Cetacean Personhood: Implications and Applications

Pilot whale (photo credit Raffa Herrero)

*I might not be here speaking to you today, if it weren’t for dolphins. Back in 1992, while I was swimming off the coast of Hawaii, dolphins saved my life and escorted me back into shallow water. These wild creatures offered me help when I needed it, they put themselves between me and danger and considered my life worth saving. I’ve dedicated my life’s work to trying to help them. I bring my skills as a writer, a photographer, a videographer, a researcher and an educator to bear on diverse projects in different parts of the world—often in places where some of the worst things are happening to dolphins and whales.

*Over the last twenty–odd years of research and conservation work, I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours observing different cetacean species in very close proximity. These long years of first hand experiences taught me that dolphins are indeed richly aware, thinking, feeling, beings—Persons.

*Back when I started this work in the late 1980s, a conference on the topic of non-human personhood at an Ivy League university would have seemed like an impossible dream. So it is VERY exciting to see different branches of science, study and thought bringing this matter into the public and academic arena here today.

*Millions of people around the world have been inexplicably touched by close encounters with wild whales and dolphins. When asked, they usually they find it very difficult to articulate exactly why seeing these creatures close up in their natural element is so deeply exhilarating. People lucky enough to look into the eye of a dolphin or whale, may be profoundly struck by what they glimpse there. Is this what happens when a human being comes into contact with another non-human Person?

eyes are the windows to the soul (photo credit Ute Margreff)

*Are Dolphins and whales Special? How this question is answered is key to the way we treat them. Currently we use cetaceans in all sorts of ways to advance our own interests and legally they are classified as property rather than persons. The present assumption is that we are entitled to use cetaceans for our purposes, whether as research subjects, as entertainment at marine parks or simply as flesh and blubber to consume.

*Whale Like Me has overcome infamously difficult cultural barriers, to invite whaling cultures to experience another way of regarding cetaceans. It is a delicate matter, introducing ideas that may run counter to cultural blind spots that have existed for a very long time… Some of it is very basic and practical, demonstrating that most coastal communities around the world that once engaged in whaling, have since discovered that interest in whale watching is booming and now worth billions globally. These days, whales and dolphins are worth much more alive and free, rather than dead.

The Grind: Faroese pilot whale hunt


*The men of the Faroe Islands up in the remote North Atlantic, currently regard whales and dolphins as a traditional source of meat and blubber, to be violently butchered and consumed, salted, dried or cooked. The Faroese enjoy one of the highest standards of living in all of Europe and have easy access to life’s modern conveniences. Our work there revealed that despite centuries of whaling, the Faroese know next to nothing about the rich complexities of whale societies or the emotional and intellectual sophistication of dolphins. They see killing and eating cetaceans as no different from killing and eating any other animal and perhaps can be forgiven for viewing most foreign condemnation as being hypocritical. Like other whaling cultures, they insist dolphins and whales are NOT special.
*Those engaged in exploiting cetaceans, in North America and elsewhere, would prefer to ignore the growing body of scientific evidence to the contrary and dismiss it all as irrelevant, fringe theories cooked up by over-emotional, whale hugging hippies. But this is in the process of changing. When presented in an engaging and non-combative way, the facts about cetaceans’ impressive capabilities begin to inspire interest and curiosity. Whale Like Me offers a vehicle so compelling, that even whalers themselves have come on board to cooperate in exploring cetaceans in a new light.

Whales are worth more alive than dead (credit Raffa Herrero)

*One of the great challenges is helping people to understand that despite an outward shape that is undeniably “fish-like”, these creatures are harboring minds of such sophistication, that the facts can no longer be responsibly ignored—however inconvenient they may be.

*When the question is asked, just how intelligent are dolphins and whales? It often translates into: how much are they like us. Such bias can make it difficult for us to recognize, measure or convey intelligence in cetaceans, who lack hands and vocal cords and living in water, would be unable to develop technologies based on fire and electricity. Obviously cetaceans don’t build skyscrapers or write anything and have no need to, yet their neurological hardware compares with ours more so than any other species. Science has demonstrated that dolphins have accurate memories, an ability to grasp abstract concepts, a capacity to understand the fundamentals of language, solve problems and demonstrate self-awareness. Most occidental experts recognize them as conscious, conceptualizing creatures of impressive intellect.

Science recognizes cetaceans’ impressive intellect (credit Raffa Herrero)

*Whale Like Me seeks to help those we work with to realize just how strong the case for recognizing dolphins and whales as Persons really is, so they can begin to take the concept on board seriously. Particularly in first world nations, the infusion of ground-breaking scientific evidence shouldn’t be halted by outdated cultural bias.

* People are often amazed to discover that cetaceans possess such complex and diverse societies, demonstrating different cultures, dialects and social quirks. Their long life spans, advanced cognitive abilities and prolonged periods parental care form a repository of experience and traditions unique to different species and regions. Grandmother pilot whales may play essential roles as experienced leaders of their families and communities. Twenty five percent of an adult female’s life may be post-reproductive which is extremely rare in mammals. Such individuals may hold important cultural knowledge and carry exceptional significance in their communities, far in excess of their reproductive value. Take away Grandmother whale—and the rest of the tribe suffers.

Whales and dolphins have different cultures (credit Raffa Herrero)


*Both Japanese and Faroese whalers argue that killing dolphins and whales is acceptable because the species they target (like pilot whales) are presumed not to be endangered. Such argument, focusing on the status of stocks, has to date, effectually stalled all efforts to erect even the tiniest umbrella of international protection for dolphins and small whales. To be recognized as Persons, rather than “marine resources”, means the suffering of each individual cetacean becomes a matter of concern, NOT just activities that threaten the extinction of entire populations.

*We humans imagine ourselves as separate, set above and against other species; we imagine other animals exist primarily for our use, amusement, consumption or disposal. When change is demanded, conflicts arise, as those untouched by increasing compassion, or perhaps benefiting from its absence, try to maintain the regime in place. Most people initially experience difficulty in accepting they may be involved in something wrong, cruel or exploitative. People protect themselves from painful realizations by dismissing or ignoring evidence—even the though the facts may be staring them in the face. The parts of our humanity that should normally connect us to those we harm have been cut off. Our empathies have been deadened, or we would naturally recoil at the thought of causing such harm.

Faroese children play on the bodies of slaughtered pilot whales

*The obstacles to rectifying this situation are major and very real, yet we have made the same kinds of profound moral shifts in the past, even when they conflicted with strong religious beliefs and even stronger economic interests! Ending human slavery in America required a profound revision of human moral perceptions. Now in the 21st century, we find ourselves setting out upon a similarly perilous and controversial road regarding our treatment of certain non-human species.

*Historically the evolution of our ethics has come from the inclusion of other races or genders into our community of moral concern—and thus, has our own humanity grown and improved. Faced with the dawning realization that other species have intrinsic worth—and that our morality ought to include our relationship and dealings with them—our humanity is again struggling to evolve ethically on a deep level. Choosing compassion over utility or profit appears to be one of the most profound choices we are struggling with as a species. Some people appear unable, or perhaps unwilling to grasp this concept, or move towards the necessary kinds of change. For a long time, much human morality has been mired in narrow self-interest. But as our ethical understanding evolves, what once appeared reasonable, may no longer seem that way.

Captive dolphin in Taiji

*Respected psychologist and professor of neuroscience from Harvard, Dr. Howard Gardner has developed the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, recognizing a number of distinct categories of intelligence beyond the typical mathematical-logical-linguistic type most commonly measured on standard IQ tests. He has also speculated on the concept of what he terms Moral Intelligence. Advanced Moral Intelligence may involve a strong sense of enduring commitment to uphold justice, truth, compassion and the sanctity of life in the world. Those displaying Moral Intelligence show a heightened awareness and concern for the effects of their actions on others.

*At present, such “Moral Intelligence” appears to have manifested only incompletely in our species. Portions of humankind are striving to reach a kind of moral maturity, while others appear insensible to any such ethical evolution. We seem caught in the middle; a dual species, with some individuals becoming cognizant of profound truths, opposing unjust laws and harmful or destructive practices—and others remaining steadfastly self-absorbed, unconcerned with any larger fate. Each seems incomprehensible to the other.

Who are these minds in the waters?


*It is our own self-awareness that should allow us to recognize other sentient beings when we meet them. Many people appear able to recognize dolphins and whales as fellows immediately—others seem to lack this ability. Interestingly, despite all our differences, dolphins seem to recognize humans in this way, as beings similar to themselves—beings who are intelligent and curious about other intelligences. Throughout thousands of years of recorded contact, dolphins, despite being large, powerful predators, have normally behaved towards humans in a respectful, non-aggressive fashion. The record (and my personal experience) would seem to indicate they think our lives are worth saving, yet we have failed to return the favor. So, which species is more ethically evolved and morally mature?

Funghi of Ireland visits lucky boaters

*Cetaceans have had their large sophisticated brains for something like 15 million years longer than we. We are a young species, and our science is younger still.

*There are of course those who would argue against cetaceans qualifying as non-human persons—particularly among whaling nations. However, such is the growing diversity of scientific evidence already complied—and such is the gravity of the case and its implications (when we are at this moment, killing many thousands of whales and dolphins on an extraordinarily vast scale) –logic would seem to dictate our moral obligation as human beings would require that we “do no more harm” until the situation can be fully clarified.

*In 2010 a panel of international experts convened in Helsinki, and codifed the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans. The Declaration outlines a set of protective guiding principles in support of the intrinsic rights of whales and dolphins. These principles include the rights to life, liberty and wellbeing, independent of human utility. We collaborate with and work alongside leading experts endeavoring to realize these changes; organizations like the Nonhuman Rights Project, Cetacean Society International, Ocean Care, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation society, are working on multiple fronts armed with the best scientific evidence to advance a credible case for the formal recognition of basic rights for whales and dolphins, while promoting the protection of individuals as well as populations.
To view and sign the Declaration, please visit www.cetaceanrights.org
*While Law, Science and Academia work diligently and rigorously to catalogue and prove what millions of people have already experienced to be true, it remains an unimaginably tall mountain to climb: even my computer’s spell-check attempts to correct me, when I refer to dolphins as a Who, rather than a What.

Its ones’ own self-awareness that should allow us to recognize it in others

*This conference marks an amazing historical moment in time. From the perspective of intellectual history, interspecies ethics are nothing short of revolutionary and arguably, the most dramatic expansion of morality in the course of modern human thought!

*By engaging in this very process today, in wrestling with these concepts, their implications and their applications—we embrace the potential to become better beings, better Persons.

Faroese whaler meets sperm whale (photo credit Ingi Sorensen)

*My years among cetaceans have brought me perspective; shown me that the powerful and privileged status humans enjoy on this earth entails not a right to exploit, but a responsibility to protect and initiate positive, restorative changes. Dolphins and whales are a supremely apt symbol for the polarized human relationship with Nature and the internal struggle we are at this critical point in time facing within human nature itself. Cetaceans are a test: a test of OUR intelligence, of OUR awareness, of our courage and of OUR humanity.

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