Caution in the Faroes
International Facebook Outrage May Do More Harm than Good
By Helene Hesselager O’Barry
Earth Island Institute
Just one week after Ric and I had left the Faroe Islands, a pilot whale hunt took place in Vagur on the southernmost island of Suðuroy. At 7 the following morning, Faroese radio announced that 196 pilot whales had been killed. Images of the drive hunt were posted on Facebook, and information on its progress was updated in real time. Many of us hoped up until the last minute that the pilot whales would escape. This did not happen. Their fate was wrenchingly depicted with images of the blood bath of trapped pilot whales being killed and butchered.
One image shows a pilot whale with a gaping cut across the back of its neck, exposing layers of blubber and flesh. It is obvious that the animal is still alive, as its tail flukes are raised high above the turbulent water. We received an eye witness account from an 8-year-old Faroese child that unborn pilot whales were ripped from their mothers’ wombs and tossed in garbage bins.
The torment and physical pain inflicted on the animals must have been enormous, and a never-before-seen storm of messages on Facebook condemned the slaughter with outbursts such as “Criminals!”, “Barbarians!”, and “Mass murderers!” And perhaps the most contentious of them all: “Maybe eating all that toxin will kill these heartless jerks.” It is a natural human reaction to feel anguish at such animal cruelty, especially at not being able to do anything about it from a distance. Typing an enraged comment in the heat of the moment and sending it off into cyberspace is an easy way of temporarily releasing some of that anguish.
But it is not going to save a single pilot whale from capture and slaughter. All it does is further widen the gap between those who kill the pilot whales and those of us who seek to protect them. Having talked to several Faroese people, we have become convinced that an aggressive reaction to the pilot whale slaughter backfires on the pilot whales, in that it creates an even stronger sentiment among whalers to continue their actions.
Faroese conservationist Rúni Nielsen has spent much of his time lately calling for people to channel their frustration in a more constructive manner and has this to say about the recent Facebook outrage: “Verbal insults prolong the pilot whale slaughter by turning the pilot whaling issue into one of outsiders seeking to force change through aggression. Pro-whalers react to the resulting polarization by digging in their heels and refusing to change their ways. It makes it so much more difficult for those of us in the Faroe Islands who work to stop the slaughter through dialog and education.” Rúni adds that responding to the slaughter with discriminatory outbursts could even turn some Faroese people who have never hunted pilot whales before into whale hunters in a protest against the insults.
It is worth noticing that some Faroese people have not made up their minds about the pilot whale slaughter. For outsiders to react to the slaughter with verbal aggression greatly increases the likelihood of those undecided individuals to join the whalers, rather than the whales’ protectors.
As Turid Christophersen, who lives in Tórshavn from where she advocates against the slaughter, puts it: “Nothing gets people together like a common enemy.”
The validity of her observation is strengthened though a comment from an employee at a shopping center in Tórshavn: “I’m against pilot whaling, but when foreign animal welfare activists come here and yell obscenities at every Faroese person they encounter, I side with the whalers.” We need to take such comments seriously, as they clearly demonstrate to what extent verbal insults empower the whale hunters. Several Faroese people who we talked to want to see the pilot whale slaughter stop, and a change within their society is taking place.
We can slow down or hinder that change by resorting to aggression, whereby some of those who would otherwise speak out against the slaughter are influenced to sympathize with the whalers out of loyalty to members of their own community.
To meet our goals, we must focus our attention on supporting the grassroots movement in the Faroe Islands that is working to stop the slaughter through an awareness campaign. The pilot whales desperately need for us to choose the right approach.
On August 9, a drive hunt in Hvannasund killed 32 pilot whales, and ten days later, on August 19, another drive hunt killed 61 pilot whales, this time in Tjørnuvík. And just five days later, on August 24, a pilot whale drive in Suðuroy, Hvalba, killed around 65 pilot whales. “Can’t we just sink those islands?” someone suggested on Facebook.
The pilot whale slaughter is heartbreaking, but in order to help stop it, suggestions of violence must cease. It comes down to this: How are we supposed to convince Faroese pilot whale hunters to make peace with the pilot whales as long as outsiders turn the issue into a war with words?
The pilot whaling issue is widely debated among the Faroese people, and every Faroese person that we have met has been willing to talk to us about it. The Faroese people are unique in that sense. Their forthcoming nature coupled with their willingness to listen to the points of view of outsiders is the key to putting an end to the pilot whale slaughter: It is through the exchange of thoughts and knowledge that people open their minds to seeing things in a new and different light, thus allowing for a real and lasting change to take place.
Read Helene’s story about her travels in the Faro Islands and the pilot whale hunt in Earth Island Journal here.
Photo by Helene O’Barry.