New research shows dolphins and whales might be more intelligent than anyone thought, leading to questions about whether it is morally right to hunt them and use them for our amusement.
Writing for BBC.com, Margi Prideaux, the strategic policy director for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society International, says:
Despite long held preconceptions of human pre-eminence, scientists are discovering sophisticated intelligence beyond the boundaries of our own species. It may surprise us, but dolphins and whales have such qualities.
In February, the 2010 Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science addressed the subject of "intelligence in dolphins: ethical and policy implications."
A three-member academic panel looked into whether the emerging scientific knowledge about the cultural and cognitive processes of whales and dolphins should influence international policy decisions and ethical considerations for their treatment. The members decided it should.
Just a few days after the conference, Tilikum killed its trainer at SeaWorld in Florida. That got the entire world thinking about whether it was right to keep such animals confined for human entertainment. Issues related to hunting whales and dolphins quickly followed.
The International Whaling Commission will meet next month to consider a proposal to allow the return of whaling. Prideaux writes:
Will our consideration of whales and dolphins be based on numerical calculations of abundance, or will we recognise them as highly evolved mammals living in complex societies? Many whale and dolphin researchers now agree that they are studying sophisticated, evolved intelligences, born of a differently constructed sense of self; without necessarily needing to be an "intellect" directly comparable to ours.
We now understand that dolphins and whales, in various different ways, have distinct personalities and identities; that they can think about the future, and have the innate ability to learn language.
Prideaux is not advocating human rights protections for whales and dolphins -- just an acknowledgement that there is other intelligent life on earth, and that they should be accorded the proper respect:
No-one is suggesting that whales and dolphins be granted a right to vote, to hold a driver's licence, or to receive a free and fair education. Perhaps it is time for us to decide that we believe whales and dolphins do have a right to their lives, their liberty and the protection of their home and family.