The controversies surrounding the eating of various animals in our modern world are numerous: the hunting of bluefin tuna to near-extinction; eating shark fin soup (in which only the fin is used and the rest of the shark is often discarded); the consumption of dogs in various Asian countries; the use of endangered animals for Chinese medicine; and even the feedlots behind the huge beef industry in the U.S.
All of this raises an important question: How do we decide what to eat? Should it be based on intelligence of the animal? Danger of extinction? Food culture? Cuteness? Or something else? We used to hunt bison in the U.S., where we pursued over 30 million of the animals to the brink of extinction. The Plains bison was only saved after hunting them was controlled, and now about 40,000 of the ungulates are bred, raised and killed specifically for consumption.
No one has a problem with Southeast Asians eating rats or North Americans getting out the bow and arrow and picking off a squirrel. In the U.S., when it comes to hobbies that involve killing game, whether with bows and arrows or rifles, it’s the very consumption of the animal that validates its demise (as opposed to just killing wild animals and leaving them for dead, which is frowned upon). We’ve been game hunting forever, right? We were originally hunters and gatherers. This is what makes up a country’s food culture, and why eating particular animals in one country seems OK, while in another it’s considered outrageous.
Enter Japan and its culture of eating whales and dolphins. The Japanese point to their food culture — that they have been consuming aquatic mammals for thousands of years as part of a diet that was, and largely still is, based on fish. The key argument in other cultures for not eating dolphins and whales is unanimous: They are very intelligent animals. And we certainly don’t eat chimpanzees or gorillas, for the very same reason.
Now, consider this. Neuropsychiatrist Jon Lieff, who lives in Boston and researches animal IQs, says that the following are the smartest animals in the world (in no particular order): dolphins, whales, elephants, dogs, octopuses (for their dexterity, communication skills and ability to learn), ants (which care for their families like mammals), bees (for swarm intelligence), crows (for their clever use of tools), cockatoos (which can undo cage locks that use dials, bolts and screws) and anole lizards (which can count, exhibit advanced learning and problem-solving skills, and have incredible memories).
CBS News identifies the five cleverest species as crows (which have the intelligence of a 7-year-old), chimpanzees, elephants, gorillas and dolphins (the latter three of which have enough self-awareness to be able to recognize themselves in a mirror).
According to the Mother Nature Network, the top nine intelligent animals are multi-tasking ravens, dolphins, rats (said to be able to recognize their names and respond when they are called), pigs (which learn quickly and can play video games with a joy stick), bonobos (a relative of the chimpanzee found in central Africa), squirrels (which learn from their peers), elephants, bees and cows (which share 80 percent of our genes and have a “rich and complex emotional life,” including strong emotions of pain, fear and anxiety). The latter bovine emotions are some of the same that dolphins possess, and are used in arguments in “The Cove” movie about why we should not kill such cetaceans.
OK, so much for those reveries of a steak sandwich for lunch today. But if you were a carnivore when you were born, the truth is that you’ve almost definitely eaten some of the most astute animals in the world. Repeatedly.
The next thing to ask ourselves is: Even if we all agree that we shouldn’t eat intelligent animals, and agree on which those animals are, does that make it OK to eat a host of other animals just because they’re dumb?
In India, Hindus don’t eat cows because they’re considered mothers of the Earth who provide us with milk, yogurt, cream, cheese, butter and ice cream. They labor in the fields for us, and when they die, their leather and horns are used to make clothing and tools. I see no Indians landing in the U.S. on tourist visas and breaking into cattle farms to protest feedlots. (These are where cows are crowded into pens and fed a diet rich in corn to fatten them up, which results in the loss of a percentage of feedlot cattle to illness. It turns out that cows cannot easily digest the rich diet for three to six months in a feedlot and adjust to the drastic change from a pasture-based lifestyle.) If Indians did try to protest the raising and eating of feedlot cattle in the same manner as the protesters in “The Cove” did regarding dolphins, they’d end up in the U.S. courts on a litany of charges, including trespassing, and might even end up on a terrorist watch list.
In Honiara (capital of the Solomon Islands on the island of Guadalcanal, population 65,000), the native people do not fear sharks. It is widely believed that sharks will save and protect them, so they don’t eat these magical creatures of the sea. In other parts of the Solomons they revere the eagle, which is considered not just a symbol of strength but a fledged animal capable of delivering messages — so no one shoots the messenger, let alone eats him. Other Polynesians believe their race descended directly from sharks and that some day they just might be reincarnated as one. So they talk to sharks and feed them.
And in what is perhaps the most vigorous test of the limits of cultural relativism, the natives of Vanuatu were once cannibals. Apparently humans taste a lot like pork (an animal we share compatible skin tissue, heart valves and a love of video games with). Thus in Melanesia, a human prepared for consumption was referred to as a “long pig.”
Perhaps the larger question is not whether we should be eating dolphins or whales, but if we should be eating sentient beings at all. For many people, the idea of cows being extremely brilliant is an unprepossessing idea. But our diets are not immutable, and in this day and age, when we have an abundance of foods available regardless of our location or the season, it’s a wonder more people haven’t collectively, and consciously, moved to more of a plant-based diet. Even world-class athletes have proven that ingesting meat is not necessary to achieve peak performance, crushing our long-held belief that meat is an indispensable part of our diets.
It’s a shame that for all the attention “The Cove” garnered, including an Academy Award, it did little to produce any results for the dolphins of Taiji. The Japanese, seeing through the hypocrisy, have responded by being more determined than ever to continue their practices. And they have their own advocate, Keiko Yagi, who has come out with a documentary titled “Behind ‘The Cove’ ” in defense of cultural relativism and traditional Japanese food culture.
The documentarians of “The Cove” mistakenly presumed that their puritanical beliefs were universal. They focused on blame and persecution. And the people who watched their documentary were perhaps too credulous. But much worse, the film failed to encourage any disputations of value concerning the dolphins or the larger issues of animal welfare and animal rights. Instead, it has only divided people and made both sides even more self-righteous and impervious to the other’s way of thinking.
Forcing your opinions on others rarely works. “The Cove” was a missed opportunity to educate people and work together to combat our own prejudices.
Want to learn more? “Behind ‘The Cove’ ” opens at K’s Cinema in Shinjuku on Jan. 30. Japan Lite appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org