In a move surprising for its bluntness (and getting attention for that as well as the issues raised) U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy recently made clear her deep objection to an annual event in a small town in Japan: the drive dolphin hunt or kill. She tweeted that she was "deeply concerned about the inhumanness of drive hunt dolphin killing," adding that the U.S. government opposes this practice.
Assuming you might not know the term, a "drive dolphin kill" is hours, perhaps days of speed boats chasing large pods of dolphins, eventually trapping the terrified and exhausted animals in a cove where some are captured live for sale to marine parks (hard to imagine those as the lucky ones, the term "lucky" of course relative), the remainder slaughtered for meat. The 2009 Oscar Award winning documentary, The Cove, captures the barbarity in all its horror, from the terror of the animals to the bright red color of the bloodied sea.
The Ambassador's statement, like the film itself, has been poorly received throughout much of Japan, not surprisingly. There are allegations of racism and insensitivity to traditional cultures. That, in itself, is interesting.
While my career in animal welfare has not brought me hands-on into this particular battle, listening to the dialog reminds me of similar defenses of the indefensible right here at home. While at the Arizona Humane Society (1993-2001), I was among those who led the successful initiative campaign which finally criminalized cock-fighting in that state. Among the nasty allegations faced, we were roundly attacked for cultural insensitivity to "traditional" Hispanic culture. That claim backfired when several Hispanic advocacy groups chose to support our effort on the grounds that the claim of "tradition" was something between an over-statement and simply false.
Truth was, there were people of all ethnicities who found either joy or profit from watching roosters slash each other to death while folks bet on the outcomes. That horrible "blood sport" was not so deeply a part of any culture for it to rise to defensible on the grounds of tradition, and the claim proved to be nothing but a smokescreen advocating for an activity difficult for most people to accept once they understood it.
Similarly, half a dozen armed men in a speed boat taking advantage of dolphin's migratory behavior must be seen for what it is: an industrial activity, which both quantitatively and qualitatively bears little resemblance to any culture's ancient, traditional practices.
Another defense offered both of cockfighting and now too of drive hunts is the "let he who is without sin" argument, pointing at the practices of the U.S. industrial meat factories (and of those of us who support them by consuming from them). Yes, this is an industry which causes the death of such a vast number of animals that it dwarfs these other practices. But to damn any practice does not excuse any other, and so this is an argument meant to obfuscate the real point: dolphin cove hunts are a cruel barbarity which cannot be defended as either resonant of traditional culture or as somehow ok because factory farms suck.
Dolphins are the cognitive cousins of elephants and gorillas. We know them to be smart, to be self-aware; to know fear and to feel threat, and to also understand family, in ways with which we can -- and should -- empathize. Yes, industrial farming practices with so-called food animals in this country do little to make us proud and, yes, traditional cultures can't be viewed through a 21st century lens alone. That said, this practice can't be defended on any grounds: it is not comparable to anything other than what it is.