The first time I met Angel, she was just a frightened baby, only days after she was torn from her mother. Today she is a beautiful, fully-grown adult, confined to a gloomy indoor tank. She shares her tiny pool with five other male dolphins. Angel has scars on her skin where the stressed-out males have likely “raked” their teeth on her in frustration.
I’m sure that, like me, when you think of Angel withering in her tank, you sometimes feel helpless. But not today. Because today – thanks to your tireless support over the last year – Angel got her day in court.
Today, I stood in front of three judges and a court packed with spectators and Japanese media in the first ever legal action for dolphins in Japan.
The people who hold Angel captive may be able to ignore Angel’s sad eyes, and they may be able to ignore our pleas for her to be released into better conditions. But they can’t ignore the laws of their own country.
As you know, the story that culminated in the trial today began nearly two years ago in January 2014. The Taiji Whale Museum, the government-owned institution at the heart of Taiji’s dolphin trade, had recently purchased Angel and had her on display as a “freak show”.
I went to the ticket office of the museum and asked the ticket officer if I could please buy a ticket. I wanted to see Angel, like all the other tourists who visit the museum. However, when I asked for a ticket, the ticket officer shook her head violently, and produced a laminated sign stating that “no anti-whalers are allowed to enter the Museum”. I was shocked, but said “thank you” and walked away. I later found out that many other foreigners were also automatically shown this sign and denied entrance to the Museum.
Our Japanese lawyers argued in court today that the Museum’s policy of rejecting foreigners, purely on the basis of their appearance, is unlawful under Japan’s Constitution, which protects all people from discrimination based on race or belief. Our lawyers – who include a highly-respected Japanese legal professor and a former judge – did a superb job.Me outside court with our wonderful lawyer,Takashi Takano
But what does legal victory mean for Taiji dolphins?
If we win this case, it will ensure that the Museum is permanently open to all animal welfare observers. If Angel’s terrible conditions are hidden behind closed doors, we can’t help her. But if the Museum is open to the light of public scrutiny, there is a much greater chance that our efforts to release her to a humane ocean pen will be successful.
The question now is: Will we win?
A Japanese journalist I met with in Tokyo recently remarked: “It’s an open and shut case – you win. What the Museum was doing was segregation”.
Certainly, based on the legal arguments, I think there is no doubt we should win.
But sitting nervously in court this morning, the three robed judges on a high bench to my left and the Taiji Whale Museum’s legal team across from me, it was hard not to feel intimidated. The largest court in the city had been reserved, as many spectators and Japanese media wanted to attend. At the beginning of the hearing, a court-approved television crew came in and took footage of the hearing for the Japanese news.
I was the first person to take the stand. I was questioned for 140 minutes (quite a long time to be on the stand!). I was first questioned by our lawyers, and then I was cross-examined by the Museum’s lawyers. I explained, through a court interpreter, that I had been turned away from the museum for no reason other than my appearance and my opinion that dolphins shouldn’t be mistreated. I said it would be like a Japanese person coming to Australia and being told they couldn’t enter because they look foreign.
I tried to catch the gaze of the director of the Museum, but he refused to look me in the eye. Perhaps this is because he is ashamed of the Museum’s “defence”, which was based on a number of untruths.
The Museum claimed (completely falsely) that I had caused “trouble” when I had visited the Museum on a previous occasion. However, the Museum’s legal representatives could not adduce any proof to back up their accusation.
The Museum’s legal representative, who is a successful lawyer in Osaka, tried to paint me as a “troublemaker” who associated with “bad people”, like Ric O’Barry. Ric was recently arrested in Taiji on what seems to be the bogus basis of not having his passport with him. The strongest argument the Museum’s lawyer could make was that I am friends with Ric – a criminal because he doesn’t carry his passport with him 24/7 – and therefore I definitely would have caused trouble in the Museum had I been allowed to enter.
So, Jordan (AFD’s Advocacy Director and legal advisor) and I will fly back to Australia tomorrow with a real sense of hope. Thanks to you – who stuck with this legal action – we’ve gotten this far, and we gave it our very best shot for Angel.
We will all be nervously waiting in 2-3 months when the judges hand down their verdict. You will be the first to know when we know the date the verdict will be handed down.
For now, let’s all cheers at the end of this important day to Angel. She may be voiceless, all alone in her rusting concrete tank, but today we spoke up for her in the loudest and most effective way possible.