Why Whales Are People Too

The science proves it, but are humans ready to see them as equals? Get ready for a new world order.

By Jeff Warren (Reader's Digest Canada, July 2012)

Photo: Jonathan Bird/Getty

One of the larger females has begun to “spy hop”—rising up vertically out of the water like a thick periscope, exposing her eyes to the surface. I have the sense that I’m being stared at by another form of intelligence. It’s both thrilling and a little disconcerting, as though I’m being asked to partake in an exchange I haven’t really prepared for.

Some of the critics of the declaration certainly feel this way. National Post columnist and policy analyst Tasha Kheiriddin was quick to point out that in order for an animal to have rights, it must be part of a social contract, something impossible between animals and humans. “An animal owns no property. It cannot be taxed. It bears no responsibility, legal or otherwise for its actions: You cannot sue a dolphin if it bites you or wrecks your boat.”

Marino says there are other ways to look at it. “We don’t expect human infants to have responsibilities,” she says, “yet we still consider them people.” Ultimately, Marino argues, the declaration becomes pretty hard to dismiss if you stick with basic rights. “We are not saying that dolphins should vote or go to school—obviously this is preposterous. What we are saying is that the rights of a species should be based on their critical needs. In the case of whales, they should have the right not to be killed and tortured and confined, the right to live free in their natural environment. This is very basic stuff.”

Marino’s vision for a Cetacean Nation is, at first blush, that of a conservationist. But as I watch the whales  I realize there’s also something new in the works here, something that has to do with our own minds, not just whale minds. We’ve always looked to the stars for signs of intelligent life. Now we’re waking up to the idea that such life exists right here. But the facts as we currently understand them—for 35 million years whales have had the largest brains and the most complex cultures on the planet—can’t really tell us what kind of mind we are dealing with. Where, for example, so many of our resources are directed towards manipulating objects and ideas, whales’ emotional and cognitive resources seem to be directed socially, at one another. They have no hands to manipulate the world. But they have brains to feel it, in a way we do not and cannot fully understand. 

And yet, for all the exotic otherness of the whale mind, it’s equally true that there are elements that we can know and understand. As any pet owner will attest, we can often tell when an animal is angry or loving or even calculating, because we share those qualities. I can relate to the sperm whales’ need for physical intimacy, to their loyalty to one another, to their curiosity. And these are just the visible behaviours. The science suggests other shared qualities: a capacity for culture, communication and creative problem solving. What you begin to realize about animal minds is that, when we compare ours to theirs, there’s always something distinct and something shared; this ratio simply shifts in relation to the species in question.

So the common core we share with a bacterium is far narrower than that we share with a whale, which in turn is perhaps narrower than that we share with our close cousin the chimp. In a sense the human-to-animal mind question may simply be an exaggerated version of the human-to-human mind question: We can never entirely know another person’s experience—all the more so if that person was raised in a different culture—but there are vast areas of overlap that can, with science and empathy and imagination, be expanded.

What is a person? A being, certainly. But personhood is also a quality that emerges from how we relate to one another. When we deem another entity a “person” we recognize that there’s another point of view present, one with its own internal coherence and integrity. Whatever happens on the legal front in the years to come, the question of animal personhood is foremost a personal one. It will be answered differently by each of us. The true promise of the Cetacean Nation will only be realized to the extent that we, as a species, can recognize we’re surrounded by a rainbow of exotic cultures and narratives. We’re invited to be participating members in the community of nature, connected as though by invisible lines of echolocation to all these other “persons” on our planetary home.

As for the sperm whales, it’s enough, for now, just to watch them. Gradually, they stop playing and begin to drift away from the boat. Then, as if cued by some invisible signal, they roll their broad backs and salute the air with their chiselled flukes. Six clear watermarks float in their wake.

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