Global environmental challenges
Are whales and dolphins smart enough to get special rights?
Some conservationists and experts on philosophy and ethics reckon that whales and dolphins are so intelligent that they should be given rights to life like humans. That could mean extra pressure on whalers in Japan, Norway and Iceland to end their hunts.
The focus on rights is a shift after conservationists successfully won a ban on almost all whale hunts from 1986, arguing that they had been harpooned close to extinction.
And in recent years (with evidence that some stocks are big enough to withstand hunts), many opponents say the moratorium should stay in place, arguing that shooting grenade-tipped harpoons at whales can mean a long, cruel death.
A conference in Helsinki starting today is called “Cetacean Rights” and is about “fostering moral and legal change”. The experts hope to come up with a declaration during the weekend — if the idea of special rights for marine mammals catches on, it could also limit the ability of marine parks to keep the mammals in captivity.
“We need a shift of values,” said Nicholas Entrup, head of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society in Germany and Austria. The WDCS is organising the conference.
But would governments listen?
Many favour protection for whales and dolphins but opening the door to non-human rights might also lead to demands for more rights for other mammals, such as elephants, chimpanzees or maybe even your pet dog.
Vegetarianism would become the order of the day if sheep or cows managed to pass the ovine and bovine equivalents of an IQ test. (I bet you’d be nervous if you went to a lab and the scientist told you: “Pass this simple test and your entire species will be saved: fail and we will eat you”.)
Many religions teach that humans are in a special category on Earth, more intelligent than other creatures. But evolution shows a sliding scale of smartness — so should animals, starting with the giant marine mammals, have special rights?
(Picture: a humpback whale swims past the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera base, January 2009. Alister Doyle, Reuters)