The Oscar-winning documentary The Cove is at once instructive, horrifying, inspirational, and terribly sad. The film follows a group of activists, led by the indomitable Ric O’Barry, determined to document Taiji’s (Japan) seasonal dolphin slaughter. The hunt is sanctioned by the government (20,000 permits issued annually) and largely hidden from the masses. The residents of Taiji view the film as propaganda and remain defiant: “There are some countries that eat cows, and there are other countries that eat whales or dolphins.” Parochial traditions (dating to the 17th Century) die hard.
Dolphins are exceptionally intelligent and (like whales) relatively complex (the presence of spindle cells indicates a common thread with hominids). Studies have revealed a language aptitude similar to great apes and a recognition of numerosity. They use tools, are quick learners (even mimickers), can be taught sign language, and have demonstrated self-awareness.
The story of Kelly illustrates a dolphin’s ability to anticipate the future (perhaps reason). At a Mississippi marine mammal institute, dolphins are rewarded for collecting trash. Kelly devised a system of hoarding some under a rock, only bringing up small amounts at a time and leaving the rest for future treats. On one occasion, she earned a larger prize (more fish) for bringing a gull to her trainer. Seeing great potential, she began to use her last fish to bait more gulls, eventually teaching the strategy to her calf.
Then there is Moko the bottlenose dolphin who saved a whale mother and child off the coast of New Zealand two years ago. Rescuers tried in vain for an hour and a half (pulled from a sand bar four times, they kept returning) and were set to euthanize when Moko (a familiar presence in the area) emerged, communicated with the mother (a different species), and proceeded to lead them safely out to sea.
Critics of The Cove charge emotional manipulation. In a Bright Lights Film Journal review, Ilan Kapoor, environmental studies professor, writes: “The film resorts to their Disneyfication, showing them to be affectionate and always smiling (just like Flipper), with O’Barry claiming they have human-like consciousness and intelligence. Dolphins may well be highly intelligent beings, but O’Barry’s facile anthropomorphization should give us pause…” How, though, would Kapoor describe Moko’s behavior if not altruistic (once thought an exclusively human trait)?
While it would be inconsistent to shed tears at the Taiji bloodbath while eating a hot dog (as the Japanese are wont to point out), a contrast can be made. Smithfield (America’s pork king), though perhaps deceptive about their animal care protocols, is, nevertheless, crystal clear on their overall purpose: to meet consumer demand for pig products. The dolphin hunt, however, is defended on murkier grounds. Ostensibly, they are culling cetaceans for meat (and less frequent but more financially rewarding sales to marine parks). But there are other, less obvious, considerations. First, dolphins eat valuable fish, meaning the hunt is a form of pest control. And second, entrenched customs are infrequently questioned and staunchly defended as matters of national pride (no Westerner is going to dictate their animal policy).
The denouement of The Cove, while expected, is very difficult to watch. It centers on the drive fishery: Fishermen deliberately disorient the audio-sensitive dolphins with their boat engines and banging. After herding the animals into a secured area, the hunters retire for the night (the drive can take eight hours). They return to the shallow waters at dawn and begin to kill (with hooks, spears, and knives) amid shrieks of terror. From photo-journalist Boyd Harnell’s eyewitness account of the slaughter: “Some dolphins tried frantically to resist. The men with knives made repeated stabbing motions. The dolphins’ dorsal fins and tail flukes were moving wildly. The stabbing continued until the dolphins became motionless.” This, done to perhaps the second most cognitively aware beings on the planet. Sometimes, I’m ashamed to be human.