India: Dolphins Are Nonhuman Persons originally appeared in the Earth Island Journal. India’s decision to ban captivity 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 credit: Heather Hill
“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.