The great cetacean slavery debate
// Samantha Thompson

“International law manifests a growing sense of duty to whales and dolphins; contemporary ethical reflection brings new theoretical tools to bear on cetacean moral status; and scientific research gives us novel insights in the complexities of cetacean minds and societies,” reads a statement on, a website that details the recently popular Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans.

In late February, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) requested support for this declaration, a document created at a conference in Finland in 2010. The declaration outlines a series of rights for whales and dolphins, including the right to life, freedom of movement, protection of their natural environment, and freedom from being property of a State, corporation, human group or individual.

The declaration demands that the rights and freedoms outlined in the document be protected under international and domestic law.

It was created in 2010, but the recent endorsement of the AAAS created significant publicity. They held their meeting in Vancouver in late February, and brought together zoologists and ethicists to evaluate the merits of granting these rights to dolphins and whales. Professor Tom White, from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, told the BBC that dolphins were “non-human persons”.

“A person needs to be an individual,” White said. “If individuals count, then the deliberate killing of individuals of this sort is ethically the equivalent of deliberately killing a human being.”

Although the Declaration of Rights is significant, it is not the only time that a call has been made to protect marine mammals.


In February, five killer whales were successfully named plaintiffs in a lawsuit against SeaWorld. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has claimed that the whales are treated like slaves for being forced to live in tanks and perform on a regular basis in both San Diego and Orlando.

“This case is on the next frontier of civil rights,” PETA’s attorney Jeffrey Kerr, who will represent the whales in the case, told the Telegraph. Upon hearing that the judge would take the case, Kerr noted that the day was historic, because for the first time in American history, “a federal court heard arguments as to whether living, breathing, feeling beings have rights and can be enslaved simply because they happen to not have been born human.”

There were objections raised, because many were concerned the case would result in a slippery slope. Other animals are used for human benefit, including bomb sniffer dogs in airports, and scientists’ experiments on marine mammals still living in the wild.

PETA argues that the whales being kept in ‘slavery’ is a violation of the Constitution’s 13th amendment, which prohibits slavery between humans.

“With all due respect, the court does not have the authority,” said Theodore Shaw, Sea World’s attorney. “Neither orcas nor any other animal were included in the ‘We the people’…when the Constitution was adopted.”


One of the reasons that the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans was created in the first place, and the reason that PETA can successfully create a court case against the slavery of whales, is because science has proven that cetaceans (mammals best adapted to life in water, including whales, dolphins and porpoises) have well-developed brains and a level of self awareness comparable to that of humans.

Cetaceans have demonstrated an understanding of a concept of ‘you’ – they can look in the mirror and know that they are looking at themselves. While most of the studies have been done around dolphins, other cetaceans have demonstrated similar characteristics.

Dolphins have shown the ability to mimic actions that they see in others. For example, in her journal “Observing Cognitive Complexity in Primates and Cetaceans,” Christine M. Johnson described a situation where a baby dolphin released a mouthful of its mother’s milk, mimicking a cloud of cigarette smoke exhibited by an aquarium visitor. Dolphins also exhibit vocal imitation – something that is rare among other mammals.

Johnson explained that: “cetaceans do show the sort of sensitivity to the attention of others that is characteristic of … complex social interactions.”

Dolphins help lead their fellow dolphins by looking back at their pod and then looking the direction that they want to go, signifying that they are sensitive to communication with others, as well as aware of the presence of other dolphins in relation to themselves.

“Science has shown that individuality – consciousness, self-awareness – is no longer a unique human property. That poses all kinds of challenges,” said White.


Beyond the mental capabilities, there have been many cases where dolphins and whales in particular have reacted poorly to being kept in captivity.

In 2010, a trainer at SeaWorld was killed after an orca named Tilikum dragged her underwater and repeatedly struck her – all in front of an audience watching one of SeaWorld’s daily shows. Tilikum has been linked to two other SeaWorld deaths, one in 1991 where he, with assistance from two other whales, prevented a trainer from leaving her tank after she fell in. The other incident in 1999 occurred when a man was found dead next to Tilikum – and although investigation stated he died of hypothermia, there was also an allegation that the whale had initially torn off his trunks and bitten him (which orcas do to identify foreign objects, the same way humans touch something to identify it).

However, SeaWorld’s animal training curator, Kelly Flaherty Clark has said in a statement that: “participating in shows is just a portion of Tilikum’s day, but we feel it is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment.”

Although cases where trainers have drowned because of a whale are fairly rare, whales have often suffered as a result of being kept in captivity – and most of the whales in captivity are orcas, a population that has seen a decline in overall numbers because of environmental threats and human actions.

The first whale to be captured for display was Wanda, who was placed in captivity in 1961. She survived for two days before she died. In the fifteen years following Wanda’s capture, more than fifty whales were taken from the Pacific ocean and placed in captivity.

According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, there are currently 42 orcas in captivity, of the 137 orcas that have been captured from the wild since 1961. Whales born in captivity have had an average lifespan of 4.5 years, whereas in the wild male orcas live to an average of 17 years, and females, 29 years, though this is affected by “high levels of neonatal mortality,” according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ website. “In the wild, mortality between the ages of birth to six months can be as high as 50 percent.”


The Vancouver Aquarium has had an interesting history with their cetaceans. They were the first aquarium in the world to capture and display an orca, but in 1996 they signed an agreement with the Vancouver Parks Board that said they wouldn’t capture cetaceans from the wild for display purposes, and would only borrow or transfer cetaceans from other facilities if they met a list of provisions.

The aquarium has allegedly violated this agreement, with the transfer of a dolphin from Japan in 2001. Advocacy groups like No Whales in Captivity (a group that presented at the AAAS’ conference) have accused the bylaw of being full of loopholes. Since 1996, the debate on whether or not cetaceans should be kept in captivity at all has resurfaced several times.

Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of an advocacy group called Georgia Straight Alliance, notes that the aquarium has made improvements.

“They rescue marine mammals from death, they take them in, they bring them back to health and many times they return them to the marine environment,” she says.

The aquarium is now host to several research and protection programs, including the Marine Mammal Rescue and Rehabilitation Program, the B.C. Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program and the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network.

“In this day and age you cannot paint these institutions in the way you used to thirty or forty years ago,” says Wilhelmson. “There are obviously still issues, and…we need to continue to have this conversation. [We need to] still look for better ways for those marine mammals that cannot be returned to the environment, how we can give them a good life and then also create a situation where children and adults can get a better connection [with the marine environment].”


Although the Declaration of Cetacean Rights is aiming to give cetaceans a list of privileges, in Canada there are already a series of strict rules that are in place. Whales have been protected from commercial whaling in 1972 under the Fisheries Act of Canada, and B.C.’s Wildlife Act (the exception is Aboriginal hunting).

There are also regulations laid out by various bodies that outline the nature in which whale-watching may occur, and how cetaceans (and other animals) may be used in research, both by scientists and students doing fieldwork at a university. Even though cetaceans do not currently have legal status, there have been provisions put in place over the years to ensure that their populations are being protected.

The Canadian Council on Animal Care has created standards that researchers using animals for scientific purposes must adhere to. These regulations include details on the handling of observational projects, physical restraint of wildlife, and marking of animals.

The Vancouver Aquarium, too, has been constantly expanding the research aspect of its facility, in particular research surrounding orcas.

“They’ve come a long way in becoming far more of an educational facility … and the scientific research that they do is helping us understand killer whales in particular in the wild,” says Wilhelmson, noting that the research would also assist the government in making “positive changes to protect these animals in the wild.”

As with any situation where animals are held in captivity, an argument can be made that aquariums and related institutions do have a place, as they are educating the public on wildlife and enabling people to gain an appreciation for the beauty of nature.


Opinions on the legitimacy of the Declaration for Cetacean Rights are varied, but the document does bring attention to a very important issue. Humans have been affecting cetacean populations for decades in a very negative way. Although more frequently places like the Vancouver Aquarium are bringing in whales only because they couldn’t survive in the wild, the ethics of capturing whales and dolphins for commercial gain have been raised. Protecting marine mammals does go beyond the captivity debate. Our everyday actions can have significant impacts on the marine environment.

“You can try to protect marine mammals, but if you’re not also protecting the food and their habitat, it’s only having part of the conversation,” says Wilhelmson.

There are several ways that we can change the impact we are having on the marine environment, including being selective about the salmon we eat, choosing products with less packaging, and being aware of what we’re pouring down our drains.

“Our impact on the marine environment is highly negative, and we need to re-balance that,” says Wilhelmson. “We need to live our lives with respect to nature [and] in balance with nature. That includes everything from plants through to fish, through to marine mammals.”

When looking at the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans and similar initiatives, it is important to remember that they are only one piece in the marine environment puzzle. Much progress has been made towards protecting marine mammals, but both internationally and in Vancouver, the debate on cetaceans in captivity is anything but over.

//Samantha Thompson, editor-in-chief
// Graphics by Faye Alexander

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