Minor uproar was caused earlier this year at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver when speakers Lori Marino of Emory University, Thomas White, Loyola Merymount University, and Chris Butler-Stroud, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, once again called for a declaration of persona rights for cetaceans legally consolidated on an international level.
Evidence has been piling up that whales and dolphins are not only highly intelligent animals with brains respectable to body size approximately as big as those of humans and complexly structured social behavior but also a sense of self-awareness that most not long ago considered a human privilege and, as it were, a carte blanche to reign over and light-heartedly dispose of, abuse and slaughter the rest of biological life on this planet.
When animal rights advocates and founders of the Great Ape Project Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer with support of scientist celebrities like Jane Goodall, Desmond Morris or Richard Dawkins first proposed persona rights for chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang utans in the 1990s, the project was generally downplayed and ridiculed, while for a minority of others, such as Gary Francione, an outright abolitionist who for decades has been advocating the same rights for all sentient beings, Singer's and Cavalieri's approach simply did not reach far enough. Nonetheless, the advance has sparked ongoing debates about whether and to which extent animals should be granted the same rights as humans, and growing media coverage of the topic, whether in support or not, indicates that the issue of ethics expanded beyond the human realm is finally if ever so slowly reaching public consciousness. In 2008, Spain as the first country in the world approved a resolution that entitles great apes to three of the basic human rights, namely the right to life, liberty and freedom from physical and psychological torture. Though, sadly, little action has followed the resolution, it can still be seen as a milestone in the animal rights movement.
Now, Lori Marino and fellow campaigners are pushing the agenda on behalf of the long suffering great mammals of the sea, nobly and luckily so. Whales and dolphins, just like great apes and elephants, can recognize themselves in a mirror; they love to play, form family and group structures similar to our own and use highly sophisticated ways of communication: in terms of complexness, the humpback whale "song", for instance, stands unrivaled in the animal kingdom. Research shows that a specific type of brain cells previously thought unique to humans and great apes are also found in cetacean brains: the so-called spindel cells account for higher cognitive abilities, social complexity and communication skills in humans. Amazingly, some whales seem to have thrice as many spindel cells as average human brains do; in addition, this very trait seems to have evolved at least twice as long ago in their brains as in the ones of homo sapiens and other humanoids.
Scientists have dispelled all doubt about cetaceans being highly intelligent, extremely social individuals with a keen sense of self-awareness, a concept of past, present, and future and the capability of feeling joy, grieve, concern for others, anxiety and terror, just like we humans do. Chris Butler-Stroud of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society stated that "Whilst it is inevitable that we must consider the implications of recognizing cetacean personhood within the context of human political and legal frameworks, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of using humans as the benchmark for intelligence and evolutionary success and in so doing misguidedly sustain the notion of the dominion of humankind. Instead, we should move towards a philosophy of cohabitation with these other ‘people’ ". To hold them in captivity, that is to enslave them in amusement parks and zoos to satisfy our keenness on cheap entertainment, and to kill them in the wild for commercial use or under the pretense of scientific research is barbaric and appalling and must be forbidden worldwide (or as said filmmaker Louie Psihoyos, "The Cove": When wild intelligent and sentient animals are captured and forced to tricks for our casual amusement – it says more about our intelligence than theirs." )
In 1986, when it had become clear that most cetacean species where either on the verge of extinction or in danger of entering an analogue status, the International Whaling Commission IWC (A "toothless organization", as Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherds puts it, but the only organization that is officially recognized by the UN) mandated an instant stop of whaling worldwide, exempting only a handful of aboriginal groups such as the Inuit or the people of Lamalera, Southern Indonesia, who look back on a long history of subsistence whaling. For the time being, these groups are still allowed to catch a strictly regulated number of certain whale species that are contributing to their traditional diets. The moratorium was agreed upon by the vast majority of member countries but explicitly condemned and consequently neglected by three, namely Norway, Iceland, and Japan who have kept to their cruel practices of killing thousands of mink, fin and humpback whales, not to speak of smaller cetaceans, each year (Japan captures and slaughters thousands of dolphins annually. The captured individuals are shipped by air to amusement parks all over the world at prices reaching up to 150 000 dollars per individual sold; the meat, poisoned with high doses of mercury, is sold in local supermarkets. The horror of the massacres is most vividly depicted in the award-winning movie "The Cove" by Louie Psihoyos; it caused worldwide outcries when it was first shown at the Sundance Festival in 2009) Australia, supported to some extend but not joined in the cause by New Zealand, is the only country in the commission with a firm stance against the extensive Japanese whaling programs in the Southern Sea and has initiated legal action against Japan in spite of the fact that the country is an important trading partner.
The Faroe Islands, a Danish protectorate with a population numbering a little over 49 000, is furthermore responsible for an annual massacre of hundreds of pilot whales and other small cetaceans that pass by the islands each year on their migration routes to the nutrient-rich waters of the Svalbard and the Arctic. The Faroese people's annual slaughter festivals are called the grind, or grindadráp: as the season arrives, pods of pilot whales and other dolphins are driven towards low-lying shores where they are welcomed by hundreds of Faroese equipped with knives and hooks; as the dolphins reach the beaches, the hunters jump into the water, drive the hooks into the dolphins' blowholes and stab them to death. A 2011 documentation produced by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) and aired on Animal Planet as part of a greater series called Whale Wars first introduced the gruesome Faroese practices to a wider public. Other episodes narrate the story of the activists tracking down illegal Japanese whalers in the Antarctic Ocean.
In fact, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are the foremost, perhaps only organization effectively fighting the battle against illegal activities like whaling, seal hunts, etc. in the world's oceans directly in the field. Founded in 1977 by Green Peace cofounder Captain Paul Watson, the internationally operating marine non-profit conservation society has managed to raise considerable amounts of money in charities that have in the past enabled them to successfully conduct multiple hazardous direct-action operations and much needed information campaigns. Rewarded with a four star rating by the U.S. evaluator Charity Navigator, the Sea Shepherds have proven to be one of the most effective and reliable charity organizations not only in the U.S. but worldwide and deserve our gratitude as executors of international law against illegal hunting in the world's oceans and active protectors of world heritage.
In this context, the latest news about Paul Watson's arrest in Germany on the grounds of a ridiculous warrant issued by the government of Costa Rica was shocking (In 2002, Watson got falsely accused of threatening the crew members of an illegal finning ship from Costa Rica; the Sea Shepherds had encountered the finners in Guatemalan waters while filming the later awarded documentary "Shark Waters"); that the German government has furthermore subjected the Captain to a possible extradition to Japan, the very country that has in the past decades lost many millions of dollars due to the Sea Shepherds' successful obstructions to their -illegal- whaling efforts and is clearly out there on revenge, is a great shame and should be condemned by the international community. On July 22 Captain Paul Watson skipped bail and successfully made his way out of Germany. After all, his clientele are the whales, dolphins, seals and other inhabitants of the oceans and he, in his own words commenting his flight, could surely serve his clients better at sea than in a Japanese jail cell and intended to do just that.
In a letter to supporters he disclosed his disappointment with Germany, which is all on our side, and declared that, far from abandoning the Whale Wars, he'd be back in time to inaugurate the Japanese whaling season commencing early in December this year with Operation Zero Tolerance, the ninth campaign against illegal Japanese whaling in the Southern Sea Sanctuary.
Good luck, Captain Paul Watson! Our hearts go out to you, your amazing crews and the people of the sea who's case you are so heroically defending.
For further information and donations please visit: seashepherd.org