Non-human Persons

The Petchary believes 2011 should be the Year of the Dolphin.  OK, I know 2007 was (and who noticed?) but let’s do it again, and let’s make it every year.  Let us “superior” humans place dolphins where they belong… And they do not belong in any kind of enclosed space, trapped there for the “amusement” of humans.  They deserve our respect, love and protection.

According to a recent article in the London “Times,” some dolphins have larger brains than humans.  Recent studies suggest that they are actually the second most intelligent creature after humans (especially the bottlenose) – more so than chimpanzees, which have generally been considered “closest” to us.

Bottlenose dolphins are, of course, found in the Caribbean and are pretty widespread and not (yet) endangered in most parts of the world.  But how the “sea world” people love them.  They are attractive, charming, cute (just look at their smiling faces!) and yes, they love us humans, don’t they?

A positive love fest indeed.  So why do we feel the need to imprison them? Is it just to feel in control?  Like sitting astride elephants at the circus and making them do tricks?

Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Hunter College in New York Diana Reiss has made a number of remarkable discoveries about dolphins.  Firstly, they can recognize themselves in a mirror and adjust their appearance in front of it (just like we do when we leave the house… Does this outfit look OK?).  And of course 99 per cent of animals don’t recognize themselves at all.  Dolphins can also create an object of play out of their own body (an air ring).

Professor Reiss with the dolphin that first showed her self-awareness in a mirror
Professor Reiss with the dolphin that first showed her self-awareness in front of a mirror

Professor Reiss has been moved by her dolphin discoveries and research to campaign against the annual slaughter of dolphins at a National Park in Taiji, Wakayama in Japan.  She was the scientific adviser for the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary film, “The Cove” – a deeply disturbing account of the Japanese slaughter, where some animals are left to die slowly after their insides have been torn out, and others are “sold into slavery.”  If you want to know more about the professor’s organization, ACT for Dolphins, you can visit their website at, where there is a petition signed by hundreds of scientists worldwide.

Poster for "The Cove"
A free diver posed for this beautiful poster - the ideal relationship between man and dolphin.

One of the scientists pleads, “You cannot ignore any longer the fact that these animals have very large brains, highly developed societies, social relationships and significant cognitive abilities.”  But the annual massacre has not stopped.  Some “traditions” should be thrown out, don’t you think?

Professor Thomas I. White is director of the Center for Ethics and Business at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.  Professor White believes that dolphins and whales have rights – just as humans are supposed to have.  Three years ago he wrote a book, “In Defense of Dolphins – the New Moral Frontier,” in which he asks the fundamental question:  What kind of beings are dolphins?  He concludes, controversially but with the kind of passion that I think needs to be brought to this topic, that the relationship between humans and dolphins is, in effect, the same as that between white slave-owners and their slaves two centuries ago.  Because the dolphins, like slaves, are intelligent beings who are being treated as property.

And Professor White discusses the philosophical concept of “personhood.”  It’s not just about being a human.  What really makes you a person?

Think about it.

And just remember, as of 2007, over 1500 dolphins were in captivity (probably more now, and there are certainly more in captivity in Jamaica) – unable to make proper social relationships or to move freely in their concrete tanks.  Along with the cruelty of Taiji and those dolphins that are carelessly caught and killed in tuna fishing nets, these “non-human persons” – as a number of scientists describe them – are mere toys, objects for fun.  It is unforgivable, and those who make money out of this should be ashamed of themselves.

Captive dolphins in holiday hotspots
Prisoners performing for the tourists

But then, we humans don’t do a very good job of treating each other with love, respect and caring.  In Jamaica, there is little concern for human rights.  So why should we care about those of dolphins?  After all, the almighty tourist pays good money (U.S. Dollars!) to “interact” with them.

If you have ever seen dolphins in the wild, as the Petchary has, you would understand.

By the way, the Orca, or killer whale, is also a dolphin.  But that’s another story, for another time.

An orca taken into captivity
Why do we humans feel the need to take this creature into captivity?

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10 thoughts on “Non-human Persons

  1. Emma, thanks for directing me to this post. I have a vision of the return of the days when dolphins were abundant in Kingston Harbour and there was great delight in watching them frolic from the shore in Port Royal and along the Palisedoes peninsula.


    1. Dear Robert: What a lovely sight that must have been!
      I wonder if those days will ever return. I wish we could turn the clock back at least 20 years as far as our environment is concerned…and avoid the errors we have made over that period. Thank you for your comment.


  2. Thanks for this post, Emma. We in the Caribbean have many captive dolphin facilities, and it is very difficult to raise these issues. After more than ten years of trying to get folks to understand what these intelligent animals are condemned to in captivity, I now think the only hope is educating the demand side – our governments are just too weak to resist the large sums of money these places make. All the best in 2011 to you. Diana


    1. Thanks for your comment, and for subscribing Diana. Are there many other captive dolphin facilities in the Caribbean? I guess they are all making money, and that’s the bottom line as you say (which is what makes me angry too)… I know quite a few dolphins have died, but we don’t hear about them and it’s probably just seen as collateral damage. I don’t know WHAT the answer is. As you say, no one is listening. Warm wishes for 2011!


  3. PART 2
    On the other hand, people, particularly young ones, can have their minds opened to the issues associated with conservation through the careful exposure of people to captive animals, if done carefully – not everyone knows how to see things in the wild. The use of rehabilitated wildlife such as raptors, where they have been injured and cannot be returned to the wild, gives great results in switching people on to animals that would otherwise be persecuted. The trick is to get people to understand about animals in their habitat, as parts of an ecosystem, not a separate entity, and this is challenging.
    Ans finally, releasing birds from pet shops is cruel, as they will die slowly. Animals bred for the pet trade cannot be returned to the wild for a range of reasons. Perhaps the answer is better management of the pet trade and education of the public. I cannot understand why people buy cats or dogs from a pet shop, when there are many animals in shelters looking for owners. We are about to get a dog for our 10 year old, and are going to take on an abandoned greyhound, a breed treated poorly in general.
    Cheers, Rob


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Rob – and you are an expert, this is just my layperson’s view and probably too simplistic. I know the relationship between humans and animals is far more complex. I guess it is the idea of an animal “performing” to entertain humans that I find highly offensive and disturbing. I wonder what the difference is between performing tigers and elephants in the circus, and dolphins balancing silly hats on their heads at Sea World. And they are kept in SUCH small spaces…


  4. PART 1!
    Great post, well researched and written, as with all your posts – how do you find time to do this?

    I work in the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, and one of our biggest issues is interactions between people and wildlife. No matter what we do, people will always want to get close to wildlife, to touch them and feed them and usually do things counter-productive to the welfare of the animal, no matter what we say about it. The great American biologist Edward Wilson coined the term “biophilia” to describe humans innate need to associate with other species. It’s why we have had to change tack re feeding backyard wildlife, people just cannot see the big picture, so we need to educate them about how to best do this rather than insist that they do not (which would be wise in pretty much all cases). So, no matter what we do, it will always be difficult to stop people wanting to attend zoos and Seaworld shows. I share concerns about dolphins in captivity, and would rather catch the briefest glimpse of a wild one, or not and just know they are out there, than see one in captivity.


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