Making a Difference: No holds barred in fight for dolphinsCommentary by Thomasina Larkin staff writer for The Japan Times
Within minutes of meeting Allison Lance, one might start to wonder if she was a dolphin in a past life. Her enthusiasm and passion in her drive to protect her animal friends is so strong that it touches just about every area of her life.
Lance first applied herself to the cause about 20 years ago when she got involved with an activist organization called PRISM.
"I was watching TV and a commercial came on late at night and it was about vivisection and I didn't know what that was," she says. "So I looked up the word the next day in the dictionary and called the number that was on the screen."
Lance says she soon became all too aware of how animals are mistreated in the name of entertainment, fashion, cuisine and medical research.
"I overnight became a vegan, which means I eat no animal products, I wear no animal products, and I took up the fight to champion causes for animals," she says.
About 10 years ago, Lance met Greenpeace pioneer Paul Watson at an animal-rights conference. Before long, she started to dedicate herself to his group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Though based in the United States, where she lives with her five dogs and five cats, Lance travels around the world to fight battles in her ongoing war.
About once a month, she and a team of volunteers alongside a few paid staff members head out to sea, where she says she is needed because there is nobody else to uphold laws protecting sea animals.
"We go out and we find a long (hooked) line, it could be 100 miles (160 km) and (the net) catches everything: there's swordfish, there's marlin, there's albatross," she says. "And then sharks. Sharks are very important to our ecosystem and we are losing them at a great rate, just for shark fin soup. They take the shark, cut the fin off and throw the body back still alive. Imagine the pain."
As the International Whaling Commission allows Japan to hunt whales for "scientific purposes," it's not surprising that Lance has had a few run-ins with the Japanese, who she says are "violating a moratorium on killing whales."
"And so we go out there to intervene," Lance says, describing a recent expedition in Antarctica. "When we come to the factory ship and the fleet, they pick up and move. They don't want any part of us. We have never caused an injury."
Most people in Japan who have heard of Lance will know her for her 2003 expedition in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, where she and a colleague freed 15 dolphins.
"They string up a long net across the bay and the majority of it is in the water and it's weighted and very heavy," she says. "So I opened one side and then I swam to the other side and released that as well. But as I was doing that side we were discovered.
"The fishermen came in their skiffs, and I was pulling on the line and they were trying to pull the line back to hook it back up and they wrapped the rope around my neck - we have it all on video - and they were trying to pull me under," she says. "I put my feet up against the skiff and just pulled my head out from underneath the rope and in the meantime I lost one of my fins and I released myself from the rope."
When asked if all the risk is worth it, Lance is quick to reply: "We have made a difference. People around the world know that Taiji, one little area of Japan, is killing dolphins.
"When we were in Taiji we were saying, 'Look, you know, why don't you promote whale watching (and) dolphin watching if you want to sustain your village here?" she says.
While their adventure in Taiji made national news, it also landed Lance in jail for over three weeks. Undeterred, she has been back to Japan several times since then.
"Japan knows it's a whaling nation, but they don't know dolphins are being killed, and they certainly don't know that poisoned dolphins are being served to their schoolchildren," she says. "If you walk throughout Japan and tell people these dolphins are being killed, they're like, 'What? Dolphins?' "
Last month, Lance campaigned around a number of stations in Tokyo and outside the office of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. This year marked the first time Japan has seen a protest during World Dolphin Day on Sept. 20.
"But the government is not willing to listen. They wanted no part of it. (The dolphin meat) is 36 times over (mercury's) legal limit. Nobody should ingest a speck. They say pregnant women and children women should watch how much they eat - well, why is it good for anybody? It's just silly.
"We're hoping to reach people who have some sort of clout or pull, you know, who can say 'Don't let Japan be embarrassed by one little city, by one little coastal village.' Because Japan seems to care about what the rest of the world thinks of them."