People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is bringing suit on behalf of five orca whale plaintiffs against SeaWorld this week in the United States District Court located in San Diego, California. The suit, acknowledged to be unlikely to succeed, seeks to expand the boundaries of current animal rights.
The basis of the claim is a rather progressive one. PETA is asking the District Court to grant constitutional protection to the whales predicated upon the Thirteenth Amendment ban on slavery. The group maintains that the Amendment does not solely apply to humans, and that the whales being kept within the parks and used solely for breeding and human entertainment is tantamount to such unconstitutional servitude. Jeffrey Kerr, the general counsel for PETA stated that, “Slavery is slavery, and it does not depend on the species of the slave any more than it depends on gender, race, or religion.”
SeaWorld flatly denies any allegations of such slavery and stated that, “There is no higher priority than the welfare of the animals entrusted to [SeaWorld’s] care and no facility sets higher standards in husbandry, veterinary care and enrichment.”
The hotly contested issue has attracted the attention of numerous law school professors who specialize in animal rights. Rutgers University law professor Gary Francione was cited for his proposition that animals should no longer be regarded merely as property and should not only be provided the limited rights set forth in the Endangered Species Act, Animal Welfare Act and, in this case, the Marine Mammals Protection Act. These orcas, as well as other marine park animals, have been studied and Naomi Rose, a marine mammal biologist for the Humane Society, has determined that they have the “cognitive sophistication of a 3-to-4-year-old human child.” As such, being subjected to the rote conditions of captivation subjects the animals to stress.
Though the likelihood of success has already been questioned, this case represents forward progression for animal rights. Public recognition of animal rights, or the lack thereof, will prove to be integral to courts choosing to entertain such claims as well as their likelihood of rendering a disposition favorable to the animals.