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July 26, 2002

The Fallacy of Humane Killing

Humane Society International

Whales have been killed by nearly every method imaginable—from explosive harpoons and cold harpoons to electric lances and bullets. No matter what method is used, however, death is almost never instantaneous. Instead, the whale may suffer anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.

All methods of killing whales are inhumane because, among other problems, they do not render the animals instantaneously insensible. The large size of even the smallest species of whales, their remarkable adaptations for diving, and the weather and conditions at sea make it impossible to kill whales humanely or instantaneously. What's more, according to published studies, whalers identify death as the cessation of movement in external body parts such as the pectoral flipper—not the cessation of cerebral function. Therefore, whales, who are sentient, intelligent mammals, may suffer horrible and often prolonged deaths due to the unreliable and brutal killing methods used.

Killing Methods

Explosive harpoons. This method uses a large spear tipped with a penthrite grenade that explodes on impact. Accurate execution of this method is nearly impossible given the conditions at sea. Even so, this device is supposed to cause "instantaneous" death (defined as death within ten seconds or fewer). Although this method could immediately kill the whale if the projectile pierced directly through the heart or brain, the average time to death is about four minutes, and some whales live for well over an hour after the grenade has exploded.

Cold harpoons. This method uses a propulsive device (similar to a bazooka) to launch a large spear into the whale. The spear, which does not have an exploding tip, penetrates deeply into the whale's body. If the spear does not hit a vital organ—the most likely result—the whale will not die from the impact of the harpoon, but instead will bleed to death, sometimes over several hours. The IWC currently outlaws cold harpoons; however, some explosive harpoons do not detonate upon impact, resulting in a "cold harpoon" death.

Electric lances. The Japanese have used this "secondary" method of killing after initially using an explosive harpoon. Because explosive harpoons damage much of the muscle (meat) in the area of impact, whalers are reluctant to use two grenades on one whale when death is not instantaneous. A whale who survives an explosive harpoon strike is dragged back to the ship and secured alongside it. An electric charge is then shot through the whale, which is supposed to induce instant death. However, the voltage of the electric charge is insufficient to cause immediate death (even when applied directly through the brain or heart) and merely adds to the whale's agony. The Japanese claim to have ceased use of the electric lance in response to humane concerns, but with no international observers, if and under what circumstances it continues to be used are impossible to verify.

Bullets. This "secondary" method of killing involves shooting the whale if instantaneous death does not result from an explosive harpoon. Some whalers have been known to use machine guns or anti-tank rifles, because of a whale's great size. Killing a whale with a single bullet is virtually impossible; even using an anti-tank rifle, which fires large caliber bullets, requires multiple shots. Therefore, most whalers, particularly the Norwegians, "finish off" the whale by riddling the animal with standard caliber bullets. The whale feels pain from each wound and may not die for some time.

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