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The Case Forever Known as Tilikum v. SeaWorld

Written by Jennifer O'Connor | February 9, 2012

In what will now stand as the case that future generations will look back on as the one that broke legal ground for animals, captive orcas were represented in a U.S. federal court in a lawsuit that PETA filed against SeaWorld seeking to establish that five wild-caught orcas deserved protection under the Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller was the first judge in U.S. history to listen to arguments and give careful consideration to the idea that the definition of slavery does not exclude any species. Yesterday, Judge Miller ruled that the 13th Amendment doesn’t apply to nonhumans.

There is no question that SeaWorld enslaves animals even though the judge in this case didn’t see the 13th Amendment as the remedy to that. Women, children, and racial and ethnic minorities were once denied fundamental constitutional rights that are now self-evident, and that day will certainly come for the orcas and all the other animals enslaved for human amusement.

This historic first case for the orcas’ right to be free under the 13th Amendment is one more step toward the inevitable day when all animals will be free from enslavement for human entertainment. Judge Miller’s opinion does not change the fact that the orcas who once lived naturally, wild and free, are today kept as slaves by SeaWorld. PETA will continue to pursue every available avenue to fight for these animals.

Legal Experts Weigh In

As Harvard law professor and constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe described the unprecedented lawsuit, “Some may even be offended by the implied comparison of human slavery with the experience of non-humans who are captured in the wild and kept in conditions that are unnatural for the species. But that reaction would overlook both what we have in common with some other species and the many respects in which the Constitution is an essentially aspirational document. Its bold language and broadly expressed principles offer themselves to each generation as we struggle to define our national values in an ever-changing world. Ours is a vibrant Constitution, more than capable of warding off past evils while also speaking to circumstances in which we come to recognize that familiar principles apply in ways previously unforeseen. So it seems to me no abuse of the Constitution to invoke it on behalf of non-human animals cruelly confined for purposes of involuntary servitude.”

Caption: Tilikum, pictured above, has a collapsed dorsal fin,
which only occurs in captivity.
milan.bores | cc by 2.0

You can make a difference right now by refusing to buy a ticket to SeaWorld and by talking to parents and grandparents about the miserable existence that animals who live and die in barren, cramped cement tanks endure.

Commenting is closed.
  • Franziska says:

    i’m from germany and i’m 15 years old i think it’s not good that he must live so and there i think it’s better when he live in the ocean in freedom without people and without this shows thats not good for an animal of his size …pleas free him …please

  • natalie wollaston says:

    I stupidly naively visited Seaworld recently in the belief that because it was Seaworld the animals had to be well cared for and loved. Whilst there I spoke to one of the orca trainers who almost convinced me that Tilikum was the diamond within the park and that he was absolutely cherished. It was only on return of the visit that I had an overwhelming urge to research Tilikum and to my guilt and despair have struggled with the fact that I stupidly belived the lie. As much as I love the orca’ s and the only opportunity I will probably ever have to get up close to them is at Seaworld I will never make that visit again. I am appalled at my own stupidity and will make every effort from this day forward to see that Tilikum and every other Orca is rehabilitated back into the wild. I regret having not done my research before my visit to Florida but due to all the parks that I enjoy and visited on my vacation being owned by the same company that own Seaworld, I will sadly never visit Florida again. Or will only visit once Seaworld frees its orcas, dolphins, Polar bear, Walruses etc etc. I am actually scarred by my visit.

  • Cristina Breaban says:

    Why not sue on grounds of animal cruelty?

  • Shaun says:

    It might have seemed ok’ish in the 80’s to display Orcas in man-made pools for human pleasure, but times have changed, most have moved on, and so much more is known about these animals. Orca’s don’t belong in captivity. Lolita and Tilikum, not to mention Morgan all appear to be at the top of the list when it comes to releasing captive Orcas. All the other Orcas are just as important, and should be released too.

  • Lauren Gottlieb Lockshin says:

    Is anyone interested in trying to buy Tilikum’s freedom? PETA has already made the case for comparing human and nonhuman slavery. During the abolitionist movement there were cases where anti-slavery groups would rally to help slaves buy their own freedom. Can we try to raise funds to buy Tilikum’s freedom? If we are successful and SeaWorld sells Tilikum, it will be a victory worthy of public debate. If SeaWorld refuses to sell to PETA at any cost, that too will be worthy of public attention.

  • Angela says:

    Someone should screen Blackfish near the entrance to Seaworld. Make everyone feel like crap as they’re heading in.

  • This makes me incredibly sad and ashamed, that people do this to other living beings, These are intelligent animals, and there is a lot of similarities between us, and yet they abuse these animals and make them suffer every day of their lives, It’s just money to them, that’s all they see, it makes me so sick. Tilikum and all the other Orcas that are held in captivity should be free, and hunting them should stop. I will never ever go to seaworld, buy anything from seaworld, or any sort of place. If I ever have children I will not raise them to think this is ok. I will do everything I can to try and help these animals.This would not be ok if it was done to a human, why is it ok if it’s done to a animal? I hope with all my heart that enough people will care about this and we can see Tilikum free, and all other animals in this situation.

  • angela tsonas says:

    Please set this poor creature free, he has suffered enough!

  • Harleen Sahni says:

    I recall as a five year old watching sea world commercials and actually buying a shamu stuffed whale from Sea World. HOWEVER we live in a different society and Sea World belongs to a perspective that used orcas for their circus. I feel and hope today’s children are not like how I was and does not follow Sea World.

  • kat says:

    Its barbaric that in this day and age,with everything we know about the social stimulation that orcas need and love,but they get away with it,simply snatching a baby whale away from its family isn’t enough for the big wigs at SeaWorld,they exploit it and lock it away…..I hope karma finds them and freedom finds tilikum

  • Flor says:

    Tilikum should be free. We must use political, social and religious pressure for sea world to release Tilikum to a sea pen to first rehabilitate before he returns to the open Ocean.

  • Dorene says:

    Bluefreedom is trying to get i mill. signatures to present to SeaWorld to help in Tilikum’s plight! What else can be done!!!

    • Michelle says:

      I signed the petition but as you said, what else can be done? It’s OUTRAGEOUS that this animal has been in captivity for 25 yrs. PETA needs to come up with a campaign to free him. YOU CAN DO IT PETA AND I’LL HELP IN ANYWAY I CAN!!!!!

  • nichi says:

    please please free him. nothing deserves to suffer. he has worked so hard for seaworld and is not being rewarded but rather abused. please help him.

  • andrea says:

    I write to you about tillicum begging you please, have a heart and please let him go. When you come before god he will judge you on your actions its only fair that you know .if it was you how would you feel imagine all the torture and pain. But you just sit there in your office counting your money while tillicum is going insane. He should be in the ocean swimming free,hes not yours tillicum is wild . but instead you keep him captive in your water cell ,isolated like a naughty child. Do you not understand hes a free spirit not your stupid little circus act . So just do the right thing and let him go and keep your soul and morals in tact. The truth is you dont actually care and all that matters is how fast your money can grow . Stuff how they feel there just a dumb animal now lets just get on with the show. Have a think about what ive wrote and said while your on the to the bank . Would you your parents your wife and kids in swimming with tilly in the tank .

  • Christine says:

    My family and I went to Sea World 8 years ago and will never go again. I also advise other people not to go either. When I saw the size of the pens it opened my eyes to what life must be like for marine mammals living in captivity, including the dolphins in Discovery Cove. It was amazing to see how intelligent Orcas are but did make me realise that enslaving them for profit and in the form of ” entertainment” is wrong on so many levels. I do hope Tilikum is released, he as suffered enough, they all have!

  • Lorena Espinosa says:

    Estas hermosuras deben de ser libres necesitan su espacio no es justo que las atormenten de esa forma

  • animal says:

    Orcas also deserve to be free as the people we are, please Stop the slavery to which they are subjected to amuse children; They are not to blame, please release them.

  • Sandie Nichols says:

    I was horrified when I last went to sea world to see the polar bear sitting on his own in a small area. Bears love to roam miles and miles he has no friends and we as humans should not incarcerate these beautiful animals for our pleasure. The same goes for the walrus in a area next to the bear he is all on his own too. Sea world has a lot to answer for stick to the rides and let these beautiful animal go.

  • Terrie Schmidt says:

    No what, this animal is suffering and treatment. Get him out of there NOW. All God’s creatures deserve better than this.

  • Candace Neff says:

    I have not bought a ticket to any of these kind of places and never will. I also spread the word to all I can and hope others do as well. Please everyone think about what you are doing to these innocent creatures when you gi to these parks….

  • Skyler says:

    this makes me sick

  • RDM says:

    I know they have problems, but you people have problems with yourselves thinking we are not better than animals. Well Jesus made us better than animals and have souls.

  • Erin Hansen says:

    I agree with you. SeaWorld is a horror, just like Ringling Bros. is. My aproach is to contact officials in my area and explain why, and to tell them about the peta web site. Documentation on video says it best. Let your feelings be heard, your parents as tax paying, law abiding citizens of the great United States matter. They vote and their children’s feeling matter a great deal. Write to President Obama, and in your own words, tell him why you feel this way, and ask for his support in this matter. I think you will be surprised. Write letters to the officials in Florida stating clearing your feelings. Good work!

  • Darhianmarie says:

    When I was about 10 years old (7years ago) my godfather and godmother , took me to Seaworld. My experience there was HORRIFYING! The look in the animals eyes were pure pain and torture. I couldnt believe my eyes, walking thru the place I entered where the panginues where and i was horrified, being a person very interested in Antarctica i knew that these beautiful creatures were NOT being kept in the envioroment that they were suppose to be in. I think that we should boycott Seaworl and aquiriums just like we are circuses.

  • hhippen941 says:

    To kathryb: do not say we are the most intelligent animals out THERE and then proceed to use ‘their’ instead of ‘there’. Just because humans are incapable of understanding other species when clearly different species of animals can understand each other does not mean we are superior, infact it proves just how inferior we are.

  • hhippen941 says:

    To kathryb: do not say we are the most intelligent animals out THERE and then proceed to use ‘their’ instead of ‘there’. Just because humans are incapable of understanding other species when clearly different species of animals can understand each other does not mean we are superior, infact it proves just how inferior we are.

  • Milly says:

    To the above comment from a dolphin trainer – it doesn’t matter how ‘well’ you think these animals are kept in captivity – they should not be in captivity at all. At least Keiko did meet and swim with other Orcas. A short life in the open ocean HAS to be better than twenty years in a tiny pool living a repetative life where you beg for food instead of have the thrill and mental excercise of catching your own. Free whales swim over 100 miles a day, not round and round in a concrete pen. If you say captive orcas would not survive in the wild, well then make a LAW to not breed in captivity, and when the captive orcas have all passed away, then no more will be sentanced to a life of incarceration. If you really love these magnificent animals, let them live free. Our reasons for keeping them in performing attractions are purely selfish and no one can learn from them in this environment.

  • cece says:

    Trollina – wow, you are an extremely stupid human being. It is people like you that make the world such an ugly place to live. I hope we never meet in real life.

  • sexy*vegan555 says:

    I would like to reply to Abevas comment: “I wanted to sign up to be a part of PETA but then I read this article and was surprised about the level of dedication in freeing the “captive” orcas….. There’s people starving in the world…..actual human beings dying….” You can not compare one issue with another. Animal rights and human rights are both very distinct very SAD issues. There are unfortunately people starving in the world but that does not make animal rights any less significant. Animals suffer just like those people, they breathe, eat, feel, express joy, sadness pain, just like those people. The only difference is the animals can not speak. They silently endure their torture and genocide. Humans are the cause of all this suffering. Animals are completely innocent. You need to get it out of your head that humans are superior, that is what society has been brainwashing us with forever. It’s time to wake up.

  • kathryb says:

    In case everyone has forgotten humans are animals. we just happen to be the most itelligant animal out their. humans are not gods we are animals. why should a human deserve anything better then that orca locked inside a pool. Is it ok to make a human a slave and make them perform. its like the sex slave business is that ok? ” you can judge the morality of a nation by the way they treat their animals.” Ghandi. Kathryn 17

  • Dolphin trainer says:

    As a former dolphin trainer, I can tell you that these animals get outstanding care, restaurant quality fish, medical care that’s better than mine, and as much love as parents give their children. Many of these animals are born in human care and wouldn’t survive in the wild. Look at what happened to keiko (free willy). He was under so much stress from being transported so much in order to “free” him that he got pneumonia and died. He would have lived longer in human care.

  • Claire says:

    What makes animals less important than us!!!! Animals have feelings too!! These poor animals are taken away from their family then put into tiny pools for so called “Educational Purposes” more like CRUEL purposes!! How would people feel if they were taken away from their families then locked up in a cage then some random creature coming in their space. It would be better to study these animals in the WILD to see what they really do instead of locking them up in a pool.

  • Abevas says:

    I wanted to sign up to be a part of PETA but then I read this article and was surprised about the level of dedication in freeing the “captive” orcas….. There’s people starving in the world…..actual human beings dying…. Not to mention the many child prostitution rings that hold children “captive” We need to get our priorities straight…. Let’s save the whales!!! But let’s save humans first so they can help our cause

  • falkensmaze says:

    The contention that the American constitution, or any human legal or moral system, should apply to non-humans is preposterous, illogical, and fraught with consequential ramifications that even the most ardent PETA supporters would denigrate. Should we also afford animals the right to bear arms? To vote in elections? No, of course not. Moreover, identifying what goes on in sea parks, however reprehensible it may be, with the realities and legacy of suffering that human slavery has brought about is insulting to human dignity. The result of these publicity shenanigans is to invite scorn from all reasoning individuals to what otherwise might have been considered a good cause.

  • PeterConnors says:

    When I read that PETA was trying this ridiculous legal avenue I laughed at the folly at equating these Seaworld Orcas with slavery. There is no room in the constitution for these types of inane arguments and I hope PETA spent substantial amounts of cash bringing this forward. I am sure not one legal scholar took it seriously… for good reason

  • Mr.JP says:

    Although this suit was creative, it was ill-advised, poorly argued, and poorly planned. The plaintiffs made it easy for the judge to dismiss the case by ignoring a major weakness of their position: animals have not yet been considered legal persons! Although it would have been a difficult argument, failing to even put up argument that animals could be legal persons allowed the judge to dispose of the question easily: animals are not people. Hopefully PETA will not appeal, or else there will be appellate level authority stating orca’s are not persons and are not covered by the 13th amendment — an obstacle to anyone who attempts to argue that animals are legal persons in the future. Secondly, if you read the complaint, the plaintiff’s fail to provide any authority construing the 13th amendment as expansively as they wanted the court to. 14th and 8th amendment cases have little analogical value because those amendments have been constantly added to and redefined. The 13th has stayed the same for 100+ years. I hope PETA was genuine in their attempt, and not just trying to stir up publicity. I think this attempt was too extreme to have any hope of success — cannot expect federal district judges to equate the the plight of orcas with the brutal subjugation of african slaves. There would be outrage.

  • maria galindo says:

    STOP SLAVING INNOCENT ANIMALS! How dare you say that you are an “educational” park, capturing and paying millions of dollars for WILD animals and putting them into TINY yes TINY pools is not EDUCATIONAL in any way. These creatures are not in their natural habitat so how can this be educational? all we see it is tricks that they memorize and by night time they are put in small pools so that by morning your lovely company can make tons of millions for profit. If you are going to continue to do this at least be honest and stop using the world educational to promote this kind of torture to animals. It is time to stop all kinds of cruelty, and yes taking this animals from their natural habitat qualifies as that! step up, Sea World.

  • Julie says:

    Well said Mimi/1st Amendment It was totally right for Peta to use the 13th Amendment and the judge in this case was wrong to conclude that only Humans should be afforded its protection. Whether he made this decision according to his own thoughts and ideals or was afraid of the tide of disapproval that might have followed had he taken the right course of action is another matter. As part of MY First Amendment rights ‘Trollina’ (even though I don’t live in America) I hope I never have YOU standing next to me in MY fight for animals. Also ‘Quick Question’ animals WERE given the same rights as humans – it’s just that humans do not allow that right to be exercised. By the way ‘Brown Eyed Amazon’ animals ARE beaten, burned, sexually assaulted, confined, emotionally abused and live in isolation every day of their lives. That is most definitely ‘SLAVERY’ in my book.

  • Rhadames says:

    Trolina, who set all the standrads you refer to in your comments? we, the humans. I a not against using animals for feeding purposes, as long as we do it in a respecteful way. As other species who kill other animals for food, we can do the same thing in a respectul way. Any other use of animals, plants and other resources like water, soil and air, for the purpose of entertainment is wrong. Using your words, how about if I put you in your room the rest of your life, with a shower, 3 meals a day (whatever I decide), clothe you with whatever I like, and give you medicines to cure your illnesess as i wish to protect you against criminals in the world. Would you be happy with that?