Why whales and dolphins should qualify as ‘non-human people’

They can understand numbers and abstract concepts and have their own distinct culture and traditions



Kate Lunau is covering the 2012 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, a gathering of some of the world’s finest brains and celebrities of science. On Feb. 16-20, Lunau will bring you a sneak peak of the latest research and findings, posting to Macleans.ca on anything from healthcare and climate change, to food security, and more. Follow Kate on Twitter:@Katelunau , #AAAS, #AAASmtg.

A U.S. judge recently dismissed a claim from PETA, an animal rights group, that captive killer whales are “slaves” who should be set free. But this afternoon at the AAAS Meeting in Vancouver, a panel of researchers presented compelling evidence that whales and dolphins should qualify as “non-human people,” or individuals with self-awareness and a set of rights, to be protected.

Lori Marino of Emory University, who’s spent over 20 years studying cetacean brains, pointed out that whales and dolphins have among the biggest (for their size) and most complex brains on the planet. Dolphins, she said, have shown evidence that they can understand numbers, abstract concepts, and can recognize themselves in a mirror—they’ve even been seen using tools to catch fish. Whale species, too, have their own distinct culture and traditions. Marino cited the work of Dalhousie University’s Hal Whitehead, a pioneer in sperm whale research, whose work unraveling these whales’ cultural traditions has been previously covered in Maclean’s.

In captivity, whales can suffer all sorts of stress effects, from over-aggression to stomach ulcers, Marino said, pointing to the case of the killer whale who killed a SeaWorld trainer. Orcas in the wild can live 80 to 100 years, she said, but in captivity, live to be about 25.

Kari Koski of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Wash. spoke about the killer whale populations that live off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, noting that they have their own ceremonies and traditions, too. As the University of British Columbia’s John Ford has shown, different groups of killer whales can have their own distinct dialects, much like sperm whales and other species do. According to Koski, killer whales have been observed participating in birth and death rituals, like a grieving mother who stayed with her stillborn baby while other members of her group swam beside her.

The more we understand about these complex creatures, the more it seems imperative to protect them from threats like Japanese whaling, and other forms of abuse. In 2010, in Helsinki Finland, a Declaration of Rights for Cetacieans was drafted, which was presented here. “We affirm that all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and wellbeing,” it says.


Why whales and dolphins should qualify as ‘non-human people’

  1. Ulcers as a stress effect is an old wives tail.  The bacterial theory has won the day. H. Pylori being the culprit in humans.

    •  Perhaps the cause of ulcers is, as they say, multi-determined? I know H Pylori is a major cause, but believe me I’ve seen people who have stress ulcers. Maybe stress makes you more susceptible to H Pylori?

  2. A ship came from outer space,
    And a voice inside said,”To the wisest we will give a free ride.”
    People came from far and wide,
    And the ship left with a whale and a dolphin inside.

  3. This is about as assinine an arguement as I’ve heard. Sure, we can extend HUMAN rights to all non-humans but with rights comes responsibilities. Can someone tell me how you would incarcerate say.. a dolphin for attacking another dolphin? How would you get a victim’s testimony?
    What about Orcas attacking other whale species calves solely to kill them? It would be premeditated and the intent is clear.
    So yes, while they may be able to perform abstract reasoning, might be able to count, but the one thing Science cannot determine is.. are they self aware? A secondary concern is why grant HUMAN rights to non humans? Would that not be offensive to non humans? How far down the food chain do we go to extend rights? to all animals? to just some? Maybe just mammals? What about birds?
    Maybe insects, or plants or virii?

    As far as ulcers, actually stress does contribute to the creation of ulcers. Stress lowers the body’s immune system allowing the H. Pylori to take hold, causing the ulcer.

    • Relax, they don’t actually mean to give cetaceans literal human rights. They just want to give them right to life and freedom. Put proper protections in place to consider them as individuals. This doesn’t mean that the whales have a right to vote or be put on trial for murder etc. It just means they can’t be considered products or be used to create profit. So far it’s just scientists talking about it anyway, they don’t have the power to create actual laws.

      And whales and dolphins have been proven as being self aware. 

  4. I also call dolphins and whales the people of the sea.  They are incredible mammals. 

  5. I think the researchers have it backwards. We should bless humans with cetacean rights. 99.9999% of
    cetaceans have the ultimate right.   Freedom, no taxes, no laws, no passport needed to travel, no government, no religions, just wide open ocean.  Now that’s living.

  6. Tell you what:  how ’bout we start by recognizing so-called human non-people as human people first, before we start trying to incorporate non-humans.

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