Suit Against Japanese City to Shed Light on Slaughter in the Cove

Activists say denying them admission to a museum housing a rare albino dolphin violates the law.

An albino bottlenose dolphin, nicknamed Angel by activists, is seen swimming in a pool at the Taiji Whale Museum on Jan. 18 in Taiji, Japan. (Photo: The Asahi Collection/Getty Images)

May 26, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Ever since the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary The Cove horrified international audiences with blood-drenched images of the annual massacre of dolphins in the Japanese town of Taiji, animal-welfare advocates, celebrities, and even a high-profile U.S. diplomat have raised their voices in protest. Yet the killing continues. A recently filed lawsuit may ensure that opponents of the hunt, and the dolphins, will have their day in court.

Earlier this month, Australia for Dolphins, Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin Project, and Save Japan Dolphins “initiated legal proceedings on behalf of dolphins caught in the bloody drive hunts in Taiji,” a joint statement from the three groups said. The main focus of the unprecedented lawsuit is a rare albino bottlenose dolphin calf named Angel, who, according to the statement, is “kept in appallingly inadequate conditions.”

The legal complaint, dubbed by plaintiffs “Action for Angel,” “will for the first time compel the Taiji government to defend its globally condemned dolphin hunts,” the statement said.

The suit, filed in Wakayama District Court in Japan, targets the municipal government, which owns the Taiji Whale Museum, where Angel is being held. Each year, the museum brokers the sale of dozens of dolphins rounded up in the cove (but not killed) to aquariums around the globe.

Taiji is home to the world’s largest drive hunts, in which some 2,000 dolphins typically are driven by boats into a cove and killed for food. About 250 others are sold to aquariums. In the 2013–2014 season, the numbers fell; an estimated 1,400 dolphins were driven into the cove. About 834 were killed, and 164 were taken captive. The rest were released. This marked a decline from the previous season’s figures, in which roughly 900 dolphins were killed and 250 captured.

The lawsuit accuses the museum of breaking Japanese law by blocking access to the museum’s animal collection by dolphin welfare experts and other observers, based on “their opinion and race,” the statement alleged. “This conduct is in breach of the Japanese constitution, which protects equal access to public places for all law-abiding people.”

Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer and star of The Cove, told Bloomberg News, “If I tried to get in [to the museum], they would hold up a sign saying ‘No Westerners Allowed.’ We have proof of this. It’s racist and it’s illegal.”

O’Barry, who was not available for comment before publication, flew to Japan along with Australia for Dolphins CEO Sarah Lucas to personally serve Taiji officials with the legal papers on May 15. Lucas did not return emails requesting an interview.

Last January, Angel made worldwide headlines and brought renewed energy to the fight against the hunts when the pinkish-white calf (her exact age is unknown) was forced into the cove, along with 250 other bottlenose dolphins, by fishermen in speedboats. Forty were killed, 52 were taken for sale to aquariums at a hefty premium, and the rest were released.

Angel was taken from the side of her mother, who is believed to have perished in the cove.

The massacre and captures sparked a fresh round of indignation around the world, most notably from U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, who tweeted in January that she was “deeply concerned by inhumanness of drive hunt dolphin killing” and reasserted the U.S. government’s opposition to the hunts.

Soon after, a star-studded list of entertainers, politicians, and activists signed a letter to President Obama, drafted by hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons and Sea Shepherd Cove Guardian Simone Reyes, who works for Simmons, urging Obama not to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement “until Japan bans the slaughter and capture of dolphins in Taiji.”

Sean Penn, Cher, Susan Sarandon, Oliver Stone, Ellen DeGeneres, Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, Jesse Jackson, and Ingrid Newkirk, head of PETA, were among the cosigners.

Today, the albino dolphin is “a highly valuable ‘freak’ show on display in a cramped, abusive show tank. Eyewitnesses report she floats lifelessly with her eyes closed, or swims in small distressed circles,” the plaintiffs’ statement said.

“Angel is living in hell,” O’Barry added in the statement. “This one small dolphin has become a global representative of the thousands of dolphins slaughtered and captured each year in Taiji.”

Taiji is not the only Japanese location where cetaceans are hunted and killed. Around the country, up to 20,000 dolphins, porpoises, and pilot whales are butchered each year. In the past 70 years, more than a million dolphins have been killed.

If one dolphin can symbolize that staggering figure, activists believe, it is the orphaned albino languishing in a museum by the cove.