Environment & Science

PETA lawsuit: SeaWorld whales are enslaved

A mother and baby orcas, also called killer whales, swim at Sea World in San Diego.
A mother and baby orcas, also called killer whales, swim at Sea World in San Diego.
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Lawyers for five killer whales have sued the SeaWorld amusement parks in federal court, claiming the Constitution protects the mammals against slavery.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) says it represents the orcas. The organization asserts that the killer whales aren't speaking for themselves because they can’t. Sea World officials call the PETA claim baseless.

In a complaint, PETA argues that the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery should prevent SeaWorld from confining orcas against their will. Constitutional scholars say judges who review the intent of the law won't find evidence that the amendment included non-humans in its original protection.

The declaration that orcas have standing to sue in court is a new tactic animal rights activists are trying for the sake of public debate. In the past, PETA has sought support for a new constitutional amendment under which birds, fish and mammals would enjoy the same rights of people under U.S. law.

Nearly a decade ago, Germans voted to protect the dignity of animals in its constitution. Since then, when they craft new laws, that country’s lawmakers have balanced the interests of animals with scientific experimentation and other concerns. Some American scholars argue that animals, especially ones that share human characteristics, should have greater legal rights.