I just watched The Cove, a 2009 documentary that followed the efforts of activists from the Oceanic Preservation Society as they chronicled the seasonal capture and slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan.
As a person concerned with biodiversity conservation and animal rights, I was eager to watch this film after hearing about its focus on a secretive dolphin harvest that occurs every fall off of the coast of Japan. I also have an secondary motive for watching the film: I have begun to pull together materials for a course focused on the ethics of animal use. What I would like to bring to such a course would be a behavioral and evolutionary perspective, which would help students to understand what is known about animal cognition and consciousness as well as recognize the very different relationships we have with domesticated and wild animals. Ideally, the course would be co-taught with another professor who is well-versed in ethics, which would allow us to tackle both what is known about animals and how to interpret that knowledge through the frame of human morality. What would be exciting about such a course is the potential for considering bioethical issues on scales ranging from individual animals all the way up to ecosystems and the services they provide.
Although it is clearly a propaganda piece, I think that The Cove could be a pretty valuable resource for such a course. Dolphins are one of the most cognitively-advanced species that we have not successfully domesticated, joining only their fellow cetaceans (whales and porpoises) and the great apes (orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas) in a small group of social species that have been subjected to a lot of captivity but have not found much success in “adapting” to life with humans. It would be interesting to consider how these species are different from the species that have fared well under domestication (dogs, cats, some birds, some fish), and The Cove provides a nice overview on why dolphins suffer in captivity: they are highly social, wide-ranging creatures that rely heavily on sound to communicate with each other. These traits make their small-scale captivity in concrete tanks potentially torturous.
The Cove tackles to varying degrees both the individual- and population-scale ethical issues associated with the Taiji dolphin harvest. A primary question is whether dolphins should be used for entertainment purposes. The Taiji harvest supplies the majority of dolphins used by the many marine parks and “swim with dolphins” programs worldwide, and The Cove looks at the question of whether dolphins can be ethically kept under these conditions. A secondary question is whether dolphins are too cognitively-advanced to be simply slaughtered for food, which is what happens to those dolphins that are harvested but not selected for entertainment purposes. Here The Cove hits pretty hard, providing the first direct footage of the dolphin slaughter obtained from a remote hidden cove in Taiji. Although we learn a little about dolphin cognition and consciousness, I think that further information on what science has discovered about dolphins would be needed in order to really tackle the issue of whether it is ethical to eat dolphins.
At the population-scale, The Cove does provide us with some insight into the machinations of the International Whaling Commission, but there is not a lot of population ecology here. The question of whether dolphins can be harvested in the name of “pest management” (because they potentially compete with commercial fisheries) was addressed, but not with any scientific evidence brought to bear on the question.
Although it is a bit of a tangential issue, The Cove also does a great job of providing viewers with a visual understanding of the problem of bioaccumulation of toxic substances. Looking at the risk of mercury poisoning to those who eat dolphins, the movie provides a nice animated depiction of why top predators can end up containing extraordinary amounts of toxins. This presents an additional issue: is it ethical to allow toxin-laced seafood to be sold to consumers?
The Cove is a clear provocation to anyone with a compassion for animals. It is also a wonderful jumping-off point for a number of ethical and scientific questions. I hope to use it in my classroom some day to motivate students to delve deeper into the scientific and ethical issues surrounding the use of animals by humans. While its very-slanted take on the issue of dolphin use would need to be balanced by other perspectives, it lays out the key issues in plain and very vivid terms.Biodiversity Loss, Conservation Biology, Ethics, Film, Television, & Video, Marine Ecosystems, Reviews, Teaching