by Merritt Clifton
VALLEJO, California––Any day now the fishing crews of Iki, Japan, may string nets between their boats and, banging metal objects together to make a noise that carries underwater, herd scores of Dall’s porpoises and pseudorcas into an inlet to be harpooned and hacked apart with machetes. Spring is the season for such massacres, conducted intermittently at least since 1900 and almost annually since 1967 despite international protest. The traditional rationale is reducing competition for yellowtail; also, much of the porpoise and whale meat is either eaten or sold.
A few months later, Eskimo hunters in power boats will shoot walruses up and down the Bering and Arctic coasts, ostensibly for meat but perhaps mostly to get ivory tusks, according to witness Sam LaBudde, a research biologist and native of Alaska who has observed the killing for Friends of Animals. LaBudde’s testimony is backed by Alaskan eco-journalist Tim Moffat. Some hunting parties retrieve whole carcasses, those that don t sink; others just hack off tusked heads, carve out genitals, and leave the rest, contrary to Marine Mammal Protection Act requirements. While bulls are the main targets, some cows will be shot as well. Orphaned young––if not shot for meat––will starve or be eaten by polar bears.
Both in Japan and Alaska, some animals might be saved by cash-bearing oceanarium collectors. And that raises the question, is it right to save a wild animal from an agonizing death, at benefit to those who persecute the species and at cost of keeping the animal captive? Many animal rights activists and environmentalists say no; wildlife should not be captured, certainly not at the price of paying the killers. Zoo and oceanarium people say yes; captivity beats death.
Oblivious to philosophy and pecuniary considerations, four irrepressibly inquisitive young walruses at the Marine World Africa USA theme park in Vallejo, California, masters of untying shoes by sucking the laces, provide woofing, nuzzling, body-rubbing testimony to their love of life, despite their traumatic history. Their affection for their keepers, jailers though they may be, is as apparent as their mistaken belief that humans are their mothers––or angels.
The presence of the walruses, and the absence of four pseudorcas purchased in Japan under similar circumstances, indicates that the issue is sufficiently unsettled that the National Marine Fisheries Service can apply a double standard. In May 1993 NMFS forbade the import of the pseudorcas; a year later, the walruses were brought from Alaska with little trouble.
But hardly anyone knew about the walrus acquisition. Word has since gotten out. A similar acquisition scheduled by the Indianapolis Zoo is catching flak from Tanya Tuell of the Animal & Environmental Defense Association, and may have a different outcome. In February 1994, nine months after NMFS blocked the Marine World pseudorca import, Tuell won a fight to keep the Indianapolis Zoo from buying four pseudorcas from a Japanese aquarium, to replace a pseudorca who died in 1992, three years after capture. “Unable to provide proof the whales were not obtained through the Japanese drive fisheries,” Tuell explained, “zoo officials could not bring them to the U.S.”
The conflicts are as old in essence as the warnings of the late Gerald Durrell circa 1960 that fellow zookeepers’ interest in rare species had stoked a speculative market that threatened the animals existence. The Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species were adopted in 1972-1973 in part to halt institutional purchases that encouraged the depletion of wildlife.
In that regard, the laws have been successful. Poaching and wildlife trafficking are bigger now than ever, stoked by Asian demand for medicinals based on wildlife parts. But zoos and aquariums are effectively out of the market. The last noteworthy end-run around CITES by a major American or Canadian zoo occurred in 1983.
Marine World wildlife curator Terry Samansky and public relations director Jim Bonde are as quick as anyone to rip trafficking. Indeed, several of the most prominent exhibits at the nonprofit but pricy and heavily commercialized park attack the elephant ivory trade and the role of the fur industry in imperiling exotic cats. For the anti-fur message, Marine World has been blistered by the front group California Fur Industry Inc., even as animal rights protesters picket sporadically because it keeps captive marine mammals, occasionally breeds tigers, and chains elephants overnight.
Although Marine World is among the older marine mammal parks, it is regarded by peers as one of the best. Of the many captive wildlife authorities I consulted before visiting it, incognito until after a long inspection, only Pat Derby of the Performing Animal Welfare Society said bad things about it, and many of her criticisms predated recent changes. As Bonde pointed out, “Marine World may be the only major marine mammal park which has never suffered the death of a dolphin or an orca,” though both species have been kept there for more than 20 years.
“I recommend Marine World’s care standards and practices to anybody, without hesitation,” says Kathy Travers, captive wildlife expert for the American SPCA, “and I ll come down on anyone if I think they deserve it.”
The walruses and the curator
Samansky didn t just fax off an order for walruses and await delivery. Instead he applied to NMFS for a “salvage tag,” which permitted him to bring back from Alaska four walruses orphaned by aboriginal hunting. To certify their origins, Samansky had to journey to the Arctic himself, go out in small boats with the Eskimos, and witness the killing of walrus mamas so that their babies could be captured. Only Samansky doesn’t see the killing that way.
“Our permit stipulated that our presence could not cause the additional orphaning of animals,” Samansky and Bonde both emphasize.
And Samansky, a self-admitted admirer of the traditional Eskimos, doesn’t agree with LaBudde that the main motive for aboriginal walrus hunting these days is the money to be made from selling walrus ivory and genitals.
“The mothers were going to be killed anyway, for meat,” he insists. “We saved a lot of walruses, by occupying the hunters with capturing these orphans alive and bringing them back to the village during several days when they could have been out killing. The village we worked with eats walrus all winter. They kill any walruses they can find. They don’t actually kill many of the bulls, because the bulls stay out too far. They kill the mothers and the juveniles, except that this time we took the juveniles. If they don’t find the juveniles, the orphans die from hunger and the elements, or a predator kills them.”
Adds Bonde, “There is no walrus quota for the ‘aboriginals.’ They can take as many as they want, but they must use all of the animal. That’s why it’s very important that you work with the right village, one that follows the rules. You’re not allowed to buy a walrus, and they’re not allowed to sell one. We were allowed to pay them the going local wage for the days they spent helping us, but that was all.”
At about the same time MWA-USA got their walruses, the New York Aquarium acquired some the same way. The Indianapolis Zoo acquisitions, scheduled for this summer, will increase the captive walrus population to a size that the zoological community hopes will permit sustainable captive breeding.
Is it needed? On paper, anyway, walruses remain viable in the wild, despite hunting and poaching. But if the regulators are wrong, successful captive breeding may help insure species survival.
Samansky and Bonde don’t talk about the walruses’ drawing power. Yet the pecuniary motive may be the best argument for keeping them, from a conservation viewpoint. Whatever the arguments against captivity, it is a fact that the public is most militant on behalf of species they know.
And then there are the four walruses, who inhabit a fenced enclosure including a holding tank while their permanent exhibit is built. Raising them from infancy with frequent bottle feeding has given the MWA-USA staff new insight into walrus behavior. For instance, Samansky says, they learned that when alarmed the young walruses immediately submerge and hide on the shadow side of their floating platform, which substitutes for the piece of ice they would have rested on in the Arctic. Because of their youth at capture, this has to be instinctive rather than learned behavior.
Knowing the fate the walruses were spared gives the MWA-USA staff an evident sense of moral accomplishment. Countless walrus will be killed before they either go extinct or humans cease to afflict them; but these are safe. Adopting an orphan does not prevent war, yet is worth doing, handlers say as they give the 400-pound babies lunch. And as Bonde puts it, they can’t for the life of them see what s the difference between paying Alaskan natives to save four walrus and buying pigeons by the crate to spare them from the guns at the annual captive bird massacre in Hegins, Pennsylvania––as some of Marine World’s most vehement critics have done repeatedly. Either way, killers are rewarded, to save the mere handful of animals who can be saved.
Marine mammal parks should be allowed to do the same, Samansky and Bonde contend, for the pseudorcas.
Killers and whales
“We’re bitter about the pseudorcas,” Bonde admits, who are now on exhibit at an oceanarium in Japan and are reportedly effective representatives of their species. Domestic opposition to Japanese government support of whaling and especially to the Iki massacres has dramatically grown in recent years. One can’t prove the rise is because of the exhibition of pseudorcas and other small whales, any more than one can prove or disprove that proliferating marine mammal parks helped spark the “Save the whales” movement in the U.S., but it is an indicative coincidence.
From 1990 through June 1993, In Defense of Animals and Earth Island Institute beseiged Marine World with letters, demonstrations, newspaper ads, and petitions. The initial focus was a demand for the release of the orcas Yaka and Vigga, kept at the park since 1969 and 1981, respectively. Emphasis shifted to keeping the pseudorcas out in April 1993, after the four pseudorcas in question were captured and Marine World applied for an import permit. The orca campaign hadn’t produced results, while the opportunity to link the park to notorious cruelty was irresistible.
“When places like Marine World pay money to fishermen for the whales and dolphins,” charged Hardy Jones, who filmed the Iki-like massacre at Taiji in 1978, “it makes the slaughter economically feasible.”
Added Mark Berman of Earth Island Institute, in an April 21, 1993 op-ed column for the Vallejo Times-Herald, “The Iki and Taiiji drive slaughterers actually market these animals to captive facilities in advance through a broker in Tokyo. Orders for the species, sex, size, and age are taken. At the time of the roundup, specific animals are herded into a holding area while the remainder are slaughtered without any opposition from the captive display industry. This entire commercial operation is shrouded in secrecy and is perpetuated by those who profit from the slaughter as a means to acquire whales and dolphins at less expensive prices while appearing to save several from death.”
In a passage subsequently more embarassing to the protesters than to the targets of protest, Berman added, “Finally, last week, eyewitness accounts of where Marine World’s pseudorcas are kept on Iki surfaced. The netted area in the bay happens to have 12 bottlenose dolphins––one was seen floating dead on the surface––and at least nine pseudorcas. Several young calves have been noted as well within these numbers, and all appear to be extremely stressed and are swimming in their own waste.”
Ben White, then working for In Defense of Animals, later with Friends of Animals, was in Japan. According to the third paragraph of an IDA press release issued the same day, “Sources inside Japan led White to where the pseudorcas were believed to be held. There White observed at least 20 dolphins and pseudorca, including very young calves, confined to an unsanitary sea pen. ‘I have never seen dolphins in a more agitated state,’ White said. ‘The pseudorca were huddled together. The animals, who had witnessed their families massacred in the shore drive, were being held in extremely inhumane conditions…’ White, who had traveled to the island with video and still photography equipment, decided to cut the nets rather than just document the conditions. Reports out of Japan this week indicated that 40 dolphins had been freed.”
In other words, White was said to have freed nearly twice as many cetaceans as were believed to be in the sea pen to begin with. But White says he never made that claim himself. As he remembers, “I didn’t know how many were in the pen. It’s pretty hard to count dolphins in the water. I cut the net and I saw a mama and a baby swim toward the opening, and I got out of there. I went back at dawn, briefly, before I caught the first plane away, and I didn’t think I saw as many dolphins as previously.”
Ironically, the Marine World pseudorcas were never in that sea pen, as White learned later. Marine World representative John Kirtland was tending those pseudorcas at a different site––and advising Marine World not to reveal that fact. “As long as the animal rights terrorists continue to mistakenly believe that the animals are there, our animals will be safe where they really are,” he said.
As to the alleged release, Kirtland continued, relaying statements by drive fishery spokesman Teruo Shono, “On the morning of April 14, one of the nets enclosing a number of dolphins at the dolphin park was discovered cut.” This placed the incident a full week earlier––although IDA didn’t mention it in either an April 16 press release or at an April 18 press conference. White thinks the discrepancy is because IDA was awaiting official confirmation from Japan that some dolphins had escaped, which eventually did come from Tokyo news media. White also believes the Tokyo papers were the source of the number 40.
“Contrary to IDA’s claim that 40 dolphins were freed,” Kirtland continued, still giving Shono’s version, “in truth not one animal was freed or escaped. Three dolphins did become entangled in the cut net, and as a result, drowned,” a claim White doubts, saying none were entangled when he made his dawn visit to the scene, shortly before the cutting would have been discovered.
Further, Kirtland said, the dolphins and pseudorcas in the sea pen were removed from the main group 12 days before any were massacred and the sea pen was several miles from the massacre site. Thus the sea pen group couldn t have seen what became of the rest. White today acknowledges that this might have been the case. Kirtland didn’t explain why the massacre victims were held so long before they were killed, when presumably pressure against killing them should have been building by the day.
Added Kirtland, “The collection of pseudorca by Iki fishermen was completed before Marine World ever learned of it; it was not driven by Marine World.”
That, in fact, was why NMFS disallowed the imports. Explained Marine World president Michael Demetrios, “When our collector, Scott Rutherford, arrived in Iki, the drive had already started. He had the choice of saving four animals already collected by the fishermen, or going outside the net to collect in the way our NMFS permit stated. We opted to save four animals who were going to be killed. NMFS says this action violated our permit because Rutherford was not present for the initial herding process and thus could not verify that the animals were herded humanely by the Japanese.”
Perhaps catching activists’ exaggeration was not a triumph Marine World boasts about.
Says Bonde, “I wouldn’t want to stake my reputation on what the drive-fishers said, either.” He estimates that the truth lies somewhere between the conflicting versions. The bottom line for Bonde is that whatever became of the animals in the sea pen, whether any escaped, and however many there were, none came to Vallejo.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson has looked at the Iki Island and pseudorca situations as long and hard as anyone, not only as the world’s most noted whale defender, but also as a longtime admirer of Japanese culture, martial arts, and philosophy, and with a record of working more closely with some oceanariums than most other leading activists. Watson himself has tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to stop the Iki Island killing.
“I do not believe that the drive fishery would cease if aquariums stopped their purchases of pseudorcas,” Watson told me. “The purchases are a lucrative supplement to drive fishing, but they are not the reason for it. Otherwise the fishers would capture the animals for live sale and not kill the others. It is the position of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, however,” Watson continued, “that it is immoral for oceanariums to reward Japan for their mass slaughter of cetaceans by exploiting the kills to purchase exhibits. This is similar to African poachers killing off mountain gorilla or chimpanzee adults for their body parts and then selling the juvenile animals to zoos, a common practice until stopped by CITES.
“The poachers are criminals and a respectable institution should not be dealing with criminals. I understand that the oceanariums believe the animals they purchase are saved from otherwise certain death,” Watson concluded. “There is some validity in this. However, it is ethically questionable that Japanese dolphin killers should be given large sums from funds raised from ‘educational exhibits.’ I think that many patrons of these facilities would be very upset to learn that money they in part provided is going directly to people engaged in slaughter. There is no justification for oceanariums to do business with Japanese dolphin killers. By doing so, they become accessories to the crime and undermine the credibility of their institutions.”
Yet it is hard to look into the eyes of a young walrus and think saving him––by whatever means––was wrong.