A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Dolphin Welfare vs. Dolphin Rights

Photo by Tory Kallman

Is it OK to keep dolphins (including belugas and killer whales) in captivity as long as you follow certain approved standards of care from the zoo or research industries? Or do dolphins have the inherent right not to be held captive by humans in the first place?

It’s a question that hovered in the background of last weekend’s conference of the American Cetacean Society in San Diego. And at one session, it exploded to the surface.

Some Background

The welfare-vs.-rights debate suffuses the whole animal protection movement. For example, welfarists work to get better conditions for animals at factory farms; animal rights proponents denounce welfarism, insisting that the only moral course is to abolish factory farming (and all use of animals as food for humans). Welfarists retort that any improvement is better than none. Abolitionists fire back that this is like arguing for better conditions for slaves, and that welfarism simply keeps the whole sordid business going.

In the companion animal area, welfarists seek to “euthanize” homeless pets humanely rather than in gas chambers, while no-kill advocates say that humane societies and shelters should never be in the business of killing homeless pets.

In every area – vivisection, wildlife management, zoos and other entertainment – the issue keeps rearing its head. And last weekend’s annual conference of the American Cetacean Society was no exception. Over and over, the question was: Do we have the right to treat intelligent marine mammals as subjects for research and other kinds of exploitation?

Are they “stocks” or are they individuals?

Photo by Heather Hill

One of the key laws that governs our relationship to dolphins and whales is the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). It’s classic animal welfarism, and it’s certainly made a big difference for the animals.

Today, 40 years later, many people say the MMPA is out of date. And this became clear in the very first session of the conference, when Barbara Taylor, a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, took stock of how the law is working for marine mammals today.

While the act brought an end to many kinds of abuses, like hundreds of thousands of dolphins being caught and drowned in tuna nets (368,600 in 1972 alone), there are enormous new threats to the animals. Climate change, military and commercial sonar, and complaints from the fishing industry are all taking their toll on marine mammals.

John-DingellWhen he was working to push the bill through Congress in 1971, Rep. John Dingell famously said: “Once destroyed, biological capital cannot be recreated.” That’s true, but the language shows the extent to which marine mammals were viewed as resources, stocks and species – not individuals in their own right.

And that’s the problem with welfarism. Whales and dolphins are still constantly referred to as stocks, resources and commodities, with the focus on how many of them we can kill while still ensuring that the species is “sustainable.”

Outdated forms of entertainment like SeaWorld still claim to be “educating” people, and old-guard scientists who depend on research grants from zoos and aquariums still claim that their experiments on animals are actually helping the animals.

The whole issue came front-and-center at the conference on Saturday afternoon in a discussion of “The Question of Personhood.”

Personhood and moral rights

Photo by Mandy Houston

Dolphins-tomwhiteWhat is a “person”? Are dolphins and whales persons? Tom White, professor of business ethics at Marymount University and author of In Defense of Dolphins, started by reminding us of the distinction between a “human”, which describes your biological identity, and a “person”, which describes your moral and legal place in the world.

A “person” is an individual who is alive and aware, who has emotions and a sense of herself and her own existence, who can control her own behavior, recognizes other persons and treats them appropriately, and who has a variety of sophisticated cognitive abilities.

Once you understand what constitutes a person, White said, it’s easy to recognize what their “rights” are. Basically, rights are the same as needs – you have the right, as a person, to a life that fulfills your basic needs as a member of your species.

Dolphin rights are not the same as human rights. Dolphins don’t need to drive a car or have equal pay for equal work. As beings whose identity and individuality are intricately bound up with their large family pod, they need to live their lives with that family group.

And that means they have the right not to held captive.

lori-marino-111512Lori Marino of Emory University’s Center for Ethics and the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy gave four simple reasons why captivity for cetaceans isn’t just a violation of their basic rights, but also an outdated, dried-up scientific approach:

  • They possess all the characteristics of persons, which makes them particularly vulnerable to being harmed by captivity.
  • The scientific data show unequivocally that they suffer stress in captivity, become aggressive, self-mutilate, and die early.
  • Little of any value is currently being learned from captive research. By contrast, field studies of wild dolphins are producing fascinating discoveries about cetacean behavior and intelligence.
  • And the captivity industry is tied to the infamous dolphin and whale drive hunts, at which certain animals are pulled from the slaughter and sent to marine zoos and circuses around the world.

SONY DSC                       The third member of the panel was Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist who conducts research on captive dolphins at Hunter College, the National Aquarium and the National Zoo, and is the author of The Dolphin in the Mirror.

Dr. Reiss focused her talk on the argument that we should all be working together to bring an end to the drive hunts and slaughters. But this was something of a straw man since everyone at the conference was already agreed on that. And the only examples she offered as to the value of captive research were from 10 and even 30 years ago. This was not lost on the audience, several of whom rose to rebuke what they considered a dishonest presentation.


And so, the Saturday session came to an end with the clear distinction being made between those who see dolphins and whales as stocks, resources and property, and those who see them as individuals with rights and needs.

Empathy in Nonhuman Animals

frans-dewaal-111512On Sunday morning, we heard a fascinating talk by Frans de Waal, the famous primatologist whose books include Chimpanzee Politics and The Age of Empathy. While most of his research has been on apes, monkeys and elephants, he said that much of it could also be applied to cetaceans.

De Waal showed a series of videos demonstrating empathy in nonhumans – for example, how one great ape will console another; how chimpanzees and bonobos reconcile after an argument; how elephants cooperate to solve a problem (even if this means giving up a larger share of the reward); and how capuchin monkeys have a sense of fairness and will rebel if they feel they’re being treated unfairly.

Here’s a video of the capuchin experiment:

And here’s a complete TED talk by de Waal that covers some of these same topics:

But once again we were back in the debate over welfare vs. rights. However fascinating and insightful de Waal’s research surely is, he could not bring himself to draw the obvious conclusion from his own research: that the animals he studies have clearly demonstrated that they do not belong in captivity.