Dolphin and Whale Nonhuman Personhood

Dolphin and whale nonhuman personhood is viewed by many as an important next step in animal rights advocacy.

Many people don’t realize that, throughout North America and in many countries around the world, no species except for human beings have the legally-recognized right to be alive. This means that cetaceans and all other species may be considered and treated as property for human benefit. Cetaceans are captured from the ocean, killed for food and kept in captivity. Each of these activities remains legal because of cetaceans’ explicit lack of legal rights. Businesses like SeaWorld rely on orcas’ consideration as legal property to be able to exploit them and make money off of their lives.

‘Legal rights’ are another way of saying protections. Human beings have rights because we are able to speak for ourselves, so that when we say we have emotions, that we care about things such as family and freedom, and we experience pain when we are physically or psychologically injured, this is taken as sufficient evidence to make rulings in our anthropocentric judicial system. It is recognized that humans have the need for protections in order to safeguard against pain and to help ensure that we can all lead happy, full lives – which is why human rights are nearly universally recognized.

Until recently, Western culture believed that other-than-human animals were unthinking, unfeeling machines. It was assumed that they had no need for rights because they wouldn’t notice harms perpetuated onto them.  However, there now exists an abundance of evidence that indicates otherwise.

Cetaceans in particular benefit from a wealth of compelling scientific discoveries. We now know that they are highly intelligent, they value many of the same things that we do, and that they likely experience emotions and pain in similar ways that we do. Because of these discoveries, we now understand that they need, and deserve, protections also.

This is where the concept of whale and dolphin nonhuman personhood comes in.  Sonar advisor Thomas I. White, author of In Defense of Dolphins, provides a summary of personhood here.

An entity must first be considered a legal ‘person’ in order to be bestowed legally-recognized rights. At the moment, human beings and corporations are the only entities that are considered ‘persons’, meaning that everything else is classified as property, and as such has no rights. So, making cetaceans legal ‘persons’ opens the door for their increased protection.

While the exact definition for personhood is still debated, below is a list of traits that many believe qualify a being to be considered a legal ‘person’:

  1. Being Consciousness
  2. Having self-awareness
  3. Having emotions
  4. Having control over one’s actions, the ability to make decisions
  5. Recognizing other persons
  6. Being able to solve complex problems
  7. Possessing cognitive sophistication

As White argues, dolphins easily meet each of these criteria.

Giving dolphins and whales nonhuman personhood standing does not mean that they will ever be able to vote, or that they will be assigned jury duty. It means that they will be eligible to be given basic rights (legal protections), such as the right to life, liberty and freedom from harm. This would essentially make it illegal for any human being to capture dolphins from the oceans, keep them in captivity for any purpose, or kill  or otherwise harm them.

Sonar’s Advocacy

Various initiatives over the years appear to indicate that it is only a matter of time until these ideas become more accepted and manifest as actual policy and legal protection. Sonar aims to further these ideas, working with communities, lawmakers, public officials, other organizations and scientists in order to get dolphin and whale nonhuman personhood legislation passed in cities across the globe.

Members of our Sonar pod have been advocating for dolphin and whale nonhuman personhood for some time now, with a few key successes in the past that give an example of what we continuously work on.

Nation of India:

In 2013, the government of India banned cetacean captivity throughout their nation, and declared that cetaceans ought to be considered nonhuman persons. It was among the most progressive nonhuman rights statements ever to be issued by a major government.

Malibu, California:

In February 2014, the mayor of Malibu, California passed a resolution stating that dolphins and whales deserve the right to their own freedom and lives.

San Francisco, California:

The Malibu resolution spurred another initiative among the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who ended up passing a resolution in October that same year stating that cetaceans have the right to be unrestricted and free of captivity.

Nation of Canada:

In June 2015, we advised on a Canadian bill aimed at placing cetaceans ‘beyond use’ of human beings.

Convincing governing bodies to begin recognizing cetacean’s rights to their own lives is an important step in increasing widespread understanding of who these beings are, and reducing the harm they experience at our hands.

If you would like to pass a dolphin and whale nonhuman personhood bill in your local community, get in touch with us: dolphin (at)

Photo by Scott Portelli.