A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Are There ‘Better’ Ways to Kill Dolphins?

A new study by four scientists is arguing for more “humane” ways of killing the dolphins at the annual Taiji massacre in Japan. (That’s the massacre that was portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie The Cove.) What they are saying could set back the entire movement to bring an end to this horror. Here’s why.

taiji-1-040813Two years ago, the dolphin protection group Atlantic Blue captured video of the latest way of killing the dolphins in the cove: driving a metal rod into to the top of the spinal cord, thus paralyzing the dolphins, then plugging the wound so there won’t be so much blood in the water. (The video is here. But note that it is very distressing; you see the dolphins shaking and trembling as they slowly die.)

Now four scientists have produced a study that itemizes the cruelty involved in this method of killing. Two of them, Courtney Vail and Philippa Brakes, are from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS). The third, Andrew Butterworth, is a veterinarian at the University of Bristol. And Diana Reiss conducts research on captive dolphins at the Baltimore Aquarium. (See my 2010 interview with her here.) They write:

This killing method does not conform to the recognized requirement for “immediate insensibility” and would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world.

And they conclude:

There thus appears to be no logical reason to accept a killing method that is clearly not carried out in accordance with fundamental and globally adopted principles on the commercial utilization, care, and treatment of animals.

In other words, they basically advocate not for the end of the massacre at Taiji, but for a more “humane” way of conducting it.

They are advocating not for the end of the massacre, but for a more “humane” way of conducting it.

Reiss is interviewed by Andrew Revkin of the acclaimed “Dot Earth” blog, where she says, on the one hand, that “dolphins are a cognitively and socially complex species that exist in their own societies in the seas” and, on the other, that “the methods used to herd dolphins and then kill them is off-the chart in terms of any concern for animal welfare.”

But what goes on at Taiji is not about “methods”; it’s about murder.

For their part, Vail and Brakes are signatories to the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins, which was initiated by the WDCS, and whose first three clauses state that:

  1. Every individual cetacean has the right to life.
  2. No cetacean should be held in captivity or servitude; be subject to cruel treatment; or be removed from their natural environment.
  3. All cetaceans have the right to freedom of movement and residence within their natural environment.

How do they reconcile, what they’re saying in their new paper, which is about “methods” of murder, with the declaration that “every individual cetacean has the right to life?

This takes us back to the classic debate of animal welfare vs. animal rights.

Animal rights advocates are basically abolitionists. We say there’s no such thing as “humane slaughter.” Killing is simply wrong.

We say there’s no such thing as “humane slaughter.” Killing is simply wrong.

Animal welfarists, meanwhile, work for incremental change – like in the efforts of the Humane Society of the U.S. to press for better conditions at factory farms and more humane ways of killing the animals.

Similarly, in the world of homeless pets, humane societies and shelters that “euthanize” the dogs and cats they take in tell themselves that it’s in the animal’s best interests. The no-kill movement, on the other hand, draws a line in the sand and says that killing companion animals for any reason other than when they are painfully and terminally sick is just plain wrong. (And the no-kill movement has driven the number of dogs and cats being killed at shelters each year down from 17 million a year in the early 1990s to around 3 million today.)

By the end of January this year, the number of dolphins who had been driven into the infamous cove at Taiji, Japan, for the annual massacre had topped 1,209. There were still two months to go and we don’t have the final figures. But they were already way over the 848 last year. (Mark Palmer of Earth Island Institute projects that the number killed in the massacre this year was 899. Those not killed were sent to entertainment and research facilities or were released – mostly to die alone later.)

In response to the new study on dolphin-killing methods, many animal protection advocates are already arguing that we should all work together for whatever change we think we can get. For example, Marc Bekoff, the prolific writer on the emotions and cognitive abilities of nonhuman animals, supports the conclusions of the WDCS folks and researcher Reiss in wanting to focus on the inhumane methods of murder:

I realize that some people want much more action and they want it now. They are frustrated by the slow progress that is being made on the egregious and thoroughly unethical and inhumane murder of these amazing sentient beings. … [But] those who share common goals must work for the animals and not against one another. There really is strength in numbers.

To which, Lori Marino, director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, responds:

I would ask the authors: Exactly what is the appropriate way to kill a dolphin? You are right – the dolphins need all the help they can get. And what they do not need are so-called dolphin advocates implying that the problem with Taiji is that they are not killed according to the same standards used to kill farm animals. … This paper takes us ten steps backwards and, in my opinion, is inexcusable.

I agree. And I compare the massacre of dolphins to the death camps of Nazi Germany. Half of my own family perished at Auschwitz, and the idea that people supposedly trying to help them might have come along with the compromise plan that they should be killed according to some kind of “globally adopted principles” would be abhorrent. It is abhorrent to take anything less than an abolitionist position in relation to the murder and enslavement of any nonhuman animal.

The idea that people supposedly fighting slavery might settle for better conditions for the slaves is abhorrent.

And it is, to me, equally abhorrent to take anything less than an abolitionist position in relation to the murder and enslavement of any nonhuman animal.

Let those who kill and enslave the animals and who want to appease the animal protection movement negotiate with themselves by finding more “humane” ways to kill. Perhaps, if I were one of the dolphins at Taiji or one of humans at Auschwitz, I’d prefer a quicker, easier way to be killed. But either way, I’d be dead. Come to think of it, if I understood that in going along with that I’d just be helping to legitimize yet more murder, I’d rather go out painfully and have it on video. At least I’d know that my death might make a difference.

Bottom line: I just don’t buy the argument that humane killing is better. It doesn’t stop the killing; it just condones it.