A federal lawsuit calling on SeaWorld to release three orca whales in San Diego and two in Orlando will be heard in a San Diego federal court Monday. The lawsuit is unprecedented and, if successful, can fundamentally boost the animal rights movement.
"This is the first-ever lawsuit asking a federal court to declare that the five wild orcas are being held as slaves," said Jeffrey S. Kerr, general counsel to PETA, in an interview. "They're denied everything natural to them."
PETA says the orcas (also known as killer whales) are, by definition, slaves who would normally swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild but instead are contained in small concrete tanks at SeaWorld where they swim in circles.
"Nothing in the 13th Amendment excludes these extremely social, sentient and intelligent beings from its protections, and SeaWorld's treatment of these five orcas absolutely defines slavery," said PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk in a statement.
PETA's legal team is led by Kerr and civil rights attorney Philip Hirschkop.
Hirschkop argued and won a landmark case, Loving v. Virginia, which declared that laws that ban interracial marriage are unconstitutional.
In October SeaWorld officials called the lawsuit "baseless" and an offensive publicity stunt. The group criticized PETA for issuing releases, comparing "animals in zoological institutions to the abhorrent institution of human slavery." SeaWorld stressed its commitment to animal conservation and the environment in a press release.
"Those are the statements that essentially say we are good slave masters," said Kerr.
Although Kerr acknowledged there are differences of opinions regarding the case, he characterized the public's response as positive. "One thing that has been universal is the outrage over how the orcas are being treated," he said.
PETA filed its lawsuit on October 25, 2011. SeaWorld motioned to dismiss the case, but PETA filed a brief on Jan. 13, 2012 which argued that the 13th Amendment does not deny orcas the right to be free.
"The case stands for a very simple but powerful proposition," said Kerr. "Slavery should not depend on species."