Dolphins in India are Recognized as “Non-Human Persons,” Still More Hoops to Jump Through Though


There’s no question that dolphins are intelligent and emotional creatures. Dolphins in India no longer have to perform as it’s now the largest country in the world to ban dolphin shows that keep these majestic creatures in captivity.

Scientist recently discovered that highly intelligent dolphins recognize each other in a similar way to how we humans know each other’s names. Many people consider dolphins to be “non-human persons,” and the country of India now makes this distinction as well. India’s Ministry of the Environment and Forests said in a statement, “Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive, and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that the unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphin should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights and is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose.”

The ban on performing dolphins in India prevents “any person / persons, organizations, government agencies, private or public enterprises that involves import, capture of cetacean species to establish for commercial entertainment, private or public exhibition and interaction purposes whatsoever.” India is now the world’s largest nation to ban dolphin shows (Costa Rica, Hungary, and Chile are others).

Ric O’Barry, who was featured in the gripping Academy-award nominated documentary The Cove about dolphin slaughter in Japan, called the decision a “huge victory” for dolphins. “Not only has the Indian government spoken out against cruelty, they have contributed to an emerging and vital dialogue about the ways we think about dolphins – as thinking, feeling beings rather than pieces of property to make money off of.” O’Barry rose to stardom for his role in the 1960s television show Flipper, which featured captured and trained dolphins, and ultimately led to the world’s fixation with captive dolphins. O’Barry has since become a staunch advocate for dolphins’ rights.

But dolphin captivity persists, and Americans in particular, buy into the illusion, supporting Sea World and other organizations that make it appear as though a well-trained dolphin is a happy one. “Training of dolphins is often deliberately misrepresented by the captive dolphin industry to make it look as if dolphins perform because they like it. This isn’t the case. They are performing because they have been deprived of food,” cites O’Barry’s Dolphin Project website. “Most captive dolphins are confined in minuscule tanks containing chemically treated artificial seawater. Dolphins in a tank are severely restricted in using their highly developed sonar, which is one of the most damaging aspects of captivity. It is much like forcing a person to live in a hall of mirrors for the rest of their life – their image always bouncing back with no clear direction in sight.” Add to this the horrors of being captured from the wild, enduring traumatic transport, and being forced to perform over and over again, day after day.

Still, for many, seeing animals in zoos, aquariums or circuses can become a driving force in one’s love for all kinds of animals. As a child, I was particularly fond of Chuckles, an Amazon river dolphin who lived in a tiny tank at the Pittsburgh Zoo for more than 30 years. (He was the longest living dolphin in captivity, outliving the closest competitor by 16 years.) Chuckles seemed to smile as he’d bounce a ball out into the wandering crowds of curious kids, anxious for one of them to bounce it back to him in his shallow pool.

I couldn’t help but feel like this creature was my friend, even though our worlds were so completely different. There was something in his eyes. I felt like he recognized me every time I visited him. Maybe he held my gaze a bit longer. Or maybe it was that perpetual dolphin smile that we so often can’t see past. He was a friend I wanted to visit as often as possible; but I knew he was also clearly a prisoner, forced to live in an unnatural environment (as Pittsburgh certainly is to most creatures—the aquatic or writer kind). It was painful to see him there. And confusing, more than anything else.

It’s not surprising that India, which also boasts the world’s largest vegetarian population, has taken this crucial step in banning dolphin exploitation. It’s a move towards a more compassionate world. And a world that’s more compassionate to animals, is one that’s also more compassionate to humans, too, hopefully.

Still, I also can’t help but wonder whether I would have become an advocate for animals, and a vegan, had I not spent so much time at the zoo growing up. (I would eventually even have an internship there working with rhinos, big cats, bears and more.) There are few things more wonderful to a child than observing the world’s other funny-looking creatures, particularly when they also interact with you, like Chuckles did.

But we can observe these animals in their more natural environments. We can support sanctuaries that rescue animals and are often open to the public for viewing and interaction. We can find the magic in those “ordinary” creatures most likely in our yards and neighborhoods right now like squirrels, skunks, raccoons, birds, possums, frogs, lizards, coyotes.

If we’re just now discovering that dolphins have intelligence and communication abilities on par with humans, what else don’t we know about them? Or pigs? Or ducks? Or turtles for that matter? Has the time finally come when we will recognize the sovereignty of all creatures? Or will we keep justifying captive wild animals as a means of avoiding the bigger, more egregious issues surrounding the billions and billions of animals kept in captivity that we eat every year?

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: M. Martin Vicente


Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.