PHOTOGRAPH BY OCEAN/CORBIS
PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 2, 2014
The ongoing capture and slaughter of dolphins at Taiji, Japan—five more mass killings have taken place since the bottlenose hunt last week—troubles us not only because it is cruel but also because of what it says about us as a species.
Since the 1980s, when commercial whaling was finally banned worldwide, we've come to know a great deal more about the minds of marine mammals and many other animals. What we've learned suggests that, like the human animal, many other species, including all whales and dolphins studied to date, are thinking, emotional creatures, and are conscious.
We also know that common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), such as those who were killed or forcefully separated from their families at Taiji, have societies and rules, and some sense of empathy, and right and wrong.
How do we know this? One example comes from an article a marine biologist in Scotland published earlier this month in Marine Mammal Science. He describes watching a male dolphin seize a newborn calf from its mother and viciously batter it. The calf died several months later from its injuries.
Humans rarely witness these assaults, but scientists know they are fairly common and that they are part of male dolphins' reproductive urges: They target only the young calves of females they have not mated with. Sometimes, a gang of males will join in the attack. If the calf dies, the female quickly becomes fertile again, giving the males an opportunity to father her next one. In evolutionary biology terms, the males are employing a "reproductive strategy"—one that is found among many species of mammals, from domesticated cats to grizzly bears.
What most affected me about this study, though, was that the biologist also saw several other large male dolphins in the area rush to the mother's aid as she tried to rescue her calf.
They circled the mother and calf and helped the pair to escape. Perhaps those males had mated with her or were her relatives—the two possibilities that evolutionary theory generally offers to explain altruistic acts in animals other than humans.
Animals and Empathy
But there is growing evidence that animals, from mice to elephants, can be empathetic, too, recognizing pain and suffering in others that are not kin.
As the primatologist Frans de Waal has noted, animals that live in complex societies, such as dolphins and chimpanzees, also have "a desire for cooperation and harmony." Perhaps at times this desire even leads to acts of heroism and kindness.
How else to explain the observations of South Korean marine biologists who witnessed about a dozen long-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus capensis) assisting an ailing adult female, whose pectoral fins seemed to be paralyzed?
For more than 30 minutes, the dolphins took turns diving below her to lift her to the surface. As her condition worsened, they tried another tactic: By swimming tightly together, they formed a raft of their bodies so they could carry the female on their backs. Only when she stopped breathing did they begin to disband. Even then, several of the dolphins stayed near her side, touching her body, until it sank from view.
There are numerous other accounts of mother dolphins carrying their sick or dead infants, or of one or two dolphins pushing another to the surface to help it, but this is the first report of a large group of dolphins working together to assist a stricken individual—which is not to say that dolphins rarely behave in this manner. More likely we're not around when they do.
Other examples of animal altruism suggest that at times one species may also help another.
In 2009 biologists saw a humpback whale in the Antarctic save a seal from killer whales as it leaped in desperation through the water. The whale slammed her tail at the orcas, turned on her back, and swept the seal onto the safe haven of her broad belly.
Pilot whales have been seen pummeling and driving away orcas attempting to kill a gray whale calf off the coast of California.
Dolphins have reportedly helped humans by pushing drowning individuals to the surface and chasing away sharks.
And orcas in Norway regularly feed an "invalid" orca that is unable to catch fish, even though he is not a member of their pod.
What are we to make of these accounts? And what do they have to do with what's happening at Taiji?
Animal Minds: A Paradigm Shift
For most of the 20th century, scientists taught us to regard other animals essentially as robots.
Nonhuman animals were merely reactive beings: They lacked thoughts and emotions, and we were instructed to disregard any behaviors in other species that we might think of as human—or humane. Only humans loved, laughed, helped others, and grieved.
Scientists also seldom collected data or observations about animals' emotional displays (other than anger) or altruistic behaviors because they were likely to be branded as anthropomorphic sentimentalists.
In the past two decades, however, our understanding of the animal mind has changed. A growing number of scientists, evolutionary biologists in particular, no longer see humans and all other animals as separated by a cognitive chasm.
Rather, they recognize that the brains of all animals, including the human animal, share many of the same qualities and abilities because they are designed for many of the same tasks and have a general, common ancestry.
That's why scientists are now searching for the roots of empathy and altruism in other species and are collecting the kinds of anecdotes I describe here. (Thirty or more years ago, these meaningful observations would likely have ended up in the dustbin.)
Animals do think and feel, and sometimes they surprise us by acting humanely. Given a chance, the humpback will save the seal.
The Dolphin Killers
And then there is Taiji. The human fishers who are working there—forcibly corralling dolphins, holding them in pens for days in close quarters, tearing calves away from their mothers, and killing many—confound us because their actions are so utterly inhumane.
And unnecessary. Very few Japanese dine on dolphin meat; no one needs it to survive.
Killing wild dolphins may be a tradition there, as the country's government insists, but traditions are not inviolable. They change when they no longer fit a society's needs or are recognized as immoral.
"That tradition was made only when the world, and Japanese Fishermen did not know what it meant to do harm to the Dolphins," Yoko Ono Lennon wrote in an open letter to the Taiji dolphin hunters and Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, on January 20.
But the world, the fishers, and the Japanese government all know now what the killing at Taiji means.
Who Is a Person?
Many of us are struggling these days to redefine our relationship with other animals. There are calls for certain species, including whales, dolphins, elephants, and chimpanzees, to be considered persons with rights.
It required many centuries for human societies to recognize that other people had rights, and extending some kinds of rights—at a minimum, not being kept in captivity or used in biomedical research—to other animals is an even greater challenge. It might even seem quixotic, but a growing list of countries, including Japan, no longer allow invasive research on chimpanzees.
And that we are wrestling with this issue at all suggests that we know that our treatment of other animals is not always right, and that events such as those at Taiji are wrong.
What Taiji Shows
What, then, does Taiji reveal about our human nature?
That in spite of what we have learned, we can persist in being knowingly and brutally cruel—as inhumane and unfeeling as we once regarded all other animals to be.
But take another look at Taiji's shores. Besides the fishers, there are other people, including Japanese citizens, who have gathered to bear witness, to document the horror, and protest the killings.
There is no way for the dolphins to know of these people's actions. But they are there, working on the dolphins' (an unrelated species!) behalf, because it is the right thing and the kind thing—the humane thing—to do.
Virginia Morell is a correspondent for Science and the author of four acclaimed books. Her newest, Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures, has received several honors, including a Notable Book for 2014 award from the American Library Association and a Best Book of the Year designation from Kirkus Reviews. She lives in Oregon with her husband and their working farm collie, Buckaroo.
You are still wondering if animals have social feelings, I do not, because for all my live i have taken care of lots of animals. What I have witnessed is that they have a social and familybond. They show greeve and compassion, brightness, intelligence and they can make you laugh when you are unhappy, they feel you. That is not an instinct, that is how they look at you, how they feel you and how they can solve problems. Animals are bright and they worry just like you. They can not speak with our language but with their own and their bodies and ears and eyes and noses. They try to reach us, but many people do not (want) to see it. Now who is really not so bright and intelligence....
In total agreement with this article. When humanity has acquired more awareness then it will attempt to repair any horror made on the animal world. It is from here that we begin to evolve, transform and look at each other whatsoever as a sentient being with emotions and we will respect all creation.
Excellent article. However, EXACTLY the same can be said of cows, sheep and horses. People get rightfully upset over the dolphin slaughter, yet they turn a blind eye when it comes to the massacres of millions and millions of cattle and sheep for e.g. that happen every day in this very country. Like dolphins, or sharks for that matter, people have no need nor right to kill them. Simply being wild does not make an animal any more worthy of respect than a domesticated animal whose lives and rights are disrespected daily. Cows, sheep and the like show even more emotional capacities than sharks, yet there is little protest among most people here about their all-out slaughter. And like the case with dolphins, no one needs to eat them to survive (in fact, studies reveal that people who do not eat meat survive LONGER).
An excellent read proving these beautiful animals have emotions just like us and slaughtering them is not only inhumane it's criminal :(
As a dog owner and one who has avidly read the Yellowstone wolf studies for several years, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind whether animals are capable of emotion. Excellent job on the article!
Thank you NG for the realistic articles of the atrocities that we so grandiosely commit as a species. Not only are inhumane crimes committed regularly on animals but each other as well. Dr. Seuss said it best, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not!"
Taiji started this slaughter in the 60s and its only purpose is to sell captive dolphins to marine parks around the world. Profit is the only reason this is happening. And it has nothing to do with tradition.
Thank you National Geography for reminding us of our humility and nature. It doesn't look like we have evolved to become a civilized kind people yet. And I hope it won't get worse before getting better. My thoughts are with those inhumanely slaughtered dolphins, and the few that will spend the rest of their lives in tubs.
Very well written and researched document. If humans were in touch with their souls they need not be taught that what is happening with animal slaughter is wrong, we know instinctively that it is and ignoring our inner voice is to our own peril.
i guess it happens in every part of the world, NG post and release the issue so that we are aware, and lets do what we have to do. ",
As described in my autobiographical novel "Wet Goddess," a dolphin reached out to me many years ago in the most intimate way imaginable, by initiating courtship with me. It took her roughly six months to convince me, through various behaviors and strategies, that she was as much of a "person" as I was. Since I had that revelation, I have been living in a different world from most people around me, and slowly my attitudes toward other species have been changing. If you wish to help the Taiji dolphins, please consider signing my petition to end my home state of Florida's sister-state relationship with Wakayama Prefecture, the home of Taiji in Japan. You can read and sign the petiton at http://www.change.org/petitions/brad-piepenbrink-executive-office-of-the-governor-of-florida-end-florida-s-sister-state-relationship-with-wakayama-prefecture-japan
Americans are not any better than Japanese, but soon there will be no Japanese to kill dolphins, because thanks to the Japanese, with a technological assist from the US, there will be no dolphins because we're all going to perish under the global onslaught of Fukushima. The Pacific has gotten a head start on the rest of us: It's rapidly dying. Cesium 137 and strontium 90 do not disperse in saltwater, they concentrate. Every minute of every day since 3/11/11 Fukushima has belched a ton of nuclear gas that circles the globe before settling on the soil that eventually makes its way to our tables and our livers and other susceptible organs,. And it doesn't go away. It compounds. Every day more is added and every day none of it is subtracted. We are doomed, our species and the world's.
It is a very very sad thing to keep such a terrible "tradition": it is a real crime to human nature. Nowadays everybody knows how dolphins love and help humans! In the Caribbean and in Brazil dolphins are even capable to help fishers to fish and the only dolphins that die here are because of natural causes or accidents (that sometimes involve old abandoned fisher's nets by example) but NEVER intentionally. These Taiji killings should stop immediately!
When I was young, I sailed on the ocean in a small wooden sailing boat with no working engine, so we were like sea beings ourselves with a wing in the wind and a fin in the sea. It allowed us to be close to the marine beings in spirit. They would come close to us in person too. Great whales surfaced alongside us. Dolphins danced often around our bows.
During the long watches alone on deck at night, I would dream myself into their minds and one of the first things I knew was that they must have a relationship with the night sky very different form our own. Half of their lives they are under that sky and they do not sleep that time away, as we humans do. The night sky dominates life for the people of the sea, as it never can for the people of the land.
While sailing along, I dreamed up lists of vocations dolphins might have and also ones they could not have. A dolphin might be a healer, a teacher, a weather adept, a botanist, a zoologist, a historian, a poet, an astronomer, a storyteller, a midwife, a philosopher, a psychologist or an athlete, but a dolphin could never be a plumber, an accountant, a painter, a builder, a retailer or a surgeon.
There were grey areas I wondered about too. A dolphin might not be an electrician as we know it, but in the oceans where there are both electric fish and electric storms, he might well study electricity to an advanced level. Could he be a lawyer? Perhaps? There could be complex dolphin laws we know little of.
Then came the big question I asked myself over and over. Could a dolphin be a musician? I thought about it for years. I discoverd by research that scientists think dolphin brains have ten times the human capacity for processing sound. The answer gradually became clear to me and that clarity produced my story of Ripple.
Much of this thinking and research and dreaming myself into ocean mind has since come to life in my stories which now circulate the globe and bring my perception of dolphins into human consciousness.
Good that there are supporters in Japan of this cruel killings of dolphins. Some animals are meant to be hunted to provide food for humans and it's human nature to hunt game such as deer, mule deer, elk, and so forth. While respecting the resources, and not abusing the opportunity to hunt. But, dolphins or whales are an exception and you cross that fine line, when to kill animals that actually help and serve humans!
Its indeed ironical that we humans as so called superior species endowed with intelligence and logic are meeting out such brutal treatment to lower species. Shame. Now there is increasing awareness for stop poaching, whale killing etc but how about shutting down the slaughter houses where millions of animals are brutally killed just to satisfy the taste buds? How can we show compassion to one species while kill the other specie indiscriminately? Selective compassion is no compassion at all. Even a cow feels the same pain when her calf is forcefully taken away and killed. Animal killing should stop altogether. People and scientist should focus on growing crops, vegetables, fruits to meet the demands of growing world population. Animal killing is not a solution. It's the cause of misery. For each killing we will be killed. That is the law of nature. It not only adds to serious health consequence but also terrible Karmic consequence. How can you say you love GOD and then kill his creation? When Tsunami hit Japan and thousands were washed away the whole of Japan panicked. But each day they are inflicting the same pain and wound on the marine life. Why doesn't the educated and advanced people take note of this and stop animal killing altogether. World will be a best place to be in if we co exist and love all species
What do we do in a world so cruel and harsh?
We go to God..
That's my solution..
Do my part and study the word of God.. It's the best guidebook I know of..
If you know something better let me know.
I'm 25, American, living in Chile.
Trying to do the best I can.
This is a very upsetting story.
We must come to a place of peace and compassion..
I have resorted to the bible
I think man is the only predator on earth who hunt for pleasure. Let there be a change in our mindset to enjoy a simple life in pure harmony with nature.
Why does Nat Geo insist on claiming only Japan is guilty of mercilessly slaughtering magnificent marine life. What about the mass slaughter of whales in Denmark recently. Where thousands of men, women and children gathered and participated in this event.
This article has graphic images and may be upsetting to some people.
I am so grateful to have watched the COVE documentary and read this article. Thousands of dolphins are slaughtered by humans everyday.for their meat and for other purposes. Dolphins are fundamental to the survival of the ocean ecosystem and simply slaughtering them is not acceptable. It is through our greed and ignorance that dolphins have been seen to be predators for doing the things that they been created to do, to play a vital part of our ocean ecosystem. The same can be said for every ecosystem on this planet. We are quickly depleting dolphin species left, right, and center while ruining out environment for a few dollars. This has to STOP NOW.
Speaking of horrors for those who are killed with rights, millions of unborn children who are persons are being aborted every year. These are real persons that we should care for and be more concerned.
Stop the slaughter of Dolphins and Unborn Human Babies.
Barbaric behavior is never ethical or moral--no matter the circumstance.
These animals need to be protected. The plethora of research I've collected over the years absolutely validates every claim stated in this article. The people who have spent their lives studying Tursiops Truncatis have come to the conclusion that these animals have a complex language similar to ours. Some even claim that they may be more intelligent than humans. These animals are so beautiful and the very idea that they are being slaughtered is absolutely devastating to anyone who has put any time into understanding them will feel the same way. I am confused as to why it is so difficult for people to understand that we are not the only species God put on this earth to grow and to prosper. I am only 14 years old, and while most of my friends spend their time outdoors or on Facebook, I prefer to collect information on the mental functions of marine life. And from that information, I conclude that we must find a way to live in harmony with the other magnificent species that share this planet with us. Please do your part in preventing these animals from being lost forever.
It's time for the U.S. government to put pressure on Japan to end this. Japanese actions with regard to whales and dolphins are in violation of many international laws and treaties, and other nations, the United States included turning our heads and whistling into the breeze, gives the appearance of condoning it. We need to singly and collectively take action to STOP THE KILLING NOW! Economic sanctions, if applied, would make Japan think twice about these activities. If the price on whale and dolphin tripled in their markets, Japanese citizens would re-think its value, and fishermen could change their practices to more globally sustainable fish. No, it won't be easy, but we know too much about the intelligence of these species to continue slaughtering them for food! These are mammals who may be more intelligent than humans. Let's hope the whales and dolphins don't figure out that we have a choice to end the destruction of their species before we stop these horrific practices.
It's time for the U.S. government to start putting pressure on Japan to stop this. Their actions with regard to whales and dolphins are in violation of many international laws and treaties and we're just turning our heads and whistling into the breeze. We're condoning it, or at least it gives the appearance of it, as long as we don't take action to STOP THE KILLING NOW! Economic sanctions that, if applied, would make Japan think twice about these activities. If the price on whale and dolphin tripled in the market, Japanese citizens would re-think their value, and those fishermen could change their catches to more globally sustainable fish.
Sigh. This slaughtering of dolphins makes my heart so heavy with sadness... may all those who are killing be free of ignorance and gain compassion. It's pointless killing. It has to stop.
Definitely something to think about, even outside the scope of the annual Taiji dolphin mass slaughter.
I guess the problem in Taiji is the unsustainable mass slaughter of dolphins. The culture of Taiji may once have been sustainable in a sense that it is a mechanism for the regulation of dolphin population (just like the regulation of human population through diseases). However, this does not hold true for the current condition. Separating calves to mothers and slaughtering most of the population.
Population ecologists, anthropologists, and conservationists must act on this. Research must be done in order to know further the dynamics of this cycle.
Dolphins embody the spirit of the ocean. These mammals are not only beautiful but highly intelligent and intuitive. It is beyond sad to see such fascinating creatures exploited in such a heinous way. To senselessly murder dolphins in Taiji, or anywhere else, is beyond reason and beyond excuse. Surely the ones slaughtering these dolphins are not human?
When the world comes near its end, the dolphins will prove to be the superior intelligent being and tell us "So long and thanks for all the fish...unless your a Japanese dolphin murder, then we hope your death is as slow and painful as possible."
@Sudha Mehta Sorry I, don't believe in Karma, that is not part of my cultural faith system. But I accept you and your faith I just wish you were liberal and open minded enough to be accepting of mine. I like eating beef.
@Jedediah Beadle God often works through human lives for the good of creation. Sometimes it is not a matter of waiting for Him but of heeding His call.
@Jedediah Beadle God? really? Not to try to take action but to.. just.. wait.. for.. God........
@Paul Issac Lionesses have been recorded hunting small creatures for fun and so have some species of Dolphin.
@Lisa L. Faroe Islands, not Denmark.
And where in this article does NatGeo "claim" that only Japan kills whales?
@Pedro Dimaculangan the key word here is "unborn." I'd say an animal which has been born is more "real" than an animal that hasn't been born.
@Pedro Dimaculangan Nothing you say can sway any of these people. They spend more time telling others how to live their lives than they do living their own.
@Pedro Dimaculangan you make a point of this article. That humans to care only about themselves and their own species. This planet belongs to all and every creature deserves to live and die humanely. And one does not have to choose to champion for human rights or animal rights. You can do both, why would you suggest otherwise?
@Deborah Maxemow ALL marine life embodies the spirit of the ocean.
@Tina Mei Well said Tina. @ Pedro Dimaculangan - their lives are not insignificant.... they are beings but just becuz they are not humans does not make them any less then us or us more significant then them. You do not have to be human to be something great or be important.
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