Shamu Goes to Court

Who knew that whales have standing to sue in federal court? Apparently they do as lawyers for PETA have filed suit against Sea World naming 5 killer whales as plaintiffs. The suit is attempting to free the whales from being “enslaved” and claims they should enjoy the same Constitutional Protections as humans, specifically invoking the 13th Amendment which abolishes slavery.

Theodore Shaw, the attorney for Sea World, told the Court, “neither orcas nor any other animal were included in ‘We the People. . .’ when the Constitution was adopted.”

The US District judge who is assigned to the case has raised concerns over whether animals can be represented as plaintiffs in a lawsuit. That issue will be decided at a later date.

It is worth pointing out that in international law, whales have historically been held in a higher regard than other animals. Numerous treaties, especially the UN Charter on the Law of the Seas, as well as customary international law, have recognized that whales deserve a greater level of protection and are viewed as being above other animals. Nonetheless, the idea that any animal, let alone a whale, could have standing to bring a lawsuit is preposterous.


  1. When I first heard of this lawsuit I thought it was very clever that PETA used the thirteenth amendment as the basis for the action. While the thirteenth amendment prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, it does not, unlike other amendments, specify that only humans can be victims. Therefore, PETA was pushing for the Court to recognize that the thirteenth amendment’s protections go beyond just humans, and can cover the five plaintiffs in this case, all of which are ocras.

    I’m not sure exactly when this blog post was written, but just recently, on February 8th, after listening to oral arguments in the case (Tilikum v. SeaWorld), the federal judge ruled that the 13th Amendment does not apply to nonhumans. Although the case was dismissed, one PETA representative was quoted as saying, “This historic first case for the orcas’ right to be free under the 13th Amendment is one more step taken toward the inevitable day when all animals will be free from enslavement for human amusement.” While PETA sees this as the first step in a journey to recognize animals’ rights, many others view the lawsuit as an offensive misapplication of the Constitution.

  2. I do not really understand how the lawyers for PETA could think that the whales would have standing, or how the lawyers could think that the 13th Amendment covers whales. As Theodore Shaw has pointed out, the Constitution applies to “the people” of the United States, not to animals. I do not think that the Constitution should be brought up in any capacity in this type of context.

    I am very curious to see how the court deals with this case, and I am even more curious to find out why the lawyers for PETA decided they were going to take on such a case. I do not think that whales, or any other animal for that matter, have ever brought a case in a federal court, so whatever happens in this case will set the precedent for the issue. This is definitely a case I am going to keep my eye on.

  3. The first thing that came to mind after reading this post: frivolous. I can understand the strategy behind the PETA attorneys’ idea to push the case under the umbrella of the Thirteenth Amendment. It is a creative take on the amendment’s language (or lack thereof) in order for PETA to try arguing that whales should not be subjected to slavery or involuntary servitude at the hands of an entity such as Sea World.

    I do not know if I can necessarily agree with the PETA representative who stated that this is a “historic first case for the orcas’ right to be free,” as the district court judge clearly stated that the Thirteenth Amendment does not apply to nonhumans. My opinion tends toward those who criticize this lawsuit as a misapplication of the Constitution. While the treatment of these animals may be questionable, or possibly outright offensive and cruel, the Bill of Rights does not protect whales. Certainly, this decision should not deter the work and efforts of organizations like PETA. Instead, I hope it makes the representatives realize that they need to explore other avenues in order to make better progress.

  4. Granted, I understand the desire to want to free the whales from captivity and allow them to grow up and prosper in their natural habitat and I can even understand the comparison to slavery in this case, but I think this proposal is more than a little absurd. How can one legitimately try to say that the rights of animals, and for the record I am not saying that animals do not have rights to some degree, are the types of rights intended to be protected by the U.S. constitution? As Gianna says, the text of the constitution clearly says “the people” and the language does not even remotely suggest the inclusion of whales, much less animals in general.
    For this reason, I cannot help but wonder if this event was set up purposefully in order to get some sort of national attention to these types of problems which quite frankly I understand, but in the long run I think such interests can better be served in more logical and more productive ways.

  5. By instituting this case, PETA demonstrates that it does not have a general grasp on American society or the constitution. Looking at the PETA quote in Elizabeth’s comment, I question the wisdom of PETA’s goal of seeking a day, “when all animals will be free from enslavement for human amusement.” Assuming that the whales are released in to the ocean, or other animals, captivated in zoos or safaris, are released into the wild, how will the world defend these animals against poachers? It would be ideal for the animals to live in their natural environments and thrive in their respective ecological systems across the globe, but the well documented dangers facing many animals are a reality that must be addressed should all animals be released. Additionally, how would PETA approach the domestication of animals, such as dogs or cats? Aren’t these animals being kept for our own human amusement? Isn’t this a form of slavery PETA would have to address? Doesn’t the history of domesticated animals indicate that these animals were domesticated for human convenience and/or amusement? Are people ready to send their beloved pets back into their natural habitats?

    Many of these points were cleverly discussed by Wyatt Cenac of the Daily Show in his interview with a PETA representative. The interview is worth watching, and can be accessed at the following url:

  6. Do whales fit into the constitutional requirements of standing? Whales must demonstrate injury in fact, show that there is a casual connection to the injury, and redressability. A court may hold that the injury to these whales is actual and imminent. There might also be a substantial likelihood of concrete harm to these whales. Additionally, if the court were to abolish the “whale slavery” then their injuries could be redressed in court. So, does that give whales standing?

    The lawyers here are specifically stating that the 13th Amendment is violated. The 13th Amendment states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The explicit text of this Amendment fails to distinguish whether this was meant for “people” or could include animals. However, the text of 4th and 5th Amendments for example does clarify that only “people” or a “person” have those protections. The Framers expressly used that language. If the court were to hold that the 13th Amendment prohibits slavery against animals as well as “people”, whales will be entitled to a 13th Amendment protection but not due process?

    My analysis above is based on my understanding of constituional law. I do not condone animal abuse in any way.

  7. Gianna, while you mention that you “do not understand how the lawyers for PETA could think that the whales would have standing, or how the lawyers could think that the 13th Amendment covers whales,” I interpreted their actions in a different way. Whether the lawyers thought the whales could have standing or not, they brought this action in hopes of expanding standing to animals. Their approach was quite well planned out and thorough, as Christina explained, since it is evident that the Thirteenth Amendment does not explicitly say that it is limited to people, as the text of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments clearly do. Since this express intent to cover only “people” has not been included in the Thirteenth Amendment, I believe it is completely fair to argue that the Thirteenth Amendment could be open to interpretation to include animals. Had the framers of the Constitution wanted to only have the Thirteenth Amendment apply to people, then wouldn’t they have expressly stated the word “people” in the Amendment? This express statement of intent to cover only people is apparent in other Amendments, so its absence from the Thirteenth is quite questionable.

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