Where do we stand on the killing of whales? - Veterinary Practice
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Where do we stand on the killing of whales?

Periscope continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern.

WHEN we register with the RCVS we each take an oath that “My constant endeavour will be to ensure the health and welfare of animals committed to my care”.

That noble declaration, made in almost all cases with the very best of intentions, can be very difficult to uphold when faced with the practicalities and economics of farm, equine or companion animal practice.

Most of us very quickly realise that life is not unequivocally black and white; rather an infinite number of shades of grey that deepen and lighten with a wide range of variables that all too often evade any obvious solution.

I guess when it comes to animal welfare issues each of us has to develop our own moral compass with a set of parameters that guide us in our actions during our professional lives.

In my view, the important thing is for us to constantly reflect on our actions when confronted with cases that challenge our animal welfare credentials. This ensures that our compass is constantly reset rather than allowed to drift in a direction that might eventually become untenable with our position as a veterinary surgeon.

The type of common welfare challenges that spring to mind vary depending on the species and functionality of the particular animal(s) involved. Hence, the huge number of neonatal lambs that routinely die each year on farms from hypothermia is something that would be considered completely unacceptable were it to happen to puppies or rabbits.

Likewise, the amount of pain relief that it is considered ethical to provide to dogs and cats is rarely provided to the likes of cattle or sheep on commercial farms. As I say, there are many grey areas and all manner of debates are had, and will continue to be had, as to where acceptable lines should be drawn.

It strikes me, though, that there is a practice that concerns animal welfare where a line can, and in my opinion should most definitely, be drawn. As it happens, it is a practice that none of us has direct control over, but it is one which we should all probably take a view on.

I am talking about the killing of whales for either commercial or “scientific” purposes. And I am prompted to write about this by the recent declaration from Japan that they intend to recommence “scientific” whaling in Antarctica in 2015.

This was in response to a non-binding resolution recently passed by the International Whaling Commission which adopted the criteria used by the UN’s International Court of Justice when it declared earlier this year that Japan’s current whaling programme was not scientific.

Japan’s stance prompted me to research a little deeper into the world’s whaling practices and led me to the knowledge that Japan is not the only country that currently undertakes whaling activities. Both Norway and Iceland have continued with the commercial killing of whales over many years though both have done so only within their own territorial waters.

Nonetheless, whales travel across international ocean boundaries and so Norwegian or Icelandic whales at one time of year may well become British whales (if allowed to live long enough) at another time. So both countries may essentially be killing “our” whales.

The number of whales killed by these countries continues to be substantial. During the summer of 2014, Norway killed 720 (mainly minke) whales, the most in any year since it began defying the IWC ban in 1993. Such is the quantity of whale meat harvested that much of it was exported to Japan since the Norwegians are demonstrating little appetite for the product.

This summer too, Iceland killed 137 endangered n whales (the second largest whale species – only the blue whale is larger) plus a number of minkes. Much of the meat produced was also exported to Japan where some of it is apparently destined to be turned into dog chews.

Taken as a whole, I can see little, if any, justification for the continuing slaughter of whales anywhere in the world. Whale meat is not needed for survival and there are any number of equally good and accessible sources of meat protein.

Despite harpoons tipped with exploding grenades, there is no really welfare-friendly means of killing whales. Even if there was, there are grave ethical questions raised concerning the validity of killing animals with such well-developed brains and social systems. Particularly for products that are unnecessary and in many instances not even wanted.

It is, of course, not just vets that might be expected to register opposition to the continuation of the whale hunts. Many people from all walks of life object and donate money to those organisations such as the WWF and the WDC which are campaigning for the practice to be stopped worldwide.

But vets surely have a unique role to play in that if they raised their voices – and particularly if they spoke with one voice – then the views they expressed would be bound to be taken with some gravity.

Which brings me back to where I started and the oath that we all take on entry into the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Whilst the oath is intended to guide us in our dealings with animals that come under our direct care, there is no reason to limit us to this interpretation. Humans have it in their power to be the guardians of planet Earth and as such for all animal kind to be under human care.

And whilst, as I have already stated, there are numerous grey areas surrounding many issues, the needless killing of whales does not appear to be one of them. The veterinary profession is often implored to take a lead on animal welfare and for a whole variety of reasons it rarely does so.

Surely this is an issue that it could quite legitimately “hang its hat” on and gain a not inconsiderable degree of kudos in the process. Any takers out there?

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