Many people don’t realize that dolphins have zero legal protections. To this day, they are considered property and treated as such when they are captured from the ocean, killed for food or kept in captivity. Each of these activities remains legal because of dolphins’ explicit lack of rights. However, Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project and many other organizations are working to change this.
‘Rights’ are another way of saying protections. Human beings have rights because we have emotions, we care about things such as family and freedom, and we experience pain when we are physically or psychologically injured. We have need for protections in order to safeguard against pain and to help ensure that we can all lead happy, full lives.
Throughout much of human history, it was believed that nonhuman animals were automatons, nothing more than unthinking, unfeeling machines. It was therefore assumed that animals had no need for rights because they simply wouldn’t notice whether they had them or not. However, we have been learning, through scientific experimentation, that this is not the reality. Over the last roughly forty years of dedicated dolphin and whale research, it has been discovered that these beings are in fact very intelligent, they value many of the same things that we do, and that they likely experience emotions and pain in similar ways that we do. Because of these discoveries, we now understand that they need, and deserve, protections too.
This is where the legal concept of personhood comes in. An entity must first be considered a legal ‘person’ in order to be given any rights. At the moment, human beings and corporations are the only things that are considered ‘persons’, meaning that everything else is classified as property, and as such has no rights. So, making dolphins legal ‘persons’ opens the door for their increased protection.
While the exact definition for personhood is still debated, there is a general consensus that a person is a being with self-awareness. It does not take much to understand why self-awareness is relevant, because if something is aware of it’s awareness, it then follows that it will be aware of any pain it is experiencing, and likewise happiness, sadness and other mental states.
Below is a list of other traits that many believe qualify a being to be considered a legal ‘person’:
1. Being Consciousness
2. Having self-awareness
3. Having emotions
4. Having control over one’s actions, the ability to make decisions
5. Recognizing other persons
6. Being able to solve complex problems
7. Possessing cognitive sophistication
According dolphins legal personhood does not mean that they will ever be able to vote, or that they will be assigned jury duty, and so forth. It means that they will be eligible to be given basic rights, such as the right to life, liberty and freedom from harm. This would essentially make it illegal for any human being to capture dolphins from the oceans, keep them in captivity for any purpose, or kill them.
This dolphin ‘asks’ for help from a diver. This video seems to demonstrate that the dolphin recognizes other persons (the humans), which in turn indicates that it is self-aware; that it is solving a complex problem by asking the humans for help; it apparently has control over it’s actions as it decided, upon it’s own volition, to approach the humans for help; it was able to understand that humans would be able to help it (otherwise it would have approached the manta rays in the same way); this indicates cognitive sophistication.
Personhood status for dolphins is the first step in what will likely be a long journey to confer better protections onto dolphins, and perhaps many other nonhuman species as well. It is not perfect – ‘personhood’ remains very anthropocentric, however it remains the best way for the public to gain an understanding of dolphin ethics and it is also likely the only approach that the courts will eventually consider.
It is also worth noting that we are not advocating for according of personhood rights to dolphins just because we observe similarities between that species and humans; rather, we wish to use dolphins as a catalyst for understanding that every nonhuman species has their own, equally valuable perspective.