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SUBJECTS — The Environment;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Caring for Animals; Breaking Out;

Ages: 11+; MPAA Rating: PG-13; Documentary; 2009; 92 minutes; Available from Amazon.com. It is also available free on the Internet.

Description: This is the 2010 Academy Award winning documentary exposing the annual dolphin hunt that occurs at a cove in Taiji, Japan. Dolphins are herded into the cove and trapped there by nets. Some are selected for transfer to dolphinariums throughout the world to be trained to entertain crowds of people. The remainder are slaughtered for their meat. Set up as a thriller, the movie follows the film crew as it tries to evade obstructions set in place by the Taiji fisherman and the government of Japan to stop them from filming the capture and slaughter.

Rationale for Using the Movie: This film is an exposé of cruel treatment of a very intelligent ocean-living mammal. When shown with the lessons provided in this Learning Guide, the film provides opportunities for learning on several additional levels.

Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Students will learn about the "enslavement" (see discussion question #1) and slaughter of dolphins at a cove in Taiji Japan and become acquainted with the ethical issues surrounding the practice. Discussion questions allow teachers to take most secondary school classes to college level discussions about philosophy and ethics. The worksheet suggested with this Guide will introduce students to the process of evaluating a documentary designed to persuade on an issue of public importance.

Possible Problems: None. While the pictures are not gory (the example shown below is about as bad as it gets), some students may become upset at the way the dolphins are killed. But isn't that the point?

Dolphin "harvest" at the Taiji cove



Rationale and Objectives
Possible Problems
Parenting Points
Using the Movie in Class
Discussion Questions


Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Additional Assignments

Other Sections:
CCSS Anchor Standards
Selected Awards & Cast

Using the Movie in Class

This documentary is designed to describe the Taiji dolphin slaughter and provides its own introduction. The movie is best presented to a class using TWM's Film Study Worksheet for the Cove. Be sure to review the worksheet to ensure that the questions are appropriate for the class and to make any necessary modifications.

Suggested Classroom Procedures: Have the class read the prompts on the worksheet before the film is shown. Tell students that they can make notes during breaks in the movie and that they should not write out full responses until they are instructed to do so. Pause the film for three to five minutes on two or three occasions to allow students to make notes. At the end of the movie, give students a short amount of time to complete their notes, again instructing them not to write out full responses.

Once the notes are completed, there can be a class discussion on selected prompts, or students can be instructed to write short one-paragraph answers to the prompts on the worksheet. This can be done as an in-class writing assignment or as homework. If the discussion occurs before students write out their responses, tell them to incorporate into their written responses anything that they agreed with that came up in the discussion. In the alternative, the class discussion can be postponed until after the worksheet responses have been written up. One way to organize such a discussion would be to have selected students read their responses to a worksheet prompt and then have the class discuss them.


Discussion Questions:

1.  Are dolphins who are captured and then put into dolphinariums and required to perform for human audiences "enslaved?" Suggested Response: Reasonable minds will differ on this question. Richard O'Barry, one of the foremost dolphin trainers in the world, would say that they are. He contends that dolphins are intelligent beings who know the difference between life in the open sea and life in captivity and who grieve their losses. Dolphins experience sensory deprivation in captivity not unlike people who are placed in solitary confinement. Since dolphins in dolphinariums are required to perform in order to eat, they are being required to perform forced labor. That's just like slavery. The definition of slavery is usually reserved for human beings but is there any reason not to extend it to highly intelligent beings such as dolphins? [TWM agrees that dolphins in dolphinariums are enslaved and has adopted that nomenclature in this Learning Guide.] On the other hand, dolphins are not people, but do homo sapiens have the right to exploit other species at will? A good discussion of this question will include these concepts.
Here is another related question that can lead to great discussions: Do these considerations apply to dolphins who are born in captivity? If the enslavement of dolphins is banned, what should be done with them?
[For more questions about the ethics of zoos and marine mammal exhibition parks, see Learning Guide to Blackfish.]

2.  Do you think that the Japanese people have the right as a society to continue the Taiji dolphin enslavement and slaughter? Joji Morishita, the Japanese delegate to the IWC featured in the movie, claims that efforts to restrict the Japanese whaling industry are "cultural imperialism." The same argument can be made against objections by non-Canadians to the annual slaughter of harp seals, by non-Spaniards to bullfights, or by non-U.S. citizens to, let's say, hunting deer for pleasure. Do these objections infringe upon the culture of Japan, Canada, Spain and the U.S.? Suggested Response: Again, there is no one correct answer. A good discussion will include, at least, the following points. Some might challenge the concept of cultural sovereignty and point out that to the animals, and to the environment as a whole, human culture and the boundaries of nations mean nothing. Others may argue that cultural tradition is no excuse for cruelty — what about cultures that forbid equal rights for women? — and that people, because of our position of superiority over other animals, have responsibilities not to inflict pain and death upon them. On the other hand, what right do we have to believe that the solutions that our culture has developed to meet the challenges of existence are more ethical than the solutions developed by any other culture?

3.   Audiences who see The Cove are routinely outraged. However, are we being hypocrites? Here are some facts that a defender of the dolphin slaughter might use to challenge critics.
  • The entire Japanese dolphin slaughter kills or captures about 20,000 animals a year; a couple of thousand are taken at Taiji.
  • In almost every developed country, millions of animals are killed for meat each year. For example, when the number of cows and pigs killed in the U.S. is described in terms of the number of animals slaughtered per second, the statics show that for every second of every day of the year, the U.S. meat industry slaughters one cow (actually it's 1.1 cows) and 3.5 pigs. If a minute is spent reading this bullet point, that's 66 cows and 210 pigs — all killed. While Japan takes 20,000 dolphins a year; the U.S. slaughters well over 20,000 cows every 6 hours.
  • Like dolphins, cows and pigs are sentient beings who love their offspring, hate pain, and want to continue living. Reports from slaughter houses routinely show that as animals are forced towards the killing floor, many express their terror.
  • While they may not be as smart as dolphins, cows are smart enough to know what they want: don't ever try getting between a cow and its calf. Pigs are highly intelligent, smarter than dogs, and very sensitive to emotions.
  • Moreover, cows and pigs killed by the U.S. meat industry usually spend large portions of their lives standing in excrement in feed lots or confined to small cages on concrete floors. The dolphins captured or killed at Taiji swim free in the ocean all their lives except for a day or two of terror at the cove.
  • The meat industry in every nation exists only because consumers like the taste and texture of flesh. People don't need to eat meat to have a healthy diet. In fact, human beings thrive on a plant-based diet. Therefore, it's not just the meat industry itself which is responsible for the massive killing of animals in developed countries, it is the consumers of meat who are ultimately responsible.
The question again, a little more precisely: Isn't any person who eats meat being hypocritical when he or she criticizes the Taiji dolphin enslavement and slaughter?
Click here for an illustration of the question which can be reproduced and handed out or shown on a screen.
Suggested Response: Obviously, the defender of what happens at Taiji cove has a point, but many will contend that cows and pigs are much less intelligent than dolphins. This discussion can lead to many other excellent discussion questions. For example, does the fact that dolphins may be more intelligent than farm animals make their pain, suffering, or death significantly worse than the pain, suffering and death of cows and pigs? What about dogs and cats? [The movie Charlotte's Web explores this idea in a gentle fictional context.] What about other primates such as chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas? Also, is the act of inflicting pain on a dolphin or killing it unethical while the act of hurting and killing a less intelligent farm animal has no ethical implications? Again, what about the ethics of hurting and killing dogs and cats who, after all, are less intelligent than dolphins? Extend this question to primates who can be taught sign language and are, arguably, more intelligent than dolphins. (Note that there is an international movement to pass legislation giving basic rights the chimpanzees and gorillas, see Support the Great Ape Preservation Act from the Jane Goodall Institute.) These are all arguable propositions, great discussion prompts, and excellent research issues.

In the discussion, teachers may want to point out that doctors have discovered that a plant-based diet is the best defense against the most deadly diseases that afflict people in Western countries including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. (See TWM Learning Guides to: Forks Over Knives and Super Size Me.) Plant-based diets are also much better for the environment, using fewer resources to feed more people, than a diet that includes meat. These considerations lead to the question: If a plant-based diet is better for health and for the environment, then the only reason for continuing to eat meat is that people like the taste and texture of flesh. If the purpose of ethics is to reduce suffering and increase pleasure for the largest number sentient beings (a principal of Utilitarian philosophy when the circle of compassion is extended to sentient animals), then is mankind's desire for the taste of meat, a relatively trivial interest, sufficient justification for causing other animals pain and a brutal early death? Some students will say that what happens to animals doesn't matter; others will take the opposite position. Teachers who take the discussion to this level should note that their class has just engaged in a college level discussion of philosophy and ethics.
The statistics for the U.S. meat industry cited in the question are for the year 2011 from the USDA publication entitled, "Livestock Slaughter 2011 Summary, April 2012" Assuming 31,536,000 seconds in a year; annual slaughter statistics are, rounding to the nearest thousand, cattle (including calves) 34,938,000 or 1.1 per second and hogs 10,260,000 or 3.5 per second.


1.  Have students expand their responses to questions 2, 5, 6, or 8 on the worksheet into a full-scale essay.

2.  Have students, either alone or in groups, research and prepare a written response or a class presentation on one of the following topics:
  • The history of the International Whaling Commission and its role in protecting, or failing to protect, dolphins and whales from slaughter;
  • The economic history of Taiji going back to the 16th century and the reasons for the interest of its inhabitants in capturing or killing dolphins, whales and other cetaceans;
  • The intelligence and social relationships of dolphins and other cetaceans;
  • Whether dolphinariums that keep dolphins in captivity and put on shows for the public involve unethical restraints on the rights of the dolphins who are captives and forced to perform the shows for food; in the essay respond, pro or con, to the contention that the existence of dolphinariums is justified because human beings will never learn to have compassion for dolphins if they are not able to see the beauty, grace and intelligence of these animals;
  • Create a new and practical way to further the goal of ending the Taiji dolphin enslavement and slaughter; present it to the class, write it up, and forward it to the OPS; this proposal doesn't need to result in an end to the dolphin slaughter but can be a way to meet the goals of the OPS, such as increasing public pressure on the Japanese people or government to end the enslavement and slaughter, reducing the consumption of dolphin meat in Japan, and increased fund-raising; and
  • Whether the U.S. should adopt the Great Ape Preservation Act.

3.  The class can engage in one of the standard ways to support the effort to end the Taiji dolphin slaughter by getting other students at school to write to public officials, raising funds for the OPS through a bake sale or other activity, convincing students to sign the OPS petition, or organizing a screening of The Cove at school or at a local theater. Consider having the class select a number of projects to pursue and then dividing the class into teams to pursue the different projects.


Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: See Blackfish a documentary about the exploitation of Orcas and Charlotte's Web, based on the classic children's story which arose out of the author's realization that pigs have intelligence and emotions. (Students of all ages love the film.)

The Witness, a favorite of students and teachers, is a documentary about personal transformation relating to issues of animal welfare. The personal transformation in The Witness is even more dramatic and inspiring than the change experienced by Richard O'Barry, the man who is featured in The Cove.

Parenting Points: Watch the movie with your child. Decide as a family if you want to do something to help stop the slaughter.

Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.]

This Lesson Plan was written by James Frieden and last updated on December 24, 2013.

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