Dolphins are People too!

Do dolphins and whales deserve the same rights as humans?

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has proposed a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans. They believe that many years of research into dolphins and whales has shown that they have sufficient intelligence to justify them receiving the same ethical considerations as human beings. In other words, we should treat them as “non-human persons.”

I find this idea fascinating! We have learned a great deal about the intelligence of whales and dolphins:

  • they appear to understand how things work, and how to manipulate objects
  • they recognise other members of their species, and recognise individual behaviour
  • they recognise themselves, and parts of their own bodies, in a mirror – an ability we thought was limited to apes, elephants and humans
  • they have good auditory, visual and spatial memory
  • they learn easily, often without explicit instructions, but through gestures and body language
  • they can imitate sounds and behaviours – one of the highest forms of social learning

Whales, dolphins, orcas (Killer Whales) and other cetaceans are highly social mammals. They live in complex groups, with long-term relationships, and co-operative networks that rely on learning and memory.

Orcas live in very stable family groups, whose basis is a matriline – mothers and their offspring. Male orcas never leave their mothers, but female orcas may leave to form their own matrilines if they have many offspring of their own.

They have a culture, in that they have regular breeding sites, feeding strategies, as well as a complex language with vocal, visual, tactile and chemical communication. Orca families can be identified for generations by the calls they use. They use these calls to prevent in-breeding in the pod.

There are many observed cases of cetaceans behaving in ways we would consider decidedly human:

  • in Patagonia, an elderly orca with a damaged jaw was fed and kept alive by members of its group
  • in Iceland, fishermen and orcas have been known to work together – the orcas guiding the fishermen to the best catches, and receiving part of the catch as a reward
  • in captivity, dolphins who were rewarded with fish for keeping their tank tidy deliberately ripped up a paper bag, and used the pieces one at a time to make a mess, tidy it away and get a reward!

I’m sure you can add to the list of things you’ve heard about dolphins and whales that make you go “Huh?! That’s amazing!”

Here are a few more facts that you should know before you make up your mind whether cetaceans really are worthy of the title of “non-human persons”:

Cetaceans have large, complex brains – comparable in mass, relative to body mass,  to those of humans, elephants and apes. A greater brain to body mass ratio may mean there is more brain available for functions other than running the body..

Dolphins are voluntary breathers, even when asleep – as a result, they sleep with one half of their brain at a time – the other half stays at least partially awake to breathe and look out for predators. That seems to me to be a very highly evolved feature that we humans could use!

At birth, a human brain is 28% of its eventual weight as an adult brain – elephants are 35%, bottle-nose dolphins are 42.5% and chimpanzees are 54% of their adult brain weight. This is an indication of how much learning the animal accumulates while young.

The discovery of spindle cells (neurons which play a central role in the development of intelligent behaviour) in some cetaceans (humpback, fin, beluga, sperm and killer whales, and  bottle-nose and Risso’s dolphins) suggests convergent evolution between them and the only other species known to have spindle neurons – humans, elephants and the great apes.

Doctor Lori Marino, of Emory University, says:

“The discovery of spindle neurons in cetaceans is a stunning example of neuro-anatomical convergence between cetaceans and primates. The common ancestor of cetaceans and primates lived over 95 million years ago, and such a highly specific morphological similarity as the finding of spindle cells is clearly due to evolutionary convergence, not shared ancestry,”

“This is consistent with a growing body of evidence for parallels between cetaceans and primates in cognitive abilities, behaviour and social ecology.”

If we do recognise the “personhood” of cetacean mammals, a few things will have to change:

  • Whale hunting will have to be outlawed, because it will be considered an act of murder
  • Dolphins and orcas will no longer be kept in captivity and made to perform tricks for our amusement – Dolphinaria around the world will have to be closed and the inmates released back into the ocean
  • The ocean environment of cetaceans will have to be protected
  • The Japanese practice of herding dolphins and pilot whales into bays and slaughtering them en masse to sell their meat will have to cease
  • Likewise, this Danish slaughter will have to stop

Personally, I think this Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans deserves support. There is a wealth of good, scientific evidence to back it up, and I would love to see these obviously intelligent mammals treated with more compassion and respect.


The full text of the Declaration issued by the AAAS:

Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins

Based on the principle of the equal treatment of all persons;
Recognizing that scientific research gives us deeper insights into the complexities of cetacean minds, societies and cultures;
Noting that the progressive development of international law manifests an entitlement to life by cetaceans;
We affirm that all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and wellbeing.
We conclude that:

  1. Every individual cetacean has the right to life.
  2. No cetacean should be held in captivity or servitude; be subject to cruel treatment; or be removed from their natural environment.
  3. All cetaceans have the right to freedom of movement and residence within their natural environment.
  4. No cetacean is the property of any State, corporation, human group or individual.
  5. Cetaceans have the right to the protection of their natural environment.
  6. Cetaceans have the right not to be subject to the disruption of their cultures.
  7. The rights, freedoms and norms set forth in this Declaration should be protected under international and domestic law.
  8. Cetaceans are entitled to an international order in which these rights, freedoms and norms can be fully realized.
  9. No State, corporation, human group or individual should engage in any activity that undermines these rights, freedoms and norms.
  10. Nothing in this Declaration shall prevent a State from enacting stricter provisions for the protection of cetacean rights.

3 comments on “Dolphins are People too!

  1. Anyone know how we can sign up support for this.
    It makes you wonder why the same thing isn’t proposed for apes and elephants. I guess it would be difficult to draw the line. Pigs?

    • I agree. I’m not sure a line should be drawn at all, if we’re going to be consistent about it.

      While intelligence (or overall similarity to us) is as good a measure as any to determine whether or not a given species (or Order) should be granted personhood rights first, as we go along granting these rights to other species, that criteria will ultimately have to fall away.

      Just because a cheetah, sea cucumber, redwood tree or E.Coli isn’t as smart or social as us, does that mean it should be discriminated against?

      Of course there’s the argument around the fact that we, as members of an ecosystem, are dependent on the deaths of other life-forms to survive – that might complicate things along the line.

  2. a program that changed my view regarding these absolutely wonderful animals, was BBC Ocean Giants, , just so fascinating, and made me think on how we tend to classify intelligence. We sure have a specie-centric way of looking at other fellow creatures.

    just a note, growing up on a farm and still visiting one regularly, I can categorically state that sheep have zero intelligence. 🙂

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