Judge Dismisses PETA's Constitutional Argument to Free SeaWorld Orcas

An orca.

U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

A federal judge in San Diego yesterday dismissed a case in which the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sought to free five orcas "enslaved" at SeaWorld theme parks by using the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude. The case is one of the boldest attempts yet to establish legal rights for animals, and the first to attempt to do so on constitutional grounds. But some groups that support legal rights for animals say PETA's case may end up hurting the cause.

PETA's suit, filed in October, argued that the orcas "were forcibly taken from their families and natural habitats" and forced to live in "barren concrete tanks in unnatural physical and social conditions." Noting that orcas have highly developed brains and complex social lives, PETA argued that the animals deserve the same protection as humans under the 13th Amendment. SeaWorld countered that the 13th Amendment, adopted in 1865, was intended to apply specifically to human beings enslaved by other human beings. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller agreed, ruling that "the only reasonable interpretation of the Thirteenth Amendment's plain language is that it applies to persons, and not to non-persons such as orcas."

"It was a foolish suit and a sure loser," says Steven Wise, president and founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NHRP), which seeks to establish personhood and legal rights for animals. Wise argues that bringing a case in federal court on constitutional grounds was a huge mistake. "The Constitution has very fixed meanings," he says. His group believes state common law court, in which judges have more latitude to respond to evolving public mores, is a far more promising venue for advancing animal rights. Wise says NHRP is on track to file such a case next year. He expects the dismissal of the PETA case will provide ammunition for his opponents. "It certainly won't help us," he says.