Dolphins and whales have long been a favorite sight swimming off the shores of sunny Malibu, California. But now, in an historic move that aims to see those marine visitors’ status elevated, the seaside community has issued an official proclamation stating that they too deserve basic rights.

According to the statement, approved by the Malibu city council and signed by Mayor Joan House, whales and dolphins “are highly intelligent and emotional creatures... and therefore deserve the right to their own freedom and lives.”

While the proclamation, the first of its kind in the United States, may be largely symbolic, city council member Dr. Laura Rosenthal says it’s aim is to inspire others into “thinking about the issues in a deeper and more meaningful way and thus change behavior.”

Elsewhere, governments have already begun to change the way these animals are regarded. Just last year, officials in India offered a similar sentiment, declaring that dolphins should be seen as non-human persons. Closer to home, however, dolphins and whales are currently protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act -- a law that guards their existence, but which falls short of calling that existence an inherent right.

“I think most people can agree that dolphins deserve this right [to their own lives], but many remain unaware that dolphins are considered legal property. This needs to change,” says Laura Bridgeman from the International Marine Mammals Project.

The timing of the proclamation is not without significance. In recent months, humanity’s relationship with cetaceans has been cast into the forefront with events like Taiji’s infamous dolphin hunt, and the growing debate over the exploitation of captive animals at facilities like SeaWorld -- two noteworthy cases in which these animals are denied the rights Malibu contends they should be afforded.