Within each of us resides the most powerful force on the planet. Love. Sometimes, love requires action, because without action motivated by love, nothing changes. Action requires the courage to connect to our hearts, feel what is happening within and empathize with the suffering of others. True courage is the willingness to feel the uncomfortable places within ourselves that we deny or try to escape. These uncomfortable places, if left unexamined, become barriers to our love. Unintentionally, we construct walls around our hearts, to create a safe harbor from the uncomfortable feelings we push away.
Recently, I encountered a part of myself that made me uncomfortable. The impetus for this encounter began when a friend said "we have to be willing to have our hearts broken so they can open fully." At the time, it seemed like a bleak sentiment, and made me slightly uncomfortable. Nevertheless, his words stayed with me for days. Unknowingly, I was about to out what that statement meant and why it made me uneasy.
Shortly thereafter, a friend sent me a link to a blog she'd written about the dolphin trade on NatGeo. I was so disturbed by what I read about the horrific killings and captures of dolphins that I began to educate myself about the plight of these sentient beings. I'd heard about the Academy Award-winning documentary, The Cove, which chronicles their plight, but I could never bring myself to watch it. Honestly, I didn't want to watch dolphins suffer or be killed. Then, I watched the movie and my friend's statement came crashing back into my consciousness, "We have to be willing to have our hearts broken so they can open fully." My heart broke and that made me uncomfortable. Witnessing another creature's suffering triggered pain and sadness in me, and I realized I'd purposely stayed away from the movie, willfully ignorant, if you will, in order to avoid having my heart broken. Just as you can't un-ring a bell, you can't unlearn what you learn. Consequently, after we learn about injustice and suffering of another being, each of us is presented with two choices: action or non-action.
The Cove follows the journey of the filmmakers, led by director Louie Psihoyos, as they document the mass killing and capture of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. Every year from September to May approximately 22,000 dolphins, small whales, porpoises (known as small cetaceans) are killed in Japan. Dolphins are slaughtered in what is referred to as "dolphin drive hunting." The fisherman corral scores of dolphins into the cove in Taiji by banging rods on their boats producing loud sounds that disorient and scare the dolphins. Then, the fishermen close off the bay with huge fishing nets to ensure there is no escape. One of two things happen: bottlenose dolphins are selected by trainers from China, Dubai, Turkey and Japan to be sold off to marine parks and dolphinariums for between $150,000 and $200,000, or they are brutally killed and the carcass is sold. The killing is a ghastly ordeal. The dolphins are caught one by one, dragged by their tails by boats to the shoreline where the fisherman first drive a metal rod repeatedly into an area just behind their blowholes and then hammer a wooden stake into the wound to prevent the blood from contaminating the sea. Japan is not the only place in the world that these atrocities take place: the Solomon Islands, the Faroe Islands, Japan, and Indonesia, still kill dolphins. International law provides no protections against killing and capturing dolphins or any small cetaceans.
On April 8, 2013 a new scientific analysis of the dolphin slaughters revealed shocking levels of cruelty. The paper, "A Veterinary and Behavioral Analysis of Dolphin Killing Methods Currently Used in the 'Drive Hunt: in Taiji, Japan'" reported that, "the method induces paraplegia (paralysis of the body) and death through trauma and gradual blood loss. 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."
I spoke with one of the authors of the paper, Dr. Diana Reiss, who has been studying dolphins for over 30 years. In her book, The Dolphin in the Mirror, she writes about her groundbreaking discovery that dolphins are self-aware beings with personalities and complex large brains. Dr. Reiss writes, "Self-awareness -- the capacity to have a concept of self and to know that one exists as an individual being -- was long seen as a cognitive Rubicon: humans in supreme isolation on one side, specially endowed, and the rest of 'base nature' on the other, possessed of brains of various sizes but with an absence of minds." Through experiments using a double-sided mirror Dr. Reiss and her team witnessed dolphins posing, playing and examining themselves, like humans do. Dr. Reiss explains, "The animals that show mirror self-recognition all have very large brains compared to their body size, more so than animals that don't show it. Dolphins are way up there on the scale, like humans, great apes and elephants. Dolphins also show empathy. These are highly evolved species that are treated in one of the most inhumane ways possible." During our interview Dr. Reiss reminded me of Gandhi's words, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."
I also talked to Louie Psihoyos, the director of The Cove, and asked him what, if anything has changed since the release of the movie four years ago. "I think there's been an incredible amount of change, " he said. It's mainly because of their meat -- it's literally toxic because of the mercury poisoning and PCBs. I don't think we're winning the argument in Japan because of the animal rights issue. The movie raises many issues, it's not just about killing dolphins. What about the issue of taking intelligent animals and using them for human amusement in dolphin shows? It's a miserable life for the dolphins."
Ric O'Barry who was featured in The Cove and is the campaign director of the Dolphin Project for the Earth Institute goes to Taiji every year during the dolphin drive hunts. Sadly, not much has changed. "It's business as usual," Ric explained. "They are still killing dolphins. They are still capturing dolphins. The captures are the economic underpinning of the slaughter. They can get as much as $154,000 for a live dolphin, whereas a dead dolphin, if they can sell them, is worth about $500. There are many people who receive financial benefit from this practice, so it's hard to point the finger at just one person or entity. "Some of the money goes to the fishermen," says Ric. "Some of it goes to the town of Taiji; the mayor of Taiji is very involved in it. There are four different companies in Taiji involved in the traffic of dolphins."
The problem may appear to be far away and out of our control, but there are actions we can take to help end these inhumane practices. U.S. citizens can contact the U.S. State Department and U.S. Embassy to Japan, to request their diplomatic engagement with the Japanese government to stop the dolphin drive hunts. Global citizens, all of us, can contact the Japanese Embassy or contact the Prime Minister's Office of Japan on his Facebook page. We can write our government officials requesting international laws be legislated that protect all small cetaceans from being killed and captured. For updates and activism, contact the Whale and Dolphin Conservation or sign the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans, which seeks an end to all forms of dolphin exploitation.
Watching the footage of dolphins suffering and being killed broke my heart triggering sadness within me. The courage to feel the uncomfortable places within may mean allowing our hearts to be broken, so they can open fully to feel empathy for other beings.
As Dr. Reiss pointed out, dolphins too exhibit empathy. But, where is our empathy for them? Are we afraid to feel another's pain, because ultimately it triggers our own pain? Love requires an open heart. Sometimes, Love requires action, because without action motivated by love, nothing changes.