Through rigorous scientific inquiry, we now know that cetaceans are self-aware, sensitive beings, and deserve to be considered so much more than our property.
It was a day like any other at City Hall. Smartly dressed people darted in and out of offices, faint wafts of coffee trailing behind them in invisible tendrils.
San Francisco Animal Welfare and Control Commissioner Russell Tenofsky and I strode purposefully down the marbled floors, our footsteps echoing off the corridors where so many important and progressive decisions have been made before.
Today would be no exception, aside from the fact that the beneficiaries of this decision would not be humans.
The Cetacean Free and Safe Passage resolution, on the agenda for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting on 21st October, is a simple enough-looking document.
Backed by Supervisor Scott Wiener and sponsored by the International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute, it outlines the ills of captivity and states that these magnificent beings ought to be protected in their environment, and resolves:
"That the City and County of San Francisco supports the free and safe passage of all whales and dolphins in our coastal waters, including the Pacific Ocean, the San Francisco Bay, and its estuaries."
'Every whale and dolphin has the right to be free'
But the sentence at the very end of the document has the greatest significance, helping to shape our collective shift in morality that is already underway around the world:
"Be it further resolved that every whale and dolphin has the right to be free of captivity, and to remain unrestricted in their natural environment."
We entered the muted chaos of the meeting room and took our seats on the hard wooden benches facing the Supervisors, who had been working their way down the long list of agenda items, inching closer to the resolution that we had come to give comments on. A glance up at the ornately carved ceiling reminded me once more of the gravity of the decisions discussed in this room.
Russell and I were representing local and national organizations, prominent scientists, and hundreds of high school students who'd written supportive letters to the Supervisors. I'd read over these letters several times, never ceasing to be inspired by their words.
"As a citizen of the United States, I am free, and as a citizen of the oceans, why can't they be free?" asks one. "Is our amusement really more important than a dolphin's life?"
The kids get it. But would the Supervisors?
Finally, the resolution was tabled. Supervisor Wiener stood and remarked on how powerful it is when students organize and participate in the political process, encouraging them to continue. Without much more ceremony, the resolution was unanimously passed.
The significance of stating that cetaceans have the rights to be free and to not be held in captivity cannot be understated, as it reflects a growing understanding that we humans ought to begin including other species into our calculations of what is fair and morally right.
At a time when nonhumans are still considered property, any statements indicating their right not be considered so is profound.
It might be hard to believe that granting cetaceans the right to their freedom will improve our human lives. Your mind might leap to those deemed more worthy of consideration - the trafficked child; the forgotten homeless; the hungry family. These are all serious problems, with their roots planted somewhere in the spectrum of inequality.
Freedom for one is freedom for all
However, by attempting to create a more just world for those who have arguably suffered just as much as any human, we indeed help ourselves. Abraham Lincoln once said, "In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free." Freedom for one is freedom for all.
When a young child is brought to amusement parks like SeaWorld and exposed to the exploitation of sentient beings, those values can become entrenched within her, to be unconsciously perpetuated in myriad ways.
It is not her fault - she, like all of us, has been exposed to a value system that may have worked at one time, but that our own science has now proven as being wrong, outdated and harmful.
Thus it behooves each of us to reexamine our perceptions of and indeed, all nonhuman life. Through rigorous scientific inquiry, we now know that cetaceans are self-aware, sensitive beings, and deserve to be considered so much more than our property.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, at least, agrees. They answered the question of whether our society should continue to mend its ways and recognize cetacean's right to freedom with a resounding YES - one that will be heard throughout the nation and beyond.
I would expect nothing less from a city that has, time and again, paved the way for the rest of the world and is named in honor of the patron saint of animals, St. Francis.
While we now celebrate this small but significant victory, there remains much to be done. This work needs to be done within each one of us. After all, it is we who must change, we who must learn to coexist with others on this planet.
Cetaceans have figured this out millions of years ago. We can learn a thing or two from them.
Laura Bridgeman is Campaign & Communication Specialist with the International Marine Mammal Project.