First Steps to Recognizing the Personhood of Other Species

Posted on March 17, 2014


Last year, India officially recognized cetaceans as “non-human persons who have rights that must be respected,” reports Deutsche Welle.  Sea World-like parks across India will now be shut down.  India is following the lead of Chile, Costa Rica, and Hungary, who have already banned the capture and use of cetaceans for entertainment; and now California may soon follow suit, too.

I say it’s long overdue.  I have been told by some ignorant folks, from time to time, that animals don’t feel pain; that they don’t have emotions; that they are mere input-output machines, stimulation/response, biological automatons and nothing more… as if somehow, they aren’t even quite real.  Any halfway observant person who has spent any time at all with animals knows that is patently false.

For hundreds of years, there have been reports of dolphins spontaneously rescuing swimmers or sailors, or defending them against sharks.  In one incident in New Zealand, a group of dolphins cooperated with each other to protect a group of human swimmers from a Great White shark.  They know how to spontaneously ask for help, too:  last year, a dolphin tangled in fishing line swam up to a diver and waited patiently for him to remove the line.  “It’s a huge thrill to be able to help an animal that clearly knows what’s going on,” said the diver, Keller Laros.  Similarly, a humpback whale just rescued from a fishing line entanglement spent an hour repeatedly breaching, fin-slapping and tail-slapping as her rescuers looked on.  Said one rescuer:   “We all believed it was at least a show of pure joy, if not thanks.”  And why not?  The whale had been on the verge of drowning in the nets.  This was a creature who knew and appreciated a new lease on life.

Amazing as cetaceans can be, other creatures also demonstrate that they should be considered for this “personhood” recognition.  How about gorillas like Koko,  who has mastered 1000 signs in American Sign Language; who taught some of those signs to her co-resident gorilla, Michael; who mourned the loss of her kitten, who she had named All Ball (the cat had no tail); and later mourned the loss of Michael.  Or a gorilla like Binti Jua, who rescued a young boy who had fallen into the gorilla enclosure in the Brookfield Zoo, and was unconscious.  As horrified zoo visitors watched in disbelief, she gently carried him to the door where she knew zookeepers could access the enclosure (the boy recovered fully).  Gorillas in the wild are no slouches, either:  mountain gorillas in Rwanda have taken to finding and destroying poachers’ snares to protect their own kind.

Or take elephants.  They recognize themselves.  They form deep bonds that last even over long separations.  They mourn and bury their dead.  They can be vengeful.  They can distinguish between human languages and the gender of the speaker, and judge dangers accordingly.  They understand teamwork to solve problems.  And how does one explain this:  a rampaging male elephant knocked down the wall of a home in India, but when he heard the cries of an infant trapped in the rubble, he turned back and rescued the baby.

There are plenty of other creatures great and small who demonstrate the kind of intellect that should give us pause.  Chimps, crows, parrots, octopus, and otters all have been observed to use tools.  Even spiders have revealed the ability to solve problems by observation.

Those who claim that humans are set apart and above the animals – that indeed, we are not animals at all, but something really special – are fast losing ground in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.   The question is, even if we come to recognize at least some animals as “nonhuman people,” will we change our own behaviors toward them?