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Did Flipper deserve human rights?

A baby bottle nose dolphin, born last month, swims close to his mother at the Hakkeijima Sea Paradise aquarium in Yokohama, suburban Tokyo on June 7, 2011.
A baby bottle nose dolphin, born last month, swims close to his mother at the Hakkeijima Sea Paradise aquarium in Yokohama, suburban Tokyo on June 7, 2011.
Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

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The star dolphin of that wholesome 1960s TV show “Flipper” helped popularize the notion that marine mammals are intelligent, individual and worthy of our respect. Now, a new proposal seeks to formally enshrine rights for dolphins and whales and end any maltreatment.

Last week, the “Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans” was presented at the biggest annual science conference in the world, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The advocates, ethicists and scientists that drafted the statement believe dolphins and whales are intelligent enough to merit the same ethical considerations as human beings.

They say a major facet of that intelligence is that cetaceans can exhibit self-awareness at a human-like level. A study by Lori Marino of Emory University shows that dolphins and whales have brains as anatomically complex as human beings, reported the Economist. Spindle cells were found in the cetacean brain, a part associated with higher cognitive functions in humans, such as abstract reasoning.

“Science, over a long period of time, clarifies issues and raises new issues that, say 30, 40 years ago, we weren’t seeing as significant issues,” said Thomas White, member of the Helsinki group that created the declaration.

According to White, improved research has shown the absolute centrality of relationships to a dolphin’s lifestyle, something essential to a dolphin’s basic rights as an intelligent being.

“In the wild, they’ll spend up to one third of the day [...] making contact with one another. You put a big-brained being in the ocean, how do you survive? You can’t survive by making tools and buildings, you’re going to survive by making relationships,” he said. “There is no way you can provide, in a captive environment. There’s no way you can replicate the conditions that you see in the wild that support the kind of emotional development, emotional health and stability.”

Ronald Bailey, Science Correspondent for Reason magazine, said he supports the effort to protect intelligent creatures, but disapproves of giving cetaceans “rights.”

“One of the central features of ethics and the notion of rights is that the sorts of rights bearing creatures also have to be responsible for their actions. Entities that are incapable of accepting responsibility, like a child, or an animal, even a very intelligent animal like a chimpanzee or dolphin, can only be accorded protections, not rights,” he continued.

Furthermore, Bailey said that language is critical in regards to the notion of rights. “What would constitute rights from the point of view of dolphins? How would they assert among themselves the concept of what rights are, if they don’t have the concept of abstract rights that language affords us?” he asked.


How is animal intelligence measured? How does marine-mammal intelligence compare to that of cats, honey bees, primates and homo sapiens? Is dolphin captivity akin to slavery? What makes a human distinct from all other animals?


Thomas White, Professor of Ethics, Loyola Marymount University; author, “In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier”

Ronald Bailey, Science Correspondent for Reason magazine; and author of "Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution"