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On Whales, Dolphins and Effective Activism

August 31, 2010

Minke whale

I recently caught up on Whale Wars. When I first started watching the series I was a big fan. Then less so, feeling more like the characters on the South Park episode that pokes fun at the show and its oftentimes keystone cops-esque shenanigans. Then there’s the single-issue issue–that going after a single issue isn’t effective or is even a problem. I’m not one to believe that (exhibit A: my anti-greyhound racing passion), but I do understand the point that no single issue, other than the use of sentient nonhumans, is the source of the problem for the animals. The same line of reasoning that criticizes Whale Wars can be applied to The Cove and the tragedies that have befallen dolphins at the hands of man. But this is all a narrow conversation that leaves out some fairly significant points and fails to acknowledge effective activism.

Regarding Whale Wars, the Sea Shepherd crew frequently reminds the audience that although their plans to sabotage the Japanese whalers often (and I mean often–can you say prop fouler?) don’t work, the goal is to keep the whalers occupied and moving and not killing (or processing) whales. Economic damage is their goal. And at the end of the season, the whalers were 528 whales under their quota. In other words, through the failed prop foulers, the potato gun, the paint balls and the destruction of the multi-million dollar Ady Gil, 528 individual lives were not cut brutally short. In addition, the international media attention to whaling in the Southern Ocean due to various actions (not to mention the broadcasting of a weekly series) has resulted in unprecedented pressure on the Japanese whalers. Mainstream America is now aware of this issue (and that the Sea Shepherd ship serves only vegan food), whales have been spared, the global political community is applying pressure. Our job as individual activists is to decide whether our donation of whatever amount has been well spent.

Regarding The Cove and Blood Dolphins, which premiered on Friday, the crucial connection is that what happens in The Cove isn’t just about slaughtering dolphins–it’s about capturing dolphins who will then be held captive and made to entertain humans at marine parks. And as Flipper-trainer-turned-activist Ric O’Barry said: in captivity, they’re surviving, but they’re not living and doing. Again, we are increasing awareness about not just killing, but using animals. Sure, we’re talking about dolphins, whose likability quotient is probably third after puppies and kittens in the minds of people, but at least we’re talking about it. And if there’s anything I’ve learned in my decades of talking to people about our relationship with nonhuman animals, it’s that change happens at a glacial pace. And we need all of the strategies and tactics and angles we can find to get others to pay attention and to care and to act.

But those are just my thoughts, and I don’t claim to have all of the answers.

What do you think?

Photo from Flickr user Martin Cathrae

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Wendy permalink
    August 31, 2010 9:33 am

    I think single issues are fine. They may not get to the crux of the problem as a whole — animal exploitation in all its forms –but by drawing attention to a single problem the possibility exists for people to start understanding that no animal, not just greyhounds, whales, dolphins, primates, etc. deserves the kind of wretched treatment humans visit on them.

    I agree that it’s slow, too; and that issues like animal racing and hunting marine mammals for most Americans are enough removed from our basic culture that people will give more support to saving whales than the Japanese who still seem to view whales as a food source. I can just imagine the ridicule American audiences would have for, say, oh, an Israeli AR group’s TV show and campaign “pig wars” or something (and yes, I realize not all Israelis refrain from eating pig meat) — going after hog farmers and exposing the brutality levied against pigs.

    When it’s our own culture taken to task, people are much more defensive about recognizing not just what’s wrong with it, but that there is anything wrong with it in the first place. Which kind of brings us round to a sort of racism or at least cultural intolerance (Facebook is famous for this). I have seen people proclaiming BOYCOTT CHINA! time and time again, and I understand why they want to, but strategically that’s pretty stupid. I also find that this phrase is used time and again when new reports of brutality to companion animals are brought to light — even among vegans, it seems, people are more inclined to attempt a boycott of a country when dogs and cats are brutalized than they are to boycott, say, the US for its brutalization of chickens.

    I’m not saying that the single-issue issues are unimportant, and I am not, unfortunately, suggesting that they always lead to a wider understanding of AR issues by those supporters of puppy mill bans, for example (how many shelters have fundraisers involving eating meat and dairy, you know?) But for some people it just might be the turning point; and for those animals saved it is a good thing. And who’s to say some tactics used in campaigns like Whale Wars might not later serve another activist (though Paul Watson’s attitude irritates me)?

    The hardest thing for me to accept as an activist is the pace of change — everything seems so crucial and yet so slow!

  2. August 31, 2010 10:08 am

    There’s three things I think about single issue attention by activists:
    If everyone cares about one issue only, then 1) eventually all issues will have people working on it, or 2) some issues might be ignored or 3) the bigger core issues won’t be addressed sufficiently,

    True dedicated activists understand all these points and work to balance them out. As a child, dolphins were the first animals under oppression that I became passionate about (we’re talking 5 year old child), and through my life, they have remained at the core of my activism.

    BUT, as I’ve learned more about the plight of all animals, I’ve come to embrace just about every facet of the movement, knowing that although I give the bulk of my money to marine mammal conservation, I understand the importance of including everything, or as much as I can, in my attention.

  3. August 31, 2010 11:15 am

    This is a difficult question. “Single issue” campaigns (or “low hanging fruit”) causally lead to the further normalization of the vast majority of animal exploitation, or of “humane” animal exploitation itself. That seems to be the crux of the abolitionist critique on this point. However, it is an empirical question, and I don’t believe the evidence has been gathered to support or disprove that contention. Logically, it seems to follow. In practice, I don’t know; however, I do know of people who became ex-vegans and vegetarians because they took anti-KFC and other similar “humane” campaigns to mean that THAT is the problem. And therefore, all this other animal exploitation is not.

    The human propensity to seek out information that confirms our biases, assumptions and positions, that is, confirmation bias, really strengthens the criticism of “single issue” campaigns.

    • Wendy permalink
      August 31, 2010 11:24 am

      “I do know of people who became ex-vegans and vegetarians because they took anti-KFC and other similar “humane” campaigns to mean that THAT is the problem. And therefore, all this other animal exploitation is not. ”

      Wow, those people must be incredibly stupid. I know of people who bought into that humane meat business, that happy meat shit and locavorism, but even though it’s wrong I can see how it might make sense to some people (oh, the problem is FACTORY farms, not animal farms, I guess I’ll go get some steak). Thinking that just one type of animal oppression is all that exists, though, is strange to me.

  4. August 31, 2010 2:39 pm

    Yeah, change is agonizingly slow. That’s why I’m in favour of anything and anyone that makes people at least start questioning how their food got on their plate, or whether a particular form of animal use is okay. Then, once a shift in thinking occurs around a single issue, people I believe will start connecting the dots and see how all the issues are interrelated and that no use of other sentient beings can ever be justified. Although maybe that’s wishful thinking?

    • Wendy permalink
      August 31, 2010 2:56 pm

      Wishful or not, at least you’re thinking! ;)

  5. sundog permalink
    August 31, 2010 4:17 pm

    The important ethical distinction is that animals should not be used. Some people make an excuse for the situations where humans benefit from animal use. The conversation against animal use is in its infancy for the majority of society. Non-activists don’t even know where we’re coming from when we speak of animal use. Such use is seen as a norm.

    Paul Watson has his supporters and detractors as does any activist who is effective. Not everyone who claims to be a supporter or a former crew member is a reflection of Watson himself either. I look only at his own actions over the years. Like all of us he’s also an ordinary human being, but I see over three decades of a stalwart individual fighting on behalf of ocean life. That’s a long time for any one person. He’s now in his fifties and still sailing each year.

    Many of us have been vegan for a mere fraction of 30 years. Anyone who doesn’t have an appreciation for Watson can simply not donate to Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

    Let’s just imagine our world *without* Watson. Only time will reveal where he stands in history, but I doubt he will be an obscure footnote.

    It’s easy to cut a donation check to an organization. That’s also why HSUS is a problem, as pointed out in James LaVeck’s video Silencing the Lambs. Shouldn’t activism mean *direct involvement* in AR issues within our communities and elsewhere? Perhaps our job as individual activists is to get out into our town or city and participate in grassroots activism. By taking responsibility and effecting changes on the local level, we become a part of the answer. This is what activist Steve Best advocates, and I’m grateful for his common sense.

    I think the way any activist personally chooses to help the earth and all its inhabitants is commendable. Action based on critical thinking is worth more than talk and inaction. Solutions to our biosphere/endangered species crisis will come from a myriad of individuals and methods. I’m thankful to all of you who are taking action.

  6. Dr. Rossset permalink
    September 1, 2010 4:42 am

    Propaganda is all this is and Sea Shepard has no crediability. Remember the first thing a cult does is to control what you eat and then they can control you. Meat is essential for a healthy diet as the brain needs the essential nutrients and VB12 which must come from meat. The symptoms of a lack of VB12 is irrational thinking and overly emotional behavior which this show demonstrates. Beware of anyone who advocates the vegan diet as it will eventually deplete your store of VB12. It is a cult and nothing more than that and does not advocate anything remotely considered a healthy diet by long term vegetarians.
    A 12-YEAR-OLD girl in Scotland brought up by her parents on a strict vegan diet has been admitted to hospital with a degenerative bone condition said to have left her with the spine of an 80-year-old woman.

    Doctors are under pressure to report the couple to police and social workers amid concerns that her health and welfare may have been neglected in pursuit of their dietary beliefs.

    The girl, who has been fed on a strict meat and dairy-free diet from birth, is said to have a severe form of rickets and to have suffered a number of fractured bones.

    The condition is caused by a lack of vitamin D, which is needed to absorb calcium and is found in liver, oily fish and dairy produce. Decalcification leads to the bones becoming brittle and can cause curvature of the spine.

    Dr Faisal Ahmed, the consultant paediatrician treating the child at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow, declined to discuss the specific case. He said, however, that he believed the dangers of forcing children to follow a strict vegan diet needed to be highlighted.

    One leading nutritionist, who asked not to be named, said: “In most instances, the parents who are imposing this very restrictive and potentially hazardous diet are not themselves brought up as vegans. They are imposing on their children something . . . which we do not know enough about to know it is safe.”

    Jonathan Sher, head of policy at Children in Scotland, an umbrella group representing 400 organisations, said social workers should intervene where a vegan diet was putting children’s health at risk.

    Last year, an American vegan couple were given a life sentence for starving their six-week-old baby to death. In 2001 two vegans from west London were sentenced to three years’ community rehabilitation after they admitted starving their baby to death.

    Glasgow city council said the incident involving the 12-year-old girl had not been referred to its social work department.

    Becoming a vegan is different than forcing a child from birth to be a vegan. We are now seeing long term irreversible organ damage in long term vegans. Young men can continue on a vegan diet until they deplete their store of VB12. You see this happening on this ship with emotional breakdowns and irrational thinking.

  7. September 1, 2010 7:51 am

    Thanks for bringing up culture and also the reality that we simply just don’t know what will be an individual’s tipping point. Our actions and words are all seeds and are all important. Some people will see that all uses of sentient nonhumans are unjust because, say, they have an epiphany one day when looking at their cat (like Eddie Lama, the subject of Tribe of Heart’s, “The Witness” ), and others might reserve their compassion for cats and dogs (and dolphins and primates) for a longer time (or forever).

    @The Valley Vegan
    I do think that with single issues, the bigger core issues aren’t addressed sufficiently. But perhaps the narrow focus can also be a plus for animals. Again, I think of the anti-greyhound racing movement. It’s a uniquely positive environment for activists, particularly considering how much Americans value dogs, so it’s probably a bad example of activism that’s working. But every year tracks are closing and I’m fairly sure the “sport” will die out in a matter of years in the US. The activists are careful to focus only on that one issue, and not entertain discussions of “what are they really up to beyond this?” As vegans we might not like that, but they’re accomplishing their goal. They will end this use of dogs in our lifetime.

    I agree. I don’t think we know that single issue campaigns causally lead to further normalization of animal exploitation. I think they just choose not to address other forms of exploitation by design.

    @So I’m Thinking of Going Vegan
    I too am in favor of anything that gets people questioning. I don’t think we have the luxury of doing just one thing.

    I do think activism includes direct involvement in our communities. And in my community, coincidentally, all of that involvement has been, technically, with single issues (TNR, our alligator situation, greyhounds). And while involved in those single issues, I do my damnedest to promote a vegan perspective and get people to see the connection between their one issue and, say, their breakfast. And doing that I get to see firsthand what a stretch it is for most people and how disconnected the issues really are in their minds. And for *that* reason I advocate presenting any and every angle to nonvegans. You never know what’s going to strike a chord.

    @Dr. Rossset
    I’m sure you know that even the conservative American Dietary Association states that a well-planned vegan diet is appropriate for all ages and stages, including pregnancy, lactation and childhood.

    “Propaganda” is what best describes *your* comment, perhaps after “uninformed.” I’m not familiar with the Scotland story, but the one in the US was a case of starving a baby–it was not related to veganism. When omnivores starve their babies (such as the case here in the US where a couple starved their 4 foster children nearly to death), no one says they did so because they’re omnivores. We vegans are well aware that some of us may need to supplement Vitamin D and we also know that we need to be sure to include plenty of B12 sources.

    In 2010 there is a wealth of information about a healthy vegan diet for people of all ages. Perhaps you should check out Vegsource at or Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine at for tips and education. Both sites will explain the health benefits of a plant-based diet.

    As for emotional breakdowns and irrational thinking on the Sea Shepherd ships, that’s flat-out ridiculous and I have no idea what you’d even be referring to as evidence.

  8. September 2, 2010 3:01 pm

    I think most people who are involved in any form of change-making – be it for hunted whales or for orphaned children, be it for racing greyhounds or farmed pigs, be it for homeless people or homeless dogs – don’t really choose their causes, their causes choose them.

    Very few people are motivated to act in ways that substantially help others. All of those people, regardless of their cause(s), are amazing individuals who make the world a better place.

    I am drawn mostly towards nonhuman animal rights (though I’m also involved in women’s rights and children’s rights issues).

    After plenty of research and soul-searching I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a few forms of activism that are most effective and least resource-intensive:
    – vegan education through pamphleting and feed-ins
    – undercover investigations of animal exploiters and news coverage of the results of those investigations (virtually all investigations will turn up some form of egregious cruelty even hardcore hunting omnis can’t condone)
    – low cost, nonviolent forms of direct action that result in liberated animals and/or loss of profit to animal exploiters

    I will not step in anyone’s way if they choose to pursue forms of activism that I think are less effective. Like I said, we all have our causes/issues. But if you want to be most effective, you need to pick and choose a strategy rather than acting haphazardly without direction or goals.

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