Sure to be one of the most talked-about documentaries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Louie Psihoyos’s The Cove is part heist movie, part environmental exposé. The cove in question is a secluded and naturally fortified lagoon in the small Japanese town of Taiji, where every year for six months thousands of dolphins are brutally slaughtered. The film is in part about the efforts of a group of activists to infiltrate the cove and to actually film what goes on there. Leading the charge is Richard O’Barry, a longtime activist who was responsible for training the dolphins on the sixties TV show Flipper. Indeed, The Cove is also the story of O’Barry’s journey, documenting how he came to be a self-described “abolitionist” for dolphins. He spoke to Vulture about his new film, watching TV with Flipper, and the increasingly elaborate disguises he has to wear when he goes to Taiji.
You know, when I was a kid, I always wanted to live in the Flipper house.
I used to live in that house! It was right in the Miami Seaquarium there. I have such wonderful halcyon memories of those days. There wasn’t even a fence around the Seaquarium. It was like magic. Until the wheels fell off.

You had captured the dolphins on Flipper, right?
I captured the five dolphins that collectively played the part of Flipper. I trained all of them, from the very beginning of the first show to the last show. I lived with all five of them in the Seaquarium. And on Friday nights, at 7:30, I would take the TV set, with a long extension cord, out to the end of the dock, so Flipper could watch Flipper on television. And that’s when I knew they were self-aware. I could tell when the dolphins recognized themselves and each other. Cathy, for example, would recognize the shots she was in, Suzy would recognize her shots, and so on. Dolphins are hard to read, because you have to look at body language. Almost all other animals you can read by looking at their faces. But dolphins have this built-in “smile” that makes it look like they’re always happy.

How did your ideas about captivity turn around?
Cathy died in my arms, of suicide. It was just before Earth Day, 1970. The next day, I found myself in a Bimini jail, trying to free a dolphin for the first time. I completely lost it.

How do you know it was suicide?
You have to understand, dolphins are not automatic air breathers like we are. Every breath for them is a conscious effort. She looked me right in the eye, took a breath, held it — and she didn’t take another one. She just sank to the bottom of the water. That had a profound effect on me.

The footage of the dolphin slaughter you filmed in The Cove is pretty staggering. Has anyone else seen it yet?
The world will see it Sunday, at Sundance. Even the Japanese don’t know about this. I went onto the street in Tokyo, and I showed the footage to a hundred people walking down the sidewalk, and none of them knew this was happening. That’s the only hope, to expose this to the world. It won’t be easy. The film will probably be banned in Japan. I’m hoping Jim Clark, who is our partner on this, can figure out a way to get it seen there. If he can invent Netscape, he can figure that out, as well. In the meantime, we also have our website, SaveJapanDolphins.org, where people can learn more about this issue.

But killing dolphins is actually legal in Japan.
Yes, but let’s not forget that the place in question here is a national park. They’re killing the wildlife in a national park. They don’t have jurisdiction there. They’re just a bunch of thugs. As for the broader issue of legality: One percent of the Japanese population eats whale meat, and a very small percentage of that one percent eats dolphin or even knows that people eat dolphin. That’s one of the reasons I’m opposed to a boycott of Japan. In the seventies and eighties, there was a big effort to stop whaling by taking out full-page ads in newspapers that said, “Save the Whales. Boycott Japan.” Japanese people are not guilty of this. They don’t know it’s happening. Japanese papers and networks do not cover this story.

So if nobody is eating dolphin meat, why is this slaughter happening?
I think it’s really about over-fishing. It’s a worldwide problem. Basically, they’re killing the competition, because each of those dolphins eats 25 to 30 pounds of fish. As for the dolphin meat, nobody really knows where it goes. They kill 23,000 dolphins a year: I have no idea where that meat goes. You can’t really even buy it in Taiji. I’m thinking it might be exported to places that have a protein shortage. We had this meat tested, and the mercury levels on it is through the roof. It’s contaminated.

Have you been back to Taiji since you shot this footage?
I go five or six times a year, during the killing season, which is six months. I’m constantly there. I’ll go anytime anybody will go with me — CNN, BBC, you name it. It’s gotten so dangerous now that I have to wear disguises when I first get there. The last time, I was wearing a long black wig, sunglasses, my Michael Jackson mask over my mouth, a dress, and lipstick. I had to dress as a woman because they’re looking for a man.

What will they do if they catch you?
The biggest danger is not so much the fishermen, although they are angry and some of the younger ones have said they would kill us if they could get away with it. But it’s really the yakuza, who are very connected to the whaling and fishing industries. In Japan, that’s how problems like me are solved, how people who cause trouble are often dealt with. Especially in a lot of these small towns, you don’t call the police, you call the yakuza.

What about people who say that, while the footage in The Cove is quite grisly, a regular slaughterhouse would also look pretty horrific to people if they could see it?
They’re absolutely correct. The one difference is that the dolphins are terrorized for days, as the fishermen intrude on their migration patterns and then chase them into the lagoon with loud noises. But yes, the slaughterhouse is an absolute horror show. It’s a separate issue, and some of us are working on that as well. But that doesn’t justify what they’re doing to the dolphins.


Wow, that's great, the USA has a new sacred cow that the people of the world must be made to worship. It must be wonderful to know which animals are sacred; then you can point out the evildoers who want to eat them instead of worship them.

By lanny on 01/16/2009 at 6:10pm


well lanny--the dolphin is a warm blooded--intelligent(you could look it up) mammal---with a brain a third larger than ours-that communicate with intricate vocalises-like we humans--sacred?--not-!-wonderful and very humanistic--yes!--and deserving of more than slaughter--just like us--ya think??--do the research and save the smarmy for politicians and others that need it--peace-! vince martin

By vince37 on 01/17/2009 at 12:30am


Also, it's important to point out that dolphins, are basically feared by all sea life, including great whites and other predators. I usually applaud japan with it's technology smarties and it's anal like atmosphere and manners, but their refusal to leave dolphins and whales alone to live completely baffles/ires me in sort of the same way as deviant priests do.

By mickeyitaliano on 01/17/2009 at 3:03pm


The slaughter in Taiji cannot be compared to an abattoir or slaughterhouse, it is better compared to running a herd of bison or horses over a cliff – except that the terrifying fatal plunge lasts for days and ends with the blade of a knife or the point of a spear. If you're a lucky dolphin you get to see your offspring hauled off to an aquarium for a life of servitude before they slit your throat.

Although some people, like the proprietors of the Dolphin Research Center, hate O'Barry and badmouth him in their public programs, I admire him and wish I could do more to help him. I interviewed him in the 1970's, when he was still Ric O'Feldman, and he told me he trained the dolphins for Flipper by telepathy. "There wasn't time to do it any other way," he said. "It takes you as long to train a dolphin as it takes to get across the idea of what you want it to do. As soon as the dolphin understands, it will do it."

As for me, if anybody who reads this is interested in publishing "Wet Goddess," my novel about my 1970's love affair with a dolphin, you can read a chapter on Angelfire under my name, below. I think if I could get it published in Japan, where people aren't so hung up about zoophilia as they are in this country, it could have a profound effect and make some lucky publisher a hell of a lot of money too. – Malcolm J. Brenner, Punta Gorda, FL

By finlover71 on 01/18/2009 at 12:37pm


The slaughter in Taiji is brutal and cruel. Imagine your nearest and dearest being hounded for days with loud noises that are totally disorientating and distressing. Then you are trapped in a cove and all around you your friends and family are being hacked to death and you are swimming in their blood.
Then because you look young and fit you are chosen by one of the many aquarium officials who are in the water watching the masacre, but their job is not to save the dolphins but to select them for sale to aquariums in Japan or for export. The rest of your life is then stuck in a tank being forced to perform for stupied human beings. The aquariums tell the families about the wonderful conservation work that they fund, what a pack of lies!!!!

By Vickytoria on 01/19/2009 at 4:57am


The Japanese should be deeply ashamed by the continued dolphin killings. A tiny market for the meat, the risk of mercury poisoning (the meat from these near-shore dolphins has been tested over and over and literally has hundreds of times the already questionable "accepted" mercury level of 0.4-1 ppm (varies by country; max. levels lower for pregnant women). With the majority of whale species populations on the decline, and with many near-shore species threatened by toxins in the water and the ocean food-chain, this continued killing of dolphins by a small number of Japanese fishermen is short-sighted and absolutely without honor.

By paul08 on 01/26/2009 at 12:53pm


WRITE TO THE JAPAN EMBASSY!
Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki
2520 Mass. Ave N.W
Washington D.C 2008-2869

please.

By nkat on 01/29/2009 at 1:36am


The issues related to Taiji are disturbing and highly emotional, no argument there. But let’s not forget that hunting and killing dolphins takes place all over the world, Japan is not unique in that aspect. North American tribes hunt marine mammals, most islands in the Caribbean hunt dolphins and nearly 300,000 dolphins are killed every year in by-catch fisheries worldwide. The people of Taiji will not stop what they have done for hundreds of years because of a bad image in US media. In fact, Japanese are notorious for thumbing their noses at American values.

What Rick O'barry gets out of this is notoriety ...otherwise how would he raise donations? What’s amazing is with the Internet at our fingertips, no one does any real research on the people we shamelessly seek to worship. Richard O’barry’s real name is Richard Feldman, then Richard O’feldman and finally Richard O’barry. He never captured any of the Flipper dolphins, never worked with them and never had one die in his arms. Richard Feldman was a maintenance worker on the set at Miami Seaquarium and left as a disgruntled employee. He was then hired as a trainer at the killer whale stadium and fired after only one year. The man running all of this was Arthur Hertz, the now owner of Miami Seaquarium.

In Monroe county and Grassy Key, the history of Flipper is well known. Look it up. No where will you find the name Richard O’barry. The man has made a living on a compelling, but completely fabricated story. Taiji drives won’t stop because a fraudulent extremist says so…they’ll stop when younger generations of Taiji fisherman learn the value of dolphins and resource management. You don’t change someone’s mind by painting them as the devil on the world stage. Richard O’barry sells dirty laundry for donation. If that’s what you want to buy, then do it with eyes wide open.

By umashank on 06/15/2009 at 10:22am


Ric Feldman/O'Feldman/O'Barry was convicted of violating the U.S. Animal Welfare Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1996, causing the willful and deliberate suffering and death of dolphins in the Florida Keys. This legal case is well known, but strangely wasn't mentioned in this one-sided fabrication of a story. Your "animal rights" advocate caused just as much suffering to dolphins as the fisherman in Taiji do. So let's kick him off his high horse and label him for what he is...an attention seeking extremist who needs attention, even if it costs dolphins their lives. Get real people.

By tursiopst on 06/16/2009 at 10:39am


UMASHANK: I am really interested in what you are saying about O'Barry's fabricated life. Who do you claim was the dolphin trainer on Flipper? I attempted to find the information myself but couldn't. All I'm seeing is Ric O'Barry. He is credited for the series in the IMDb but as as an actor ("Veterinarian") and "technical advisor"... however, the IMDb Glossary states that this term means "A person with expertise in a particular field who provides advice for the production" so this could refer to an Animal Traininer. There is no other "Animal Trainer/Handler/Wrangler/Owner" credited. Could you please post links to your sources as I would love to look into this further! I too value the truth. :-)

LANNY: So what you are trying to say is "How dare they try to save wild dolphins and keep humans from getting poisoned??"... Really? Try reading the article next time. The dolphin slaughter is thought to be more about fishing than selling the meat. And although the meat is most likely being sold to make more money this is a problem too it contains TOXIC LEVELS of mercury. In other words: it's poisoning people. And it's NOT America's fight, it's the fight of O'Barry and his team.

TURSIOPST: Before you post next time, do your homework!! What you are referring to was when O'Barry was convicted of releasing TWO captive bred dolphins who were not yet ready to live in the wild. Consequently, the dolphins obtained severe injuries. Was a stupid thing that he did? You bet. Does a stupid mistake he made *19 years ago* somehow disqualify him from fighting to end the annual torture & slaughter of *thousands of dolphins annually*?? Of course not. By the way, regarding your comment: "Your "animal rights" advocate caused just as much suffering to dolphins as the fisherman in Taiji do." ... all I can say is, do the math.

~ Lana K.