by Jennifer Mishler
Categories: Animals, Causes
Tags: , , .
Photo: Flickr/Stig Nygaard

Yesterday, PETA announced that they are officially taking on SeaWorld. The animals right organization and others have teamed up to sue SeaWorld for violating the constitutional rights of orcas.

According to PETA, joining them are marine mammal trainer turned activist Ric O’Barry of The Cove, world-renowned marine biologist Dr. Ingrid Visser, founder of Orca Network Howard Garrett, and two former SeaWorld trainers (yup, you read that right!) Samantha Berg and Carol Ray. PETA says that the suit is based on the plain text of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, “which prohibits the condition of slavery without reference to ‘person’ or any particular class of victim.” This is the first time a lawsuit has sought to apply the amendment to nonhumans, and names five orcas as the plaintiffs: Tilikum and Katina (at SeaWorld Orlando) and Kasatka, Corky, and Ulises (at SeaWorld San Diego). Jeffrey Kerr, general counsel to PETA said, “Slavery is slavery, and it does not depend on the species of the slave any more than it depends on gender, race, or religion.”

PETA President Ingrid Newkirk adds, “All five of these orcas were violently seized from the ocean and taken from their families as babies. They are denied freedom and everything else that is natural and important to them while kept in small concrete tanks and reduced to performing stupid tricks…The 13th Amendment prohibits slavery, and these orcas are, by definition, slaves.” The organization claims that SeaWorld’s confined whales are “forced to swim in circles in small, barren concrete tanks,” and are “deprived of the opportunity to make conscious choices and to practice their cultural vocal, social, and foraging traditions.” They are calling the lawsuit “the next step” in humans treating animals not as property but as sentient beings. “Just as we look back with shame at a time when we enslaved other humans and viewed some people as property less deserving of protection and consideration, we will look back on our treatment of these animals with shame.”

According to ABC News, SeaWorld has said applying the 13th Amendment to nonhuman animals would be “baseless and in many ways offensive.” “SeaWorld is among the world’s most respected zoological institutions,” the company said. “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.”

The lawsuit is being filed in San Diego, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. It remains to be seen whether or not the lawsuit will be successful in applying constitutional rights to nonhumans, but it has already been successful in bringing the issue to the public eye as it spreads throughout the news. If PETA’s team does succeed and SeaWorld faces legal action for enslavement of animals, think of what that could mean for animals in aquariums, zoos, circuses and other entertainment industries!

About Jennifer Mishler

Jennifer Mishler is a writer, and a vegan and animal activist. When she's not writing, you can often find her volunteering or advocating for animal, environmental and human rights causes. Along with writing for Ecorazzi, she has contributed writing for nonprofits like Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and enjoys blogging. She resides in the Washington, DC area (and loves all the vegan food it has to offer). Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @jennygonevegan.

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  • Jan Knoetze

    This action has major implications for all other (working) animals in captivity too. I’m excited by the prospect of success to PETA!

  • Sam

    This is interesting to me. I can absolutelyy see how anti-slavery statutes could be applied to the orcas – it’s work without compensation. But (sadly) I’d be amazed if the judge permits the case to go forward. If it did, the implications could be potentially HUGE. If the 13th amendment were extended to animals, it would most likely cover service and comfort animals as well (like seeing eye dogs). Those animals also work for no “compensation” (though we’d have to actually hash out what compensation means in these cases).

    I’m not saying there should not be a serious conversation about the conditions of working animals. But I do know that even among the veg community, there’s serious debate about service animals. That’s why I think this case will get stopped quickly – it would just be too far-reaching for the legal system to process.

    • http://NONE sylvia adam

      The animal “GOD FORGOT” We exploit them in tiny pools, we make them do tricks that they DON’T do in the wild. Trainers place “PILLS” inside the fish, that are feed to the Orcas. ORCAS DON’T take pills in the wild.
      Fisherman shoot them, when the Orca’s take a “free lunch” from long line fisherman. The Japanese throw dynamite at them when their long lines are being pulled in and the Orca’s feed on the blue eyed cod. They get caught in abandoned fish nets.
      What more are humans planning for ALL our cetaceans?

  • Luke

    Service dogs are quite a different area. For starters They haven’t been taken from the wild as babies. They are still allowed to be dogs, they get time off and are played with. Whales and dolphins in captivity are completely opposite. Imagine being kept in a relatively small white or grey room your whole life. These animal are supposed to migrate, they are supposed to hunt, they are supposed to be in large pods. But instead are being kept in a swimming pool. Dogs are domesticated animals so much of what in their nature is lost. They are still somewhat pack and hunting animals. But their pack instincts have been changed to include a few close humans, and there is now no need for hunting as we feed them, but they need the stimulation of the chase, which in their work is in some sense given back, not fully however. They are rewarded with love, and a sense of being. Whales and dolphins are rewarded mainly with food.
    I have no doubt that they are loved and cared for, I have done some work with dolphins in the past, but they are not living a good life. The reason Orcas will attack their trainers is mainly due to their conditions, nothing to do with food, its all psycholigical.

    Im not sure if it’ll go through either. But one can hope, no more poorly treated circus animals, no more overpriced dolphin shows.

    • Sam

      Not to steal your thunder, but some animal rights orgs, most prominently PETA, expressly oppose the use of service animals for the disabled – they argue that disabled humans should rely on human support rather than animals:


      “Optimally, humans should be relied upon for support of the disabled rather than working dogs and other animals—it is too common for animals to be exploited and abused.”

      Its a noble sentiment, but one I personally think ignores a lot of issues with the disabled – mainly the fact that right now, there are so few viable alternatives for disabled people.

  • rizdek

    Does it make a difference if the individual was captured in the wild or bred in captivity?

    So IF someone had bred an Orca in captivity, that particular individual could be held captive and allowed to perform? So does that mean the 13th amendment only applies to animals (or humans) not bred in captivity?

  • http://rememberinganimals.org Elizabeth DeCoux

    I am glad to see a major, national animal advocacy organization making the argument that the problem is not just the fact that animals suffer so terribly–the problem is that we exploit them at all. If the human race could ever step back and ask ourselves, “Where on earth did we get the idea that we own them,” there might be some change. My hope is that PETA chose a jurisdiction in which a judge might actually try to *justify* our legal system’s classification of animals as property. The judge may just cite the zillion cases which SAY animals are property, but if instead s/he tries to justify treating animals as property, then the cracks in the foundation might begin to show.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mary-Anne-Lomas-Schroer/806010373 Mary-Anne Lomas Schroer

    Imagine a world without oceanriums and circuses, imagine a world without brutal captivity and torturous deaths, imagine animals living their lives the way they were meant to, free and wild and safe from the destructive clutches of man. This does not have to remain in our imaginations anymore, we can all do our part to stop this in it’s tracks. Don’t buy a ticket, don’t bring your kids to see these poor animals preform tricks for our selfish amusement. Educate the next generation, show the films in school, let them see what happens in “The Cove” and on factory farms and behind the flaps in the big top circus tents. I for one preach about it every chance I get to my students, awareness is key, praise for PETA and animal activists everywhere!

  • AnimuX

    Unfortunately, this amounts to nothing more than a stunt. A judge will not consider the 13th amendment to apply to animals even if they’re legally defined as non-human persons (currently orcas are not).

    Sea World will do the same thing it does anytime anybody challenges its authority.

    — Pass money around and claim, “we’re the experts and can do no wrong”.

    PETA would stand a better chance of winning on animal cruelty charges.

    Regardless, you can bet every industry that exploits animals is going to dump even more money into bashing PETA until this case is dismissed.

  • jordynn

    It would be wonderful if it went through, but let’s be honest: it’s probably not.
    As much as I wish it would, the majority of people are too concerned with themselves to care about what animals are going through.
    And if by some miracle this did go through, and the animals were considered slaves, what would be done with them? They can’t go out in the wild, especially the ones who were bred in captivity because they have no understanding of the wild. the only thing that could be done is to keep them in a sanctuary, which is expensive and risky.
    As great as it would be to see these animals be set free, the one’s that PETA are fighting for aren’t going to see their freedom. So hopefully this will be the beginning of the dismemberment of animal captivities and circuses, but it’s going to be a long and agonizing road to see all of these animals free.