May 24, 2010

Should Whales And Dolphins Have Human Rights?

A group of conservationists and other experts said Sunday that whales and dolphins should get "human rights" to life and liberty because of growing evidence that they are highly intelligent beings.

Participants at a conference at the University of Helsinki said more and more studies are showing the giant marine mammals have human-like self-awareness, an ability to communicate and organize complex societies, which makes them similar to great apes.

"We affirm that all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and wellbeing," said the grouping in a declaration after a two-day meeting led by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS).

Thomas White, director of the Center for Ethics and Business at Loyola Marymount University in California who was at the Helsinki meeting, said that dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror, an ability that humans acquire at about 18 months of age, and is very rare with other mammals.

"Whaling is ethically unacceptable. They have a sense of self that we used to think that only human beings have," White told Reuters.

Hal Whitehead, a biology professor at Dalhousie University in Canada and an expert on deep-water whales, said there was other evidence that whales have human-like culture.

Sperm whales have fish-finding sonar that is so powerful that it could permanently deafen others nearby if used full blast. Yet the whales do not use the sonar as weapons, showing they have a "sense of morality", Whitehead told Reuters.

Japan, Iceland and Norway, the top whaling nations, oppose arguments that whales and dolphins are highly intelligent. They have long said there is no real evidence that the mammals are smarter, for instance, than cows or pigs.

One expert biologist would, perhaps, agree. Paul Manger of Johannesburg's University of Witwatersrand, who was not at the conference in Helsinki, said many researchers had wrongly concluded that whales and dolphins were smart merely because they have large brains.

"There's nothing to separate them from other mammals -- seals, lions or tigers," he told Reuters, adding that they had evolved big brains mainly to keep warm in the chilly waters.

Although, saying whales were not especially bright was not the same as advocating illegal hunting, he said. "We protect fish stocks even though no one argues that they are intelligent."

Nations in the International Whaling Commission will debate a proposal to approve limited hunting for 10 years by the main whaling nations at a meeting next month, easing an 1896 ban imposed after many species came close to extinction.

"We want a shift to putting the individual at the center of conservation," said Nicholas Entrup, of the WDCS. That would mean giving Minke whales, relatively plentiful and most often hunted, the same protection as endangered northern right whales.


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