Dolphin personhood, and animals as persons

Due to their extremely high levels of intelligence and their self-aware mind, cetaceans (dolphins, whales, porpoises, and other marine mammals) have had a declaration of rights drawn up by philosophers and marine biologists.

This bill of rights would grant them protection and they could be defended by law. It will go as far as to grant them the status of ‘non-human persons’.

By granting cetaceans personhood, they would also be granted individual rights. A killing of a dolphin would therefore be equal to killing any other person, including human beings, both ethically and legally speaking.

The bill of rights includes that of liberty, meaning an end to their captivity for theme parks such as SeaWorld. To hold a cetacean captive would be equal to enslaving a human.

It would also ban any practice which ‘disrupts their cultures’ which could include the use of acoustic sonar and certain types of fishing.

This comes at a very important time for cetaceans, particularly when we look at Japanese treatment of the animals. Commercialised whaling has been a notorious part of Japanese culture for over a century now, and the practice of whaling itself dates back for many centuries before that.

Similarly, the Japanese treatment of dolphins has become infamous since the Academy-Award nominated documentary, The Cove. The film uncovered the horrific and frequent dolphin drive-hunts in Taiji, Wakayama.

One of the companies that financially supported these hunts (by buying captured dolphins) was SeaWorld Parks, a chain of theme parks in the US. Should this cetacean bill of rights gain enough momentum and support, there could be further bad news for SeaWorld too, as the parks controversially contain several captive dolphins and whales.

Fishing will also be affected in a fairly big way. Bycatch (the name given to unwanted catches during fishing) consists of a growing number of cetaceans every year. Tuna fishing is mainly responsible for this. Even dolphin-friendly labelled tuna does not mean dolphins weren’t killed in the fishing process – it simply means that the fishermen targetted tuna using other methods (the easiest method for finding tuna hotspots is to target a dolphin feeding area). Dolphins, porpoises and whales are routinely entangled in nets and drown, due to being mammals.

I have no idea what's going on here, I just Googled 'dolphin person' and this guy came up.

This is not the first time a non-human species has been granted personhood. Great apes have famously achieved such a status in some countries. New Zealand, in 1999, granted basic rights to great apes, and it is now illegal to use them for research and testing. 8 years later, in 2007, the Balearic Islands granted personhood to great apes. As an autonomous province of Spain, it has been fighting to convince Spain to follow suit ever since.

Renowned animal rights philosopher, Gary Francione, also argues for the personhood of all animals. As one of the fathers of the abolitionist movement, Francione believes that we have no right to use animals in any way, even if they are treated respectfully. Francione argues that all sentient beings should be granted personhood, with sentience being the only requirement. Cognitive abilities beyond that are not of significance. For Francione, veganism a moral baseline – the minimum one must do to avoid being harmful and morally wrong is be a vegan.

Even if you disagree with Francione’s approach towards animal rights, allow me to at least argue abolitionism from another approach. As it has been noted, the personhood of cetaceans is garnering support due to their cognitive abilities. However, it is increasingly becoming evident that a huge number of species are far cleverer than they are given credit for.

This can be seen in some of the tests done on the animals to highlight their intelligence. One such test, which dolphins performed successfully, was to prove that they are self-aware. If you would like to do this test for yourself then do the following right now:

  1. Stand up and walk over to the nearest mirror or reflective surface.
  2. Look into it.
  3. If you recognised that the image in front of you was a reflection of yourself, then well done, you are self-aware.

If on the other hand you looked at it and thought ‘WHO THE F@%! IS THAT?!’ then I am afraid you are less intelligent than a dolphin, a pig, or even a chicken, and therefore most people wouldn’t recognise you as a person (although thanks to the likes of Gary Francione and myself, there are people campaigning for you!). That’s right, chickens have been shown to be self-aware. Yet there is never any speak of chickens being granted personhood.

Another test to highlight dolphins intelligence was their ability to trick reward systems. Dolphins have recognised when a reward system is in place (i.e. do this and you’ll get food) and have found ways to trick them. Again though, this is common in other species too. See below for this occurring with a cow.

Again though, there has never been any talk of personhood for a cow.

Francione speaks of humanity as being ‘morally schizophrenic’. We can look at our cats, dogs, or any other animals close to us and love them. We would never dream of calling these animals unintelligent, and we see them as persons (even if they are not recognised as so by society as a whole).

I am not by any means disputing personhood for cetaceans, I fully support such an implementation. However, I am just trying to highlight the inconsistency here. As a supporter of Francione’s ideas and abolitionism, it surprises me that we still fail to recognise animals as beings and not just property to be utilised. These ideas to implement personhood to dolphins, whales, etc. simply begs the question of why stop there? Pigs, dogs, foxes, snakes, spiders, chickens, fish – any animal you can name has shown mind-blowing feats of intelligence, some which we don’t always understand.

And perhaps this strikes at the most important issue of all. We humans, as the dominant species on Earth, like to think that we are the be all and end all to animal intelligence, but the simple fact is that we aren’t. It is impossible for us to understand nature and its complexities in the way that we like to think that we can. Animals and their survival are dependent on their abilities to use their brain.

There are countless examples of intelligent behaviour developing within other species. From ants building fungus farms, to dolphins communicating verbally. The more we discover of Animalia, the more we are astounded. A matter of a couple of centuries ago we didn’t even think that other animals could feel pain, and now this has become universally accepted (with exceptions by some people towards some species e.g. fish).

A quote from Albert Einstein neatly sums this up. Sure, it’s taken out of context, but I think it is still apt (and in fact, more literal):

“Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Humanity, in its naivety, is at risk of becoming stuck up its own ass. By proclaiming ourselves as dominant, we have come to fail to realise not just that other species deserve rights, but to even comprehend other species as living, breathing beings. I am glad that these discussions are finally happening for cetaceans, but we have a long way to go before Francione’s ideals are met.

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