Ric O’Barry is one of the world’s best-known environmentalists. A former U.S. Navy diver, he later trained the five dolphins that played Flipper in the hit 1960s TV series of that name, before turning against dolphin captivity in 1970.
Now aged 67, O’Barry has spent his life since as an animal-rights campaigner, and much of the last decade fighting what he calls “the secret genocide” of dolphins in the Wakayama Prefecture town of Taiji, in Japan, where thousands are killed from October to March every year.
O’Barry believes the dolphin hunt — which is conducted by just 26 men in 13 boats — only continues because the Japanese media avoids reporting it, and that “this would not survive anywhere else in the free world.’‘
But he says that the world is “gradually waking up . . . and that when it finds out about this it will be abolished. It can’t possibly survive the light of day.’‘
What angers you so much about Taiji’s dolphin cull?
I’m angry that the Japanese people don’t know that the largest slaughter of cetaceans in the world — 23,000 a year — is taking place in their own waters, at Taiji, in Iwate and at Futo; and they don’t know that the Japanese people are hated around the world for this. Japan’s media is to blame for this blackout. It’s very hard to get information on how many they kill and capture in Taiji, but it’s probably about 2,300 dolphins every year.
Why did you switch sides in 1970?
I captured about 100 dolphins myself, back in the 1960s, including the five that played Flipper. I changed when Flipper died in my arms from suicide. I use that word with some trepidation, but I don’t know another word that describes self-induced asphyxiation. Dolphins and other whales are not automatic breathers. Every breath they take is a conscious effort, which is why they don’t sleep. If life becomes miserable, they just don’t take the next breath. Flipper looked me in the eye and stopped breathing.
In those days I was as ignorant as could be. Now I am against captivity. It has no socially redeeming feature. It is not educational. How come I can’t find one person among the millions who have visited the 50 dolphin facilities in Japan who is against this industry? I organize a worldwide protest outside consulates every year, and the only city where I can’t get a protest going is Tokyo. So what is the value of having dolphins on display if it doesn’t sensitize people? It is just casual amusement.
Dolphins hate captivity. You’ll see them in the Taiji Whale Museum with their heads against the tank, thinking “How do I get out of here?”
Do I feel responsibility? I have trouble sleeping sometimes. Guilt is not too strong a word. I’m not motivated by guilt, but I used to be. Now this is who I am: I eat, sleep and live this life, and won’t stop campaigning until I breathe my last.
You say there are two parts to this trade.
In Taiji they select the best-looking dolphins and export them for circus acts, aquariums and so on. Those are worth about $100,000 apiece; the rest are slaughtered and are worth about $600 each.
The government’s Fisheries Agency says that Japan depends on the sea for food. They get angry when they are lectured by the West.
Well, there is a way to harvest food from the sea, but they’re involved in overfishing. The drift nets they use are a way of strip-mining the ocean. This is why all fish stocks are expected to collapse by the middle of this century. It is not just Japan: all countries have been irresponsible. It is international corporate greed. I see the dolphin as a reference point and a symbol of our relationship with the sea — and look what we’re doing to them!
The truth is, Japan is a wealthy country and they don’t need to eat dolphin meat. The real reason for this slaughter is they are overfishing and want to kill the competition for the fish. It is pest control. That’s what they told me in a closed meeting. That’s unacceptable. These animals are not owned by Japan; they don’t have Japanese passports, they belong to the world. These dolphins are just trying to get around this town and these 26 guys.
Have you met the whalers?
Oh yeah. I asked them if they were worried about mercury poisoning. Dolphin meat contains very high levels of mercury. But they said: “The meat is safe and the government wouldn’t lie.” So I asked them, “What about Minamata?” Governments protect corporations, not people. The whalers, of course, know not what they do — but the trainers do, and that infuriates me. They know they are killing animals that are self-aware.
I don’t sit at the right hand of god criticizing what everybody does, but if you’re asking me if it’s OK for Japan to export its poison to China and elsewhere, when they know it is poisoned, I think it is morally repugnant and ethically untenable. They also put this dolphin meat on the shelves in Japan, so pregnant women and children can eat it, too.
Of course, many Japanese would say, “What’s special about dolphins — some people eat dogs, lambs and small birds?”
Well, I stop them there, because most people eat animals bred in captivity. They’re mixing domesticated animals with wildlife.
That doesn’t make much difference to the animals does it? They don’t know if they’re wildlife or not.
Yes, that’s true, but people in the animal community are working on this stuff too. I’m not saying it is right to kill lambs either. I consider myself a vegetarian, and given a choice, I wouldn’t consume animals.
There is very good documentation of dolphins saving the lives of human beings. That is altruism and something special. That is communication. Unlike other animals in the zoo, they’re self-aware and routinely make choices about their lives. They’re entitled to freedom. Driving them into a secret cove and butchering them is simply wrong.
When did you start going to Taiji?
I knew about the slaughter about 10 years ago, but I was under the impression that other NGOs were working on it. I didn’t realize until I came here that all they’re doing is putting graphic pictures on their Web sites and telling people to write to the prime minister of Japan. And that won’t stop it.
The Japanese groups are under an umbrella, and they say, “We’ve been working on this for 20 years.” I say, “So how come the Japanese people don’t know this is going on?” They say that they’re not against whaling, they’re for the whales. It is some kind of politically correct, effing mumbo-jumbo. What does it mean?
You don’t accept it is tradition?
Traditional whaling might be going out in a canoe and killing one dolphin for Christmas. I wouldn’t be opposed to that. But that’s not what they’re doing. This is the largest slaughter of dolphins in the world. They’re creating the illusion this is tradition and it is not; it is genocide. We have to oppose this absolutely, and I am doing everything in my power to stop it, short of breaking the law. I’m still the biggest thorn in their side. I bring and encourage journalists to go there and report it, including the BBC. Some 300 million people saw a recent BBC documentary on Taiji. And that’s why the dolphin hunters hate me because they told me, “If the world finds out about this, we’ll have to stop.” This kind of evil only thrives in the dark.
Many Japanese would say you have no right to tell them what to eat.
They’re not their dolphins; they belong to the planet. And this is a national park: what right do you have to do this in a national park? Also, they have no right to block people photographing this, as they try to.
Do you think the work of people like you only makes the whalers dig in their heels?
It does, and I’ve come to believe that only the Japanese people can stop this problem. I’m just a spark plug. Japanese have to do it, but they don’t have the information because of the suppression of information here. People are never told about it, so my job is to get the information out.
Who pays for your trips to Japan?
I’m part of a coalition of nonprofit environmental groups: the Earth Island Institute, Animal Welfare Institute and In Defense of Animals. We can be found by going to SaveJapanDolphins.org. We monitor the treatment of dolphins around the world; so tuna boats are a problem, because dolphins travel above the tuna and the boats put a net around everything and kill everything, including the dolphins. The only thing that shut that practice down in the U.S. was public outrage. Now, when people buy their tuna in the U.S., they know it didn’t involve killing dolphins, because it says so on the tins. We’ve also closed 50 substandard dolphinariums around the world. If there’s a dolphin in trouble anywhere on this planet, my phone rings and my e-mail box fills up. I have to rescue them.