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Is The Taiji Dolphin Slaughter Cruel?

April 7, 2013

Not that there was much doubt, but a scientific paper categorizes and defines the level of extreme cruelty. The DotEarth blog digs in:

In a new peer-reviewed study, scientists assess the killing method employed by the dolphin hunters of Taiji, Japan, by watching video recorded surreptitiously in 2011 by a German dolphin-protection group, AtlanticBlue. The still image at right is from the video, which can be seen here (but be forewarned; this is not suitable for children — or many adults, for that matter).

Here’s the researchers’ not-so-surprising prime conclusion:

This killing method does not conform to the recognized requirement for “immediate insensibility” [some background is here] and would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world.

Here’s the abstract from the paper:

A Veterinary and Behavioral Analysis of Dolphin Killing Methods Currently Used in the ‘Drive Hunt’ in Taiji, Japan

Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, Volume 16Issue 2, 2013 (DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2013.768925)

Andrew ButterworthPhilippa BrakesCourtney S. Vail & Diana Reiss

Annually in Japanese waters, small cetaceans are killed in “drive hunts” with quotas set by the government of Japan. The Taiji Fishing Cooperative in Japan has published the details of a new killing method that involves cutting (transecting) the spinal cord and purports to reduce time to death. The method involves the repeated insertion of a metal rod followed by the plugging of the wound to prevent blood loss into the water. To date, a paucity of data exists regarding these methods utilized in the drive hunts. Our veterinary and behavioral analysis of video documentation of this method indicates that it does not immediately lead to death and that the time to death data provided in the description of the method, based on termination of breathing and movement, is not supported by the available video data. The method employed causes damage to the vertebral blood vessels and the vascular rete from insertion of the rod that will lead to significant hemorrhage, but this alone would not produce a rapid death in a large mammal of this type. 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.

DotEarth also puts a few questions to co-author Diana Reiss, and includes a bunch of other useful links on the topics of Taiji, dolphins and intelligence.

Read the whole thing, but this exchange is particularly important, I think:

Q. One of the standard replies from Japan on this issue (whether with whales or dolphins) is that we, for example, cherish bison but eat bison burgers. Is there a distinction?

A. You cannot compare bison to dolphins in the cognitive domain. However, bison are not killed in this inhumane manner. Nor are lab rats. In cases in which animals are domesticated for food, most modern countries are striving for better animal welfare practices that minimize pain and suffering during the killing process with the goal to render an animal unconscious quickly before it is killed. This is not the case in the dolphin drive hunts. These are not domesticated animals; they are wild dolphins that are captured within their social groups, mother and young, and slaughtered using a technique that actually prolongs death, pain and suffering. The herding procedures themselves are inhumane and may include forced submersion as the dolphins are dragged by their tails to shore to be killed.

This is not to say that dolphins should be killed. They should not.

This is probably the best answer Reiss could give to the contradiction of supporting animal rights and welfare for certain species, but eating meat produced by practices that are also cruel and inhumane. And I agree that the dolphin slaughter should be stopped quite apart from livestock slaughter.

But it is not really a satisfactory or convincing answer. There is a moral contradiction in eating meat while expressing outrage at the abuse and cruelty involved in the slaughter of other species. You can try to defend one species but not another by creating different categories of animals based on intelligence. But while cows and pigs might not be as intelligent as dolphins, they are sentient beings. They know fear. They know loss. To die is painful and they resist that fate as ardently as any species, no matter how intelligent. In the end, the only position which truly avoids this moral contradiction is to oppose animal slaughter and cruelty for all species.

Update: Lori Marino of Emory University and the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, who has a long and complex history of disagreement on principle with Reiss, pushes back, hard, on another moral contradiction:

So what kind of killing WOULD be acceptable? It is absolutely offensive that anyone who works in the dolphin captivity industry would feel they have anything worthwhile to say about the Taiji dolphin drives. This is not about dolphin welfare any more than murdering humans is. This is about dolphin rights. But those in the captivity industry will continue to milk the welfare issue because it provides them a way to appear to be concerned about Taiji while still supporting the industry that drives the Taiji slaughters.

This video, which was used in the study (Warning: GRAPHIC) is horrific. But I could show you (and have) any number of videos of cows and pigs being slaughtered that you will find equally revolting and objectionable:

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Helen B. permalink
    April 7, 2013 12:29 pm

    Thanks for blogging this! It has been a long time coming but will only confirm for cetacean advocates that Japan is condoning the inhumane slaughter (in some of the cruelest ways possible) of thousands of dolphins & small whales in Taiji. And what drives this horrendous behaviour in humans is the demand for live captures of dolphins & small whales to replenish dying stock of captives in entertainment parks, such as SeaWorld and Marineland facilities across the globe and of course aquaria, zoos, swim-with-dolphin programs to mention but a few. I wonder what pro-captivity advocates will say now? Will they finally wake up and realize that their demand for entertainment is driving the cruel and unusual punishment of thousands upon thousands of marine mammals each and every single year?

    • April 7, 2013 12:48 pm

      It is long overdue that we consider the MO of the dolphin killers, and any time is the right time to discuss it BUT it will not end the live capture.
      Live capture exists, I believe, for 2 reasons. The first is the obvious monetary gain. They are worth a small fortune. Anyone who watched the horror of 101 bottlenose dolphins stolen forever to waste away in captivity will know that their value ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars if not more. Secondly, the most vocal of the pro-cap supporters are in the US and Canada and they have their heads buried so far into the sand it is IMPOSSIBLE to reason with them. Rational debate is a pipe dream.
      Until cetacean captivity is banned globally then dolphins will die in the names of “tradition” and “culture”.

      • Helen B. permalink
        April 7, 2013 4:28 pm

        it is even more important now than ever before that animals get given nonhuman status so they can be better protected from man …

  2. Renee wrede permalink
    April 8, 2013 12:20 am

    I live in the US and I believe the captive industry is abhorrent. I didn’t always feel that way. I have always been interested and adored all animals so much they became my career. I had been to SeaWorld on a few occasions but as I got older and especially after I swam with the dolphins at Discovery Cove the realization of their plight really hit me hard. I began to watch the people and how they responded around the dolphins in the nursery and the feeding area. I actually cried. I could not believe I had missed this for so long, what was wrong with me?? I have worked in veterinary medicine and in animal behavior and it took this long for me to do the research and use my own observations to realize this was outright cruelty. I had met Lolita over 20 years before and knew she was depressed ( I chatted up the trainer after a show) but thought that was because her pool was so tiny. I sent letters to Miami Seaquarium with my opinions about this and asked friends to do the same but to no avail. I had front row viewing of the rehab of Keiko hours on end whenever we stayed at our vacation home on the Oregon Coast in Depoe Bay (it was absolutely fascinating). I was so mad at myself for not coming to my senses sooner– I think I smacked myself numerous times for being so late to the anti-captivity side. I began taking trips to observe the wild orcas in the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon and Alaska) and whales and dolphins in Hawaii. Bless my husband for tagging along.

    Once I saw the dolphin drives in Taiji on the Internet, ” Death til Dawn” and the movie ” The Cove,” and the killing methods used above my heart literally ached. I was crying uncontrollably and furious at the same time. Now that I am certain of my convictions I can emphatically say the day of educating the public about the wondrous cetaceans via captivity was over. I have become an activist for the first time in my 54 years of life. I hosted one of the protests in Portland, Oregon on Feb 22 and will again on June 29. This has taken over much of my free time and I know this will end soon as the momentum is snowballing in our favor. Anyone wanting to join the global protest you can find the closest one to your home at or host your own! Info available on that website.

  3. April 8, 2013 8:34 am

    Reblogged this on Time for Action.

  4. lipsandliner permalink
    April 8, 2013 2:10 pm

    a very insightful article…its always good to read about professionals thoughts
    these creatures are so social and intelligent, there is no doubt that they are fearful and suffer when they are killed.
    Its incredible to think that people are even capable of such a gruesome, terrible act…

    this horrific slaughter needs to end…as does the captivity of preciously wild dolphins and whales ..

    and as a side note, I hate when viewer discretion is advised …children yes, thats obvious…but young adults and adults?
    there is no reason that graphic videos like these are “not suited” for them…its the raw, honest truth!!…I believe all people need to view these kinds of videos…developing awareness of the horrors taking place on our planet.

    • April 8, 2013 4:23 pm

      I agree that videos like that should be seen, which is why I post them. But I also feel it is fair to warn people, so they can prepare themselves. If they choose not to watch, that is regrettable, but their choice.

  5. Helen B. permalink
    April 8, 2013 7:21 pm

    I live in Canada now but spent most of my childhood growing up in Africa. I was raised in a family where half the members were hunters (not for sport) and the other half were dead set against harming a single animal. My parents supported many wildlife causes and taught us that the value of an animal life was the same as a human.

    My middle child introduced me to the horror of Taiji and I was horrified and have been involved in as many ways as I can be since then – but my involvement was limited to writing letters and speaking up and educating people I know (both personal and professional) and doing my best to until this year. Like Renee, I joined the growing movement we call Olympic Dolphins and you can find information on On February 22, 2013 I hosted my first protest for Taiji dolphins outside the Japanese Embassy – not the first protest I have organized and hosted for an animal species in need and it won’t be my last! I am also the social media lead of a team of worldwide volunteers that give of their time to actively tweet on Twitter and post on Facebook and pin on Pinterest etc. You can follow our accounts @TaijiActionDay @OlympicDolphins and a back-up account @2020Dolphins to help us spread the important message – the horrific cruelty against marine mammals in Taiji must stop! 40 protests happened in 21 countries on February 22, 2013 and on June 29, 2013 we are doing it all over again.

    Please check our website or tweets for details of locations and times and join a protest and if you don’t find your city or a city close to you, please contemplate volunteering your time to host a protest. Details are available and we (all the hosts) are here to help you promote via social media etc. The hard work has mostly been done already. We have pamphlets, posters etc. that you can download and print. Its not hard but it is rewarding!! Speak for the dolphins but also act for them too!

  6. Karah woytovich permalink
    May 8, 2013 3:50 pm

    Every time I witness the killing of these amazing and intelligent marine mammals I cry yes the entire thing is cruel I don’t care about the other animals I eat them I’m not a vegetarian, dolphins are friends of man just like cats,dogs, or any other domesticated animal in taiji they kill them by the thousands 2300 a year it’s cruel and therefore should be stopped, I’m not making excuses I’m speaking my mind

    • lagenorhynchus permalink
      August 29, 2014 1:20 am

      For me, it’s not about whether or not animals are friends (although I don’t think it’s hypocritical to favor certain species over others like many do), it’s that they can suffer and feel pain and fear and do not want to die any more than you and I. I don’t think killing and eating other animals in societies where we can live completely healthy lives without doing so is ethical.


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