Dolphins are people too, scientists claim

Mother and baby Pacific White-sided dolphins in a Japanese zoo © Getty Images

Whales are incredibly intelligent: they can hold conversations, maintain friendships and solve complex problems. But are they really ‘people’ and should they, like humans, have rights?

For centuries, the idea of discovering mysterious beings with an intelligence like our own has been the stuff of human fantasy. Now many experts believe that this discovery may have been made – not by some alien communication, but here on Earth, in the familiar form of dolphins and whales.

A group of scientists and philosophers have joined forces to call for a ‘Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans.’ Under this declaration, dolphins and whales would be recognised by international law as ‘non-human people’; killing, harming or keeping a whale captive would become a serious crime.

Dolphins are capable of many of the behaviours we often think of as distinctive to us. They communicate using their own mysterious system of clicks, whistles and body flips – which varies from region to region just like language. They are capable of following complicated instructions in human speech too, and even understanding the subtleties of grammar.

Dolphins also hold their own with us landlubbers when it comes to problem solving. When offered a reward for completing an unknown activity, dolphins take about the same length of time to discover the pattern as humans. They also react to a difficult problem with a human-like frustration, and seem elated at the ‘eureka’ moment.

Whales and dolphins have complicated social networks. Individuals have names, close friends and sometimes enemies, while ‘teachers’ methodically pass on knowledge to the young. Like humans, they are capable of behaving with empathy or cruelty, kindness or cunning. And what is more, researchers say that whales seem almost as fascinated by us as we are by them.

Yet just as we finally begin to understand these incredible mammals, we are destroying them and their environment. Whales are hunted for their meat, ensnared in fishing nets and suffocated by pollution. Possibly most damaging of all, our noisy shipping disrupts the calls that they rely on to navigate and communicate.

The declaration of rights is partly designed to protect whales from such harmful activities. But it would also be a recognition that we humans are not, after all, this planet’s only ‘people.’

Deep thought

Campaigners say that whales and dolphins have almost every one of the qualities we have always thought of as unique to humans: friendship, compassion and communication. Why, then, should we not grant them the rights that we claim for ourselves? Mistreating whales, they say, is as barbaric as murder or slavery.

Others think the idea absurd: if we extend our legal rights to whales, what about chimpanzees, elephants or dogs? ‘People’ is just another word for ‘humans’: dolphins are simply very intelligent beasts.

You Decide

  1. Should whales have the right to life and liberty?
  2. Can non-humans ever be considered ‘people’?


  1. Write your own declaration of animal rights – does it involve the rights to life and liberty?
  2. Research a particular species of cetacean and create an illustrated fact sheet to present to your class.

Some People Say...

“You can’t have rights without responsibilities.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What difference would these rights make?
The declaration is mostly aimed at countries who still support whaling. However, shipping companies could also find themselves in danger of breaking international law: navies, for instance, would probably be forced to restrict their use of sonar, which depends on high pitched beeping that disturbs whales.
What about other animals?
Some activists support a ‘Universal Declaration of Animal Rights’, extending to all animals guarantees of life, liberty and happiness. But whereas the United Nations is reviewing the possibility of cetacean rights, a universal declaration is far from reality. Still, if whales are given rights there are likely to be calls for declarations on behalf of other higher mammals – especially apes and elephants.

Word Watch

Whales, dolphins and porpoises are known collectively as cetaceans. This comes from the Greek word meaning giant fish or sea monster – and for a long time they were believed to be both: in 1851 the novel Moby Dick attacked those who distinguished them from fish, and claimed that they had been known to swallow boats. Nowadays we know that cetaceans are mammals, like ourselves.
Sound carries so much further in water than air that whales can hear each others calls from half way around the globe. As well as using these calls to locate and communicate with each other, they also use sonar just like bats, to locate shoals of fish and find their way across the globe. For such finely tuned ears, engines and horns are confusing and distressing.
‘Eureka’ moment
‘Eureka’ is Greek for ‘I have found it’. Its use in English comes from a story about Ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes, who suddenly discovered a solution to a particularly tricky problem while bathing. According to the story, he leapt naked from his bath and ran through the streets shouting ‘eureka!’ When dolphins solve a problem, they behave in a similarly excited and energetic way.

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