Another Round On The Taiji Cruelty Report

..courtesy of Professor Tom White, author of In Defense Of Dolphins, who gets Andrew Revkin of the New York Times to look at the Taiji slaughter from a nonhuman rights point of view:

After I wrote over the weekend about new research on the killing methodemployed in the dolphin roundups undertaken in Taiji, Japan, a fascinating comment on the rights of “nonhuman persons” was posted by Thomas I. White, who is the Conrad N. Hilton Professor in Business Ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles…[snip]

…An issue that quickly comes to mind in considering such questions is where one draws the line in determining how we treat the animals we come across in the wild or rely on — from horses and dogs and cats to the cattle, poultry, pigs and other creatures we grow in order to consume. [11:07 a.m. | Insert | Make sure to look back at Don McNeil’s 2008 piece, “When Human Rights Extend to Nonhumans,” for more.]

Here’s the comment White made, which got Revkin interested in exploring this further:

One of the most important features of science is that major discoveries regularly raise important ethical questions. This is especially true with research about cetaceans, because the discoveries of marine mammal scientists over the last 50 years have made it clear that whales and dolphins share traits once believed to be unique to humans: self-awareness, abstract thought, the ability to solve problems by planning ahead, understanding such linguistically sophisticated concepts as syntax, and the formation of cultural communities. The scientific evidence is so strong for the intellectual and emotional sophistication of dolphins that there simply is no question that they are ‘nonhuman persons’ who deserve respect as individuals.

Anyone who doubts this either is unfamiliar with the data or doesn’t understand the ethical significance of it. Both the killing and captivity of dolphins are ethically indefensible. This is not an emotional claim. It is based on hard science, and distinguished scientists like Lori Marino, Denise Herzing and Hal Whitehead recognize this. It’s important to recognize that facts that we now consider obvious–the Earth moves around the Sun, matter consists of invisible subatomic particles, men and women are equal, to name just three–were all considered ridiculous. Science moves forward by being open to the idea that radical ideas–in this instance, that dolphins ‘count’ as individuals and should be neither killed nor held captive–might just be true.

For a brief explanation of this perspective, see my “Primer on Nonhuman Personhood, Cetacean Rights and ‘Flourishing.’

It’s always refreshing to see such a clear declaration of the moral and scientific case for nonhuman rights. Whatever you might think of the Taiji report, it has generated a lot of worthwhile attention and discussion to the issues of cruelty in the drive hunt, and dolphin rights.

To truly grasp where White and others in this field are coming from, here is a story I did about Denise Herzing and The Wild Dolphin Project. And here is a video about her work with dolphins.

A Dolphin “Funeral”?

Pete Thomas digs into yet more circumstantial evidence of the impressive dolphin capacity for awareness, thinking, and feeling:

The waters off Dana Point on Tuesday were the scene of what one boater described as a dolphin funeral procession.

The accompanying footage shows a bottlenose dolphin, presumably a mother, carrying her dead calf on her back, while other dolphins followed close by. (Cetaceans have been known to tote dead offspring in what appears to be mourning behavior, but the phenomenon is rarely witnessed.)

The macabre episode revealed that not every mammal sighting is a cause for celebration, and that dolphins, like people, experience the loss of young and deal with that loss in ways that are both sad and touching.

This is not at all the first time that this sort of profound empathy in dolphins has been witnessed:

The most recent evidence comes from Joan Gonzalvo of the Tethys Research Institute, who since 2006 has been observing the bottlenose dolphin population of the Amvrakikos Gulf in the Mediterranean Sea. During one expedition, the researcher and his team witnessed a heartbreaking scene between a mother dolphin and her deceased newborn calf. The mother could be seen repeatedly lifting the corpse to the surface.
“This was repeated over and over again, sometimes frantically, during two days of observation,” said Gonzalvo. “The mother never separated from her calf…. [She] seemed unable to accept the death.”
Gonzalvo experienced a similar scene a year later, when he came across a pod of dolphins that appeared to be assisting a 3-month-old dolphin that was having difficulty swimming.
“The group appeared stressed, swimming erratically,” he said. “Adults were trying to help the dying animal stay afloat, but it kept sinking.”
“My hypothesis is that the sick animal was kept company and given support, and when it died the group had done their job. In this case they had already assumed death would eventually come — they were prepared.”
In the first case, the mother dolphin seemed to be exhibiting grief at her calf’s death, while in the second case the pod of dolphins seemed to show an understanding that death for their pod-mate was imminent. Taken together, the two cases suggest that the dolphins not only experience grief, but also that they may possess some of the higher level concepts entailed by the emotion. In other words, it seems as if they comprehend, and perhaps even contemplate, their own mortality.

If you consider all the elements that go into mourning, and understand what that means in terms of dolphin cognition and emotion, it makes all the other experiences dolphins have in the course of their lives–especially negative experiences at the hands of humans–that much harder to stomach. Their day is coming, though.