Dolphins: From Mythology to Public Policy
An Animal Rights Article from


Animals and Society Institute
May 2009

In time for the upcoming summer vacation season, the ASI has just published Dolphin-Human Interaction Programs: Policies, Problems and Alternatives, authored by Kris Stewart and Lori Marino, the 5th volume in our series of policy papers. The paper explores dolphin protection policy, particularly in the context of the "swim with dolphin" (and other commercial) programs. In a nutshell, it asks--and provides some answers to--the question posed in a Reuters article discussing the popularity of "swim-with" programs, "does the dolphin want to swim with you?"


People have long had a fascination with dolphins. They figure prominently in Greek mythology and art. As described in PBS's "Voyage of the Odyssey," the Greek Sun God Apollo described the dolphin as the "embodiment of peaceful virtue, undisguised joy and as a guide to another world. He sometimes exchanged his god-like status to assume dolphin form. He founded the Oracle at Delphi (dolphin-town) on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus - a respected prophetess named in the dolphin's honor."

Early Greek artists frequently adopted dolphin motifs. One of the earliest and best-known ornamentations is the 3,500 year old dolphin fresco on the wall of the Queen's bathroom in the ancient palace of Knossos on the island of Crete.

The Ganges River Dolphin (currently an endangered species) is often associated with the goddess Ganga as the mount she used in her descent from the heavens.

Fast forward several thousand years to the television show "Flipper," broadcast from 1964-67. Flipper, a Bottlenose Dolphin, is the companion animal of the warden at a fictional Florida marine preserve, and his two sons. Dubbed an "aquatic Lassie" and spawning oceans of merchandise, the program may have had an influence on baby boomers, who have flocked (excuse the mixed metaphor) to the "swim-with" programs that began appearing in the early 1980s.

The reason for our fascination with these intelligent, social creatures is not hard to fathom. In their natural habitats, they live in large herds and have strong family ties. They communicate via sophisticated echolocation. They actually seem to like us humans. Stories abound of dolphins saving humans; for example in 2004, a pool of dolphins circled protectively around several swimmers, thereby protecting them from nearby sharks.

And that smile... The scientific evidence has a less benign explanation for it: "People need to literally go beneath a dolphin's smile because dolphins will smile even if they are sick, dying, or dead," according to Dr. Toni Frohoff, a marine biologist who has specialized in dolphin research and communication.

The dolphin's intelligence has also been used to advance the legal argument for animal rights. Steve Wise's 2002 book Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights argues that some animals, particularly primates but also dolphins, elephants and parrots meet the criteria of legal personhood, and should therefore be awarded certain rights and protections. His criteria for personhood is fundamentally that an animal must have a sense of self, that is, know that s/he exists.

In Dolphin-Human Interaction Programs, Stewart and Marino note that the laws and regulations--and thus standards of protection--for commercial use of captive dolphins are different from those for the similar use of wild dolphins. They address the timely issue of US law and policy vis a vis the management of commercial dolphin-human interactions. Their paper examines the science as well as the law, in order to make the most informed and useful recommendations about what we ought to do. That "ought" is the inquiry at the heart of all public policy debate, informing and determining sound policy; and making possible that the resulting decision will take into account the interests of all involved, and (in this case and in other volumes of the ASI's Public Policy Series which feature a variety of topical animal issues) not just humans. The authors conclude that "current policy measures are inconsistent and deficient," and offer alternative practices and policies "to better advance the future well-being of both humans and dolphins."

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