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Animal rights activist group PETA has sued SeaWorld in a strange legal twist. PETA's SeaWorld lawsuit alleges the company infringed upon 5 orca whales' 13th Amendment rights.
The group has accused SeaWorld of enslaving their killer whales.
"The 13th Amendment prohibits slavery, and these orcas are, by definition, slaves," said PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk in a statement. True, these whales are working at the theme park for no pay.
But does the U.S. Constitution extend civil rights to animals?
A quick scan of the 13th Amendment does warrant some pause: it prohibits slavery or involuntary servitude within the United States. It doesn't reference "people," "persons," or "humans" as the only entities granted these protections.
But at the same time it seems doubtful that a federal court will extend the constitutional protection to animals.
In fact, most pets and animals under human care in the U.S. are not relegated rights. They are generally considered "property." They can be granted protection under animal cruelty statutes and other federal regulations. But animals typically aren't granted "rights" similar to what their human counterparts enjoy.
Granting rights to the killer whales would also likely open the floodgates of litigation. If orcas have civil rights, it seems that other animals kept in captivity should be granted similar freedoms. This might mean the release of farm animals, guide dogs, and all animals kept in zoos.
Laws, however, change over the course of time. It's likely that as animal rights groups gain ground, courts will grant more freedoms and rights.
PETA may have sued SeaWorld, but there is little legal precedent to help back up their claims. So it seems that for now, PETA's SeaWorld lawsuit will function more as a public statement than a viable litigation.