On Sept 1, Ric O’Barry would normally be in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, protesting against the start of the annual dolphin hunt. But this year, the 70-year-old activist and his group didn’t go because of threats from Japanese rightwing groups.
“I’ve been going to Taiji since 1976, but it has become too dangerous for me. A lot of militants have threatened me,” said O’Barry who works for Earth Island Institute and comes to Japan about five times a year. "We are non-violent and we don’t want to provoke violence, so I’m not going. Even here in Tokyo, I stay in my hotel room a lot and avoid the lobby so as not to become a target. I don’t know who is who. I have nightmares of ninjas coming out of the shadows.”
His unwanted fame is the result of “The Cove,” this year’s Oscar-winning documentary about the dolphin hunt. “I’m not a filmmaker; I just happened to be in it -- like the Taiji fishermen. What happens in Taiji is extremely cruel and when this level of cruelty is absolute, one should oppose it absolutely and that’s what I do and why I continue to do it despite the threats.”
Instead of going to Taiji, O‘Barry and his group visited the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and presented a petition calling for an end to the dolphin drive. The petition had 1.7 million names on it from 155 countries, including Japan. “Most of the signatures came on the night of the Academy Awards,” O'Barry said. “As we were receiving the Oscar, I held up a sign with a number which viewers could text and we got a million signatures.”
One of the big arguments that O’Barry has had to counter is that he is interfering in another country’s culture and tradition. “In Taiji, there are only 13 boats, with two men each, and they have been doing the dolphin hunt since 1933. That is hardly cultural or traditional. A while ago, before 'The Cove' came out, I stood in Ginza one day and interviewed 100 people on the sidewalk. Not one of them knew about this dolphin slaughter or the mercury contamination in dolphin meat. How can it be part of the culture if Japanese people don’t even know about it? There should be warning labels on dolphin meat saying it is highly contaminated with mercury and PCBs. If labels were there, nobody would buy the product. Japanese people are just as concerned about food safety as anyone else, but the government doesn't give them the information."
O’Barry said he is mindful of the economy in Taiji and wants to help. “We had a group of about 60 people ready to go to Taiji and spend our money to support the local economy. There is a huge boycott Japan and save the dolphins movement overseas, but we don’t support that. What we want to do is help the Taiji economy and support tourism as an alternative to killing dolphins but the militants -- who aren’t even from Taiji -- are stopping us and blocking a cash flow into the community.”
The momentum from “The Cove” is starting to slow down, but O‘Barry has been encouraged by the response. “The militants made it more popular than it would have been. If it wasn’t for them, it would be an obscure movie. Unfortunately, the Japanese media have spun the story in such a way that they are looking at what is wrong with the movie instead of what’s right about it. It’s not anti-Japan; it is about a lot of things. It is about mercury contamination and our relationship with the ocean, not just Taiji.”
O’Barry’s relationship with the ocean goes back a long way. His activities today are a world away from his youth when he was a dolphin trainer for the hit 1960s TV show “Flipper.” “I was capturing dolphins and training them. I had some great times with Cathy, one of the dolphins that played Flipper. I lived in a house near the dock for 7 years. On Friday nights, I used to take a TV set down to the end of the dock with a long extension cord and Flipper and I used to watch 'Flipper' on TV.”
But the turning point came in 1970. “We didn’t have the information then that we have today, namely that there are three things killing dolphins – pollution, fishing nets and captivity. Captivity killed Flipper. Cathy died in my arms in what I think was a suicide. Dolphins are not automatic air breathers; they die or commit suicide by not taking the next breath. That’s what happened to Cathy and that is what goes on in Taiji. I could have stayed with that industry, but couldn’t. I went from a guy who was probably the highest paid animal trainer in the world, buying a new Porsche every year, to a guy who rides a bicycle, but I have no regrets.”
O’Barry campaigns not just against the Taiji dolphin hunt but also against dolphins in captivity in marine parks all over the world. “I ask people not to buy a ticket for a dolphin show. That industry is based on supply and demand. It’s a multibillion dollar industry in America. Sea World alone last year made $1.4 billion in profit. Think about the size of the industry in Japan which has 50 dolphin parks."
His latest project is a Discovery Channel mini-series called “Blood Dolphins.” Two episodes were filmed on the Solomon Islands that had a similar dolphin hunt as Taiji. “They have been doing it for 450 years. We spent a lot of time with them and they realized that it is no longer sustainable. Earth Island Institute offered to help them find a sustainable alternative and they agreed to it. In April, the dolphin hunt ended.”
O’Barry has no plans to go quietly off into the sunset. “I have turned down offers several times for Flipper revivals. When I walk out of this room, I could start my own dolphin park and make a fortune. I could get investors in the next hour but I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Instead, I want to try and go to Taiji where I also can’t sleep at night.”
For more info, visit savejapandolphins.com or http://animal.discovery.com/tv/blood-dolphins/episode-guide.html© Japan Today