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Who could own a whale?

When a sick or injured animal is taken into captivity so that we might help them rehabilitate to full health so that they can eventually be released back into the wild, do the humans who have taken on the role of ‘looking after’ that individual then ‘own’ them and who gets to decide on that individual’s future?

This is a dilemma that has been brought into sharp focus by the case of an orca (killer whale) who was brought into captivity following rescue at sea with the aim of rehabilitating her and then releasing her back into the wild. While in captivity she has been given the human name ‘Morgan’. However, rather than being rehabilitated back into the wild to return to her home waters, she currently languishes in a tank, waiting for her future to be decided.

Nobody can own an orca, any more than they can own you or me and this principle is enshrined in the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins which states, among other things, that:

No cetacean should be held in captivity or servitude; be subject to cruel treatment; or be removed from their natural environment;

All cetaceans have the right to freedom of movement and residence within their natural environment; and

No cetacean is the property of any State, corporation, human group or individual.

In undertaking any apparent ‘act of good will’, in order to help a wild animal, we must be very careful that we make choices that are truly independent of vested human interest, or the potential vested interests of a corporation that could then exploit this situation for their own profits. While the initial intent to help may be earnest, the question of who decides on the individual’s future in such cases must surely reside with an appointed guardian who has no vested interest in keeping the individual in captivity. Such a guardian would not ‘own’ the individual, but give a truly independent voice on behalf of the individual animal’s interests.

It’s hard to conceive of a similar situation where a human patient who had been taken into a hospital for treatment is then, once recovered, kept in the hospital as a ‘show piece’ or ‘poster child’ to help the hospital increase its funds. Orcas are intelligent and live in complex social groups and we have a duty to protect their interests in such situations, just as we would any other sentient, sapient individuals who cannot speak for themselves.  

This is an extract from a post which appeared on the Psychology Today, Animal Emotions blog in March 2011.