A killer whale performs at a Japanese aquatic amusement park.
PETA says SeaWorld violates the constitutional rights of killer whales. (Photo Credit: CC BY/Open Cage)

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is suing SeaWorld parks on the grounds that keeping killer whales as performers violates the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment that bans slavery. While SeaWorld believes the lawsuit is baseless and legal experts categorize the suit’s chance of success as “slim,” some animal rights activists believe it’s time to give orcas back to the sea.

Determining the authors’ original intent

As with any case involving Constitutional law, the Associated Press notes that a judge’s job is to determine the original intent of the authors of the amendment. As the 13th Amendment was written to prohibit human slavery, PETA’s suit may be derailed before it begins.

Yet the animal rights organization is not deterred. According to PETA’s general counsel Jeff Kerr, when PETA’s five-member legal team presents the case in U.S. District Court in San Diego, it will point out that the amendment does not specify that only humans can be victims of slavery. Kerr believes that it will be the first federal court case to seek constitutional rights for a non-human animal species and re-define animals as entities, rather than property.

Finding a ‘suitable habitat’ for the plaintiffs

Five orcas are named as the plaintiffs in PETA’s lawsuit: Tilikum and Katina from SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., and Corky, Kasatka and Ulises from SeaWorld San Diego.

This isn’t the first time the world has heard of Tilikum, the AP notes. In February 2010, the six-ton male grabbed a trainer during a performance and dragged her underwater until she drowned. Tilikum has fathered many of the killer whale calves born in SeaWorld parks and continues to have “enormous value” as a stud.

PETA’s lawsuit asks the court to order the release of the orcas into the custody of a legal guardian who will find a more “suitable habitat” for the killer whales.

“By any definition, these orcas are slaves — kidnapped from their homes, kept confined, denied everything that’s natural to them and forced to perform tricks for SeaWorld’s profit,” said Kerr. “The males have their sperm collected, the females are artificially inseminated and forced to bear young which are sometimes shipped away.”

SeaWorld: Suit is ‘baseless and offensive’

SeaWorld has called PETA’s attack “baseless and offensive.”

“SeaWorld is among the world’s most respected zoological institutions,” said a company press release. “There is no higher priority than the welfare of the animals entrusted to our care and no facility sets higher standards in husbandry, veterinary care and enrichment.”

All U.S. marine parks are governed by the Marine Mammals Protection Act, which permits public display of aquatic creatures, so long as proper permits are obtained and public education/conservation programs are offered.

Orca testimony


Associated Press: http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2011/10/25/us/AP-US-Killer-Whales-Slavery.html?ref=us

The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/poll/2011/oct/25/whales-slaves-poll

Marine Mammals Protection Act: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/laws/mmpa/

Peta.org: http://bit.ly/t67kso

Sea World Private Expedition Tour: http://bit.ly/rHJfrS

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