“This person is a mass murderer.”
“A sick soulless bastard.”
“Blood thirsty.” “A serial killer.” “Evil scum.”
These words weren’t used to describe a terrorist or the mastermind of a mass shooting.
They were aimed at Silja, a young woman from the Faroe Islands, who was targeted for assisting in the legal, non-commercial hunt of a common, plentiful animal to help feed her family and her community.
The barrage of online attacks came after an animal rights activist posted a series of photos of Silja taking part in a whale drive to social media.
The grindadráp is an important source of protein for the nation of 50,000 inhabitants between Iceland and Norway. (RELATED: The Pleasures Of Whaling)
In a typical year, the Faroese people kill and eat about 650 long-finned pilot whales from a population estimated by the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission to be nearly 500,000. While some species of whales, like blue whales and certain types of gray whales, are critically endangered, the whales consumed by Faroe Islanders are not endangered or threatened.
The grindadráp is an environmentally responsible way to help feed the country’s residents. Only sheep and root vegetables, such as potatoes, turnips, and rhubarb, typically thrive on these volcanic, windswept islands. Other nourishment has to be shipped hundreds or thousands of miles from places like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Germany.
Imported food “is less fresh, more expensive and it’s terrible for the environment,” says Silja.
For taking part in the grindadráp, Silja has received death threats online, and animal rights extremists on Facebook and other online message boards discussed ways of finding her in order to confront or harm her.
“I told all of my friends ‘please do not write my name or tag me in your responses because if you do, I feel like I will be killed. I am scared.’”
(Due to threats to her safety, Silja’s name has been changed to protect her identity.)
Silja has a right to be concerned. Albi Deak, the self-proclaimed “Cetacean Defender” who initially posted her pictures and called Silja a “mass murderer,” wrote that the grindadráp “is like the 9/11 terroristic act in the USA, but in the Atlantic Ocean! Whaling is a terroristic act against the ocean and humanity!”
In support of Deak’s post, one person wrote that Silja “needs one in the forehead.” Another commented that “the Faroe Islands are looking like a better and better place for human target practice.”
“I hope a bus drives over you,” wrote another.
Deak, who is based in Switzerland and runs the website Riffaquaria, says he understands the response towards Silja. (RELATED: I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish: Morrissey Breaks Fifteen-Year Animal Rights Protest)
“I didn’t see those comments, there were just too many to read,” he said of the hundreds of hateful and threatening replies to his post aimed at Silja. “But whale slaughter is very emotional for many people. The killers are sometimes called monsters, scum, or worse. I can well understand that considering the weightiness of the brutality.”
Silja was the only individual identified by activists in the photos posted to Twitter and Facebook.
“Only pictures of me,” she said as she scrolled through an animal activist’s Facebook post on her phone. According to Silja, the pictures were taken at several different locations over the course of a number of months.
“People targeted me because I’m female,” Silja believes. At least 25 different people called her a “bitch,” a “whore,” or other derogatory terms for women.
A Spanish animal rights activists recommended stabbing a spear “in her ass and out the mouth” and broadcasting it on TV.
She was recently verbally assaulted on the streets of Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands.
“I was outside a restaurant with my boyfriend and my friends,” Silja remembers, her voice cracking. “This guy comes running over to me and yells ‘mass murderer!’ I went straight home.”
“It goes straight to your heart,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to be out anymore. I started crying. I was so sad. Where does a stranger come off calling me out like that?”
Deak admits to feeling at fault for the attacks against Silja, but does not apologize for posting her photos.
“I’m sorry for this woman for putting her in such a bad situation,” Deak says. “It was, and is, never my intention to personally attack someone. But nothing must remain hidden. We spread documents — pictures and videos — to show the world the reality,” he explains. “The emotions of the viewers who see them are understandably high.”
According to Deak, “Activisim for animal welfare must remain non-violent. Pilot whales could easily kill a person with a single stroke of their fins; but they don’t. They don’t know violence. The whales are the best example for us as humans to reject violence.”
Despite his professed support for nonviolence, Deak recently retweeted a tweet from a man who wished he had “the resources to travel halfway around the world and acquire the weapons necessary to wipe [a village where whales are killed] off the map.” In recent days, he has also called citizens of the Faroe Islands “psychopaths” and “serial killers,” and labeled the grindadráp a “genocide” and a “barbaric bloodsport.”
For Silja and her family, the grindadráp isn’t a hobby or a sport. They rely on the meat to provide meals about once a week throughout the year. “We’ve always been a little bit under the middle class,” Silja says. “We need the food. And that’s the reason we do it.”
People involved in the grindadráp divide the meat and blubber into equal shares. Almost none of the whale goes to waste. The Faroese practiced nose-to-tail eating long before it was all the rage in upmarket restaurants in America and Europe.
Some of the meat is set aside for elderly and disabled individuals. According to Silja, the grindadráp ensures that even the least fortunate in the Faroes have food in their refrigerators and freezers to help make it through harsh winters.
Late summer tends to be the most common time of the year for the grindadráp and animal rights activists have been busy filling media outlets with images from recent hunts. It’s a tactic extremists have used since Sea Shepherd began exploiting photos and videos from the hunt to attract exposure and financial support in the 1980s, according to Kate Sanderson, who serves in the Faroese Foreign Service as the Head of European and Ocean Affairs.
“Sea Shepherd sends people to disrupt the grindadráp and protest in the Faroe Islands for publicity and attention,” Sanderson said. In 2014, former Baywatch star, Playboy Playmate, and Sea Shepherd board member Pamela Anderson visited the country to oppose the drives as part of a publicity stunt. A year later, two Sea Shepherd volunteers were arrested in the Faroe Islands for harassing and causing “unnecessary suffering” to a pod of whales in an attempt to force them away from the Faroese shoreline.
“Environmental activists stopped protesting the grindadráp many years ago once they realized how many whales there are, how few are killed, and how bad importing food to the Faroe Islands is for the environment,” says Sanderson.
“Now the only people left protesting are extremists like Sea Shepherd.”
While the sight of bloody water and whale carcasses can be shocking, the people involved in the grindadráp take great precautions not to injure the animal before its slaughter. When whales are spotted in bays, nearby villagers drive the pods towards the shore. Licensed and trained hunters then use spinal lances developed by veterinarians to sever the spinal cord and cut off blood supply to the brain, ensuring the whales lose consciousness and die within about 2 seconds.
The whales eaten by Faroe Islanders may live freer, healthier lives than any other animal consumed by humans. And most die a quicker, less painful death than animals killed in a slaughter house.
That reality appears to be lost on critics of the grindadráp who are separated from the realities of consuming meat and are used to purchasing pre-packaged protein in a grocery store.
Silja rolls her eyes as she recites one Instagram post. “Why do [the Faroese] have to kill whales?” the comment reads. “Why don’t they just go to the supermarket where no animals were harmed?”
“Do these people not know that all of the meat in the supermarket is killed somewhere?’” Silja wonders. “It doesn’t just magically appear. You have to kill to eat meat.”
The people attacking Silja online are most frequently from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Spain. All three countries consume more meat per capita – and kill more animals, often in less humane ways – than the Faroe Islands.
For example, 30,000 bulls are killed in Spanish bullfights every year. Fox hunts have been banned in the England, Scotland, and Wales, but scores of foxes continue to be killed illegally in the UK annually for sport. Each year, hunters take down 1 of every 5 white-tailed deer in America, but Faroe Islanders kill just 1 in 700 North Atlantic long-finned whales in a typical year.
“How can these people have the authority to criticize me?” asks Silja. “The way that the Faroese kill the whales with the new spinal lance is much more humane than the running of the bulls. And we don’t kill things just for fun like people in some other countries.”
“But people call me a killer,” she says, eyes glistening. “Why are people this mean? I am a calm person. I am not a killer or a psycho.”
Despite the condemnations against her by animal rights activists, Silja says she will continue to be active in the hunt. (RELATED: PETA Goes After SeaWorld: But Is Orca And Dolphin Captivity Actually Good For Conservation?)
“It is part of my life. My dad has always taken me with him. I have been going since I was about a year old,” she says. “I have been participating since I turned 16.”
“My grandfather relies on whale meat I get from the grind. He is paralyzed on his left side, so when [my dad, brother, and I] get our shares of the meat from the grind, we give a portion to him and others in the community who are impoverished and elderly.”
While animal rights extremists show no sign of slowing down in their attempt to demonize the Faroese people for killing and eating whales, the real villains, according to Silja, are those who attack people they’ve never met in a place they’ve never been for feeding their families.
“Who do they think they are? Until they come to the Faroe Islands, until they see what it’s like to live and survive here, no one should tell me what I can and can’t do.”
Drew Johnson is an investigative reporter and international government watchdog.