Orcas perform in the whale show at SeaWorld San Diego.
A federal judge appeared dubious Monday about a lawsuit filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that seeks the release of orcas from SeaWorld on anti-slavery grounds.
PETA attorney Jeffrey Kerr told U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller that invoking the anti-slavery 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in hopes of freeing the orcas is "the next frontier of civil rights."
But Miller told Kerr that he cannot find a legal precedent for allowing a lawsuit to be filed on behalf of the orcas under the 13th Amendment. The orcas, he noted, are animals, not people.
The judge also seemed to reject PETA's argument that SeaWorld is being "hysterical" in suggesting that allowing PETA's lawsuit to continue would lead to more lawsuits on behalf of other animals, including dogs used by the military and police departments.
"Call me hysterical, but that's one of the first places I went in my thinking about this case," Miller said.
After the hourlong hearing, Miller said he would study SeaWorld's request to have the PETA lawsuit dismissed. He said he would issue his ruling soon but did not give a deadline.
"Tilikum, Katina, Kasatka, Ulises and Corky have been captive and subjected to treatment that we feel is slavery," Kerr said.
Three of the five orcas mentioned by Kerr are at SeaWorld San Diego, the other two are at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla.
SeaWorld attorney Theodore Shaw said PETA's attempted use of the 13th Amendment in its lawsuit was "ignoring 125 years of case law applying the 13th amendment … and ignoring common sense."
PETA is trying to "rewrite the 13th Amendment," Shaw said. But Kerr countered that the amendment prohibits the kind of human behavior that SeaWorld has used to capture orcas and keep them in confinement.
After the hearing, PETA officials issued a statement suggesting that having the issue heard in federal court is a victory in itself.
"This is a truly historic day for the law and for the animals," said PETA spokesman David Perle.
SeaWorld called the PETA lawsuit "completely without merit" and a misuse of the federal court.
"While PETA continued to engage in this publicity stunt, SeaWorld San Diego was returning four rescued and rehabilitated sea lions to the wild," the statement said.