PETA sues SeaWorld for enslaving killer whales

Visitors watch killer whales near the exit of SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., on February 24, 2010. PETA is suing SeaWorld for violating killer whales' constitutional rights.
Credit: Matt Stroshane

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is suing SeaWorld for keeping slaves – the slaves in this case being five orcas, or killer whales, based at marine parks in San Diego, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., the Los Angeles Times reports.

According to PETA, the lawsuit is based on the plain text of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the condition of slavery without reference to "person" or any particular class of victim. "Slavery is slavery, and it does not depend on the species of the slave any more than it depends on gender, race, or religion," Jeffrey Kerr, general counsel to PETA, said in a statement.

Kerr told The Associated Press that he believes it's the first federal court lawsuit seeking constitutional rights for members of an animal species.

The suit, filed Wednesday at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California in San Diego, seeks the release of three killer whales kept in San Diego and two based in Orlando, the L.A. Times reports.

One of the whales in the group is Tilikum, the 12,000-pound orca who killed whale trainer Dawn Brancheau in front of park visitors in 2010.

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"All five of these orcas were violently seized from the ocean and taken from their families as babies,” PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk said in a statement. “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.”

SeaWorld officials claimed the lawsuit was a publicity stunt, the L.A. Times reports. In a statement, SeaWorld remarked that arguing that killer whales have constitutional rights "is baseless and in many ways offensive.”

The AP reports:

The chances of the suit succeeding are slim, according to legal experts not involved in the case; any judge who hews to the original intent of the authors of the amendment is unlikely to find that they wanted to protect animals. But PETA relishes engaging in the court of public opinion, as evidenced by its provocative anti-fur and pro-vegan campaigns.

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