"Human rights" urged for whales and dolphins

OSLO Sun May 23, 2010 7:01am EDT

NE Pacific Transient killer whale is seen in this undated photograph taken in Alaska. REUTERS/Dave Ellifrit/NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center /Handout

NE Pacific Transient killer whale is seen in this undated photograph taken in Alaska.

Credit: Reuters/Dave Ellifrit/NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center /Handout

Related Topics

OSLO (Reuters) - Whales and dolphins should get "human rights" to life and liberty because of mounting evidence of their intelligence, a group of conservationists and experts in philosophy, law and ethics said Sunday.

Japan, Norway and Iceland, the main whaling nations, oppose such arguments that would outlaw hunting or even keeping the mammals in marine parks. They have long said there is no real evidence that they are smarter, for instance, than cows or pigs.

Participants at a University of Helsinki conference said ever more studies show the giant marine mammals have human-like self-awareness, an ability to communicate and organize complex societies, making them similar to some great apes.

"We affirm that all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and wellbeing," they said in a declaration after a two-day meeting led by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS).

Thomas White, director of the Center for Ethics and Business at Loyola Marymount University in California who was at the Helsinki talks, said dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror, an ability rare in mammals that humans only acquire at about 18 months of age.

"Whaling is ethically unacceptable," he told Reuters. "They have a sense of self that we used to think that only human beings have."

Hal Whitehead, a biology professor at Dalhousie University in Canada and an expert on deep-water whales, said there was more evidence that whales have human-like culture.


He said that sperm whales have sonars to find fish that are so powerful that they could permanently deafen others nearby if used at full blast. Yet the whales do not use sonars as weapons, showing what Whitehead called a human-like "sense of morality."

"It's like a group of human hunters armed with guns," he told Reuters. "There's a clear sense of how the sonar can be used."

Nations in the International Whaling Commission will debate a proposal to approve limited hunts for 10 years by the main whaling nations at a meeting next month, relaxing a 1986 moratorium imposed after many species came close to extinction.

"We want a shift to putting the individual at the center of conservation," said Nicholas Entrup, of the WDCS. That would mean giving minke whales, relatively plentiful and most often hunted, the same protection as endangered northern right whales.

But one expert biologist, who was not at the conference, said many researchers had wrongly concluded that whales and dolphins were smart because they have big brains.

"There's nothing to separate them from other mammals -- seals, lions or tigers," Paul Manger of Johannesburg's University of Witwatersrand, told Reuters. They had evolved big brains largely to keep warm in the chill waters.

Saying whales were not especially bright was not the same as advocating hunts, he said. "We protect fish stocks even though no one argues that they are intelligent," he said.

(Editing by Maria Golovnina)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (10)
johne37179 wrote:
I nominate Al Gore as First Whale. Although he would have to shed a few pounds or be put in the Blue Whale category.

May 23, 2010 9:25am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Being at the top of the food chain has it’s responsibilities, but relinquishing that position by elevating other species to equal status is not prudent for our survival.

May 23, 2010 4:40pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
SMRTNUP wrote:
I can only guess that the scientists involved in the studies of whale and dolphin intelligence have intelligently decided to suggest something stupid like “WHALES AND DOLPHINS DESERVE TO BE GIVEN HUMAN RIGHTS BECAUSE THEY’RE JUST SOOOOO SMART” !!! . . And, . . by so doing, . . in making themselves look dumb, . . the sea creatures look so much more intelligent. . .
What happens when this brilliant idea grows to the point that ALL fish and sea animals rate equal human rights ??? . . Do we then arrest, prosecute and execute the fishermen who assault, kidnap, torture, slay, . . and EAT whatever they catch, . . IF THEY GET CAUGHT ???
Whoever pays these guys’ salaries might want to re-consider that. . . .

May 23, 2010 7:18pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.


California's historic drought

With reservoirs at record lows, California is in the midst of the worst drought in decades.  Slideshow