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40 Years a Slavefish

Abolitionists work to free slaves, stop slaughters, and end corporate tyranny

It hit me in the first five minutes of 12 Years a Slave. This movie was also the story of another gripping, fact-based movie, Blackfish. My revelation? That the gruesome oppression revealed in 12 Years a Slave—and its consequences—still run deep in colonial (and global) corporate culture. And though some have said that Steve McQueen’s film depicting the truth about slavery might be too brutal to watch, people are lining up for it, hungry for the truth. Perhaps Americans are ready to face the horrifying realities of slavery—and our country’s bloody hand in it—because today we can see parallel forms of oppression and atrocities, and like the abolitionists and later, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., we’re unable to tolerate such injustices any longer. 12 Years a Slave depicts crucial lessons that are about more than human slavery and those lessons remain critically relevant today.

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As I sat in a darkened movie theater bearing witness to this horrifying chapter in the history of my country, a massive group of 250 bottlenose dolphins—dolphins from five separate pods—had just been rounded up and herded into a small marine cove in Taiji Japan (and see USA Today): a cove made famous by the Academy Award winning documentary, The Cove. Despite the international media attention that came with The Cove, Taiji’s “drive” season continues unabated each year: the “fishermen” still take their boats out, still round-up various species of cetaceans, still drive them back into the trap of the cove, still single out many to sell into captivity for tens of thousands of dollars apiece (or much more), and still skewer most of the rest of the pod to death, turning the cove red with blood and carving up the bodies for meat to be sold for human consumption…meat that’s laced with the toxic chemicals like mercury, now found in nearly all marine mammals of the world as a result of the ways that human culture has chosen to industrialize.

Most Japanese people remain unaware of this practice and, the local Japanese government has said, “"Taiji dolphin fishermen are just conducting a legal fishing activity in their traditional way in full accordance with regulations and rules under the supervision of both the national and the prefectural governments. Therefore, we believe there are no reasons to criticize the Taiji dolphin fishery."

The problem, of course, is that word “fisherman” is so far beyond being a misnomer that it would be laughable under other circumstances. Dolphins—like all cetaceans—are not fish. Cetaceans are highly evolved mammals that rival human beings in their intense sociality, their family structures (many of which are more enduring and intrinsic to their lives than human families are to us), their intelligence, their communication abilities, and their concept of self-awareness. Calling these beings “fish” is like saying humans are, well, not human…a defamation brought home all too forcefully by the word “nigger” in 12 Years A Slave. When a culture accepts, and uses, such dehumanizing words, it helps ensure oppression and its brutal consequences. Taiji fishermen are not “fisherman,” they are people who capture, sell, and slaughter self-aware, highly intelligent, social beings.

While this is allegedly a traditional cultural practice that goes back many generations, science has shown that dolphins are not fish (besides, Ric O'Barry, star of the cove, is now "refuting the Japanese Government's allegations that dolphin drive hunts are a part of Japanese tradition.") Slavery, for far too long, was seen as acceptable by many human beings…it was part of a cultural tradition, too. When enough people woke up to the reality of what it meant, it had to be stopped. Grotesque traditions change in response to cultural learning and action for justice. 

I wrote in Shamu the Slut that captive cetaceans “are forced to be sluts for us. For money.” And that, “We allow it, in part, because of systemic propaganda and the sophisticated and intentional use of the word Shamu. And it’s happened too often before: Jew, black, Muslim, Indian, woman. Words used to help subjugate and erase worth and personhood.” 

But after seeing hints of the same cultural malfeasance in Blackfish as I saw in 12 Years a Slave, I wonder if the “N” word is a more apt comparison when we deconstruct the word “Shamu.” Because so far the corporate captivity industry is essentially functioning like slave-owners once did, under a psychology of oppression that teaches and fosters subjugation, oppression, and brutalization of “other” beings, that have been categorized and defined by the industry itself (as “Shamu” for example). The oppressed beings—the cetaceans in this case—have no say in how they are defined, nor has the science of what we’ve learned about the truth of their nature, caught up with the “traditions” of capturing, selling, and slaughtering. Further, the main driver for this psychology of oppression results from the huge financial gain associated with it. Dolphins and orcas dance in bathtubs for precisely the same suite of reasons that African Americans were once forced to picked cotton.

And like the slave owners once did, the captivity industry touts a wealth of reasons for the “acceptability” of its practice. But today—thanks to scientists and cetacean biologists around the world— there’s no denying that they experience grief and profound loss, and that they are forced to live in what amounts to chains (there’s no escaping a concrete pool) under extremes of daily stress that we, as humans, may never be able to fathom. Many captive cetaceans, for instance, grind their teeth against their cages so much that veterinarians must come in to drill out the tender pulp of their teeth, without anesthetic, in an attempt to prevent the infections that some suspect contribute to captive cetaceans’ very shortened life spans, compared to their wild counterparts. Further, some captive cetaceans have been known to commit suicide and kill human beings (see Blackfish), while almost all of them demonstrate the stereotypic behaviors of profound emotional duress that we now know to be part and parcel of captivity for sentient creatures. Some of these animals have been captive for decades: Lolita, for instance, has survived in her tiny pool for 40 years after being taken from her family (she also happens to be a member of the endangered Southern Resident community of killer whales in Puget Sound), while Tilikum—the killer whale featured in Blackfish— has lived for 30 years in captivity since he was forcibly removed from his mother. There are many, many others. And the only one whose real name is Shamu died in captivity a long time ago. Meanwhile, marine mammal scientists are deeply concerned that drive hunts and the captivity industry are unsustainable and destructive to natural populations, and evidence suggests that drive hunts negatively impact pod dynamics and health via immense pyschological stress on the animals.

But perhaps the most disturbing—and central to my point—parallel is the way slave owners would acquire slaves. Though they may not have had a direct hand in the atrocities of locating native African populations and confining them as property on the slave ships for eventual sale in this country, the slave owners’ implicit role in this practice (that they would buy slaves, for good money) supported the systematic, wholesale abduction and genocide of native peoples.

Which is precisely what continues to happen in Taiji Japan. Captive cetacean industry aquariums and parks are springing up all over the world. This growth was first seeded and continues to be profoundly fertilized by the leading example of SeaWorld and parks like it. SeaWorld, to this day, benefits from the Taiji drive hunts…though it no longer buys direct, it benefits from the culture of acceptance (and oppression) for marine circuses that buy from The Cove. Taiji’s drive hunts exist because of the huge flow of cash for newly captured dolphins (the young albino just captured and forcibly removed from its mother will net upwards of millions of dollars). Yet SeaWorld—despite its self-promoted reputation as an excellent education, conservation, and research institution—has failed to denounce what happens in Taiji.

Today, the day we pay tribute to one of our greatest civil rights and justice leaders, would be the perfect day for SeaWorld to step up and make such a statement. The slaughter about to get underway in Taiji is so horrific (even by Taiji’s standards) that its garnered international press coverage and urgent questions about why this practice continues unabated. Both Caroline Kennedy and Yoko Ono spoke out today on behalf of the dolphins facing the current Taiji slaughter. And HuffPost Live hosted a special show, also today, specifically linking the current events in Taiji to the message of Blackfish.

So although Blackfish didn’t get an official Oscar nomination, despite many awards and great acclaim, you’ll still see its graphic foreshadow in 12 Years a Slave. And today, the day we remember Martin Luther King Jr., let us remember him for using education and non-violent action to open the door to a world where 12 Years a Slave can finally be well and truthfully made, while dolphin abolitionists of all races, ages, genders, and nationalities now work together to bend the arc of justice for us all. As MLK did before them, it is their courage and inspiration, working in the face of an oppressive culture, which is helping to tilt that arc ever more quickly.

In a very real sense this growing movement, now known as the Blackfish Effect, can trace its roots not only to a response to a historical culture of subjugation (made horrifically manifest by slavery), but also to the heroic stand for justice to which MLK dedicated his life. Everyone involved in Blackfish and Death at SeaWorld; all those who bear witness at The Cove, including SeaShepherd Cove Guardians, a growing contingent of Japanese activists (including a well-loved man who was once a dolphin hunter himself); the rising tide of activists, journalists, research organizations and celebrities; and now, even the British government—all who are taking action against the injustice of cetacean capture, captivity, and slaughter—are living the example of a man we remember today. Someone who helped bend our culture towards health and harmony, and away from grave injustice.

Many of these heroes, like MLK did himself, bear witness to atrocities so current and so brutal that some must turn away or be traumatized. But without their witness, we might wither in the horrors of corporate oppression and malfeasance. And we might fail to realize that every time we buy a ticket to see a captive dolphin, we support these atrocities.

And with their witness, we are beginning to see how to heal the world. Because this instance of corporate tyranny doesn’t begin and end with the captive cetacean industry, it is merely one example of what’s moved our planet to the brink of disaster. And, as a result of the agonizing observations of so many dedicated human beings, the Blackfish Effect is quickly becoming a powerful model for how to change course.

Perhaps now, with all their heroic efforts, this latest grim chapter at Taiji will finally leverage the action needed to stop it forever.

 “One day the absurdity of the almost universal human belief in the slavery of other animals will be palpable. We shall then have discovered our souls and become worthier of sharing this planet with them.” ~Martin Luther King Jr.

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© Rachel Clark. Reprint with the specific permission of the author.

A note on comments: I read and dearly appreciate every comment. I rarely respond in honor of devoting my time to writing, family, and community. Your comments are important to me, and may inspire future posts.

Rachel Clark is a science writer, biologist, and mother.

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