In October 2011, PETA, along with former SeaWorld trainers and marine mammal experts, sued SeaWorld for enslaving orcas. The suit was based on the plain text of the 13th Amendment – which PETA’s legal team maintained prohibits the condition of slavery, regardless of the species of the enslaved.
Yesterday, a federal judge ruled against PETA’s suit representing five SeaWorld orcas. According to the Huffington Post, despite the organization’s claims that the whales “were forcibly taken from their families and natural habitats, are held captive at SeaWorld San Diego and SeaWorld Orlando, denied everything that is natural to them, subjected to artificial insemination or sperm collection to breed performers for Defendants’ shows, and forced to perform, all for Defendants’ profit,” Judge Jeffrey Miller ruled that the 13th Amendment “applies to persons, and not to non-persons such as orcas.”
SeaWorld told Huffington Post their reaction to the dismissal of the case. “The speed in which the Court issued its opinion provides reassurance of the sanctity of the 13th Amendment and the absurdity of PETA’s baseless lawsuit … SeaWorld remains the standard for zoological stewardship of marine animals and we reject any challenge to the conditions and quality of care for these remarkable animals.”
Meanwhile PETA attorney Jeffrey Kerr maintains that the orcas should be recognized as slaves under the Constitution. He said, “Slavery doesn’t depend upon the species of the slave, any more than it depends upon the race, gender or ethnicity of the slave. SeaWorld’s attempts to deny [orcas] the protection solely based on their species is the same kind of prejudice used to justify any enslavement. And prejudice should not be what determines constitutional rights in this country.”
While many celebrated PETA’s lawsuit against SeaWorld as the first of its kind and a way to bring attention to the issue of marine mammals in captivity, some animal organizations disagree. The Nonhuman Rights Project has called PETA’s suit a publicity stunt. “We hope PETA will realize that it embarked on a fool’s errand. PETA wrongly believed it did not need to prove that an orca was a legal person, so it failed to be ready to prove that an orca is a ‘person.’ Worse, it actually opposed our legal arguments that an orca is indeed a ‘person’, thus creating a roadblock that we will have to overcome in the future,” said NhRP president Stephen Wise. They also maintain that PETA should not appeal the decision.
Law professor Rebecca J. Huss contests that it has been a step forward. “This historic first case for the orcas’ right to be free under the 13th Amendment is one more step taken toward the inevitable day when all animals will be free from enslavement for human amusement.” She maintains that the problem is that society has not given animals the status of “persons” yet, but still considers them “property.”
Huss says, “If we can establish corporations as persons, why can’t we establish whales as persons?” I couldn’t agree more.