What India’s Decision to Ban Dolphin Captivity Means

Move indicates a growing understanding that cetaceans are ‘nonhuman persons’

The Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests’ decision to ban dolphin captivity within India has been making waves around the world. The unprecedented decision is particularly significant because it reflects an increasing global understanding that dolphins deserve better protections based on who – rather than what – they are.

The decision, outlined in a circular released by the Central Zoo Authority, states that because dolphins are by nature  “highly intelligent and sensitive,” they ought to be seen as “nonhuman persons” and should have “their own specific rights.” It says that it is “morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purposes.”

photo of dolphins in a pen at sea, sign in English warns against trespassHeather Hill photo

“This opens up a whole new discourse of ethics in the animal protection movement in India,” Puja Mitra from the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations (FIAPO), the group leading the campaign to ban dolphinariums in India, said after the environment ministry announced its decision last month. The move came after months of protests against a proposed dolphin park in the southern state of Kerala and plans for several other marine mammal parks in other parts of the country.

Animal welfare groups have long been arguing that dolphins ought to be considered nonhuman persons, but to many people the concept of personhood remains unclear. It is therefore useful to understand precisely what personhood implies, why it is featured so prominently in the Indian announcement of a ban on dolphinariums, and how it is increasingly relevant within discussions of cetacean welfare.

The concept of nonhuman personhood is grounded in the distinction between who and what. These two broad categories encompass everything on (and off) the planet – humans are persons (who), while things (what) include all nonhuman life and all inanimate objects, from bacteria to monkeys to stars.

As Dr. Thomas White explains in his book, In Defense of Dolphins (2007), for something to be classified as a person, it is recognized as having certain characteristics, such as self-awareness, emotions, cognitive complexity, and other attributes we associate with humans. Having these characteristics means that the organism has basic needs that must be satisfied in order for it to live a fulfilled, healthy life, and that when these needs are not met, it results in suffering. Society bestows certain rights unto persons in order to ensure these needs are met and safeguarded. The needs of life, liberty, and freedom from harm, for example, form the basis of human rights.

On the other hand, being classified as a thing either denotes an inanimate object or a nonhuman organism, both of which are assumed as not having the same needs as humans because neither are believed to experience, in a human way, significant pain, pleasure, or similar sensations that stem from possessing some degree of mental sophistication. Despite the fact that some humane laws exist to prevent unnecessary cruelty, animals are still considered property and are usually denied the basic rights of life, liberty or freedom from harm.

The outcome of this blanketing distinction is that dolphins have much the same rights as inanimate objects. The captivity industry benefits from this distinction: they are able to exploit the lives of dolphins by denying them freedom and being allowed to cause them harm (and the captivity industry has become adept at hiding the harm they cause to dolphins in their care). The assumption that dolphins have no needs is also what allows fishermen Taiji, Japan to post signs that say, “These dolphins are owned by Fisherman Association,” and why they are allowed to slaughter hundreds of them at the notorious “cove” each year.

The designation of dolphins as property begs for revision in light of what science has revealed about dolphins over the last several decades.

It is proven that dolphins possess most, if not all, of the characteristics to qualify as persons: they are self-aware; they can make decisions and solve complex problems. Their brain structure indicates that they likely experience emotions, they live in complex cultures, and they use tools. It can be safely assumed that they have the capacity to reflect upon their own lives and that their minds allow them to feel and think about pain. The Taiji dolphins know that their family is being slaughtered all around them. (Even scientists say that the way dolphins are slaughtered in Taiji is unnecessarily cruel.)

These are the reasons that the Indian circular stipulates that dolphins should be given certain basic rights – not the right to vote, mind you, but merely the rights not to be captured, confined, or killed, in order to prevent the suffering that they most likely experience when these rights are violated.

So far the announcement has been met with a positive response from governing bodies in India. “(Dolphin captivity) is illegal now,” said N. Venugopal, who heads the Greater Cochin Development Authority, one of the agencies in Kerala that was considering a captive facility proposal. “It is over. We will not allow it anymore.” It is expected that all relevant agencies and individuals will adhere to the ban.

India has carefully considered whether it is morally acceptable to allow dolphin captivity within its borders and has answered this question with a resounding “no”. This progressive statement is helping to pave the way towards greater public understanding of who dolphins are.  There’s a growing understanding that they are intelligent and emotional beings who deserve to be free.

The United States and other countries should take notice.

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