One night, when Japan was nothing but a pipe dream, I Skyped with Rosie while she was at Dolphin Base. She took her iPad and showed me around.
I remember her showing me Puppet, an old blind dog tied to a rope. She adored Puppet and Puppet adored her. Puppet was eventually moved in to a restricted area where Rosie could no longer touch him and Puppet could only bark hallo at the sound of her voice. After Rosie left to go back home at the end of her time in Taiji, Puppet was back at his usual spot in the unrestricted area and I used to stop and give him some love and good attention. I also made sure to whisper in his ear: “Rosie loves you Puppet and she misses you!”. I like to believe he understood.
The five of us drove together in one car with Rosie as the designated driver. The town and the roads were relatively empty. The others told me about what to expect at Dolphin Base. The topic of the morning’s killing was not under discussion, perhaps because the hurt was still just too raw. I tried hard to listen and take everything in. It was an information overload. At the same time, I couldn’t take my eyes off the scenery. The road was one curve after the other. We passed a dumping site with huge piles of bicycles, of computers screens, of household appliances. I was sure a lot of what was dumped was still in working order or could be fixed. It was just such a waste. I once read that it is common practice to replace cars, appliances, etc every three years. At the time of reading it, I wasn’t environmentally aware yet, but I do remember thinking that Japan must have many wealthy people if they can afford to spend money on new stuff every three years! But when I saw the dump I couldn’t help but think what effect all our “stuff” has on this planet. How very, very wasteful. I also thought of people back home who would literally kill to have only one of those dumped items. Japan gave me a wake-up call in a lot of ways.
Driving in to Taiji and just as we got close to Dolphin Base, we passed a large sculpture of a whale and her calf. The irony was blinding. Apart from dolphin hunting, Taiji is also known for coastal whaling. This irony is not unique to Taiji. How many times have we not been subjected to images of happy, healthy animals to sell a product which essentially ends up dead on a plate?
When we arrived at Dolphin Base, we had to park about 150 meters away up a hill. We were not allowed to park anywhere near the place. We walked down the same road Rosie walked about a month prior when two men tried to grab her and stuff her in a black van. Fortunately, the kidnap attempt failed when Rosie, tough as nails, managed to get away. South African chicks rule OK!
We entered the property and there was Puppet. Rosie called out to him. He turned his head towards the sound of her voice and wagged his tail.
The sight that greeted me made my stomach turn. Dolphin trainers were busy feeding and training dolphins held captive in 7 small pens. We stood on the sea wall and watched.
There were four pens on the right side, a bigger middle pen and two pens on the left. The pens were small approximately 40 foot by 40 foot. Each pen held between 2 and 6 dolphins. Trainers moved from pen to pen. They lowered little wooden platforms in to the water which they use to sit on. With elaborate hand gestures and inaudible whistles they forced the dolphins to do tricks in return for small, dead fish. Dolphins in the other pens leapt out of the water but not over the barriers. Some of the dolphins loudly begged for more food. The sound they emitted was a sound that cut through me. It sounded like a kitten being tortured. One trainer held a dolphin by the tail. I couldn’t quite figure out what he was doing.
“What is that dude doing?” I asked Rosie.
“Pricking his tail repeatedly with a pin.”
I wasn’t sure I heard right. “Say what now? What the @#$%^ for?!”
“It is a conditioning process.”
I swallowed hard. I had no idea how to feel or how to react. Never in my life had I felt so helpless than at that exact moment. I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry, I wanted to hit and spit and curse everyone and everything. It was absolutely overwhelming. Instead, all I could do was watch with my mouth open, body shaking and heart pounding. I finally understood the full gravity of the term “gut wrenching”.
Rosie told me two things before we went to Dolphin Base: don’t get friendly with the dolphin trainers (no worries there mate!!) and don’t cry in front of the trainers or killers. Ever. They find some perverse pleasure in our misery. As I stood there, I had to bite back the tears. Hard. The urge to crumble on to the concrete pathway and never stop crying, was strong. This was just captivity. I was yet to experience a kill. For a brief, breathless moment I regretted the whole thing. I wanted out. I wanted the comfort of my TV couch and the warmth of my husband’s embrace. In the silly, stupid moment of weakness, I longed for my ridiculously ordinary life which revolved around an 8 to 5 schedule.
My regret didn’t last long. Before I had any proper time to process the shock, the most blinding anger washed hotly over me. At least this was an emotion I was used to, something familiar I knew how to process. In my anger I became silent and calm. In my calmness, the purpose of my journey became as real as the surreal scenes before me: I was here to be the voice of these intelligent, graceful animals and my obligation was to take their message home.