Tradition is no Excuse for Cruel, Harmful Behavior like the Faeroe Islander Dolphin Slaughter

It’s time to stop excusing cruel, unjust or destructive practices simply because they are traditional. 

This week, people from the Faeroe Islands, an autonomous territory within Denmark, hunted down a pod of 1428 white-sided dolphins, highly intelligent social animals. The dolphins were harried for hours by humans on speed boats and jet skis and forced into a shallow bay. Then while each animal lay writhing and listening to cries of distress from familiar members of their pod, the islanders stabbed and sliced them to death with a knife or another sharp implement.

Some island residents and other Danish citizens have condemned the slaughter. One filmed parts of it, or the world would never have seen the chasing and killing in process or the bodies laid out on the beach. But participants and government spokespeople—while acknowledging that the huge number of dolphins slaughtered was unusual—defended the hunt as traditional and “by the book.”

Mass slaughter of cetaceans is definitely a tradition in the Faeroe Islands. Records date the hunting of whales and dolphins to at least 400 years, including the annual festival of butchery that took place this week, known locally as grindadráp. Although extra dead animals may rot—especially this year given the unusual number killed—the meat and blubber are traditionally shared among community members. Generations ago, hunting and killing marine mammals likely was a matter of survival for islanders: lives given—or rather taken—to sustain life. But today the reward side of the equation is simply the thrill of the chase and free food, a very different moral calculus.

The specific violence and victims of this annual bloodbath may be unique to the Faeroe Islands, but the moral mind games used to defend the ritual are not. People around the world and on all sides of the political spectrum seek refuge in “tradition” to justify practices that would otherwise be seen as ethically dubious—violations of human rights or animal wellbeing, practices that inflict avoidable suffering, wanton wastefulness, and other harms. Often the tradition defense gains extra strength by claiming that it is a religious tradition, sanctified by one or another god. (Note: Practices that aren’t harmful rarely need this kind of defense, so when you hear someone invoking a religious or traditional exemption you should look around and ask yourself what or who is being hurt.)

People on the political right tend to claim tradition or religion (aka sanctified tradition) in defense of things that they themselves want to do—spank children, burn garbage, maintain male “headship” of families, keep a neighborhood racially homogenous, attend bullfights, hunt and fish in wildlife refuges, drive 4-wheelers on a fragile beach, circumcise baby boys, light fireworks during a drought. People on the political left tend to claim tradition in defense of actions by non-dominant communities—culturally coerced veiling of women, slash-and-burning of rainforests, child marriage, female genital mutilation, kosher and halal slaughter (without stunning), or hunting whales—or in this case dolphins.

Arguably the ancestral tradition of the Faeroe Islanders didn’t include jet skis, speedboats, or power tools (for the slaughter), but that isn’t really the point. Tradition is a poor defense of cruel or harmful behavior, even when the scale of harm isn’t augmented by modern technologies.

Think about it for half-a-minute:

  • Hereditary dictatorships, monarchies, chiefdoms, and other DNA-based aristocracies are traditional.
  • Honor killings are traditional.
  • Torturing criminals is traditional, as is capital punishment.
  • Slavery was traditional, practiced in some form on every inhabited continent.
  • Child labor was traditional in the US before it was outlawed, and is still in many places.
  • Human sacrifice was traditional across most of the world at one point or another.
  • Deforming infants to make them more effective beggars was traditional in some parts of India.
  • Drowning unwanted kittens was traditional in the US.
  • Cannibalism was traditional in Fiji clear through the 19th Century.
  • Purdah (forcing married women to stay isolated and indoors) is traditional across parts of the Muslim world.

The moral message in this list should be obvious: Tradition is a shitty excuse for shitty behavior.  Each of us has a right and responsibility to choose which of our received traditions to keep and which to leave—as Christopher Hitchens put it—“in the dustbin of history.”

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Musings & Rants: Life, Violence, Web of Life and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Tradition is no Excuse for Cruel, Harmful Behavior like the Faeroe Islander Dolphin Slaughter

  1. Absolutely agree. Humans are supposed to be, or should be, learning creatures,

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I have been studying humans for years and I came across a book with some possible answers. The following quote comes from the book entitled “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth” by Jonathan Rauch. “For each of us as an individual, it makes sense to sing in harmony with the tribe, and to believe harmoniously, too. Like sensitive antennas, we monitor the views of our leaders and preachers, our in-group media outlets, and our friends and neighbors to detect what it is that people like us believe on any given day, and what it is that people like us do not believe. Then we adjust our beliefs to stay in tune. As individuals, we benefit from preserving our status and sense of self. Yet, as Yale’s Kahan points out, if a whole community behaves this way, the collective effect is devastating: the whole community loses touch with reality.” We are suffering in our country too over this mistake.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hank Pellissier says:

    Hi Valerie This is a great article Valerie –  VERY DISTURBING I think the public will be shocked to find out this is still going on  thanks Hank

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gayle Roller says:

    Fuck tradition. These people are not hungry. This meat will not be laid by. This is a “because we can” action, and I am believing more and more that the human “because we can” action is to kill life and exterminate joy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. mriana says:

    I think I@m going to be sick. :'( There’s no excuse for murdering dolphins.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jim Groser says:

    I am your big fan and normally agree 100 percent with you Valerie. Also i am from Denmark and let me say immediately that I am against it. Denmark has signed the IWC whale hunting agreement making it illegal. But Faroe Island have autonomy and we cant decide their laws.

    That said i have the following comments:

    1. In Faroe islands you have to have a license to do this where you learn how to cut the spinal cord so the animal die immediately. I have seen some videos and its not true that they are stapbed and sliced to death, but they do pull them in with big hooks until they cut the spinal cord which is gruesome to watch. But is killing on cows any less cruel?

    2. Japan is th worlds biggest whale killing nation and they kill the whales with a harpoon with explosives that doesn’t kil it but shatter all their intestines, and then they pull them to land making them suffer for hours. At least these dolphins die in a spilt second.

    3. And now what I think is the worst negligence if the worlds ignorance to Islamic and jewish halal slaughtering.. An animal like a camel, goat, sheep or bull get one leg tied up so i cant run. Then its arterie and windpipe is slit open, leaving the animal suffering for many minutes fighting to breath and fighting to get away while in fear and pain.

    In Pakistan alone. 1 Islamic country out of more than 50 more than 10.000.000 (TEN MILLION) get butchered this barbaric way on one celebration day called EID. The rest of the year the kill animals exactly the same way. day after day. In the millions. And the world watch in silence because we dont want to hurt their religious feelings.

    Now dont get me started with what they do to their small infant boys genitals, that a discussion for another day. But its easy start blaming a little island society that have to import their proteins and meat from outside unless they hade the whale meat. Remember whales are mammals and the meat is red like other mammals and taste like beef but more tender.

    So, we should of course be against this killing if they kill more than they can eat (they do distribute it freely to all the island). But there are bigger fish to catch, excuse the pun, than this.

    We are scared of touching anything religious. Lets aim our focus on where it matters most.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Jim, for taking the time to list this out. I do agree that these other atrocities you list are even bigger–and inexcusable. The torturing of animals during EID can be readily seen in videos on the net, and it is horrifying. I do think much of cattle slaughter is also unnecessarily cruel, though regulations I’m familiar with require stunning, and slaughter facilities are often set up to minimize stress on the animals thanks in part to the work of one autistic woman, Temple Grandin. Both of my daughters are vegan, largely for the reasons you list–and climate impacts.


  7. David Saluk says:

    Add dog fighting, cockfighting, dog eating, animal trapping and bull fighting

    Liked by 1 person

  8. bewilderbeast says:

    For once I am slightly different from you Valerie. I hate this too, but humans – us – we humans – do far worse than this. You listed some of it: Slavery. We still do slavery; We still do child labour. My difference is we have to start with our ill treatment of humans. I’m not pro-animal mistreatment; I just feel too many humans will protest at maltreating animals, yet (WHY?) we won’t – almost can’t – speak up against maltreatment of fellow humans. It’s so weird. WE are so weird. We’ll sign a petition saying, Hey You Foreigners, Stop Mistreating Dolphins! But we won’t sign one saying, Hey, My Fellow Countrymen, Stop Mistreating Our Own People.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Richard Ware says:

      I appreciate that, bewilderbeast, and I have to add:

      “Whether or not animals have ‘rights’ depends on how the term is defined. If living things are ascribed a ‘right’ to remain living, then animals would have rights. But most ethicists do not use the term so broadly. They generally ascribe rights only to members of societies that are capable of applying mutually accepted ethical principles to specific situations. Animals are not capable of forming or belonging to such societies. In this light, they cannot be ascribed rights.

      The animal rights viewpoint also leads to some philosophically untenable conclusions. For instance, in its strongest form it implies that the lives of all animals, including humans, are equal. But the death of a human being is not equivalent to the death of a mouse. We do not commit an act equivalent to the murder of a human every time we eat meat. We do not think it is immoral to attempt to control the rodent populations in sewers or the roach population in homes. Nor do we believe that keeping animals as pets is the moral equivalent of slavery.”

      And about cannibalism being traditional in Fiji…you REALLY ought to note that 19th-century European colonizers used that cannibalism as an excuse for colonialism and assimilation of “savages”.
      Also, you might want to note that among the Fore of Papua New Guinea (a different place than Fiji btw), cannibalism was funerary, performed 2-3 days after the person had died, and was only banned to stop kuru.

      Besides, it’s worth considering…what if the slaughtered animals had been rats, rather than dolphins? And what of the threats to Native Americans? I fear that animal rights and/or veganism can EASILY be (or could become) as dangerous to Native Americans as “To Train Up a Child” is to children.
      Think of “the more contemporary non-Native fetishising of marine mammals such as dolphins and whales”. Native Americans “regard animals as a form of ‘people,’ but this does not preclude a necessarily practical and spiritual relationship in which animals are hunted and eaten — with proper ritual and thanks, of course” (a ritual and thanks that is sorely lacking from the Faroese grindadráp).
      Remember, it’s only a few short steps from “tradition doesn’t justify cruel slaughter of [for instance] wolves” to “Wolves need to be free” and “Indians are savages”.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Paul says:

    I am a carnivore. I eat meat. I have killed and butchered cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys in the past. I married a farmer’s daughter and had not killed before I met her. I helped because I am carnivore. I absolutely hated doing this chore. I reasoned that if I was willing to eat meat I must do the sordid deed of butchering it. How many animal activists (lovers) have no idea where a turkey comes from yet enjoys a lovely Thanksgiving turkey? I don’t condone the mass killing of dauphins. I question if it’s used for sustainability? Watching a cow drop to her death is traumatic. Yet it happens millions of times per day…so we can EAT.


    • mriana says:

      First, her article was not about vegetarianism or veganism. Secondly, your post is kind of insulting, because we all know where that dead animal on the table came from. Thirdly, some of us find your comments at being barbaric and cannibalistic, because we are not all carnivores.


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