Dolphins have rich social lives, brains that are as complex as our own and pod-specific cultural practices that are passed down from generation to generation. Some scientists argue that dolphins should be classified as “nonhuman persons” and that their rights should be protected. The resident dolphins of Toshima, Japan—about 100 miles south of Tokyo—are considered official citizens of the small island and are fully protected while in the island’s waters.
But elsewhere dolphins are in danger. Every year in Japan, thousands of these intelligent, self-aware animals are killed in violent hunts known as oikomi or “drive fisheries.” Others are ripped from their ocean homes to be put on display in aquariums and marine theme parks or used in “swim-with” programs. These industries are inextricably linked. If you don’t support the slaughter of dolphins, then don’t pay to see them perform in dolphin shows.
September 1 marked the official start of one of the most notorious dolphin hunts—the annual slaughter in Taiji, Japan, that was documented in the Oscar-winning film The Cove. Video footage of past hunts in this Japanese fishing village shows dolphins thrashing in their own blood for many agonizing minutes after being speared or having their throats cut. By the end of the slaughter, the entire cove is red with blood.
While most dolphins captured in Taiji end up as meat in Japanese supermarkets—despite the fact that dolphin flesh is so dangerously contaminated with mercury that some Taiji officials have likened it to “toxic waste”—every year, about two dozen live dolphins are sold to aquariums, performing-dolphin shows and swim-with programs across the globe. It’s these lucrative sales that keep the dolphin slaughter going.
A dead dolphin brings in only a few hundred dollars. But a single live dolphin can fetch $150,000 or more.
According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, dolphins captured during Japan’s drive fisheries have ended up in aquariums all over the world. Even countries that no longer allow the importation of dolphins caught during the gruesome slaughter may be displaying animals purchased before the ban or moved through other countries to disguise their origin.
Dolphins suffer immensely in captivity. Eight former trainers at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario, recently spoke out to the Toronto Star about the substandard conditions at that facility. Among other abuses, the trainers claim that five dolphins had their skin fall off in chunks after they spent months swimming in water so green that they could barely be seen in it. Photos of the dolphins show them with their eyes squeezed shut against the filthy water. According to the trainers, some animals have gone blind at Marineland.
In the open sea, dolphins live in large, intricate social groups, swim together in family pods and can travel up to 100 miles a day. In captivity, their world is measured in gallons instead of fathoms. Dolphins communicate with each other through whistles and body language. In tanks, their vocalizations become a garble of meaningless reverberations. Most aquariums keep antacids on hand to treat the animals’ stress-related ulcers.
No animal deserves to be torn from his or her rightful home, locked up in a tank or cage and forced to perform tricks just for our amusement. But the plight of a captive dolphin swimming in endless circles in a concrete tank is especially heartbreaking. Please stand up to this cruel industry. Before you buy a ticket, remember that patronizing marine-mammal parks and swim-with programs helps to support Japan’s bloody dolphin hunts—and condemns intelligent, social beings to a lifetime of misery.