People and cetaceans: a shared history
People and cetaceans have a rich history. Neolithic paintings on caves and cliffs show that our shared knowledge of cetaceans dates back to prehistoric times, and has become rooted in science, mythology, hunting, and, in recent times, tourism. Representing more than just a source of food, people from all over the world have sung about and celebrated these relationships for thousands of years, creating long-lasting myths, legends, and true stories about cetaceans.
The last 50 years has seen an unprecedented interest in whales and dolphins (cetaceans) which has propelled them to the very heart of the animal tourism industry. Today, they are perhaps the most popular group of animals on Earth. Stars in TV programmes, on display in some of the world’s largest zoological visitor attractions, and watched in the wild by commercial tour operators in over 100 countries, cetaceans also have huge appeal in the media, often drawing millions of viewers to natural history documentaries focused on them.
Yet this attention has also been their fate. Since the 1960s, cetaceans have been captured from the wild to stock a captive industry where the species’ perceived intelligence has been compromised through performances of unnatural behaviours to entertain. In some countries they are also used in interactive programmes that encourage physical contact with people every day. Over 600 captive facilities now keep and display over 3000 cetaceans around the world. It has become a hugely profitable business: each animal being a valuable asset.
The popularity of cetaceans, and the thirst for knowledge about their complex natural behaviours, has also made cetaceans the subject of many scientific studies. This has resulted in astounding scientific findings that have led us to conclude that cetaceans are among the most intelligent and socially dynamic mammals on earth. These findings have increasingly led us to question whether their complex physical and behavioural needs can ever be met by a captive environment, and has even led some scientists to argue that cetaceans deserve rights equivalent to those that we inscribe in law for ourselves.