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A minke whaler in Iceland. Photo by Páll Stefánsson.

A minke whaler in Iceland. Photo by Páll Stefánsson.

When most people think about the global whaling industry — if they think of it at all ― they probably imagine Japanese whalers, who have been the target of a long-running campaign led by Sea Shepherd. But other countries have thriving whaling industries, too; in fact, Iceland’s 2009 whaling season began today.

That the world’s whales are still hunted comes as a surprise to many people, though international pressure on whalers is helping to raise awareness around the planet. Iceland has had an on again, off again moratorium on commercial whaling since 1990, when it began honoring guidelines set by the International Whaling Commission. It broke away from the global moratorium in 2006. In January of this year, Iceland’s outgoing minister, Einar Gudfinnsson, decided to resume whaling and announced that 100 minke whales and 150 endangered fin whales could be hunted each year until 2013. About half of the whale meat Iceland plans to bring in will be sold to Japan.

But Iceland’s new government could shift the country’s whaling policy, and animal groups are working hard to ensure that happens. The new government, which consists of Social Democrats and the Left-Green Movement, was elected in April and has indicated that the country’s whaling industry will be reassessed based on its “sustainability and importance for national economy as a whole as well as Iceland’s international obligations and Iceland’s image.” 

Among the groups working to end Iceland’s whaling industry are Campaign Whale, Environmental Investigation Agency, International Fund for Animal Welfare, World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS). Today campaigners from these groups carrying a 25-foot inflatable minke whale have gathered outside the Icelandic embassy in London in protest at the country’s whaling policy. In a 20-minute meeting with the Icelandic ambassador, Sverrir Haukur Gunnlaugsson, activists presented highlights of a new UK opinion poll suggesting that 82% of the British public are opposed to Iceland’s whaling and that 64% are prepared to boycott Icelandic products because of its commercial whaling.

“Iceland’s decision to resume large-scale commercial whaling is a desperate attempt to secure income from whale meat sales to Japan,” says Kate O’Connell of WDCS. “It is a sad day for whales that they now become the latest potential victims of the world economic crisis. We have not seen a hunt of this scale in the North Atlantic since the 1980s. And there is still a ban on whaling in place.”

What You Can Do

  • Get the facts. Most people don’t realize there is still a whaling industry. Visit the sites of groups like WSPA, Save the Whales and Sea Shepherd to learn about whaling around the world.
  • Speak up. Let people know that the Danish Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Japan, Norway and the tiny island nations of St. Lucia and St. Vincent & the Grenadines still engage in whaling. Send letters to editors. Please share this post on social media sites or email it to friends and ask them to speak up, too.
  • Visit this link on WSPA’s site and take part in their effort to influence representatives of more than 80 governments who will meet on June 22 to decide the fate of the world’s whales.
Greenpeace activists Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki with their lawyer, Yuichi Kaido, at a press briefing.

Greenpeace activists Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki with their lawyer, Yuichi Kaido, at a press briefing. Photo: Greenpeace, Greg McNevin

For years, they’ve thumbed their nose at the world, taking advantage of a loophole in international law. But the Japanese whaling industry may soon have its nose tweaked, if prosecutors proceed with their case against two Greenpeace activists.

At the center of the case is 23.5 kilograms of minke whale meat, which Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki, both campaigners with Greenpeace Japan, intercepted after the meat was smuggled from the Nisshin Maru whaling vessel and passed through a delivery depot in Aomori Prefecture, where many of the whalers live, in a box labeled “cardboard.”

Japan has taken advantage of a controversial provision in the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 ban on commercial whaling that allows member states to kill whales for scientific purposes, such as researching the whales’ breeding and migration habits (not sure why they have to kill them to do that). But as animal advocates have long claimed ― and as Greenpeace’s investigation shows — Japan’s “scientific” whale hunts are merely a smokescreen for selling whale meat on the black market: the meat Junichi and Toru intercepted is worth up to US$3,000. The activists have been charged with theft and trespass and face ten years in jail if convicted in the trial planned for early 2010.

Junichi and Toru had taken the box of whale meat as evidence of corruption within Japan’s whaling industry, which this year claimed the lives of 551 minke whales (though that’s a far cry from the 850 they had hoped to kill; whalers were constantly on the run from ― or running into ― Sea Shepherd and its anti-whaling ship). Junichi and Toru turned the smuggled meat over to the Tokyo Public Prosecutor’s Office, which said it would investigate the scandal before dropping its investigation a month later. Greenpeace’s offices were then raided, along with the homes of five of its staff, and the two activists were arrested in June 2008. Junichi and Toru say they were strapped to chairs and interrogated for up to 12 hours a day, without lawyers present. Needless to say, Amnesty International has voiced their concern as well, suggesting the police actions are “aimed at intimidating both activists and non-governmental organizations.”

The two men plan to use the trial to expose whaling-industry corruption and the denial of human rights in their country. “I did [over]step the boundary,” says Junichi, “but I don’t think that’s bad. I think this needs to be done. I’m very sure this arrest was politically motivated.” He told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that the Japanese public doesn’t know the truth about whaling. “We need international pressure, but that’s not enough,” he said. “We also need people inside Japan to speak out against whaling. The media here doesn’t report the truth, so the Japanese people have no idea about the negative impact it’s having on our diplomatic relations with countries like Australia and New Zealand.”

Whistleblowers who alerted Greenpeace to the meat smuggling said most of the crew of the Nisshin Maru took home 200 or 300 kilograms of whale meat. One informer said that dozens of crew take as many as 20 boxes each and that this lucrative practice had been going on for years with the tacit agreement of the whaling company, Kyodo Senpaku.

Jun Hoshikawa, executive director of Greenpeace Japan, says the whaling program in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is funded by the Japanese taxpayers, including the Greenpeace activists who have been arrested, and they have a right to know who is profiting from their money. “The Japanese whaling program has been shamed internationally for its lack of scientific credibility; now it is being shamed at home as well for trying to hide the corruption, and now for taking revenge on those who have exposed it,” he says. “The Greenpeace activists should be immediately released.”

What You Can Do

Greenpeace is asking people to contact the prosecutor in this case. In addition, you can sign an unusual “arrest me” petition, which says that if the Japanese authorities can arrest Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki for helping whales, everyone who helps whales deserves to be arrested. If you’d like to help Sea Shepherd in their efforts to save whales from Japanese whalers, you can find details here.

Last year, Matt Ball of Vegan Outreach gave a talk called “An Activist’s Life = A Meaningful Life” at the Their Lives, Our Voices conference in Minneapolis.* In his talk, Matt outlined some of the fundamental actions we can take on behalf of animals, emphasizing that by choosing to be part of something bigger than ourselves, anyone can have a more meaningful, rewarding life than by simply following the endless pursuit of more material possessions.

It’s a great message, and I was interested to see that author and activist Erik Marcus has embarked on a new online project called “An Activist’s Life.” As Erik explains in a recent post on, “I’m going to blog about my personal efforts for animals, and all the things in my life that I try to put in place to be as effective as I can be…. There is no ultimate form I expect this work to take. Just the feeling that if I can give you some insight into the way I’ve structured my life, and the things I do day after day, some people might either be inspired to take action, or be able to act more effectively for animals.”

Erik is creating this project as a tumblelog, which I just discovered is a short-form blog that may include mixed media, as opposed to the longer editorial posts we associate with traditional blogging. Erik writes: “One of the things I want to accomplish with this tumblelog is I want it to create more pathways for two-way and multi-way communication. is my soapbox. I want this site, by contrast, to be a source of dialog.”

I hope you’ll follow Erik’s activist life and participate; it’s sure to give you more than a few ideas on how you can become a more effective advocate.


* Coincidentally, I’ll be speaking at this year’s conference in June.

Today’s Montreal Gazette features an interesting profile of how the media views animal activism. “Do Small Victories Affect Big Picture in Animal Rights Debate?,” by Richard Foot, is clearly inspired by the European Union’s recent vote to ban Canadian seal products, a victory due in no small part to the decades-long battle animal activists have been waging on behalf of seals.

In addition to the annual seal massacre, Foot addresses the Ottawa Animal Defense League’s campaign to rid the city’s restaurants of foie gras (the fact that Foot refers to foie gras as a “culinary treat” may provide some clue about his feelings on the issue), animal testing in the United States, fox hunting in England and the anti-whaling efforts headed by Sea Shepherd.

Though these might seem to represent a good cross-section of animal activism, from Foot’s perspective, it’s all bad news. Fur will still be sold in China and Russia, foie gras is available in supermarkets, animals continue to suffer in labs, British politicians are thinking of overturning the fox-hunting ban and whalers from Japan and Norway each still kill about 1,000 whales a year (though even Foot admits this is a far cry from the 20,000 whales killed every year during the 1970s).

Moreover, Foot focuses on extremist activities, such as the recent fire-bombings in California, and of course he has to mention that the FBI has labeled animal activists one of the country’s “most serious domestic terrorist threats.”

The reality is, we have seen a number of victories for animals in recent years, including the passing of Prop 2 in California, which will ban confinement systems for egg-laying hens, sows used for breeding and male calves used for veal. Meanwhile, Russia has banned its own seal slaughter, penalties for animal abuse are getting tougher every year, we are gaining traction against the exploitation of animals for vivisection, egg producers throughout the world are eliminating battery cages and much more.

Yes, it’s easy to spin just about any success and focus on the negatives. Prop 2 won’t go into effect until 2015 and will not eliminate all animal suffering. Animal abuse is not a felony in every US state. Cage-free does not mean cruelty-free. But the media often overlooks the positive and zeroes in on the sensational, treating every arrested animal activist as if he or she were a murderous desperado ― twenty-first century versions of Bonnie and Clyde.

If you wonder how effective animal advocacy is, one of the best barometers is animal agribusiness, which gets downright apoplectic when asked about animal activism. Big Ag’s attitude may be best summed up by Al Pope, former president of United Egg Producers, an industry trade group. Referring to the campaigns of animal activists, Pope declared: “WE ARE AT WAR.”

Animal activism is a long struggle, no question. We have our successes, and we have our failures. Sometimes our victories seem small to us, but I’m betting they don’t to the animals they affect. As Foot quotes Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson as saying, “We do what we can with the resources that are available to us. We don’t focus on whether we’re going to win or we’re going to lose. We do what we think is right, because it’s the right thing to do. If we don’t succeed, well, then it’s going to affect all of humanity.”

Can I get an “Amen”?

One of the great things about the animal-rights community is the wonderful breadth of experience we have. Some activists are relentless leafleters, for example, while others excel at public speaking or writing vegan cookbooks.

Well, over at, Erik Marcus has just posted an excellent blog encouraging activists to use technology ― something I must confess is not my area of expertise. From his podcast to his Web site, Erik has been at the forefront of using technology to promote veganism and advance the interests of animals, and his latest post focuses on three cutting-edge tools we can use: RSS, Facebook and Twitter. He very clearly explains what these tools are, why they’re important and how you can put them to work.

As activists, it’s critical we take full advantage of every opportunity to speak up for animals. Check out Erik’s post here.

prisonedchickensIt seems more people than ever are talking about chickens, and I love it. From California’s Proposition 2 ― which will, among other things, ban the use of battery cages for egg production in the state ― to undercover investigations inside factory farms, there’s never been a larger spotlight focused on the US poultry industry. And trust me, they hate it.

Much of the credit for this, I think, goes to Karen Davis, who founded an advocacy group for chickens and turkeys, United Poultry Concerns (UPC), in 1990. Few people have done as much as Karen to raise awareness about the plight of birds people want to eat. She is one of those tireless activists many of us wish we could be like: a consistent, well-informed, dedicated voice who never seems to miss an opportunity to speak up for animals. Take International Respect for Chickens Day, for example. Karen launched this annual event four years ago to celebrate chickens throughout the world and protest the bleakness of their lives in farming operations. (Click here for details about the next International Respect for Chickens Day, coming up on May 4.)

A considerable amount of her activist time is engaged in writing, and Karen’s latest effort is a complete revision of her book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs (Book Publishing Co.), first published 13 years ago. This is without a doubt one of the most important books an animal advocate can read. Not only is it critical for activists to be up to date on issues involving animal cruelty, but chickens are by far the most abused beings in animal agribusiness ― indeed, Karen describes them as “creatures of the earth who no longer live on the land” ― making it even more essential that we’re able to speak from a place of knowledge in order to defend them.

The statistics regarding humanity’s abuse of chickens are staggering, as Karen observes in the book’s preface:

“While much has happened since Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs first appeared in 1996, little has changed for the chickens themselves, except that their lives have become, as a global phenomenon, even more miserable. Instead of 7.5 billion chickens being slaughtered in the mid-1990s in the United States, nearly 10 billion chickens are now being slaughtered, with parallel rises in other countries reflecting the expansion of chicken consumption and industrialized production into Latin America, China, India, Africa, Russia, Mexico, and elsewhere. Throughout the world, over 40 billion chickens are now being slaughtered for meat each year, and over 5 billion hens are in battery cages, many of them in egg-production complexes holding up to a million or more birds.”

Covering the history, lives, and deaths of chickens, Karen explains how poultry farming grew from a relatively small endeavor (in 1830, the average US farm had only 23 chickens) into a global, mass-production enterprise that has invented such miseries as “debeaking” (cutting two-thirds of the beak from an egg-laying hen’s face without pain relief); cramming hens into battery cages so they can barely move; bleeding out birds who are still conscious; forced molting, during which a hen is starved for up to two weeks; a host of infectious diseases, routinely combated with heavy doses of antibiotics; transporting birds, many of them now missing wings or legs, long distances without food or water; and the callous extermination of hundreds of millions of male chicks in the egg industry each year, to name but a few.

This is a well-documented indictment of the poultry industry and what can only be called its contempt for the very birds it relies on to make a profit. I don’t know what other word to use to describe a business that would let a laying hen whose egg production has declined starve in the last days of her life just to save the farmer a few pennies in feed. That’s some thanks to a sentient animal who has endured 17 to 24 months crammed into a battery cage and denied nearly every natural instinct. As Karen notes, factory farmers have become adept at defending themselves, even to the point of being ridiculous. “The egg industry thinks nothing of claiming that a mutilated hen in a cage is ‘happy,’ ‘content,’ and ‘singing,’” she writes, “yet will turn around and try to intimidate you with accusations of ‘anthropomorphism’ if you logically insist that the hen is miserable.”

One of the characteristics of Karen’s books I’ve always appreciated is her considerable talent as a writer. It can be challenging to transform a vast amount of research and information into a readable narrative, and Karen does it with such style that her books never read like dull, academic texts. Moreover, it is clear that she regards fowl as very special creatures. Karen has devoted her life to them, and, in addition to her outreach efforts, she provides a home to many chickens, turkeys, and other birds rescued from avian concentration camps. This book is obviously a labor of love.

Chickens have been labeled cowardly and “bird-brained,” but Karen debunks these myths with examples demonstrating their courage and intelligence. For instance, she writes that “Far from being ‘chicken,’ roosters and hens are legendary for bravery…. Our tiny Bantam rooster, Bantu, would flash out of the bushes and repeatedly attack our legs, his body tense, his eyes riveted on our shins, lest we should threaten his beloved hens.”

Though Karen encourages readers to visit factory farms and see what goes on behind closed doors, the reality is few of us will ever have the opportunity to venture inside the houses of horror in which “broiler” chickens are raised for meat or hens are confined to produce eggs. Fortunately, she is able to guide us through these animal factories, explaining in great detail precisely what goes on inside, and that knowledge not only solidifies our commitment to protecting animals, but it aids our ability to effectively communicate, making our activism much more powerful.

With the world alert to the threat of a pandemic flu virus, as well as concerns about food safety, global warming, genetic engineering, and the growing taste for “healthier” animal flesh, there’s never been a better time to pick up a copy of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs.

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