SeaWorld, Slavery, and Lawsuits for Animals

October 27, 2011 — Leave a comment

Because sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, I thought this was worth highlighting for some thought. PETA is at it again, and has decided to sue SeaWorld for violating the 13th Ammendment’s ban on slavery. The plaintiffs in this particular case?

Tilikum and Katina, Corky, Kasatka and Ulises, all of whom happen to be killer whales who live at SeaWorld.

As reported on Yahoo yesterday:

The chances of the suit succeeding are slim, according to legal experts not involved in the case; any judge who hews to the original intent of the authors of the amendment is unlikely to find that they wanted to protect animals. But PETA relishes engaging in the court of public opinion, as evidenced by its provocative anti-fur and pro-vegan campaigns.

The suit, which PETA says it will file Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Diego, hinges on the fact that the 13th Amendment, while prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, does not specify that only humans can be victims.

Jeff Kerr, PETA’s general counsel, says his five-member legal team — which spent 18 months preparing the case — believes it’s the first federal court suit seeking constitutional rights for members of an animal species.

Over the course of that 18 month preparation, you think someone at PETA might have stumbled across the beginning of the US Constitution which starts out “We the People,” not “We the beings” (HT: L. Vincent Poupard). Effectively, this should end the argument since no matter how well protected animals might be at SeaWorld, they still do not, by any stretch of the imagination, have constitutional rights. Orcas deserve to be protected and cared for, but at the end of the day, orcas are not people too.

Assume for a moment that PETA won the case and animals, starting with the only apex predator that hunts on land and sea, were granted constitutional rights. In that case, one of the above orcas, Tilikum, should clearly be given a fair trial for murdering Dawn Brancheau. If he has the constitutional right to not be enslaved against his will, then he also has the constitutional right to a fair trial just like a human would. Since he clearly killed Dawn Brancheau and there are already at least two dozen witness statements, it should be an open and shut case and according to Florida law, he should be given the death penalty.

Interestingly, no one at PETA has argued for that.

This all seems like a ploy to get the killer whales set free from captivity at SeaWorld and grant them even more protection than they already have. It doesn’t appear to be essentially an attempt to get constitutional rights for killer whales, or at least if it is, it wasn’t thought through very logically during the 18 month study session (which says something about the thought patterns at PETA). It just irks PETA that animals are being kept in captivity and being forced to perform against their will.

Before we go on, full disclosure: I love killer whales. They are probably my favorite animals and as soon as we officially become Florida residents, you can bet we’ll have passes to SeaWorld. When I was little, I wanted to be a trainer at SeaWorld so I could swim with the dolphins (which includes taxonomically includes killer whales) for a job. Then I found out how much school was involved and made other plans (which should strike you as ironic).

So, in light of that, I would classify myself as an animal lover, but contra PETA, I’m not an animal idolater, which is part of why I am perfectly comfortable eating animals. Do I want to see animals mistreated and abused? Certainly not. But as Christians, if we are thinking theologically about animals, we realize we need to take care of them and look out for their well-being, but not to the extent of deifying the animal kingdom. Jesus, who was sinless after all, ate fish and lamb, so eating meat in and of itself is not wrong. But when animal rights become more important than human rights, something has clearly gone wrong.

We see this in the fact that it sounds odd to say that Dawn Brancheau was “murdered” by an animal since that implies intent on the part of the orca. He certainly killed her, but as far as PETA is concerned, he has no ethically responsibility. As the name implies people have an ethical responsibility to animals, but even PETA recognizes it doesn’t work the other way. It would seem then that this lawsuit actually undermines the name PETA since in pressing for the extension of animal rights, this lawsuit it blurring the distinction between animal rights and human rights.

I could take this article in a direction of bemoaning the fact that PETA is suing SeaWorld for enslaving animals while everyday human babies are murdered because it is inconvenient to either the mother or father. But I’m sure someone else will write that article. Let’s take a different angle.

According to the PETA site, we are to pursue animal rights because:

All animals have the ability to suffer in the same way and to the same degree that humans do. They feel pain, pleasure, fear, frustration, loneliness, and motherly love. Whenever we consider doing something that would interfere with their needs, we are morally obligated to take them into account.

My question is, in light of evolutionary theory, why should people (who are just the highest evolved animals) care about other animals? Isn’t it survival of the fittest? SeaWorld, unlike any other place, trumpets the fitness of the human animal because it is centered around forcing the only animal with no known predators to do tricks for our amusement and wonder. If the orcas are fit enough, they’ll not only survive but they will thrive in an environment like SeaWorld. If we are just animals, then ethics reduces to whatever your community will let you get away with (or as Richard Rorty put it regarding language, truth is whatever you can get away with saying).

In other words, if evolution is true, we have no ethical responsibility to do anything we don’t feel like doing regarding other animals. If evolution is not true, and animals are God’s creation, we clearly have a level of responsibility to treat them with care. Since they are not fellow image bearers of God like humans are, there should always be a clear line between our ethical responsibility to other image bearers and our ethical responsibility to other creation. Without a Christian foundation though, there is really ethical ought regarding the treatment of animals.

Perhaps once I get to the fourth quarter of my biology class I’ll put together a theology of animal care. In the meantime, I guess I need to keep an eye on things and see if my time is running out on getting SeaWorld season passes.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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