we have had a cultural fascination with dolphins, resulting in a multi-billion dollar industry of dolphins performing in captivity. Of course, humankind’s interest in animals doesn’t necessarily lead to their health and happiness. People line up to look at elephants at the zoo, although it’s been shown that these large animals die significantly earlier than their wild counterparts. Dog purists will breed their dogs into deformation and disease, while horse lovers cheer on their favorites at the racetrack. How many children scream with delight at the stressed and exhausted circus chimpanzee? Restless bottlenose dolphins and orca whales trained for shows at SeaWorld are just one example of a culture that “loves” animals (I resist including “to death”) and simultaneously rejects their well-being in favor of entertainment.
Dolphins, though, might be a special case of animals we care about. Clearly, dolphins are awesome. These animals show many of the same traits that we think of as quintessentially human: they communicate with language, they are self-aware, they pervert natural instinct by having sex for fun. They explore and play and have been known to save human lives. They are often said to be one of the most intelligent species. It seems easy to understand why dolphins are so pervasive in stuffed animal collections, on pendant jewelry, and on bathroom wallpaper borders, and why The Cove provoked such widespread outrage over the slaughter of these magnificent creatures.
But at this point an obvious question presents itself. Given that we agree that dolphins should be spared the harpoon and not be eaten, why do we accord respect to a dolphin’s well-being, and not, say, a pig’s? 100 million factory farm pigs end their short, miserable lives in slaughterhouses each year in the United States alone. Domestic dogs and cats are commonly cared for with the same attention and affection one would give to a child. And yet many more pigs and chickens (millions and billions more, respectively) are raised in conditions so unendurable they go insane. Dolphins are highly intelligent and emotive, yes—so are pigs. Pigs too, have sex for pleasure (so do other animals). Our cultural preference to eat beef over dolphin, chicken over cat is entirely arbitrary. This is clear from the dietary taboos of certain cultures and historical periods: Jewish and Muslim dietary codes prohibit pork, and eating beef is sacrilegious to Hindus. Until the mid-nineteenth century, lobster was considered unfit for consumption or very poor fare. The respectable westerner is revolted to learn that dog is commonly served in Korea and China. The evident conclusion is that our perception of animals as a society is by no means objective or logical. The distinctions we make between the worth of different animals—for food or companionship or entertainment or whatever—seem very much like they serve our own motivations.
Lassie, Flipper, Mr. Ed, Milo and Otis, and Free Willy are a few live animal characters that come to mind as television or movie stars that people would be upset to see mistreated or hurt. What about Babe, the pig who aspired to be a sheepdog? Fondness for Babe doesn’t seem to strike much conflict in viewers frying up bacon the next morning.
Whatever our various and complicated relationships to animals are, they’re not simple. Our emotional rapport with domestic animals can reach a level of close intimacy, as much as a friend or family member. Stuffed animal manufacturers are fond of tigers and ducks, but shy away from vultures or hyenas. Certain animals inspire disgust or horror that is so widespread and profound it seems biologically ingrained—though this is more malleable than you might think; for many people snakes, tarantulas, rats, and giant scarab beetles are cherished pets. Much our conflicting fascination and repulsion for animals, I think, comes from our awareness that we are animals too. Stem cell research and new insights into animal behavior are changing the way we think about the boundaries between human and animal. We should be careful to stay away from anthropomorphism and a naïve “animals are our friends” mentality. And yet—they are not so far from us.
I think the question merits some thought: why would you refuse to eat dolphin but not think twice about beef or chicken? There is no logical answer to this question. If dolphins deserve thought and moral consideration, then other animals do as well.
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