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Wädenswil, 29 September 2016. The social complexity and intelligence of animals is becoming increasingly acknowledged. On the occasion of World Animal Day, OceanCare, Animal Trust and Verein Wildtierschutz Schweiz wish to raise awareness that dolphins, elephants, wolves and many other animals classify as individual non-human persons who have a right to live a meaningful life, to not experience torture and to be free. Species conservation legislation worldwide has to be fundamentally revised in order to account for the protection of the individual.

The last decade of studies into whale and dolphin, elephant, or wolf behaviour has highlighted how complex their communities and their communications are.

Whales and dolphins live in a radically different environment and represent an independent evolution of social learning and cultural transmission to humans, but they, too, have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self, can think about the future, and have the innate ability to learn language – both their own and a rudimentary symbol-based language created to bridge the communication chasm between dolphins and humans.

These marine mammals display a wide range of fascinating behaviours. Their communities have their own culture and social structures that can only come from a highly developed understanding of each other. Scientists have shown that dolphins mourn the loss of their group members, show empathy also with individuals of other species and even save them from predators. “These are only some of the facts that qualify whales and dolphins for being assigned personal rights”, says Sigrid Lüber, OceanCare president.

The cognitive abilities in wolves are more similar to those found in humans, but they surprise us, too. Cultural transmission of social status among wolves is dependent on sophisticated and evolved cooperative relationships and conflict resolution. These abilities have significant impacts on group dynamics in wolf packs.

“Scientists have discovered that wolves communicate their intentions to each other. They understand each other’s mental states. This is a sophisticated and evolved ability”, states Marion Theus, president of Verein Wildtierschutz Schweiz.

There are also leaps in our understanding about elephants who also have highly evolved communities and communications abilities. They have memory, morality, emotions, empathy and altruism, sophisticated communication and language, and the capacity to learn and to teach.

“Not only wisdom, but also advanced intelligence is attributed to elephants. They are stoic, brave, inventive, and highly social. Elephants have a strong sense of family, caring not only for the young, but also for the injured and the old”, says Katharina Büttiker, Animal Trust president.

Given that these animals are still being hunted or abused for public display, the three NGO representatives agree that – while animals would have always deserved our respect – the scientific evidence of their intelligence, culture as well as the capacity to suffer implicates our moral duty to acknowledge that these animals, being non-human persons, have the right to live a meaningful life, to have their individual liberty protected and to be free from torture.

Specifically, this means that species conservation legislation has to be revised. Current species conservation agreements, like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) focus on the preservation of species, leaving aside the welfare aspect, but also the role of the individual within its group. Such current concept allows to decimate species, while conservation measures only enter into force when it is often too late and animal populations have already been driven to the brink of extinction. “Placing the individual in the centre of conservation laws and multilateral environmental agreements is a necessary, groundbreaking step”, concludes Sigrid Lüber.

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Video: New Whale Behaviour in Arctic Norway. Source: Learning From Whales (Facebook). Copyright © Learning From Whales. For licensing purposes contact learningfromwhales@hotmail.com. OceanCare endorses Learning From Whales’ approach to behavioural learning and the two collaborate with regards to some conservation efforts.

Trailer: Film “Ivory – a crime story“ by Sergey Yastrzhembskiy and Chris Bolzli. Awarded best documentary at the New York International Film Festival 2016. Supported by Animal Trust.

PDF: Press release