Recent films such as Blackfish and The Cove have captured public attention and provoked global outrage about the plight of whales and dolphins. The Cove specifically focussed on the barbaric and brutal drive hunt fisheries in Taiji, Japan, where – year-on-year – dolphins and other small cetaceans are herded by boats into coastal bays and penned. In the subsequent days, some are selected for a lifetime in captivity in dolphinaria in Japan or overseas, while many others are – to put it bluntly yet honestly – brutally speared and hacked to death. The water, literally, turns red.
Despite international condemnation, including strong words from Caroline Kennedy, the United States Ambassador to Japan, the drive hunts continue and this month has seen yet another rash of heartbreaking news and photographs highlighting the atrocities meted out on these intelligent marine mammals in this small coastal town in Japan.
The association between the captive industry and the hunts is all too apparent. Several dolphinaria in Japan have reportedly received cetaceans from the Taiji hunt, including the Taiji Whale Museum which lies little more than a stone’s throw from the killing bays. And many have joined in the worldwide expressions of disgust and outrage, including the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) which has issued a statement appearing to condemn the hunt in no uncertain terms: WAZA “strongly condemns the Taiji dolphin drive hunt” and “is deeply concerned about this practice and is taking all action possible to help stop it”.
However, all may not be as it seems. While WAZA correctly points out that no Japanese dolphinaria are individual members of WAZA, it glosses over the fact that the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) is an organisational member of WAZA. JAZA’s membership includes several dolphinaria long-associated with the drive hunt including the Taiji Whale Museum.
So, it seems to me that WAZA cannot on the one hand claim to be deeply concerned, while on the other continuing to promote the work of a national association that permits its members to benefit from brutality and seemingly to avoid taking action against any of its organisational members who are involved.
But that’s the problem: as with other national and regional zoo associations across the globe, it appears that there are no real sanctions, no genuine incentive to uphold better standards of welfare and ethics. Zoo associations exist, first and foremost, to advance the interests of their member zoos. If a zoo is caught breaking their (voluntary) codes of practice, the worst that can happen is that zoo’s membership of the association is suspended or terminated. And what does that mean to the offending zoo? In most cases, very little.
Zoo associations such as WAZA must be clear: does membership even remotely guarantee higher standards of welfare and ethics, standards that the public worldwide increasingly expect, or is membership little more than an exercise in mutual back-slapping and collective self-promotion by facilities that, in some cases, have no qualms about flying in the face of public expectations and common sense?
The eyes of the world are on the people of Taiji, the Japanese Government and now WAZA. Will the world’s biggest Zoo Association use its influence to help bring the barbaric Taiji slaughter to an end with all the powers at its disposal and will it expel any of its members and organisational supporters who either tolerate, support or are even involved in such a heinous act.