Sentient and sapient whales and dolphins

WDC believes that whales and dolphins are both sentient and sapient individuals, and that they deserve to have both their individual welfare protected and also for their moral and legal rights recognised.

Whales and dolphins are ancient and wonderful sapient and sentient beings. How would we be judged by our great, great grandchildren and all unborn generations if, knowing what we do, we do not fight to prevent their extinction? The whales and dolphins need and deserve our help – now, before it is too late.’ Jane Goodall (2011) in Whales and Dolphins: cognition, culture, conservation and human perceptions.

What is sentience?

 'Sentient animals may be aware of a range of sensations and emotions, of feeling pain and suffering, and of experiencing a state of well being. Sentient animals may be aware of their surroundings and of what happens to them' (CIWF).

Sentience is the ability to feel or perceive the world around you and as a result have subjective experiences (i.e. good, bad or neutral experiences). In its most basic sense, sentience is the ability to have sensations and as a result have experiences which then may be used to guide future actions and reactions.

Many now argue that there are a broad range of species that are sentient and thus have the ability to have good or bad experiences. Some argue further that good experiences are as important in shaping behaviour as bad experiences and that whilst it is important to protect individual non-human animals (hereafter ‘animals’) from negative experiences it is just as important to provide these individuals with the opportunity for pleasurable experiences.

Animal welfare advocates argue that sentient animals should not be subjected to unnecessary suffering. But qualifying what is ‘unnecessary’ has been the subject of much debate between those wishing to protect individuals from a certain species and those hoping to utilise those same individuals for a particular purpose, whether it is for human benefit or for wider species and ecosystems conservation benefit.

Nevertheless, the European Union recognises, through a legally-binding protocol annexed to the Treaty of Amsterdam that animals are ‘sentient beings’. This protocol requires that EU Member States ‘pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals’.

There is now a wide body of scientific evidence to support sentience in a wide range of species and this evidence comes from a broad range of scientific disciplines from animal behaviour to neurophysiology. For a regularly updated bibliography on evidence for animal sentience and a range of associated resources click here.

Why does sentience matter?
Scientific evidence now shows that the lives of many species are far more complex than we previously believed (for more scientific evidence on the complex cognitive and cultural lives of whales and dolphins see the following book and search the WDC blog using the tag ‘scientific evidence’). This is now reflected in the legislation protecting animal welfare in many countries which is intended to protect individual animals on the basis that these individuals can experience suffering from a range of causes and that this suffering can be experienced as pain, discomfort, fear, anxiety, stress, frustration or hunger.

What is sapience?
One step further along the continuum from sentience is the concept of sapience. Sapience refers to specific attributes of intelligence, such as the ability to ‘act with appropriate judgement’.

Sapience is sometimes simply defined as wisdom.

WDC argues that whales and dolphins are sentient and sapient. Many of these species live in complex social groups, exhibiting complex behaviours such as cooperation, deception and some whales and dolphins clearly even have their own cultures.

Why does sapience matter?
If the recognition of sentience in other species results in the moral imperative to ensure that we protect their welfare by avoiding activities which inflict either physical or psychological suffering; recognising sapience in some of these species must be the clarion call for us to go further.

WDC believes that as sentient and sapient individuals, whales and dolphins have an entitlement to have their homes, families and cultures protected as well as being protected as individuals. We argue that their intelligence and understanding of the world around them is such that protecting their physical and basic psychological wellbeing is insufficient and that beyond a basic ‘right to life, liberty and wellbeing’, they also have the right to freedom of movement and residence within their natural environment; the protection of their natural environment; and not to be subjected to the disruption of their cultures. These are some of the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins.

Science now demonstrates that whales and dolphins are sapient individuals, that at least some are capable of experiencing complex emotions such as grief and empathy and that some even live in complex cultural societies. This knowledge requires us to do more than simply protect the conservation status of species or populations or protect individual welfare. It is the revelation of sapience in our aquatic cousins, brought about through scientific research, that requires us to recognise their rights.