New Science Emboldens Long Shot Bid for Dolphin & Whale Rights

Over the last several decades, researchers have shown that many dolphin and whale species are extraordinarily intelligent and social creatures, with complex cultures and rich inner lives. They are, in a word, persons.

Now animal advocates are challenging society to follow science to its logical conclusion and give legal rights to cetaceans. In the next several years, they intend to make their case in a court of law. If they’re successful, a dolphin could conceivably become the first non-human ever considered a legal person.

“The problem so far is that all nonhuman animals are seen as being legal things,” said Steven Wise, an animal law scholar and attorney. “If you’re a legal person, you have the capacity to have rights. That’s the fundamental problem we intend to attack.”

Wise founded the Nonhuman Rights Project in 2007, two years after finishing a series of books on animals, rights and law. The first two, Rattling the Cage and Drawing the Line, made a case for giving legal rights to chimpanzees and bonobos, and considering other animals on a species-by-species basis. He followed those works with Though the Heavens May Fall, an account of the 1772 trial of James Somerset, the first black human recognized as a person under British law.

At the trial’s beginning, Somerset was legally considered a thing, not even permitted to speak on his behalf. At its end, he was a person. The case used by Somerset’s lawyers was an inspiration to Wise, and by the end of 2013 the Nonhuman Rights Project plans to file two lawsuits on behalf of individual animals held in captivity in the United States.

To be sure, it will be an underdog’s battle, and might even be called quixotic. “There would be tremendous resistance. People would worry — ‘What are the limits? Is every animal in a zoo going to have a lawyer?’” said Richard Posner, a judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “In the foreseeable future it wouldn’t have traction.”

But Wise is undaunted by the challenge. In the 30 years since he started working in animal law, Wise said, society has changed in ways that once seemed radical: Ethical vegetarianism is mainstream, cute animal videos rule our collective subconscious, and people like himself are invited to lecture at Harvard.  “What’s never been done doesn’t seem like it’s doable,” he said.


Whether the Nonhuman Rights Project’s first case will involve a cetacean is yet to be determined. If personhood is defined by character rather than chromosomes, many creatures would be eligible: Great apes are intelligent, empathic and emotional, as are elephants. But perhaps the most vocal support exists for cetaceans.

“We have all the evidence to show that there is an egregious mismatch between who cetaceans are and how they are perceived and still treated by our species,” said evolutionary neurobiologist Lori Marino of Emory University during a February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “These characteristics make it ethically inconsistent to deny the basic rights of cetaceans.”

Read full story: Wired Science

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