Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Don’t eat Flipper, she’s practically one of of the family
Remember Flipper? The 1960s cetacean equivalent of Skippy, in which snub-nosed Bud goes tearing around the waters of southern Florida saving humanity with the help of a high-functioning, kookaburra-voiced, tail-walking dolphin?
Flipper, like that old “Land Rights for Gay Whales” bumper sticker, used to seem innocent fun. But as the International Whaling Commission considers repealing its 1986 whaling ban – theoretically, to reduce kill levels – and as temperatures rise over Japan’s slaughter of 23,000 dolphins a year, the core question is not just why these creatures? It’s are they, well, family? They’re related to each other but are they somehow kindred with us?
Few of us, I imagine, would adopt the American ethics professor Thomas White’s position that dolphins “should be considered non-human persons”, and not only because of the insult to the dolphin. But the power struggle between the super-intelligent ape and the super-intelligent fish is nonetheless age-old, directly paralleling the evolution of human rights.
The intense emotionality of that struggle, from the terror of Jonah through the blood-soaked slavery-psyche of Moby Dick to Free Willy liberation theology, has two striking features. First, emotions – our deep cetacean sympathies – are clearer and simpler than any rational analysis. Second, the implication somewhere deep down – as far down, perhaps, as our homologous limbs – that we believe in the blood tie.
The modern whaling story has three Ahabs – Norway, Iceland and Japan. For Japan it’s personal. An attack on whaling is an attack on Japan itself.
“Don’t f— with the Japanese,” read a placard outside the Tokyo trial of Peter Bethune, whom local press depict not as an over-zealous activist but as a terrorist. Also awaiting sentencing, after a 2½-year trial, are Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki, the “Tokyo two” who “stole” embezzled whale meat to prove corruption, only to be tried as thieves themselves and reviled as traitors.
They wanted to put whaling on trial, but there’s little coverage. Japan even banned the Oscar-winning doco The Cove, showing the dolphin massacres in sea bubbling like red paint. Near the start, Ric O’Barry, the star, says: “They’d kill me, if they could.” It sounds paranoid but by halfway through, you believe it.
Much blubber, but it boils down to this: which species are special, and why? The Cove’s essential point is dolphins are whales and should therefore be protected by the whaling “ban”; not caged, not eaten, not hunted. But why not? We eat other mammals, even other intelligent mammals, like the pigs Australians fight for the right to hunt and knife by hand.
Sharks are said to be as smart as dogs, yet the sharkfin soup you can buy at almost any Chinatown restaurant involves not only massive slaughter of threatened species but appalling waste and cruelty, since the fins are sliced from the living fish before they’re tossed back to a slow, excruciating death. And all for a tasteless, goopy additive with a certain sympathetic magic. It’s like slicing the nose from a dog then letting it wander until it falls. But we don’t ban sharkfin soup. What is it about cetaceans?
Flipper sat somewhere between Moby Dick and Free Willy, a man-fish love story steeped in that dangerous innocence in which modernism specialised. O’Barry trained the five (female) dolphins that starred.
“I spent 10 years building that industry up,” he reflects, “and the last 35 trying to tear it down.” Why? Because he needs to atone for having popularised the swim-with-dolphins fantasy, and feels responsible for the cheesy chimp irony by which we, envying the spiritual freedom that dolphins seem to symbolise, feel driven to capture and cage them. We like dolphins but we also think they like us. Smiling, leaping, frolicking in our bow waves, they seem beneficence made manifest. But do they? Are they?
In Carl Hiaasen’s Native Tongue, the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills theme park orders a discount dolphin that proves psychologically unstable and sexually deviant. The scene in which the bottlenose penetrates and drowns the bad guy is one of literature’s most memorable. Now it seems dolphins are reading more widely than we thought, for dolphin fightback has caught on. Last year’s drowning-by-dolphin of an American eco-tourist in New Zealand’s Marlborough Sound is the latest in a string of such incidents, and unprovoked dolphin aggression has been observed for a decade – wanton bullying, mass porpoise killings (not for food) and dolphin infanticide.
Dolphins are not bound by etiquette. But will we still want to protect them if they won’t play nice? Jeremy Bentham pondered all this back in 1823, concluding what “should trace the insuperable line … is not ‘can they reason’? nor, ‘can they talk’? but, ‘can they suffer’?” This, loosely speaking, is what mysticism calls sentience.
Then again, it’s possible my backyard tomatoes are sentient. So what we’re really talking here is tribal emotion, our intuition that cetaceans feel like us, suffer like us. Supported by recent science showing our remarkably similar brain structures, this intuitive knowledge is quite simple after all. Sentience must respect sentience.