Science tells us that dolphins are something special

Dear people of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture,

I hope this letter will be accepted in the spirit it was written, with a deep respect for the Japanese people.

I do not wish to attack Taiji, nor its people. I write this in the hope that I can explain why I feel the way I do about dolphins. I reach out with respect to a country that possesses a far different culture to my own in the hope that I might reach some common ground.

I would also like to say that no country is without fault. I live in the United States, which is guilty of its own exploitation of marine mammals. Our SeaWorlds and other marine parks may not openly kill cetaceans, but they still kill them. Their animals face a slow death, victims of inbreeding and health issues caused by captivity. These parks steadfastly refuse to acknowledge any studies by marine mammal specialists with viewpoints that differ to their own. To admit the truth would force an unwelcome financial change on these parks, effectively ending their operations forever.

In this respect, they are worse than Taiji. Marine parks in the U.S. hide, lie and deny, and obtain their animals via unscrupulous methods. In this, they are supported by allegedly accredited agencies who, rather than working to protect the mammals, only bolster their coffers and perpetuate the captivity cycle. Entertainment is passed off as conservation, tricks are rolled out as natural behaviors, and food deprivation, a mainstay of dolphin training, is equated to positive reinforcement.

So yes, the USA is complicit in abusing marine mammals, but they cloak it with laws that appear to offer protection yet in reality do very little to hold marine parks accountable.

I am explaining this to you so that you understand that we as a nation are equally guilty of exploitation. But please also know that as we do with Taiji, we also challenge U.S. establishments, on a constant basis. We are trying to clean our own backyard.

According to historical records, the very first commercial dolphinarium was opened only in 1938. And a report by Elsa Nature Conservancy inside Japan (en.elsaenc.net/report/dolphin-drive-hunt/) challenges the degree to which dolphin hunting can be described as “traditional.”

The conservancy claims: “Records showed that while whaling does date back 400 years, the ‘traditional’ whaling actually ended in 1878 after a whaling disaster that decimated the Taiji whaling fleet. Regular dolphin drive hunts date back only 42 years to 1969 when pilot whales were captured on a large scale for display at the Taiji Whale Museum.”

If this is taken as fact, then tradition appears not to be the fundamental issue it is often made out to be by defenders of the drive hunt. Furthermore, it forces me to question the resistance of Taiji’s government to change, considering that it has already altered its fishing practices in order to provide Japanese/world aquaria with marine mammals.

Taking all of this into consideration, this gaijin cannot help but realize that like U.S.-based aquariums, the reason for the continuance of the dolphin drives is less about providing sustenance to the people of Taiji and more about financial gain for the town’s fisheries union and government.

As for the dolphins themselves, while it would be easy for me to list the moral and ethical reasons for not killing these mammals, I would prefer to make my case using science. Dolphins are mammals and their differences to fish are clearly defined: Fish lay eggs, whereas dolphins have live young; fish are cold-blooded, dolphins warm-blooded; juvenile fish do not nurse, but dolphin young suckle their mothers’ milk; dolphins have lungs and must breathe the air that we do, whereas fish take oxygen through their gills directly from the water.

In 2006, Japanese researchers reported that a captured bottlenose dolphin was discovered with an extra set of fins that could be the remains of hind legs, a finding that provided further evidence that these ocean-dwelling mammals once lived on land. This dolphin was captured by Taiji fishermen on Oct. 28, 2006 (see www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20061106a3.html)

In another study, Louis M. Herman writes that the bottlenose dolphin has an exceptionally large brain, a high degree of sociability, and thus is easily trainable, making it a compelling species for study of its intellectual processes and potential. The brain of the adult bottlenose dolphin is about 25 percent heavier than the average adult human brain, with a brain-to-body-mass ratio second only to humans.

Dolphinariums around the world anthropomorphise marine mammals to fool the public into believing the cetaceans are happy, contented and “just like us.” But they are only truly “just like us” when they are in their natural environment, in the wild. The following citations on wild dolphins are, ironically, taken from a U.S. SeaWorld page (www.seaworld.org/infobooks/bottlenose/behavdol.html):

• Bottlenose dolphins live in groups called pods, which are coherent long-term social units.

• Several pods may join temporarily (for several minutes or hours) to form larger groups called herds or aggregations. Up to several hundred animals have been observed traveling in one herd.

• Researchers have identified certain factors that tend to cause a pod to either draw together or to disperse somewhat. Cohesion occurs around protection, fright and familial associations.

• There may be a social hierarchy within a group of bottlenose dolphins.

• Dolphins in a pod appear to establish strong social bonds. Behavioral studies suggest that certain animals prefer association with each other and recognize each other after periods of separation. Field observations suggest that mother-calf bonds are long-lasting.

• Bottlenose dolphins often hunt together.

• Both young and old dolphins chase one another, carry objects around, toss seaweed to one another and use objects to solicit interaction.

• Large adult males often roam the periphery of a pod, and may afford some protection against predators.

• An individual may investigate novel objects or unfamiliar territories and “report” back to the pod.

• Bottlenose dolphins may aid ill or injured pod mates. They may stand by and vocalize, or they may physically support the animal at the surface so it can breathe.

• Bottlenose dolphins have been seen in groups of toothed whales such as pilot whales, spinner dolphins, spotted dolphins, and rough-toothed dolphins.

• Some individuals in the wild regularly solicit attention, such as touching and feeding, from humans.

Noting the above points, are dolphins and their society so very different to ours? In fact, it very much mirrors our own. Yet dolphins appear to be far superior to our species when it comes to compassion. There are reported cases of dolphins rescuing humans in need, and of dolphins mourning the loss of their young and, just recently, a pod was seen maintaining a vigil for a drowned Irishman in Australia. One dolphin even attempted to use his nose to push the body to the surface.

This is why I love dolphins, and this is why every time a dolphin is captured or killed anywhere in the world, it saddens me. It is also why for every dolphin that suffers in Taiji my heart breaks, as do those of millions of others around the world.

Coram, Montana

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