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Sunday, March 7, 2010
For humanity's sake, let's tie whaling in with animal welfare as a whole
Back in the early '90s, my wife, children and I lived in the picturesque and historical Sydney suburb of Mosman . . . well, historical by white-settler Australian standards.
Mosman is named after one Archibald Mosman, a Scot who, in the 1830s, migrated to Australia and established a whaling station at what is now Mosman Bay. I am the proud owner of an official Municipality of Mosman necktie, which boasts smiling, gold-embroidered whales frolicking in its weave. Whales also figure on the Mosman coat of arms.
Although Australia was once a major whaling nation, it ceased hunting the world's largest mammals some 30 years ago and is now at the forefront of the campaign to get Japan to follow its example.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has spoken since 2007 of taking Japan to the International Court of Justice in order to bring Japan's whaling activities to a halt. On the occasion of Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada's visit to Australia last month, he issued his ultimatum: Either Japan indicate a true intention to change course on this issue or by November this year the die will be cast and the indictment will follow. As reported in The Japan Times on Feb. 25, Okada called the threat of such legal action by Australia "regrettable."
In fact the word used by the foreign minister was "ikan." When it comes from the lips of a diplomat, I suppose that "regrettable" is a satisfactory translation. But in Japanese this word is a virtual euphemism in line with Japanese people's frequent use of language less harsh than the feelings behind it.
Hence it would not be wrong to interpret "ikan" as "deplorable." Indeed, that a friendly country — and one so dependent on the other as an ally and loyal customer — threatens legal action in this way is, to my mind, well within the perimeters of the deplorable.
Many countries and ethnic communities uphold traditions and practices — whether cultural, religious or an intertwined mix of the two — that over decades or centuries come to be seen as outmoded or cruel. The traditionalists in those countries and communities stick to those practices for a number of reasons that run the gamut from cultural inertia and the tenets of faith to the whims of entrenched bureaucrats and the pure pursuit of profit. In the case of animals and their welfare, it is the animals that pay the price, in misery, so that human faith can be celebrated, bureaucratic pride assuaged — and human greed sustained.
Indigenous cultures around the world have killed bear, deer and bison, to name a few, in the name of ritual. Strict Jewish and Islamic dietary proscriptions call for the killing of some animals with a swift slitting of the throat, causing them to bleed to death. In Britain, the Farm Animal Welfare Council has said that such a method "causes severe suffering to animals."
Industrialized farming around the world has only recently begun to take note of the welfare of the billions of animals that are slaughtered annually. Chickens, pigs and other farmed animals are treated with little or no respect for their natural needs and instincts. However, as I have written here previously, more humane new laws are coming into effect in some countries.
What about Australia's stance on the whaling issue? While I do not doubt the sincerity of the prime minister, these adamant threats toward Japan have as much to do with perceived worldwide gains in national prestige as they do with progressive environmental principles. Why is Australia protesting against Japanese whaling so vociferously and not against whaling carried out by other countries? Why not take Norway or Iceland to court? Australia's stance against Japanese whaling smacks of grandstanding on the shores of the Southern Ocean.
And how would an Australia that applauds attacks on Japanese whaling ships react if the same treatment was meted out to its ships that transport live sheep? In 2009, Australia exported 3.5 million live sheep, mostly to the Middle East for ritual slaughter there, reaping A$323 million. The sheep are packed together with little or no room to move for a journey of more than a month; they experience intense heat stress and diseases that are hard to control. When the sheep arrive at their destination, the exporters have no practical way to supervise the treatment of the animals as they are taken to slaughter.
The death rate of sheep on such ships to the Middle East is more than 1 per cent. That's more than 30,000 a year that die in misery and are tossed into the ocean.
Veal is a traditional dish in the cuisine of many nations. Except for a small number of free-raised animals, calves destined for that market are separated from their mothers within hours or, at best, a few days after birth. In many places they are kept in crates on a tether, though the European Union and some U.S. states have now taken steps to ban the use of crates. In Japan, veal is eaten only in some Western-style restaurants. Its consumption here is virtually nil. If the Japanese government were to obstruct the veal industry in France, for instance, what would be the response in that country?
Some will say the issue of whaling is different — that it is not only the cruel kill with grenade-tipped harpoons that is objectionable. The species itself may be in danger of extinction.
But the issue is a greater one: how humans in the 21st century will come to view and treat all living things.
The only way to address animal welfare in effective global terms is to divorce it, over time, from religion, ritual, culture, and economic or geopolitical concerns. We humans are only one part of all creation, and when we treat other animals with our diabolically well-honed skills, we degrade ourselves and our humanity. The torture of animals must be seen as akin to the torture of humans.
It will take decades for people around the world to see eye-to-eye on the issue of animal welfare. But it has taken decades for us to achieve a global outlook on climate, and this may already be too late.
The best way for Australia, or any other progressive nation, to create an environment in which whaling would cease is for Australia to put an end to its own practices of animal cruelty.
The whales on my Mosman tie share a pattern with old whaling ships and cannons. A symbol of what was once animal cruelty and vast economic gain has been transformed into one of the celebration of compassion.
I believe that humans are capable of change, that the quality of our lives will be enhanced by virtue of our gentle and humane treatment of animals. I also believe that the gods — by whatever name they are called — are appeased more by witnessing the joys and comfort of their creations than they are by forever looking down on agony.