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Reader’s Digest: Whales Are People Too

readers-digest-cover-july2012For the cover story of the Canadian edition of Reader’s Digest for July, Jeff Warren heads out onto the ocean to discover what we’re learning about one of the most intelligent and self-aware animals on our planet.

Sperm whales have distinct cultures. Each clan, [Hal Whitehead] argues, is unique in almost every way: feeding, migration patterns, child-care preferences, rates of reproduction.

Sperm whales also speak different dialects. In addition to their echolocation clicks, they produce unique sequences of clicks called “codas,” which change from clan to clan—think of the variations, say, between Sicilian and Venetian—and are likely a declaration of group identity.

Warren spends time on the 40-foot cutter Dalhousie with Prof. Hal Whitehead, the world’s foremost expert on sperm whales as he wrestles with the question: Are whales people, too?

His conclusion: The science proves it, but the tough question is going to be whether humans are ready to see them as equals.

Whitehead’s evidence adds a whole new dimension to the way we think about protecting whales. It tells us that if humans break up a group of sperm whales or killer whales or dolphins, we are destroying not just individual lives or a population of animals; we are also destroying a unique dialect, a hunting strategy, a social tradition—an ancient, living culture.

“You have to understand,” Whitehead says, “until a few hundred thousand years ago most of the culture was in the ocean. Certainly the most sophisticated cultures on Earth were whales and dolphins, until the strange bipedal hominid evolved.”

Warren considers the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans, a document produced by a group of scientists, legal experts and philosophers at a meeting in Helsinki last year. “We affirm,” it reads, “that all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and well-being.”

One of the members of the team was Earth in Transition science advisor Dr. Lori Marino, whom Warren interviewed for the article:

“They are self-aware, intelligent, complex, autonomous, cultured and so on. If we accept that definition—and versions of this are used around the world in constitutions and other legislation—then the latest science is telling us that cetaceans also qualify. They are, therefore, nonhuman persons.”

Warren describes how whales of all kinds have moved from being nothing more than a source of lamp fuel, which brought many of their species to the very edge of extinction, to one of the prime species that science is compelling us humans to accept as our equals – maybe, in some ways, even more than our equals.

“Whales are arguably the most socially connected, communicative and coordinated mammals on the planet, including humans,” says Marino. “Killer whales, for instance, do not kill or even seriously harm one another in the wild, despite the fact that there is competition for prey and mates and there are disagreements. Their social rules prohibit real violence, and they seem to have worked out a way to peacefully manage the partitioning of resources among different groups. That is something we humans haven’t done yet.”

The fact that we humans can’t even truly know what another of our own kind is experiencing should give us pause before treating other kinds of animals as simply resources for our own benefit or entertainment. Warren concludes that it’s time to start understanding our fellow animals as a “rainbow of exotic cultures and narratives.”

We’re invited to be participating members in the community of nature, connected as though by invisible lines of echolocation to all these other “persons” on our planetary home.

Read the whole article from Reader’s Digest here.