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5 reasons why dolphins should be given ‘human’ rights

As Southeast Asia struggles to save the last of its Mekong River and Irrawaddy Dolphins, some ponder: should these remarkably intelligent animals be given “human” rights?

By Graham Land

Global, September 22, 2015

Asian Correspondent

In light of the current dolphin and whale hunt in Taiji, Japan, I thought I should present a brief, but rational argument, backed by science, against their savage exploitation and for their rights as individuals.

Cetacean rights?

Supported by many respected scientists and scientific organizations, the Declaration of Cetacean Rights: For Whales and Dolphins holds that no cetacean should be killed, captured, enslaved, treated cruelly or removed from their natural environment, which should be protected. They should be free to move where they like and may not be considered property or have their cultures disturbed. They furthermore deserve the protection of these rights under international law.

Of course dolphins are not human, but there are strong arguments that they, along with whales, should be afforded the rights of “non-human people” or simply granted “personhood”.

Here are 5 reasons why:

  1. Dolphins are highly intelligent

Evidence of dolphin intelligence is substantial, manifold and always increasing with further research. It is already widely accepted that dolphins and whales possess a high degree of intelligence, and there is strong evidence that they also have a “human” type of self-awareness, evinced by the complexity of their brains. Cetacean brains have the type of spindle cell associated in humans with abstract reasoning.

Highly social animals, dolphins form unique bonds, structures and cultures, which differ from pod to pod. They use tools and can recognize themselves in the mirror, something only great apes, elephants and the smartest of birds can manage. 

  1. Dolphins are sociable and very communicative

In order to communicate, dolphins use several methods. Perhaps most familiar are their complex vocal cues, which include clicks, whistles, chirps and screams. Many scientists believe that bottlenose dolphins have signature whistles, suggesting more advanced verbal communication skills than previously thought. They also relay information with non-vocal acoustic sounds, using tail and fin slaps, jaw claps and exhaling rapidly while breaking the surface of the water. Other ways in which dolphins communicate include blowing bubbles, posturing and body coloration.

It may even be possible to teach dolphins to read, as this research video indicates.

  1. Dolphins are more sensitive and therefore less violent than people

In terms of the amount of killing that goes on within a single species, it could be argued that practically all animals are less violent than people, yet most humans do not engage directly in murder. Dolphins, who may sometimes engage in the aggressive bullying of weaker peers, do not even lash out when being slaughtered by humans. According to some scientists, this may be due to dolphins thinking more “emotionally” than humans do.

“. . . captive dolphins… have often shown humor, empathy, and self-control that few of us could match under comparable circumstances.”

—from the The Evolution of Cetacean Intelligence by Sterling Bunnell

  1. Dolphins behave compassionately

Dolphins have been observed helping their injured or dying friends, even appearing mourn them after they died.

A 2008 Korean expedition in the Sea of Japan witnessed a group of 12 long-beaked common dolphins form a raft around a partially paralyzed injured female in an attempt to prevent her from drowning. Some even stayed with her after she had died.

Non-captive dolphins, Philippines. Pic: tintedpuppet (Flickr CC).

  1. Mistreating dolphins is not that far from mistreating humans

One need only open a newspaper to see how horribly humans can treat each other. The United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights has not eradicated war, slavery, torture or oppression among or between groups of peoples — far from it. Nonetheless, it is at least a statement that many of us believe these things should end and that all of humanity should be afforded certain rights.

Treating other intelligent creatures — whether they are whales and dolphins, orangutans or chimpanzees — with such abject callousness, cruelty and disregard surely undermines our compassion, empathy and logic. These are exactly the qualities we need to cultivate in order to treat each other fairly and justly.


Featured image: Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Pic: Pete Markham (Flickr CC).


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