Fordham Law

PETA Sues SeaWorld for 'Enslaving' Whales, Citing 13th Amendment That Ended Black Slavery

Nicholas Johnson in Seattle Weekly, October 26, 2011

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"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

So says the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

And according to PETA, that applies to whales as much as people.

The animal-rights group filed a federal lawsuit in San Diego on Tuesday arguing that constitutional rights should be given to five orca whales kept in captivity by SeaWorld.

One of those whales is Tilikum, a massive bull orca that was first kept in Sealand in British Columbia and has killed three different trainers.

According to PETA's website, the suit was filed because:

    Orcas are intelligent animals who, in the wild, work cooperatively, form complex relationships, communicate using distinct dialects, and swim up to 100 miles every day. At SeaWorld, they are forced to swim in circles in small, barren concrete tanks. Deprived of the opportunity to make conscious choices and to practice their cultural vocal, social, and foraging traditions, they are compelled to perform meaningless tricks for a reward of dead fish.

Responses to the lawsuit have ranged from the incredulous to the amused to the offended, as attorneys and others have wondered how a constitutional amendment meant to stop human beings from being forced into slave labor could be twisted and applied to whales.

The AP reports that African-American constitutional expert, Nicholas Johnson of Fordham University School of Law says he's "more entertained by it in the legal context than I am offended by it."

Michigan State University law professor David Favre says "The court will most likely not even get to the merits of the case, and find that the plaintiffs do not have standing to file the lawsuit at all."

In Seattle, attorney Catherine Clark had perhaps the best take on the case, telling Seattle Weekly:

"I'll quote Schoolhouse Rock: 'We the People,'" she says. "It's not 'We the Whales.'"

Clark, who says she's an animal lover and the owner of a rescue dog named "Her Royal Highness Boudicca Warrior Terrier, Defender of the Faith, Protector of the Realm," also says that she does not consider the Bill of Rights or U.S. Constitution to apply to her dog.

"I just think that to take a constitutional amendment designed to stop the enslavement of people and apply it to animals is SeaWorld is offensive. I'm offended," she says. "And I'm assuming a federal judge will quickly toss the case."