Equal Rights for Every Person - or Dolphin?

September 20, 2015


On December 13, 2014 a three time murderer entered the stage to a cheering crowd. It wasn’t exactly a sell-out show, but children watched in wonder and parents smiled at his antics. Halfway through the show the murderer broke from the script and headed stage left because he heard a woman call out. He stopped as his son finished the show solo. He reluctantly left never acknowledging the crowd’s applause.

I’m talking about Tilikum, the SeaWorld orca who, on February 24, 2010,  murdered Dawn Brancheau, one of the star trainers in Orlando. This was the third time this cetacean took the life of a human being. Had this been any other animal, it would have been put down as dangerous. But Jim Atchison, President & CEO of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment noted that Tilikum as “part of the team.” Part of the “rehabilitation” resulted in new rules where trainers aren’t allowed in the pool with these “wild animals.” Interestingly, the video of Dawn showed that only her ponytail had dangled in the water as Tilikum pulled her into the water. The videos that streamed onto you-tube showed an animal intent on destruction. Dawn’s attempts to free herself, though valiant, could not compare to the size and strength of her murderer. Tilikum’s previous murder resulted in a dead man floating in the whale’s pool with his balls ripped off.

The death resulted in a stark, award winning documentary Blackfish detailing the history of this animal and the dark side of marine captivity for these large animals. Soon afterward, a bill authored by California Democrat Richard Bloom went before the state’s water, parks and wildlife committee. He’d watched the documentary and - with public outcries to correct these amusement parks - he drafted a bill. The intent was to stop the import and export of these wild animals with the hope that it would gain national, and hopefully international, approval. The bill was tabled for further study and when public interest waned, so too did any hope to resurrect the bill.

The death of the bill was not the end however. The incident sparked the bigger debate about whether such wild animals have rights. Lori Marino - a scientist at Emory University - has published a number of scientific articles detailing tests proving that cetaceans are the second most intelligent creature (behind humans - of course). Her conclusions included the cetacean’s ability to:


  • Self recognition - Using mirrors and paint markers on dolphins she was able to confirm that the animals were able to recognize that the reflection represented an image of themselves
  • Name recognition - Cetaceans call each other by name and recognize that the specific sound is a symbol addressing them
  • Communal Identity - Each pod interact with each other in sophisticated hunting, mating, and social interaction. Self-sacrifice, rescue, and mourning have been witnessed
  • Communication - The ability for these animal to communicate exceed that of human communication. Both in range, distance and complexity, cetaceans use sonar to communicate among each other, identify their environment (with the ability to see through objects using high frequency sonar).
  • Coordinated Strategy - Complex hunting rituals include separation of tasks and communication of actions demonstrating advance planning, leadership and the use of environment as a tool.


Such social complexity, intelligence and awareness has been anecdotally highlighted since Crete was the center of the known world. But the argument for the rights of cetaceans as well as other intelligent animals (chimpanzees and elephants for example) took an odd turn with the redefinition of corporations and the fourteenth amendment. 

Steven Wise, a lawyer and animal rights activist, put a new twist on equal rights for cetaceans. 

“The problem so far is that all nonhuman animals are seen as being legal things. If you’re a legal person, you have the capacity to have rights. That’s the fundamental problem we intend to attack.”

Wise founded the Nonhuman Rights Project in 2007 arguing that corporations as defined by law are considered persons. Using scientific studies Wise has built a case that animals aren’t things they are individuals. According to the United States Code (U.S.C. §1[15]) state that the 

The laws of the United States hold that a legal entity (like a corporation or non-profit organization) shall be treated under the law as a person except when otherwise noted. This rule of construction is specified in 1 U.S.C. §1 (United States Code),[15] which states: words "person" and "whoever" include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.

Under such interpretation animals held captive should be held to the rights of habeas corpus. Under such rule, cetaceans imprisoned hold certain rights. These include:

  • Court determination for the guilt or innocence of such imprisonment
  • The humane treatment of those imprisoned against their will
  • If the imprisonment is in violation of their rights, they may be released
  • The individual may petition or have petitions brought on their behalf for consideration of the court

Wise has taken this argument to the courts arguing that SeaWorld enslaves those individuals who perform to the human public on a daily basis. He has sued the Navy for its use of harmful sonar. “We’re simply telling the judges that, based on how they already understand the common law, a nonhuman animal plaintiff should have the capacity for legal rights,” said Wise. “Some court could just say, ‘Humans are special,’ but there’s no rational reason for it.”

Such rights could also be applied to those captive animals who harm humans. The argument gets muddy with animals as both wild  and intelligent. Is Tilikum guilty as a serial killer, or has the animal’s treatment (solitary confinement, abuse, confinement, etc.) turned an otherwise docile animal into a psychopathic killer?

Should the rights be modified on a specie-by-specie basis or is there a universal law that should be applied for all sentient beings on the planet? If we follow a universal law, how does this apply to those humans who hunt and kill nonhuman sentient beings?

Adding and extending law in this matter would mire an already burdened system that is broken around the world. Consider property rights, religious liberty, and the Geneva Convention, to name a few. From laws governing pollution to the actual definition of what intelligence is would have to be redefined. It is an intellectual conundrum that Wise is willing to challenge. However, his persistence has had little effect.

We, as a species continue to rule over the planet with little consideration both for our fellow inhabitants and our future. In some ways, we will be judged on those qualities either by our children’s children or those sentient beings we’ve left behind.


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