Marine Mammals Need Rights, Too, Scientists Say

Killer whale and Weddell seal.
Killer whale and Weddell seal. (Image credit: Robert Pitman/NOAA)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Orcas mourn their dead, right whales have accents and dolphins like to have fun (and they "talk" in their sleep). Because of their special intelligence and culture, marine mammals should have their own set of rights, researchers attending the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting here said.

"Because of their cultural sophistication these are enormously vulnerable individuals," said Lori Marino, who studies brain and behavioral evolution in mammals at Emory University in Atlanta. "We have all the evidence to show that there is an egregious mismatch between how cetaceans are and how they are perceived and still treated by our species."

Giving rights to cetaceans, the name for the group of marine mammals that includes dolphins and whales, would allow them better treatment under the law, including making sure they have healthy habitats and enough food to hunt and survive, as well as getting them out of captivity.

Special brains

Scientists point to a few qualities of marine mammals when suggesting the animals deserve some basic rights: they are self-aware, display complex intelligence and even have culture.

"These characteristics are shared with our own species, we recognize them," Marino said. "All of these characteristics make it ethically inconsistent to deny the basic rights of cetaceans."

And what do they mean by "basic rights?"

"When we talk about rights, that's a shorthand way to talk about the fundamental needs of a being," Thomas White, of Loyola Marymount University in California, said at the symposium. He also draws the difference between "human" and "person," similar to how philosophers distinguish the two: A human is a biological idea — Homo sapiens, to be specific, while in philosophy, a person is a being of any species with a particular set of characteristics that deserves special treatment. [10 Things That Make Humans Special]

"You have to have a species-appropriate understanding of rights," White said. These include the basic set of conditions for growth, development, flourishingand even a rudimentary sense of satisfaction in life.

The researchers noted some areas where humans are stripping these animals of their rights. For instance, by keeping them in captivity we are exploiting their right to live in their natural environment without human interference, and taking away their right to physical and mental health, Marino said, adding, "The effects of captivity are well known. These animals suffer from stress and disease in captivity. Many captive dolphins and orcas show physical and behavioral indications of stress." (Some endangered animals are kept in captivity for specially designed breeding programs meant to protect their population from extinction.)

PETA problems

The meeting comes on the heels of a recent ruling in a San Diego court that animals such as whales and dolphins don't have human rights, shutting down a lawsuit from the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who had claimed that SeaWorld’s orcas were slaves. PETA claimed that the park broke the 13th Amendment of the Constitution — banning slavery — by forcing their animals, specifically the orcas, to work against their will for the financial gain of their owners.

San Diego District Judge Jeffrey Miller dismissed the case before the hearing even began. "As 'slavery' and 'involuntary servitude' are uniquely human activities," he explained in his decision on Feb. 8, "there is simply no basis to construe the Thirteenth Amendment as applying to non-humans."

His statement makes clear, Marino pointed out, why she and others are fighting for "person" status for marine mammals. "Without obtaining legal status as a person in the law there's nowhere to go and there's nothing that judge could have done in that PETA case, even if he wanted to,” Marino said. Before we start asking for legal action, she said, we need to get these animals their basic rights.

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Jennifer Welsh

Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.