Judge: Whales Are 'Non-Persons,' So Seaworld's 'Enslavement' OK

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Common Dreams

Judge: Whales Are 'Non-Persons,' So Seaworld's 'Enslavement' OK

by
Common Dreams staff

Orcas swimming in their tank at SeaWorld in San Diego, CA. (Photo: EPA)

A US district judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by the animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) against SeaWorld yesterday, saying that the suit -- which aimed to free five orca whales held by the amusement park company -- had no standing because the 13th amendment of the US consitution does not protect the right of 'non-persons.'

“Tilikum, Katina, Kasatka, Ulises and Corky have been captive and subjected to treatment that we feel is slavery,” said PETA attorney Jeffrey Kerr prior to the ruling. PETA had wanted the orcas released into a coastal sanctuary, acknowledging they probably wouldn’t survive in the open ocean.

But the ruling did not fall in favor of the whales, or PETA.

"The only reasonable interpretation of the 13th amendment's plain language is that it applies to persons and not to non-persons such as orcas," US district judge Jeffrey Miller wrote in his ruling.

"Both historic and contemporary sources reveal that the term 'slavery' and 'involuntary servitude' refer only to persons."

PETA spokesman David Perle, according to Agence France-Presse, said the group's struggle would continue until "the inevitable day when all animals will be free from enslavement for human amusement.

"Today's decision does not change the fact that the orcas who once lived naturally wild and free, are today kept as slaves by SeaWorld."

"Today's decision does not change the fact that the orcas who once lived naturally wild and free, are today kept as slaves by SeaWorld."

And Reuters reports:

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego, listed five performing orcas at SeaWorld's parks in California and Florida - Tilikum, Katina, Corky, Kasatka and Ulises - as plaintiffs in the complaint.

"The only reasonable interpretation of the 13th Amendment's plain language is that it applies to persons, and not to non-persons such as orcas," U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller wrote in his ruling.

"Both historic and contemporary sources reveal that the term 'slavery' and 'involuntary servitude' refer only to persons," the judge added.

The 13th Amendment was enacted in 1865, the year the U.S. Civil War ended.

Despite the fact that few legal scholars expected the suit to proceed, animal rights activists championed the effort. As the Globe and Mail reported recently:

“Forty years ago I fought for the fundamental right of people to marry the person of their choosing, regardless of race,” said Phil Hirschkop, who won a landmark case on interracial marriage in Virginia. “Now I’m fighting for these orcas’ fundamental rights to be free from enslavement regardless of their species.”

And some ethicists, including Peter Singer, a bioethics professor at Princeton University, are leading proponents of the position that animals – certainly sentient ones – have rights. He has suggested a similar case might be launched against the U.S. Navy for its use of dolphins to detect and trigger anti-ship mines.

“To believe that, because they (dolphins) are members of a different species, we can ignore or discount their interest is speciesism, a form of prejudice against beings who are not “us” that is akin to racism and sexism,” he said.

And, writing at Common Dreams in the wake of the death of Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, Pierre Tristam wrote:

The day will come when civilized nations will agree that imprisoning wild animals in zoos, whipping them about in circus acts from city to city or forcing them to do tricks for our amusement in such places as SeaWorld, Marineland and Epcot is as cruel to the animals as it is lewd of the people watching them.

That day is far off, no doubt. Pulling profits and emoting power over weaker creatures, vicariously enjoyed by those audiences that delight in the safe splashing of a killer whale or the harmlessness of a caged animal, are strong impulses. Too strong to be outdone by notions of rights for beasts that don't speak English or pay taxes.

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