Saturday, 17 March 2012

How Do You Section a Dolphin? An AMHP Perspective on Cetacean Sentience

“There’s no way I’m getting in that ambulance."

A recent article on the BBC news website suggests that dolphins should be given the same rights as humans. “Dolphins should be treated as non-human "persons", with their rights to life and liberty respected, scientists meeting in Canada have been told... They believe dolphins and whales are sufficiently intelligent to justify the same ethical considerations as humans.”

The article goes on to say: “It is based on years of research that has shown dolphins and whales have large, complex brains and a human-like level of self-awareness. This has led the experts to conclude that although non-human, dolphins and whales are "people" in a philosophical sense, which has far-reaching implications.”

Were this idea to be taken seriously by Government, there would indeed be far-reaching implications. Many laws would have to be amended: for example the Human Rights Act would have to be renamed the “Sentient Beings Rights Act” in order to afford cetaceans the full rights which human beings currently uniquely enjoy among the animal kingdom.

However, a close reading of the Mental Health Act reveals that there is nowhere a definition of what constitutes a “patient” or a “person”, so the MHA could as equally apply to dolphins as to people.

This would pose all sorts of difficulties for AMHP’s discharging their legal duties. For a start, how do you establish whether or not a dolphin has “a mental disorder of a nature or degree which warrants the detention of the patient in a hospital” for assessment or treatment?

Do dolphins suffer from depression, or psychosis? It’s quite possible that dolphins and other cetaceans exhibit suicidal ideation. There have been many examples of dolphins and others deliberately beaching themselves, often with tragic consequences. One recent example occurred on 5th March 2012 in Brazil, when 30 dolphins were beached. In this instance, humans took matters literally in their own hands and dragged them back into the sea.

But perhaps they should instead have waited for an AMHP and two doctors (one of whom should ideally have specialised in dolphin psychiatry) to conduct a formal assessment under the MHA before taking any other action. After all, they may have been deemed to have capacity to make “unwise decisions”.

All sorts of other dilemmas present themselves. How do you interview a dolphin “in a suitable manner”? It would be essential to have dolphin interpreters. But would you then want a dolphin who could speak English, or a human who could speak Dolphin? Which is the least oppressive option?

And would you expect the dolphin to come onto dry land to be interviewed, or should the AMHP don a wet suit, snorkel and flippers and interview in the dolphin’s natural environment?

Then there’s the matter of putting the right name of the patient on the section papers. We don’t currently have any phonetic system for transcribing dolphin’s natural names. Would we therefore have to use the names imposed on them by humans, for example, “Flipper” or “Bubbles”? And would that be considered oppressive? I don’t suppose it matters legally, as long as the same name is on all the paperwork.

Having made the decision to detain a dolphin under the MHA, how would you transport it to hospital? We would need special ambulances with a water tank in the back. But what about when the ambulance has to take a sharp turn?

And what if the dolphin objected to being taken to a dolphin psychiatric unit (and what would one of those look like?) and became aggressive? How do you handcuff a dolphin? Actually, that wouldn’t be necessary – a couple of Velcro restraint belts with carrying handles should do the trick.

And then there’s the whole issue of treatment…

My brain hurts…


  1. How bizarre. I've heard of a dog that killed itself by jumping after its owner told it off. Maybe dogs should be sectionable too- and this suicide could've been prevented. And why stop at dogs? I've heard primates are pretty smart. Maybe monkeys and orang utans need to be sectioned too.

  2. As an ASW some years ago I was involved with a patient who believed he was a DOLPHIN.

  3. Perhaps he was actually a dolphin who believed he was a human.

  4. Maybe we're all dolphins! :-)

  5. This is all a bit fishy.......mind you, the mind boggles at the thought of what next.

    Non humans? What would you do if someone asked you to take you to your leader? Section them - or seek to discover if they were extra terrestrial masquerading in human form?

    Where will it end, I ask myself. Oh, better not do that or I may be seen - in some quarters - as delusional.....!

  6. Is the dolphin image copyrighted?

  7. I found it by doing a Google image search.

  8. If swimming with dolphins is advocated as a treatment for certain forms of mental disorder (and it is) would walking with humans be a valid therapy for cetaceans experiencing emotional distress.