The Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums has voted to stop buying dolphins captured during drive hunts conducted by fishermen in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. For the past decade, the town has received a great deal of negative publicity because of its dolphin slaughter, and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums told its Japanese member that it would be expelled if it continued to patronize the hunt, which WAZA views as being “cruel.” Since JAZA members rely on WAZA for animal exchange and other zoo-related activities, the majority gave in to the ultimatum, but a few aquariums say they may leave the group because Taiji is their only source of new dolphins.

The mood in the Japanese media has been one of grudging acceptance: Japan has again been vilified by outsiders who don’t like the way it does things, and the WAZA demand is associated not only with the dolphin slaughter, which Taiji insists is a community-sustaining tradition, but also with the larger controversy of Japanese whaling. Following the vote, the Asahi Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun ran almost identical editorials saying that Japan had to do more to convince the world that the Taiji drive hunts are not cruel and that WAZA apparently doesn’t understand the “tradition” behind the method. Mainichi went into more detail by explaining that the Taiji fisheries cooperative tried to placate these concerns by targeting “relatively small schools” of dolphins for capture, but apparently that wasn’t enough.

WAZA’s point is that capturing dolphins in the wild for display in aquariums is regressive, since it now advocates limiting animals in zoos to those born and bred in captivity, but by specifically mentioning the Taiji drive hunt, the association makes it seem as if it is singling out Japan. The two newspapers point out that Japan has long viewed sea mammals as a resource, mainly as food, and it is difficult to make non-Japanese understand this since the latter view dolphins and whales as being intelligent and “friendly.”

In this case, however, dolphins are an economic resource, because they are sold by Taiji to aquariums that in turn display them to make money. Japanese media have been quick to point out that two of the purposes of zoos and aquariums are conservation and education, which WAZA supports, but all the articles related to the JAZA vote stress that without access to Taiji dolphins many aquariums will go bankrupt. Captive dolphins are big business, whether they are trained to entertain in shows or simply allowed to swim around in tanks for the pleasure of humans.

As pointed out by the international wildlife organization Born Free, a dolphin’s normal territory is thousands of hectares in size. They swim an average of 65 km a day and regularly dive deep into the ocean. Enclosures are stressful for any dolphin caught in the wild, especially if they are made of concrete, which confounds its sensitive and very important sonar function. So regardless of how humane the drive hunts have become, keeping a wild dolphin in a closed place is, objectively speaking, unnatural and, subjectively speaking, cruel.

WAZA itself doesn’t go this far because many of its members keep dolphins, whether or not they were born in captivity. As it happens, some countries have banned not only the capture of dolphins, but their exhibition. Born Free cites 13, including Croatia and Slovakia. And even in countries that don’t prohibit dolphin exhibitions or shows, the trend is to move away from keeping them in captivity. The exceptions are countries in Asia and the Middle East, which, as it happens, are the main customers for Taiji’s drive hunts.

More to the point, Mainichi and Asahi fail to distinguish between a culture of hunting sea mammals for sustenance and the practice of capturing them for exhibition purposes. Though the position that whaling and dolphin hunting are important to the Japanese diet has become less compelling in the 21st century, the “tradition” argument at least can apply since there are isolated communities that have always hunted sea mammals for food. How much of a tradition is a dolphin doing back flips in front of an audience?

And even if it were a tradition, does that make it justifiable? Last month, an individual in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, revived the trained monkey shows that had once been a regular attraction in the resort town. The “Sarugundan” (“Monkey Troops”) show closed in 2013 because the animals had become old and the last trainer lacked a successor. Following a tradition that has always been widespread in Asia, the Nikko monkeys are entertainers first and animals second, a situation that applies to many creatures in Japan. A quarter of all the captive penguins in the world are in Japanese zoos because Japanese people seem to have a special affection for them, not because penguins are indigenous to Japan or Japanese zoos are at the vanguard of penguin conservation. Some years ago, a zoo in Ehime drew hundreds of visitors a day to view its prize attraction, a polar bear named Peace who had a difficult upbringing. It is very hard to breed polar bears in captivity, and the dramatic back story, elaborated in numerous media reports, was what attracted people, not the plight of polar bears or the exhibit’s “educational” value. Peace was a celebrity, and hardly representative of his species, which is what made him adorable.

In this context, the assertion that drive hunts are not cruel is a weak one, because the media and JAZA — even WAZA, for that matter — won’t address the matter of zoos and aquariums exploiting captive animals as resources. Mainichi and Asahi start from the premise that human enterprise is more important than an individual animal’s well-being. The Ringling Bros. Circus finally faced up to this unspoken dynamic when it announced in March that it would no longer feature elephants in its shows. That’s a big decision. What endeavor is more profit-oriented than a circus?

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