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Japan: Stop Killing Our Evolutionary Elders and Help Save Our Oceans

Instead of changing their environment to fit themselves, dolphins have adapted to a changing ocean. That's what wise elders teach their young: Cultures change. Oceans change. We must change, as well.
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For over two decades, I've been studying and writing about cetaceans, those whale and dolphin mammal cousins whose brain size, close-knit family societies, and communication skills rival our own. Thirty million years older than homo sapiens, dolphins are our evolutionary elders. We have so much to learn from them about how to survive.

Scientists have determined that dolphins are a self-aware species, like humans. They use tools; they pass down their language, and have evolved a sophisticated matrilineal culture. Their echolocation sonar is far beyond our military science. No wild dolphin has ever harmed a human, even when we are attacking them. In fact, dolphins are altruistic and save humans from drowning or shark attacks.

With all that we know now about dolphin intelligence, why does the Japanese government still sanction a brutal dolphin hunt in Taiji? Why does Japan permit this primitive tradition when it also leads the world in such environmental technologies as hybrid cars?

Japan is looking backward when we desperately need this country to join the world in ocean conservation. In the 21st century of dying oceans, do our human cultural traditions trump our need for healthy seas? There are older non-human cultures than ours, and they are the life support system of this blue planet.

But this year, the killing begins again, even after the international outcry raised by the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, the Animal Planet series Blood Dolphins, and environmental activists on YouTube witnessing fishermen slashing the dolphins until the sea runs red with blood.

The villagers' boats surround a pod of migrating dolphins at sea and disorient their navigational sonar by banging metal poles. Terrified, the dolphins cling together - they are families, after all -- and are herded into the village's tight cove. Wielding knives, the fishermen stab the dolphins, whose sleek skin is twenty times more sensitive than human's. Wounded and screaming, the dolphins are dragged to the harbor warehouse for slaughter.

"There is nothing to prepare you for seeing it in person," an environmental activist, Leilani Munter, told the Associated Press. "I saw these beautiful dolphins being driven into the cove, and they came out dead bodies."

By this spring, over 20,000 dolphins will die this gruesome, inhumane death. Their meat will be displayed in Japanese markets, where it will be sold for 2,000 yen (about US $16) a kilo.

According to the Associated Press, "most Japanese have never eaten dolphin meat and would find the idea unappetizing." And dolphin meat is a health hazard because of its very high levels of mercury, which exceed even the Japanese government's own health limits.

Citing tradition, the Japanese government dismisses such protests of the Taiji hunt. "If you walked into an American slaughterhouse for cows it wouldn't look very pretty either," one of the fishermen told Japan Focus.

Dolphins are not domesticated and bred for our consumption; they are wild animals and an indicator species of our marine habitat's health. Our seas are not farms, a utilitarian resource for us to plunder. The oceans are our world's womb and necessary for our own survival.

As this year's dolphin hunt begins, there are changes. A few of the youngest dolphins have been freed. But without the family structure and the guidance of the adults these offspring may die anyway.

So far this year, no bottlenose dolphins -- like "Flipper" -- have yet been killed; instead, the fishermen have killed risso dolphins and pilot whales. Some of the Taiji dolphins are separated from their family pods and herded into netted pens, where they will be sold to aquariums and captive swim programs. Captivity for a dolphin is a life-long imprisonment. Dolphins are conscious breathers. That is why in captivity when dolphins suffer from depression, they often simply stop breathing and die.

Dolphins also grieve. When a mother dolphin loses her newborn, she will tow her baby in obvious mourning. Sometimes in the wild, the mother carries her newborn's body until it disintegrates. In captivity, the newborn's corpse is taken away from the mother. What aquarium visitor, looking only for smiling dolphins, wants to witness such grief?

Those of us who visit aquariums with captive dolphins or participate in the swim programs are helping to support this dolphin hunt. If we make our voices heard by boycotting such captive institutions, we could do a lot more to deny the dolphin hunters their financial reward.

The cove in Taiji is as narrow as the mindset driving this dolphin hunt. October 14th is the Save Japan Dolphins International Protest of this annual Taiji dolphin slaughter. All over the world, peaceful protesters will gather outside Japanese embassies. Scientists and activists will speak for the dolphins. We hope Japan will be listening and stop this backward hunt. Maybe we can learn to be more human, more humane.

Here is what I've learned from studying dolphins. Instead of changing their environment to fit themselves, they have adapted to a changing ocean. Dolphins bring their big brains and communication skills to assuring group survival. They do not dominate; they adapt.

That's what wise elders -- and nations -- teach their young: Adapt and change to better fit into the natural world, which is our only home, our habitat. Cultures change. Oceans change. We must change, as well. It's called evolution.

Brenda Peterson is the author of many books, including the National Geographic book Sightings and the Sierra Club book Between Species: Celebrating the Dolphin-Human Bond. Her new memoir is I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth.

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