Non-human People with Names

Dolphin consciousness and human ethics.

By Kathleen Wood

“On planet earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins
because he had achieved so much, the wheel, New York, wars and so on,
while all that dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time.
But conversely, the dolphins had always believed they were far more intelligent than man
for precisely the same reasons.”

Richard Adams: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Friendly pod of wild dolphins. Big Blue Unlimited

Friendly pod of wild dolphins. Big Blue Unlimited

Consciousness and personhood
Immanuel Kant once postulated that everything has a price or a “dignity.” Non-sentient objects have a price and are subject to ownership, trade, replacement and/or sale, with no negative moral implications; however, beings with consciousness merit special treatment. In Kant’s view, any individual with a “dignity” deserves respect, based on self-awareness and consciousness, and to manipulate or inhibit a self-aware being’s actions, dignity, or freedom is morally repugnant (Kant, 1993).
Kant’s explorations in moral treatment of individuals were based largely on justification for ethical treatment of humans, but should any organism with “dignity” be awarded the same consideration? This question has been at the front of the animal rights movement and is now one that urgently needs to be answered, as TCI considers allowing the commercial exploitation of dolphins in captivity for entertainment purposes.
How do you measure consciousness? Philosophers have debated this question for centuries, with general agreement on a few basic points, including:
• Awareness of internal and external events;
• Capacity to feel pain;
• Ability to solve new and complex problems;
• Self-motivated activity;
• Capacity for communication; and
• Self-awareness (Macklin, 1983).
The problem with human qualifications for consciousness is that they are inherently human-biased or anthropocentric and are based on the qualities humans regard highly in themselves. Although some cultures, such as some Native American cultures, have historically viewed other organisms as equal to humans, Western culture has placed Homo sapiens in a superior position over other beings. The Western imposed hierarchy has roots in religious belief (And God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, in Our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” [Genesis 1:26]).
However, the sense of human entitlement and supremacy also has a stronghold in a secular context, where an organism’s cognitive capacity is deemed to be the justifying factor for personhood. “I think, therefore I am (Rene Descartes).” In addition to being blatantly unfair, other reasons for disqualifying such anthropocentrism also exist. Human-centred hierarchies are the basis upon which modern ecological overshoot, biological extinctions, and ecosystem collapse have occurred (Hall, 2011). Nevertheless, even using our own self-centred rationale, dolphins challenge the human arrogant sense of pre-eminence.
People have always known that dolphins and other species in the toothed whale family (known as cetaceans) are highly intelligent, sentient beings. They have been worshiped as gods and respected as heroes across time and cultures; however, only in recent years, with significant advances in neuroscience, are we able to have measurable insight into dolphin cognition. The cumulative research suggests that dolphin brains rival those of humans in terms of intelligence and that dolphins likely have significantly more complex and sensitive emotional lives than humans are capable of (White, 2007).

Wild dolphin in natural environment. Barb Shively

Wild dolphin in natural environment. Barb Shively

The dolphin brain
Justifications for the above conclusions come from new understanding into the functions of the various parts of the brain. Dolphins have larger brains than humans (1.7 kg compared to 1.3 kg for humans), but as with most things, size isn’t all that matters when it comes to brains. Much of the increase in the size of the dolphin brain is allocated in sections of the brain attributed to higher functions, such as thought. In addition, the dolphin brain is more intricate than the human brain, a trait also associated with problem solving and intelligence. Dolphins even have an extra lobe in their brain that humans lack.
Unfortunately, unlike the human brain, the dolphin brain has not been extensively studied. Due to the fact that it is significantly different from the human brain, it is difficult to make direct comparisons, as one can with members of the primate family. Dolphins evolved in the water, with survival needs different from land-based organisms. They undoubtedly have abilities beyond our capacity to understand, such as “seeing” hidden or buried objects with echolocation. The vast differences between humans and dolphins has led some researchers to conclude that dolphins must be viewed as an “alien intelligence” (Reiss, McCowan, & Marino, 1997).
Perhaps the greatest difference between dolphins and humans is the organization of a portion of the brain known as the limbic system. The limbic system is a group of structures, largely associated with emotion, memory and learning; however, the limbic system also plays a part in almost all conscious and sub-conscious activity. It is located at the centre of the brain, where it inter-connects all other parts of the brain. All sensory information passes through the limbic system before being processed by other parts of the brain, and messages are passed back through the limbic system again, prior to returning to the body for a reaction. More importantly, the limbic system flavours stimulus for storage as memory in the brain with texture and insight, and it is the birthplace of all emotions.
The limbic system in dolphins is more intricate than that of humans, as well as being more integrated throughout the brain. Researchers believe that this trait evolved in dolphins in order to enhance strong community bonds among individuals. As highly feeling individuals, dolphins are sensitive to details. They can sense what members of their community are feeling, based on body language and can communicate the same to others. Dolphins are so in-tune with other members of their group that they share a group consciousness or group identity. Unlike humans, who are highly individualistic, dolphins are community-minded. Numerous examples of dolphins cooperatively fishing, communally babysitting, and caring for weak or injured members of their pod support this conclusion.
Enhanced connection between the limbic system and reasoning centres of the brain also allows dolphins to think before they act. In fact, the dolphin’s superior brain in this area makes it likely that they have more self-control and are more in-touch with their emotions than humans are (Simmonds, 2008).
Perhaps the most striking support for dolphin consciousness is the fact that dolphins have names—not the names that humans impose on them, such as “Jojo” or “Flipper,” but names they call themselves. Like humans, dolphins are self-aware. They recognize their own reflections (Marino, 2004) and name themselves by using signature whistles that are unique to an individual (Harley, 2008; Sayigh, Esch, Wells, & Janik, 2007). Self-awareness points towards higher intelligence and consciousness, and many countries, research scientists, and ethicists now concur that any organism sentient enough to name itself should be considered a person. All of the above evidence has led the community of research scientists to draw the following conclusion:
“ . . . the conclusion from decades of cumulative results of both captive and field studies is that cetaceans possess a level of intelligence, awareness and psychological and emotional sensitivity that makes it unacceptable to continue to keep them in captivity if not necessary for their welfare, survival or conservation (Marino & Frohoff, 2011).”

Closer to home
Local legend suggests that in the early 1980s a pod of bottlenose dolphins were stranded during a tropical storm in shallow water off Pine Cay. With the rapidly ebbing tide associated with the storm, all the adults in the pod perished, leaving three juveniles to fend for themselves. Nothing is known of the fate of two of the juveniles but the third was Jojo, TCI’s own marine mammal ambassador.
TCI’s territorial waters teem with marine mammals. Pods of spotted and bottlenose dolphins are common and each winter thousands of humpback whales make their way to the region to mate and give birth. Sperm whales, pilot whales, and others are also known to be transient and resident here. Jojo’s story is unique, however, because he made a choice to socialize with humans, rather than his own kind.
The stranding of the Pine Cay pod coincided with TCI’s fledgling tourism industry. Bill Kempe’s Leeward Marina had just opened, bringing a trail of adventurous yachtsmen to TCI, ocean-bound people to fill a niche in a lonely dolphin’s young life. After losing his own family through tragic circumstances and probably lacking the skills to survive on his own, the young dolphin turned to the easiest source of intelligent companionship available, human beings.
Jojo’s history from orphaned juvenile to marine mammal ambassador is legendary. In the early days, Jojo’s behaviour was a novelty, and people flocked to TCI to experience interaction with a wild dolphin. Unfortunately, many people were not well-versed in dolphin etiquette. Jojo was poked, prodded, and harassed. After biting people, knocking them off water skis, and sexually harassing some, he earned a reputation as being dangerous, and suggestions were made to capture him and sell him to an aquarium in Florida.
Fortunately, the human conscience in TCI began to evolve. In 1989, the PRIDE Foundation (Protection of Reefs and Islands from Degradation and Exploitation) initiated the Jojo Project. The Project was aimed at raising public awareness and understanding. Through this effort, Jojo began to be seen as a wild animal, who had been continually harassed by an over-eager local and tourist population, rather than as an aggressive beast. Residents and tourists began to understand that Jojo, similarly to humans, requires not only companionship, but also personal privacy and respect. With this fundamental shift in human understanding, Jojo was transformed from rogue dolphin into national treasure. Anybody who has spent any time with Jojo can appreciate his personhood.
TCI now faces a new need for a similar ethical shift. While Jojo remains free, other dolphins will be imported to TCI to be held in captivity, exclusively for the purposes of producing profits for a publicly traded Jamaican corporation and entertaining cruise ship passengers. The dolphins will be subjected to a diet of dead food (dolphins never eat dead food in the wild), enforced labour, and confinement to a small enclosure (dolphins in the wild have been estimated to have territories of approximately 1,000 square miles and can travel over 40 miles per day).
There is no question that such captivity can be construed as harmful. Other Dolphin Cove facilities have experienced high mortality rates (JET, 2007), and dolphins in captivity suffer significantly from stress-related illnesses, such as peptic ulcers (Fisher & Reeves, 2005). Given the proven level of dolphin intelligence and consciousness, as autonomous, feeling, and thinking individuals, the captivity and forced labour of dolphins must be considered morally equivalent to slavery.
As the awareness of the conscious equivalence of dolphins and other cetaceans increases, the rest of the world is making the paradigm shift to allow for dignities to be granted to non-human persons. Croatia, Cyprus, Hungary, Switzerland, Chile, Costa Rica, Greece, the U.K., and India have all passed laws that prevent the keeping of cetaceans in captivity. Mexico is now considering a similar prohibition. Sea World, the global leader in the captive cetacean business, was voted one of the most-hated companies in the world by a Consumerist poll.
In August 1963, Martin Luther King had a dream of justice and equality for all people. A new global civil rights movement is underway. TCI would serve itself well by being at the forefront of this movement, rather than counting itself among those practicing apartheid in the years to come.

Sources cited
Fisher, S. J., & Reeves, R. R. (2005). The Global Trade in Live Cetaceans: Implications for Conservation. Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy, 8(4), 315-340. doi: 10.1080/13880290500343624
Hall, M. (2011). Beyond the human: extending ecological anarchism. Environmental Politics, 20(3), 374-390. doi: 10.1080/09644016.2011.573360
Harley, H. E. (2008). Whistle discrimination and categorization by the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus): A review of the signature whistle framework and a perceptual test. Behavioural Processes, 77(2), 243-268. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2007.11.002
JET. (2007).
Review of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Proposed Dolphin Park in Paradise, Hanover done by Environmental Management Consultants (Caribbean) Ltd. for Dolphin Cove Ltd. (pp. 10). Kingston, Jamaica: Jamaica Environmental Trust
Enviromental Law Alliance Worldwide.
Kant, I. (1993). A Grounding on the Metaphysics of Morals (Third ed.): Hackett Publishing Company.
Macklin, R. (1983). Personhood in the Bioethics Literature. The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly. Health and Society, 61(1), 35-57. doi: 10.2307/3349815
Marino, L. (2004). Dolphin cognition. Current Biology, 14(21), R910-R911. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2004.10.010
Marino, L., & Frohoff, T. (2011). Towards a New Paradigm of Non-Captive Research on Cetacean Cognition. PLoS ONE, 6(9), e24121. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0024121
Reiss, D., McCowan, B., & Marino, L. (1997). Communicative and other cognitive characteristics of bottlenose dolphins. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 1(4), 140-145. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1364-6613(97)01046-2
Sayigh, L. S., Esch, H. C., Wells, R. S., & Janik, V. M. (2007). Facts about signature whistles of bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus. Animal Behaviour, 74(6), 1631-1642. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2007.02.018
Simmonds, M. (2008). IN DEFENSE OF DOLPHINS: THE NEW MORAL FRONTIER. Aquatic Mammals, 34(2), 257-258.
White, T. (2007). In Defence of Dolphins – The New Moral Frontier (pp. 248).

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