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India bans dolphin shows but what about other less 'intelligent' species?

Few contest the obvious privilege of intelligence in all walks of life. But what indeed is intelligence? And who decides how intelligent is intelligent enough?

The decision of the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) to ban dolphinariums or marine parks, captive facilities where dolphin shows are organized, has not made big headlines. But this is a bold move that sends a clear signal to various states planning to set up dolphinariums for tourists. And, it is in keeping with the ban on use of animals in circuses.

Like most wildlife, cetaceans — marine mammals such as dolphins, whales and porpoises — have a history of poor longevity in captivity across the world. Zoos, however, keep a wide variety of wildlife in large numbers. One would think that the cetaceans drew special attention because captive dolphins are almost always made to perform. Most zoo animals serve only as exhibits.

 India bans dolphin shows but what about other less intelligent species?

There won't be any dolphin shows in India. Reuters

But the CZA circular cites a curious justification. The authority doesn’t want dolphins in zoos because scientists have found them to have "unusually high intelligence" and therefore they 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."

This has raised certain dilemmas among conservationists. Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriksh, for example, summed it up in an online forum: “Perhaps it is a step towards the ‘rights’ of nature being recognised. However, the fact that this is happening only because dolphins have ‘unusually high intelligence’ and are 'persons' suggests that we are willing to extend rights only to something or someone who is akin to us. We are then leaving out most of nature, assuming that 'intelligence' here is used in the sense that we use it for ourselves, with various cognitive, predictive and reflective properties.”

Dolphins have fascinated us ever since we learnt how much alike we are. These marine wonders are deeply social, cooperative and competitive, follow basic language, display ‘culture’ and pass on information to successive generations. Their body to brain size ratio is second only to that of humans. They are known to help fishermen in mutually beneficial fishing practices. But the species is under threat from growing fisheries that eat into its prey base and also kill individuals by entangling in fishing nets. Tourism is the other prime threat as both dolphin swims and dolphin shows are getting increasingly popular.

In 2010, the Helsinki Group for cetaceans was formed for fostering moral and legal change. Based on the principle of equal treatment of all persons, it affirmed that “all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and wellbeing”, adding that, among other things, “no cetacean should be held in captivity or servitude” as they are not the “property of any State, corporation, human group or individual”.

That is a noble call and India’s decision shows that it is gaining international support. But ‘intelligence’ in nature can be complex. Even tiny organisms can achieve miracles far beyond humans. Toxoplasma gondii is an intracellular parasite that is flushed out in cat stool soon after its birth. Now it must return to a cat’s stomach to complete its life cycle.

So, the devious protozoan enters the stomach of a rat that has nibbled at cat dropping and executes complex neurosurgery to make the host fearless of cats. The sooner the rat becomes cat food, the brighter the chances of the Toxoplasma to reach a cat’s tummy and reproduce. The parasite also infects humans and is possibly responsible for the social menace of rash (read fearless) driving.

Primates, particularly chimpanzees, use several tools. Beavers are the world’s best dam engineers. Tiny birds make nests with the skill and judgment of a master craftsman. Spiders spin webs more resilient than stainless steel. The social system of the bees is smoother than that of any species on earth. And no matriarchal society functions as well as the elephant’s. Why, all animals manage to find their way back if moved from their habitat. Even a pea-brained crocodile covered 400 km in 20 days all around the northern tip of Australia to return to its territory.

All these species intrigue us. Yet, we set aside this “intelligence” as instinct even though we understand little about how they manage the impossible. At the still higher end of the spectrum, yet unable to fully decipher the grand scheme of nature that holds everything in fine balance, our bewilderment often seeks refuge in the supernatural.

Ultimately, it is about us. We want to save the panda because it is cute and the tiger for its charisma. The ugly crocodile or bat finds few defenders. We accept dolphins as intelligent because they accomplish a few things we too are capable of. That makes it a ‘person’ eligible for humane treatment. But we don’t have qualms confining other animal species in pathetic conditions in zoos across India.

This people-like-us syndrome is probably our biggest weakness. Most of us will be outraged if told that a doctor or an MBA is chained to a lowly clerical job. Now ask yourself if you would be half as bothered if we replace the hapless doctor with a painter or the frustrated MBA with a poet. Few of us understand the gift of a painter or a poet like we can identify with the skills of a doctor or an MBA.

Nobody grudges the beleaguered dolphin a better life. But if we honestly try to answer the question we began with, we may yet give ourselves a chance to act less self-centred. And we can turn the second question around. Can intelligence, whichever way we define it, be a measure of one’s eligibility for the most basic rights? Can we justify confining or enslaving someone or something for being less ‘smart’? Can anyone, or any species, be deemed too dumb to feel miserable?

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Updated Date: Oct 14, 2013 15:11:31 IST