Philosophy > General AR Philosophy
Marine Mammals Need Rights, Too, Scientists Say

By Jennifer Welsh | - Thu, Feb 23, 2012

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

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, flourishing and 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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