By JAY ALABASTER
Associated Press Writer
TAIJI, Japan — ‘Heroes‘ star Hayden Panettiere and her boyfriend, world champion boxer Wladimir Klitschko, received a chilly reception Friday in the Japanese fishing village of Taiji, where they called for an end to its annual dolphin hunt.
Panettiere said she would “love to be a spokesperson” for the town if it abandons the hunt. Her visit to Taiji comes just weeks after ‘The Cove,’ a gory depiction of Taiji’s dolphin slaughter, won the Oscar for best documentary.
The celebrity couple arrived in the morning with a small group of environmental activists. Panettiere tried to meet the mayor and representatives from the local fisheries union, but she and Jeff Pantukhoff, an anti-whaling activist from the U.S., were blocked at the door of the town hall.
“We are trying to peacefully come up with better ideas as to how to generate income and utilize the nature here,” Panettiere told reporters. “We’ve been to Taiji before and it’s a beautiful place with beautiful wildlife.”
If Taiji were to quit killing dolphins, “I’d love to be a spokesperson or to help generate tourism,” she said.
Fishermen in the village on the rocky coast of southwest Japan consider the hunt a proud legacy. But it has long been targeted by hardcore environmentalists and animal lovers, and the Oscar has given the opposition more mainstream attention.
Panettiere, followed by a crowd of media throughout the day, later walked through a large hole in a barrier along a path leading to the famous cove depicted in the movie. The cove was strewn with nets used to trap the dolphins, as well as firewood and debris left by the hunters.
Panettiere posed for photographs as she walked along the small pebbly beach for several minutes, but then two town officials ran up and after a tense exchange everyone left. A fisherman pulled up several minutes later in a truck and boarded up the hole.
“We just wanted to have a very peaceful and relaxed conversation,” Panettiere said.
Panettiere, who plays an indestructible cheerleader on the hit U.S. TV series ‘Heroes,’ is also the spokeswoman for the “Save the Whales Again!” campaign, which wants to halt Taiji’s dolphin hunt. The campaign cites studies that show dolphin meat contains dangerously high levels of mercury and is unsafe to eat, and says killing the animals is cruel and unnecessary.
The 20-year-old actress also protested the Taiji hunt in 2007, when along with five other surfers she paddled out into the cove where the hunt takes place in a peaceful protest that was broken up by fisherman. Scenes from that encounter are briefly shown in ‘The Cove.’
The Japanese government allows about 19,000 dolphins to be killed each year. Taiji hunts about 2,000 dolphins every year for meat – less than other places – but is singled out in part because of its “oikomi” method of herding and killing them near the shore. Some are captured and sold to aquariums and dolphin shows at water parks.
Residents once welcomed foreign visitors, but in recent years have grown weary of what they feel are one-sided portrayals and grisly snapshots shown out of context. Overzealous protesters and photographers are occasionally approached and scolded by rough-and-tumble locals looking to defend their town’s reputation.
As the group arrived, a truck of right-wing nationalists blasted slogans, saying Japan should not be singled out for whaling and dolphin hunts because Westerners “are killing cows.” They also demanded President Barack Obama apologize for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There were no clashes between the environmentalists and the townspeople.
Klitschko, the six-foot, five inch (196 centimeter) heavyweight boxing champion, who just last week recorded his 48th knockout in defending his WBO and IBF belts, towered over everyone as he quietly took in the day’s events.
“It’s not about being aggressive and violent,” he said.
Before the group left, John Quigley, an “aerial artist” who creates large works of art that can be viewed from the sky, made a giant outline of a dolphin on the sand.
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