India Declares Cetaceans “Non-Human Persons”

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on


On May 17, 2013, the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests declared that all cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are to be observed as “non-human persons.” India, the world’s second largest country by population, is just one of five nations–including Costa Rica, Croatia, Hungary and Chile–to collectively ban the import, capture and exploitation of these marine mammals. It is the first and only nation to acknowledge cetaceans as persons who, under law, “should have their own specific rights” as sentient beings.

Although India’s push to employ equality among species has gone largely ignored in both corporate and independent news media, the 2013 documentary, Blackfish–a film that follows the story of SeaWorld Orlando’s most notorious orca whale, Tilikum–is quickly cultivating public concern about the devastating consequences of keeping intelligent cetaceans in captivity. Following the enlightened precedent that India set, on March 7, 2014, the state of California proposed new legislation (the Orca Welfare and Safety Act), backed by the creators of Blackfish, that would ban all performances by orca whales, both publically and privately. If this act passes, ten orcas will be released into open ocean sanctuaries where they will be “rehabilitated and returned” to live out their lives peacefully and naturally.

“Of course, the biggest implication [of the non-human persons act] is the idea of creating a new category. Do we stop at dolphins and whales? And, if not, where do we draw the line? Once we give rights to some animals how do we justify our continued exploitation of others?” asks Jason Hackman of Daily Kos, a news, community and action-based website. While a new structure of being may be messy at first, India and California provide inspiring proof that it is both possible and necessary.


Jason Hackman, “India Declares Dolphins Non-Human Persons, Dolphin Shows BANNED,” Daily Kos, July 30, 2013,

David Kirby, “SeaWorld’s Worst Nightmare: Calif. Lawmaker to Propose Ban on Orcas in Captivity,” Take Part, March 6, 2014,

Student Researcher: Leah Fishman (Burlington College)

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (Burlington College)