Are Orcas non-human persons?

Orcas as non-human persons

Kathleen Haase, who developed her own petition to ask British Airways to stop selling trips to SeaWorld, has been volunteering for WDC, working with us on our anti-captivity campaigns. Here she provides some insighful thoughts on orcas in captivity and their right to freedom.

Are Orcas non-human persons?

“To be, or not to be,  that is the question”, Shakespeare's famous opening phrase for the play Hamlet wasn't intended to make a case for the animal rights movement. However, it describes perfectly what is at stake with the concept known as 'non-human personhood'.

Is every person a human being or are there perhaps persons that are not members of the human species? Whilst non-human personhood is still a controversial concept, scientists have discovered that some species on our planet qualify as being considered 'non-human persons' due to specific aspects of their brain functions. Some people now argue that great apes, elephants and some species of whales and dolphins fit the criteria for 'personhood'. What then is a person?

Generally speaking, a person is someone who is self-aware and intelligent, has a consciousness, thoughts and feelings, an ability to solve complex problems, and is able to initiate actions on his or her own volition.

Studies of orca brains and their behaviour have revealed that they tick many of these boxes. Research suggests that orcas are capable of recognising themselves in the mirror which indicates that they have some sense of self as they recognise their own reflection. Mirror self-recognition may not be proof of self-awareness but it is a very good indicator of an individual having a concept of themselves. While the mirror test gives us no indication of what orcas think and feel, it does give us an indication that they do in fact have thoughts and feelings.

Self-awareness is potentially one of the most important criteria for personhood. To be self-aware implies to have a concept of self. The French philosopher René Descartes wrote in his meditations that thinking is the essence of being. “I think therefore I am” is the conclusion he reached at the end of his investigations about what we can actually know.  Self-awareness implies having knowledge. Having knowledge implies having thoughts and perceptions which constitute that knowledge. Accordingly, if orcas possess self-awareness as indicated by them passing the mirror test then it is probable that they also have knowledge of themselves and their environment, thus are likely to have thoughts about themselves and the world around them.

Further studies of their social behaviour indicate that they indeed possess emotions, for example some scientists have pondered whether they grieve over the death of a family member. They also have individual dialects and are highly social and hierarchical animals who pass down their knowledge from generation to generation forming unique cultures between different social groups. Studies of vocalisations have shown that each population of orcas has a distinct dialect that no other population uses. Considering the most recent scientific findings, how is it that orcas are not yet considered non-human persons?

Imagine the consequences of declaring orcas as non-human persons with rights to life, freedom and non-interference. Captivity facilities with orcas, such as SeaWorld, would be forced to rehabilitate and release their orcas. Whalers would no longer be allowed to hunt them and even the whale watching industry might face stricter regulations to guarantee that they do not interfere with the lives of wild orcas.

Alongside economic concerns, there are political reasons why countries may resist such social change. However, we need to ask ourselves whether we are justified in denying a species that is intelligent, socially complex and emotionally sophisticated such status just because of how that might affect us. There is evidence that orcas in captivity suffer physically and mentally from their confinement. Companies like SeaWorld might deny that and claim that all their orcas lead happy and healthy lives but the statistics of their 50 year history present a different image.

Over the last 50 years SeaWorld has held 79 orcas in captivity. Twenty-nine of those are currently alive, including the ones living at Loro Parque, and 50 have died. The oldest of the deceased orcas was Kalina who was 25 years of age, yet around 92% of the orcas who died at SeaWorld did not manage to reach Kalina's age. SeaWorld tries desperately to hide these statistics from the public to continue with their business. They call everyone who opposes their business an “animal rights extremist” as if that implies that we are all wrong and do not know what we are talking about. In reality, the concerns of the animal rights movement are supported by scientists who have studied these animals in the wild for decades and recognise the severe impacts captivity has on them.

All of these are reasons why I started a petition asking British Airways (BA) to stop selling trips to SeaWorld. As SeaWorld have repeatedly stated that they will not change their orca policies, I felt that I had to do something to stop them from mistreating orcas by confining them in the name of entertainment. After a long struggle to get a response, BA have finally agreed to a meeting to discuss these issues. Many of the 251,907 supporters of my petition have voiced their dissatisfaction with SeaWorld's orca treatment by calling it slavery, cruelty, abuse, and some even referenced orcas as non-human persons deserving of having their rights recognised as the reason for signing. Since BA have finally taken a step to engage with this issue due to public pressure, I am hopeful that other companies will follow and that, eventually, our society will come to recognise orcas and other species for what they really are: non-human persons with rights to life, freedom and non-interference.

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Personally, I believe the whole problem is about money. As long as elephants, apes, cetaceans and other animals bring in a profit then "business as usual".Universal Animal Rights seems hard to achieve in this money-mad world of today but nevertheless, I shall continue to demand it until I'm blue in the face.

Thank you so very much for your comment Valerie. Let's hope we can prevent you from getting blue!

I agree that the issue with captivity facilities is very much about money and market forces but imagine what would happen if people realised that orcas and other species have certain qualities that make them suffer in particular circumstances and that what we do to them is essentially traumatising them based on these animal's understanding of themselves and their world. What if, by changing people's perception of orcas and other animals, we can change the market forces? That, at least, is the hope.

I totally agree - all species have their own intellectual capabilities - and, if left alone by the,forever on the make human species, will do ok within their own social structure. The human race has this self-given belief that they are somehow superior - the are most definitely not but they are governed by monetary gain - the animal kingdom has no concept of this - for it does not need it. Faulted human species - they are the beings solely to blame.

yes, I believe that "root of all evil" is Greed. Perhaps underlying even that is Fear, the fear of not having enough. My, how the concept of "enough" had changed over the decades...

To consider that we are the most intelligent being on earth is extremely egotistical and the fact that we keep animals in captivity is proof that we are not what we assume. All other animals kill for survival, never parade animals for our own entertainment and would never mistreat fellow sentient beings.

It is the height of egotism for us as humans to believe these creatures can't be non-human persons. Who's to say that God didn't create us as sub human to them. We can't continue to ignore the fact that they have many of the same traits that we have. Just because they don't speak as we do doesn't make them less intelligent. They have larger brains.
On the flip side, if we think according to the Darwin theory, we evolved from apes and were unable to speak except for grunts and growls. Then we "evolved". The whales and dolphins are far more intelligent than us in that respect with their calls, clicks and whistles and in different dialects.
We have absolutely no right to hold them in captivity and commit a genocide of sorts as in Taiji and to those we don't hold captive. It's an abomination. We are just as bad as Hitler in that respect.

Thank you for this article Kathleen. It begins to put into words what I know about Orcas from watching and listening to them in the wild. We are an arrogant and greedy race with blinkers on, but using research to back up this theory which I absolutely believe to be true may well bring hope in the future. Sometimes I wonder who is the more intelligent being, while we can do alot of good we are the ones doing immense damage to each other, creatures and the planet. I hope we learn from our mistakes before its too late.

You're taking the words out of my mouth, Julie. I couldn't have said it any better and I've never even seen an orca live but just knowing what they are like based on scientific research, how can anyone deny that they cannot flourish outside of their natural habitat? And even that is so heavily polluted and full of dangers with heavy boat traffic and risk of getting entangled in nets or blown up by the Navy, that you can hardly say they have an easy life out there yet, at least, they are free from the trauma experienced in captivity.

Kathleen, your work here is fantastic & well reseached. I think that you are going to argue your case from a scientific pount of view you must cite your sources so that your credibility stands alone right off the bat. For exame, this paragraph "Further studies of their social behaviour indicate that they indeed possess emotions, for example some scientists have pondered whether they grieve over the death of a family member. They also have individual dialects and are highly social and hierarchical animals who pass down their knowledge from generation to generation forming unique cultures between different social groups. Studies of vocalisations have shown that each population of orcas has a distinct dialect that no other population uses. Considering the most recent scientific findings, how is it that orcas are not yet considered non-human persons?" Has several very important studies comied into a single thought. Each study mentioned are stand alone arguements. Cute then MLA stule and again provide a sources page. Those doing the reseach will be recognized & approciate the mention. Your article will be better received by the non-believers.

Thank you very much for your comment MC. I will bare your very legitimate advice in mind for the next time. I did wonder about references but most of this article is written purely from memory about what I have learnt through various sources over roughly a year and I struggled to remember which bits of information I learnt from which source. I didn't read one particular study and use their information without citation as that would be plagiarism. It's more a collection of various general sources and a conceptual analysis based on what we know about orcas. However, I completely agree in regards to putting up sources to studies so will keep that in mind for the next time. Thank you very much!

Kathleen, your work here is fantastic & well reseached. I think that if you are going to argue your case from a scientific point of view you must cite your sources so that your credibility stands alone right off the bat. For example, this paragraph "Further studies of their social behaviour indicate that they indeed possess emotions, for example some scientists have pondered whether they grieve over the death of a family member. They also have individual dialects and are highly social and hierarchical animals who pass down their knowledge from generation to generation forming unique cultures between different social groups. Studies of vocalisations have shown that each population of orcas has a distinct dialect that no other population uses. Considering the most recent scientific findings, how is it that orcas are not yet considered non-human persons?" has several very important studies combined into a single thought. Each study mentioned is a stand alone arguement. Cite with your writing MLA style and again in a sources page. Those doing the reseach will be recognized & appreciate the mention. Your article will be better received by the non-believers.

Can you imagine the quiet panic occuring in aquaria, zoos, labs, circuses and various big hunting businesses as this discussion of the sentience of creatures we always thought of as "animals"? How do you live with yourself if you have to accept that your "work" involved imprisioning, torturing or murdering "people"? If you think Seaworld is fighting hard, just wait until scientists, big business and governments start.

Humans are supposed to have thoughts, feelings and compassion but many don't. To think we are the only beings on earth that think feel and suffer is incrediblely self absorbed.

thank you for such detailed and informative information, holding one species in restricted confines for the " entertainment" of an other is a short step away from bull baiting and cock fighting. This, once considered normal,is now rightly seen as barbaric. BA have the unique chance of standing out in history as one of those who have taken a stand against the cruelty of organisations such as Seaworld and will gain considerable positive publicity when society understands and accepts who barbaric these actives are.

I couldn't agree more. I am yet to see sea world personal (authirities)be forcibly removed from their families and out of their comfort zones to be stuck in a confined 6 by 6 area and still think that they will live happy and healthy lives.

There's an additional point in the argument for non-human personhood. Orcas appear to treat humans as deserving of individual ethical regard. In spite of being the ocean's apex predator, some of whom feed on warm blooded mammals, there are no confirmed cases of orcas attacking humans in the wild. Recently captured orcas become quite friendly and take care not to cause harm. I know this from personal experience with 4 orcas. It's only after years in captivity that the psychological and emotional damage causes some of them to become violent. Humans owe orcas the same ethical regard in return.

Thank you Robert, that is a really interesting idea. Very well put.

I absolutely do believe orca and other cetaceans should be recognised as non-human persons and should have rights to boot! Anyone who thinks any animal is stupid or is les important, simply because it is a different species should be ashamed of themselves. It's a completely backward way of thinking. Is like to see these people terrorised and kidnapped from their homes, taken somewhere completely alien to them and made to perform for food in a tiny unstimulating enclosures. It's horrific. They should be recognised for the highly intelligent, sentient beings they all are.

Humans are seeking intelligent life in outer space? Well how about finding it in the sea? Money driven idiots. Orcas and other cetaceans ARE non-human persons, regardless whether humans are able to acknowledge this.

I'd just like to thank everyone for their comments. I've read them all and find some of the things you mention very interesting, for example, us looking for intelligent life in outer space while we destroy the other intelligent life forms already living on this very planet. Thank you all for your thoughts and ideas. Hopefully, we can change things around.

The problem with this recent focus on 'non-human persons' in the animal activist world is that nowhere in the discussion does it mention how arbitrary are the categories for what is considered a person. You include orca but you exclude canine? You include canine but you exclude plant (which many might argue has feelings)? Anthropology acknowledges that every society has different guidelines for what they include as person or non-person, human, plant, or animal. I hope you will all realize that your excluding beings beyond chimp, whale, and dog is based on categories that science made up to assign personhood, and that we CAN include virtually all beings in one way or another. Before you forget the others, realize the detriment you are causing to them, beginning this conversation with exclusions. You will perpetuate all the harm that we already inflict on other species.

Hi K. Thank you very much for your comment. I see why you would think that but I can guarantee you it's not what we have in mind to exclude all other species. In our society, we have roughly 3 basic concepts of what a person is.

1) Standard definition/understanding: a person is a human being
2) Legal definition: a person is someone with rights which are recognised and protected by law
3) Philosophical definition (which I used in this article): a person is someone who meets certain criteria, e.g. self-awareness, consciousness, intelligence, emotions and thoughts, problem solving ability, autonomy.

By using definition 2 and 3, we (the many people arguing for animal personhood) are trying to get rid off definition one, that all persons are human beings. So rather than excluding any species, we are trying to get other species included into the definition of a person, as logically, based on definition 2 and 3 other species do in fact qualify.

Now, in regards to dogs and others being excluded, that is of course an issue with the current concept of personhood we are using but the hope is that once species like orcas, chimps, elephants and all others who fit the current definition of 2 and 3, we can show that there are good reasons to change our concept of a person from definition 2 and 3 to something completely new - a definition 4 which will include other species like dogs, cats, fish, birds etc.

To focus the talk on one species in particular makes it easier to get people to listen. It's the same with any other campaign or petition - you need to have a very specific and tailored target in order to success. If we just claimed "declare all animals non-human persons" or "give all animals rights" people would have more trouble to get on with it because it is asking way too much of our governments and legislation. If we take it step by step, we have much greater chance in succeeding.

That, at least, is my personal opinion. You are welcome to disagree, of course.

I understand your pragmatic approach to environmental campaigns, but perhaps you are underestimating the ability of the public to think through an entire concept, by limiting its scope. Personhood is a complex matter, not limited to self-awareness or things we humans can readily observe, and if we could present a greater perspective when discussing it, maybe people would be more likely to consider its many dimensions. But that is just one opinion.

But please, please, don't start your argument with Descartes. Cartesian philosophy is the REASON we have arbitrary dualities like human/non-human in the first place! Most contemporary philosophers would counter this philosophical trajectory. If you begin by siding with him, you destroy your argument before it even begins.

I do applaud any effort to bring animals toward the status of person, but hope that we can broaden our philosophical scope a little bit. I don't think convincing a few of a little is going to change a lot.

Great article, keep on fighting the good fight. We will win, moral progress cannot be stopped.

Few people are aware of the fact that:

In 1980 Sea World San Diego (SWC) had four young (untrained) Orcas in their petting pool where for over a year they interacted with thousands of untrained visitors to the park with no trainer oversight and no one was ever hurt. EVER

I had the privilege of getting to know these four Orcas (Kasatka, Katina, Kotar and Canuck II) through visiting every weekend for both days for almost a year without the restrictions of having to be a trainer or working for the park. I was able to earn their friendship and trust without the need of food to coerce the interactions as park staff does in/for shows, but just patiently waiting for them to come over and check me out.

This is Kotar.

His sad captive life is a story unto itself. Kasatka was featured in “Blackfish” and is the same Orca that, after much behavior modification by the parks, is shown repeatedly dragging one of their top trainers, Ken Peters, underwater in 2006.

Once we had gotten to know each other well, on more than a dozen occasions one grabbed my arm in its mouth up the elbow (in the same manner the final reports say Dawn was grabbed) as had been done to me many times before by the other Bottlenose Dolphins in the tank there and at other parks I visited back then and gently (for them) pulled on me inviting me into the water. Once two tried this at the same time, one on each arm and almost succeeded. Unfortunately, though I wanted to, I could not accept their invitation to get in the water and play and I was able to get across to them that while I was OK with the idea, the park would not have allowed it. Had there been *any* desire to harm me on their part for any reason, the opportunity was certainly there and yet I am still whole, alive and unharmed. As are the many other visitors to the park who had similar experiences with them.

I was under constant observation by the tank monitor and after the Orcas were consistently coming to me for interaction, by staff from the Orca show observing me from the far side of the tank, apparently wondering how I was so good with them without the use of food to coerce the interactions. Had I been doing *anything* wrong during these interactions, I would have been challenged by one or the other of these two, and even possibly ejected from the park. As this *never* happened, what I was doing was considered not dangerous or harmful to the Cetaceans or to me.

Strangely, whenever I attempted to walk over to them to ask them questions about the Orcas or the shows, they would quickly run off when they saw me approaching.

Now after over 3 decades of captivity, handling and conditioning with training and behavior modification, the latent effect that this type of interference in their natural state has shown its affect on them in their social, mental, and inter"personal" interactions. And, how having been subjugated has elicited obvious changes in them over this span of time.

This does not speak well towards Sea World’s handling of these highly intelligent/sapient individuals, nor about what Sea World calls the “special training” of the orcas or their staff who “have been specially trained to work with Orcas” when I, as well as dozens of other (untrained) visitors to the park at that time, interacted with these then, untrained Orcas and were *never* injured. This really debunks/disproves what SW, OSHA and other’s claim as to how “wild and dangerous” Orcas are.

Back then, I wanted to be a trainer myself. However after this unique and rare opportunity of open and unrestricted interaction, which likely will never happen again, I changed my mind about that and about keeping them in captivity.

I have also worked on three Interspecies Communications Projects including Dr. Lilly’s JANUS (Joint Analog Numerical Understanding System) project and have gotten to know dozens of other Cetaceans through thousands of hours of hands on experience, all without using fish to coerce the interactions. I have learned from this just how intelligent/sapient and sensitive beings Cetaceans are and that captivity, especially in it’s current form, is no way to treat an intelligent/sapient being like them. Working on these three different projects with their diverse approaches to communication has also showed me that communication with them is possible but not by using any method currently being employed.

Lilly recognized their intelligence/sapience and shutdown the research project because of this. The two dolphins, Joe and Rosie, who were (fortunately) never show trained, were shipped to Florida where Ric O'Barry taught them to catch and eat live fish again before they were released back in their home, the Atlantic Ocean after 5 years of captivity. The only other researcher that I am aware of has ever done something like this is Dr Randall Wells of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program. They were freeze branded with the male and female symbols on their dorsal fins and were sighted many times over the next several years in the company of other dolphins as well as on their own.

People belittle and deride the former staff whistle blowers for bringing to light the problems with keeping Cetaceans in captivity that the general public is blissfully unaware of because of what they are led to “Believe” is going on by the fancy shows at these parks. Being a whistle blower is a good thing and these people are to be commended for their strong moral compass for being forced to leave a job they love to save the animals they love and work with from the poor living conditions in these same parks.

So I do not support their captivity, though I do acknowledge that without captivity I would not have had such an opportunity as this, I have not bought a ticket to SWC or any other similar park with Cetaceans since the time of those visits even though I still have several Cetacean friends there and it pains me to not visit them. I made a singular exception to this last year (2013) to visit Kasatka and her new calf at SWC. I was thoroughly disgusted by how much more commercial the park had become in the intervening years and the open interaction petting pool had been turned into a “Pay to Interact and Fake Being a Trainer for an Hour” income stream for the park. The smell of chlorine was everywhere in the park. It was so sad.

Why would a facility with stated goals like “Marine Life Awareness and Preservation” need a roller coaster anyway?

To attract visitors?

Isn’t that what the animal displays are supposed to be for?

I’ve seen Blackfish and IMHO I think it was fine. Sea World was asked *repeatedly* to participate in the filming and their input was requested and they *refused* each time. They can’t whine about it now. They had their chance and they ignored it. Like they also turned down helping Keiko when asked.

Keiko’s release was not a failure as some seem to think either.

Many people love and like Dinosaurs all without there ever having been one in captivity to instill this in people so the claim that captivity is necessary/required to create these same feelings towards Cetaceans is really not valid.