Finding a Voice for Non-Human Persons
by Elena Suglia '15
Dolphins and other cetaceans are some of the most well-loved, charismatic creatures on Earth. This stems in part from the many human-like qualities they display. Some dolphins recognize themselves in a mirror , call each other by name , and correctly identify and communicate to humans the presence or absence of objects in their tank . Their intelligence intrigues citizens and scientists alike, and cetaceans have earned a reputation as some of the world’s smartest animals.
Even more fascinating is the recent documentation of dolphins’ ability to cooperate both in groups and with different species. In Brazil, for example, dolphins are known to work with humans to their mutual benefit: the dolphins signal to fishermen where and when they should drop their nets while herding the fish into the nets, then are rewarded when the fishermen throw back some of the catch in thanks .
For these reasons, India has declared cetaceans as “non-human persons,” which by law cannot be held captive, owned, or “subject to disruption of their cultures” in any way . One international organization, SpeakDolphin, whose sole mission is to “significantly expand communication between dolphins and humans,” believes in the possibility of future “interspecies alliances” and studies dolphins to achieve that purpose .
India’s policy changes and SpeakDolphin’s research raise interesting questions about the ethics of human actions in this age of increased scientific discovery and human-caused environmental degradation. The inevitable trend is that scientists and the public will learn more about how cetaceans are similar to humans. Yet, those who cannot speak for themselves will very possibly be gone from our world in a few short decades. Will we continue to refuse to recognize that we share this planet with intelligent, empathetic beings – “nonhuman persons,” if you will? And if SpeakDolphin and other researchers are successful in their endeavors, an even more chilling possibility is that some animals will be able to speak for themselves… I’m guessing they wouldn’t have very many nice things to say about us.
Human rights, step aside – you’re outdated. The up-and-coming umbrella term for future rights movements is more aptly named “persons rights.”