Saturday, December 17, 2011

Will Whales and Dolphins be Granted Personhood Status?

A little girl waves to a passing Beluga whale at the Vancouver, BC aquarium. Photo courtesy: rafe arnott / metro file

The answer, in a word, is absolutely!

Many year ago, my daughters and I were paying one of our frequent visits to the Vancouver Aquarium. At the whale exhibit, my youngest happened to stand in the spot the trainers stand in to signal the Beluga whale to spit (so to speak). He spat at her and spat again about five minutes later and so on. She was delighted - the whale recognized her. While my eldest and I toured the rest of the Cetacean exhibit, she stood there visiting with the whale who remembered and recognized her from previous visits.

She truly believed he recognized her; and, I like to think she was right. The point being she was so convinced of the intelligence in marine animals it never occurred to her that he might learn to recognize some of the frequent visitors to his enclosure.

I am hoping that these magnificent mammals are given personhood status. Just because their lifestyle is different to mine does not mean their lives are of any less value than mine.

Whales and dolphins are intelligent and cultural creatures and should be granted basic personhood rights, scientists argue.

Lori Marino, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, and Thomas White of Loyola Marymount University in California plan to present the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Vancouver.

The declaration aims to open a discussion about the ethical and policy implications of giving cetaceans basic personhood rights. Giving personhood rights is already being considered for the great apes.

According to the scientists, research has proven that whales have cultural and cognitive abilities similar to humans. The emotional and social areas of the cetacean brain are “enormously complex,” notes one researcher, “and in many species are “even more highly elaborated than in the human brain.”

Whales are self-aware — they can recognize themselves in mirrors — they understand symbolic language and they think about others in a way comparable to humans.

“They’re very similar to us: (they) have a sense of individual identity, personality, the ability to control behaviour and abstract thinking,” White said. “They’re even more social beings than humans are.”

They also have complex cultural lives involving learning, the transmission of cultural traits from one generation to the next and the use of tools.

Some scientists believe that whales, in particular, have mastered their own language. The use of sound among whales and dolphins is particularly advanced, and researchers say there may be “something like grammar, syntax, even language” in the complex songs and codas passed between generations and individuals.

The sonar use of sound has interesting social implications as well. “There’s nowhere to hide,” notes a researcher. “They can use sound to form an image of each other’s insides—whether you’re pregnant, hungry, sick.”

“We’ve shown that all these qualities that make humans persons are shared with other animals,” said Marino. “(They) shouldn’t be treated like property or objects — shouldn’t be confined, captured, slaughtered or exploited and all the things we still do to dolphins and whales,” she said.

Hal Whitehead, a Dalhousie University biologist says this: "Based on what we know, I’d guess that cetacean culture is intermediate between humans and chimpanzees. Not in material culture, but in most other respects."

Annelise Sorg, president of the Coalition for No Whales in Captivity, said the symposium will “open up a door that hasn’t been opened to any other species before.”

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