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Dolphin hunt film sparks dilemma for tourists

“The Cove,” which documents a brutal dolphin hunt off the Japanese town of Taiji, is putting would-be amusement park visitors in an ethical bind and park owners on the defensive.
Image: Anna Paquin at Sea World In San Diego
Actress Anna Paquin swims with a bottlenose dolphin during a Dolphin Interaction Program at SeaWorld San Diego’s Penguin Encounter earlier this summer. Marine mammals in captivity is among the topics tackled by the recently released documentary, “The Cove.”Bob Couey / SeaWorld via Getty Images

The affecting cloak-and-dagger documentary “The Cove,” which documents a brutal dolphin hunt off the Japanese town of Taiji, is putting would-be amusement park visitors in an ethical bind and park owners on the defensive.

The film’s protagonist, Ric O’Barry, who trained the animals that played TV’s Flipper before he had a change of heart, indicts businesses like Sea World as being either overtly or tacitly complicit in the cruelty. “The captivity industry keeps the slaughter going,” O’Barry charges in movie. If he has his way, the gruesome images of bloody dolphins will keep you from buying a ticket to a marine park, or stepping into a pool of one of those “dolphin encounters” at a tropical resort.

Park owners, on the other hand, are crying foul, insisting they have nothing to do with dolphin slaughter and that buying a ticket helps support valuable education and environmental work.

Sea World, part of Busch Entertainment, a division of Anheuser-Busch, which itself is owned by the Belgian beer giant InBev, rejects O’Barry’s criticism, pointing out that it condemns the Taiji dolphin hunt.

“Ric O’Barry has been opposed to dolphin captivity since ‘Flipper,’ ” said Fred Jacobs, the vice president of communications for Busch Entertainment. “He has made a tidy living with that and to take Taiji and somehow lay blame for that tragedy at the feet of Sea World is an outrage ... We hope people will see this as really an outrageous overreach on his part.”

Image: A scene from the movie 'The Cove'
In this film publicity image released by Roadside Attractions, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank is surrounded by dolphins as she ascends in a scene from, \"The Cove.\" (AP Photo/Roadside Attractions) ** NO SALES **Roadside Attractions

Long notorious for its brutality, the Taiji slaughter is a so-called “drive hunt,” during which fishermen in a string of boats use clanging sounds to herd dolphins into small coves. Once penned, some dolphins are picked out by dolphin trainers and animal brokers for purchase and transport to amusement parks and resorts. The rest are killed with spears, knives and clubs in an orgy of cruelty. As the film graphically shows, the sea water churns into a bloody froth. The cries of the dolphins are pathetic.

But is it really possible that American tourists buying tickets to Sea World are somehow supporting this hunt and others like it? To understand the answer, it helps to know how amusement parks obtain their animals.

Born in captivity
In this country, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 makes it illegal to take a marine mammal out of the wild without a permit, and illegal to import any marine mammal that has been captured inhumanely. In fact, with public sentiment running strongly against capturing wild animals for shows, said Trevor Spradlin of the National Marine Fisheries Service division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “the reality is that the public-display industry has not requested permission to catch animals since the late 1980s.” Instead, the American industry has switched focus to captive breeding and artificial insemination.

Though Sea World used to buy from drive hunts and obtained animals through capture, these days about 80 percent of Sea World’s marine mammals were born in captivity, Jacobs said, with most of the rest arriving as the result of an animal rescue operation, such as a stranding.

O’Barry acknowledges this. But he indicts the industry on two counts: creating an international market for animals and failing to take action against the drive hunts.

Captive cetaceans (whales and dolphins), earn an ocean of money for their owners. According to financial statements, InBev's entertainment business — made up mostly of Sea World and Busch Gardens outlets — contributed pro forma revenue of 932 million Euros (about $1.34 billion at today’s exchange rate) to the company.

Businesses around the world hoping to mimic that cash flow journey to places like Taiji or the Solomon Islands which also has a drive hunt. There, park and dolphinarium owners purchase dolphins for well over $100,000 each.

“These are the economic underpinnings of the largest slaughter of dolphins in the world,” O’Barry told “If we stop trafficking it would be difficult for this to survive.”

Jacobs denied that the international market for animals spawns drive hunts. “The question I would ask Ric O’Barry is if there were no dolphinariums, would the drive fishery sustain itself? Would it collapse under its own weight? It’s centuries old!”

Head in the sand?
O’Barry and the producers of “The Cove” are on stronger ground when they say the industry has turned a blind eye to the hunts Jacobs called “horrifying.”

Jacobs, for example, refused to condemn those who still buy from Taiji. He likened such purchases to a salvage operation that prevents some animals from being killed. “We stopped [buying from drive hunts] and have not resumed, not because we are ashamed, but it was not something that we cared to be involved with any more. It is difficult to go over there even if you are saving animals, and that is how we viewed it.”

This reluctance to call out others, and then take action, is O’Barry’s biggest beef. While some biologists have signed petitions and some aquariums and amusement parks decry the practice, even starting an organization called Act for Dolphins in 2006, such declarations are simply ignored.

“They know who the dealer is: Ted Hammond in Taiji,” O’Barry said, identifying Asia-based American veterinarian and amusement park consultant Ted Hammond. “They could get him under control by isolating him from the rest of the community! Sea World and these other parks know who traffics from Japan and the Solomon islands. They should see what they could do to stop them other than have some politically correct statement. They have to make up their minds what they want to do about it.”

But they won’t.

Hammond has been instrumental in brokering Taiji sales and has consulted for the Solomon Islands capture operations. But he remains a member in good standing of major international organizations. For example, a 2008 “Proceedings of the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine,” edited by Sea World’s chief vet, lists him as both a “founding member” and an “honorary life member.”

( contacted Hammond for comment on drive hunts, his role in brokering animals, his relationship with a new aquarium in Beijing which has made Taiji’s infamous Whale Museum its sister organization, and the issue of capturing dolphins for tourists. But after first promising to respond, he later declined saying, “As you probably know, there is an active lawsuit between one of my clients and Ric O'Barry of which I am a primary witness. My legal counsel has requested I do not respond to any outside questions or volunteer any information regarding Taiji or any associated activities at this time.”)

Big fish in a small pond
Sea World, the largest marine park enterprise in the world, would seem to have a great deal of clout in industry organizations. But aside from issuing statements, Jacobs could not name any action Sea World has taken or plans to take.

Sea World is trapped, he argued, by its history. “I do not know how to answer what our position is. We are opposed [to the hunts] but we find ourselves defending against the kind of criticism O’Barry levels at us and we are distracted by that. And, at one point, we collected animals from one of these hunts. We do not want to be accused of being disingenuous ... if we go to an aquarium in China and say ‘You guys should not be involved,’ the first thing out of their mouths will be ‘Well, you did it’ and we cannot argue that point.”

International bodies are equally reticent.

Gerald Dick, executive director of the Switzerland-based World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) told that “WAZA clearly condemns any cruelty against animals, as laid out in the Code of Ethics.” So what happens to those who defy the code? “If a member defies such appeals, we have a standard complaint procedure in place, which consists also of a dialogue with the relevant institution or regional association.” WAZA, he said, is now “in dialogue” with Japan “to sort out the relationship between the takes for aquaria and the slaughter.”

The International Whaling Commission, said Ryan Wulff, the IWC coordinator for NOAA, cannot even agree if it has any authority to regulate small cetaceans like dolphins. The U.S. position is that it does.

Even if strong actions were taken against rogue players, some, like O’Barry, argue that it is unethical to keep these animals in captivity in the first place.

There are currently 512 living cetaceans in captivity in the United States according to NOAA; Sea World is by far the biggest holder

‘Jury is out’ on lifespans
According to Georgetown University biologist Janet Mann, Ph.D., who studies a wild population of dolphins off Australia, and was the first to prove that dolphins teach each other how to use tools, some dolphins, like bottlenose, appear to live a long time in a well-maintained facility, sometimes longer than in the wild.

Killer whales, the biggest dolphin species and the keystone of Sea World’s image, don’t fare as well as their bottlenose cousins. “Killer whales can live at least into their 80s,” Mann said. “There are no cases of captive killer whales living that long or even reaching half that age.”

Jacobs replied that there is ongoing “debate” about killer whale lifespans and that the “jury is out.”

Mann believes that capturing wild dolphins for display is unethical, but dolphins born in captivity cannot be released into the wild. It’s been tried and always fails.

Regardless of the animals’ lifespans, say experts — including Sea World’s Jacobs — it is impossible to know what the animals think about living in a tank. Which leads to a philosophical question potential park visitors should consider: “If you kept a human in a clean and safe environment for their entire life (a bit like the film “Truman,” let us say),” Mann posits, “then is it OK?”

Promoters like Jacobs argue strenuously that it is, largely because of the park’s educational value. “We will have something north of 11 million people visit a Sea World park this year,” he said. “Virtually all of them will come into direct contact with a marine mammal in the setting of a show or some form of interaction. I have seen people who have that experience and are touched by it, moved to act by it. They are far more sensitive and aware and respectful because of that experience.”

Fantasy world
University of Illinois communications professor Susan G. Davis disagreed. She believes the value being communicated by marine parks “is a very radically human-centric value. It is that human beings, but especially humans organized as a big economic conglomerate, can create and recreate the natural world. I just think that is preposterous.”

Davis, author of the book “Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience,” called it “a disastrous way of looking at the human place in the natural world. It is just putting wilderness and wild animals in a place where they can always be synthesized.”

A marine park is a fantasy, she said, that perpetuates a mistaken notion. “Through these very crafted performances ... I think the implication is that this enormous, dangerous, beautiful thing is in compliance with our wishes because we love it and it loves us.”

But according to Mann, dolphins are wild animals and top line predators. Wild dolphins do not love people and don’t even remember individual persons. People have to get away from this idea that dolphins and other animals are on earth to somehow interact with us, she said.

Whether or not we will remains to be seen. O’Barry hopes tourists buying tickets will see that they are part of the problem. For his part, Jacobs doubts attendance will fall in response to “The Cove” or O’Barry’s agitating.

Meanwhile, next month, the Taiji drive hunt will resume.