Can Animals Be Slaves?
An Animal Rights Article from


Patrick Battuello, In Behalf of Animals
February 2012

The SeaWorld system is the best of all seaquaria in the world, but if I was an orca, that would be the last place I’d want to live. - (former SeaWorld trainer and current medical doctor, Jeffrey Ventre)

On February 8, 2012, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller ruled that five wild-captive orcas (Tilikum, Katina, Kasatka, Corky, and Ulises) owned by SeaWorld and represented by PETA et al. had no standing to sue for protection under the 13th Amendment. Miller wrote: “As ‘slavery’ and ‘involuntary servitude’ are uniquely human activities, as those terms have been historically and contemporaneously applied, there is simply no basis to construe the Thirteenth Amendment as applying to non-humans.”

While it is absolutely certain that the 1865 Congress intended to protect only human beings with the 13th Amendment, making Judge Miller’s literal reading correct, it is equally true that mid-19th Century knowledge and appreciation of the animal mind was virtually nonexistent. So, an animal’s interests needn’t have been respected because, quite simply, he had no interests. In addition, the nascent animal advocacy movement was narrowly focused on the welfare (not liberation) of dogs and horses. Today, however, there is a burgeoning animal ethology field providing new insights across the species spectrum. Capacities and abilities once considered exclusively human are now regularly attached to other sentient beings. And the majestic cetaceans (orcas, or killer whales, are cetaceans in the dolphin family) are head of the class.

Armed with this information, which was mostly not available when SeaWorld first opened in 1964, should it be that difficult for us to imagine the psychological suffering of cetaceans in captivity? In The Orca Project, two former SeaWorld trainers, Professor John Jett and Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, share indications of that suffering: excessive surface resting, self-mutilation, random (and unnatural) attacks on trainers and fellow orcas, etc.. In short, “…captivity kills orcas, usually at a young age… and… stresses, social tensions and poor health are chronic issues in marine park facilities.”

With still much to learn, it is perfectly reasonable to assert that at least some cetaceans (killer whales among them) are more cognitively aware than some humans, including, but not necessarily limited to, the very young, the senile, and the mentally enfeebled. These humans are, of course, protected from being enslaved; indeed, because of their raw vulnerability, they are the ones most in need of protection. Considered in this context, then, why should such a person, one decidedly unable to understand or participate in a court proceeding initiated in his behalf, be afforded legal recourse while an orca is not? The answer, whether offered by 21st Century SeaWorld (Ringling Bros.) or the 19th Century Plantation Class (see Dred Scott), has no place in an enlightened society: because they are not us. To exploit others – races, ethnicities, genders, and, yes, species – simply because we can renders hollow the ideals of reason and justice.

SeaWorld, of course, dismissed the lawsuit as a mere publicity stunt. To cynics and fans alike, they proudly proclaim themselves educators and conservationists, and would-be liberators are marginalized as sentimental anthropomorphists. Whether SeaWorld genuinely believes this or is intentionally deceptive is quite beside the point. With large amounts of money at stake (SeaWorld remains immensely profitable; the “Shamu Stadium” is still the main attraction), ethical lines become blurred and fluid, and revenue streams must be defended to the last. In the SeaWorld boardroom, then, it matters not a bit what science reveals about cetacean intelligence and depth of suffering. Change, if it is to come, must begin and end with the consumer.

Finally, there are some (law professor David Steinberg among them) who are offended, even outraged, by PETA’s use of the word slavery, calling it demeaning to the memory of those human beings once held as property. But like those humans, each of the 42 killer whales in captivity has an intrinsic worth all her own, a nature to pursue. And no matter how well they are supposedly treated (remember, some slave-owners were once referred to as “benevolent”), it is precisely their nature that is being so utterly negated in these “small, acoustically-dead, concrete enclosures.” Although their relative intelligence is far from definitive, we are sure that wild orcas are autonomous. And if owning and completely controlling an innately autonomous being does not define slavery, what does?   

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