The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said it will sue SeaWorld for allegedly holding orca whales as slaves "in violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution."
The federal lawsuit calls for SeaWorld to release three orca whales in San Diego and two in Orlando. PETA says the orcas (also known as killer whales), are, by definition, slaves.
The lawsuit will be filed in a San Diego court Wednesday.
"All five of these orcas were violently seized from the ocean and taken from their families as babies. They are denied freedom and everything else that is natural and important to them while kept in small concrete tanks and reduced to performing stupid tricks," said PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk in a statement. "The 13th Amendment prohibits slavery, and these orcas are, by definition, slaves."
SeaWorld officials called the lawsuit "baseless" and an offensive publicity stunt.
"Today, while PETA was issuing news releases comparing the care for animals in zoological institutions to the abhorrent institution of human slavery, SeaWorld San Diego was returning a rehabilitated green sea turtle to the wild," read a statement from SeaWorld. "That animal is one of more than 20,000 rescued in SeaWorld's long history."
PETA argues orcas are very intelligent animals that are stripped of their rights at SeaWorld where they are "compelled to perform meaningless tricks for a reward of dead fish."
The lawsuit is unprecedented and, if successful, will fundamentally boost the animal rights' movement.
Reut R. Cohen is a graduate student at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which has partnered with KCET-TV to produce stories.