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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.
  • Mimi says:

    Comment to: 1stAmmendment;- Very Well Written!! Comment to Trollina, These are domesticated animals that are like house pets? My cats are my family, not pet’s, I am there for them; they are not there for me. They are not in a cage or in a tank on display in my home for people to pay and watch them perform tricks…They can go outside if they want to, they also can do what they please. We as a society justify depriving wild animals of their natural instincts and habitats by creating zoos so they can be studied. It’s about money, always will be. What have we learned from Orca’s in their zoo like setting? They perform tricks for an audience that pays money to see them. Why don’t animals deserve equality? The only reason given that I have ever heard is “Well because they’re not human end of discussion.” What a crock! If the Orca’s grow and adapt to humans, why have so many trainers been killed and injured by them? If they are domesticated like my cat’s you’ll be happy to know my cat’s haven’t tried to drown me….Aquariums, zoos, anything that contributes to the confinement of wild animals for the profit of humans makes as much sense as putting an outdoor patio on an underwater submarine. You really think that these animals are domesticated? Test your theory out next time you go to the zoo, go up and pet a Lion, or Polar Bear, or Great Ape. Jump into the tank with an Orca while you’re at it. You write lock em up to keep them safe from hunters or poachers and destruction of their natural habitat. I’d bet my life on one thing, I bet they would rather have a few years of freedom where they belong taking a chance, than a lifetime being locked away. You are obviously trained for one thing Trollina the inability to put yourself in another’s place to even remotely understand what they are going thru. Let me know when you decide to go to the zoo to put yourself in their place and or play with them, I’d pay to see that! At least PETA will stand out in a crowd taking a chance like this lawsuit no matter how many people criticize, ridicule, laugh, or try to beat them down. What have you ever sacrificed in your life that can attribute to this sort of cause?

  • 1stAmendment says:

    I do agree that going after the 13th amendment is risky, however our constitution does not apply any longer!! We need to amend the entire thing!! Cetaceans such as dolphins and whales have been on earth 15 million years. They have evolved far more than humans have, since we have only been here dated 100,000 years. There brains are highly intelligent. @Trollina THESE ANIMALS ARE NOT TRAINED!! They are being held in encampments around the United States known as “Zoos” “Aquariums”. The best research is made in THEIR NATURAL HABITAT, as we have seen many divers observe for years dolphins and whales in the wild. THE SOLE PURPOSE FOR ANY ANIMAL IN ANY ZOO IS TO GAIN CAPITAL. COMMODIFY NATURE AND THE BIOSPHERE.. cant you see the whole world is operating in capitalism!!

  • BrownEyedAmazon says:

    I commend PETA for looking for creative ways to protect the rights and lives of animals but this was simply… TOO FAR! The egregious misuse of the 13th amendment in order to garner public attention was an insult to the millions of victims of the transatlantic slave trade and today’s victims of modern day slavery (human trafficking). Trafficking is a ~$32 billion industry, affecting 161 countries worldwide. The victims are subjected to: beating and slapping, beating with objects (bat, tools, chains, belts, hangers, canes, cords), burning, sexual assault, rape and gang rape, confinement, Intense manipulation, emotional abuse, and isolation. THAT IS SLAVERY.

  • Quick question says:

    I guess what doesn’t make sense to me is that PETA is fighting for Tilikum and four other whales to have the same rights as humans, in that stating that the 13th Amendment applies to them; as Tilikum has killed a human before (whether intentionally or not), would he then be legally capable of being tried for murder/manslaughter? What’s really frustrating is that I really do believe in a lot of the tenets that PETA espouses, including the fact that animals should not be held captive for entertainment, but it’s stunts like this that cause me to not take them as seriously as they should be taken.

  • Trollina says:

    If you guys think this is bad, then don’t have pets, do not go to zoo’s, do not eat any meat, fish, or even any sort of dairy, or even eggs. These are domesticated animals that are like house pets. They are well kept in a safe environment, they get treatment, food, and safe shelter from dangerous hunters/killers. Have you guys ever thought that the reason why we have zoo’s and places like these? It’s because we learn from animals from both their natural habitat and to actually see them up close without going to like Antarctica or anything like that. They are kept clean and are treated kindly in these places. And frankly, we are, as humans, are above the food chain. Don’t say that animals should have equal rights as humans, yes I don’t believe in hunting animals for their fur or parts, but as for the ones that are kept at Zoo’s, they are trained for that. The animals don’t starve, they don’t get sick from random diseases, and also they grow and adapt to humans. Animals and mammals who live at Zoo’s adapt and also, the next generation of the animals adapt to their new home. It’s not slavery, it’s a learning experience. And I have every right to speak my mind. It’s part of our First Amendment. I am not posting this to disparaging PETA or anything. I agree with some things that PETA does. I am not 100% against PETA, but everyone has their agreements and disagreements on certain subjects. I am only posting this for this article.

  • Keenun Barley says:

    This is what happened to us at Sea World yesterday. We will not be going back even though we are pass holders. We already eat a Vegan diet but, we made that choice for health reasons……our experience at Sea World made me look at Veganism from a totally different perspective. Here’s the link to my blog post about our incident and how Sea World changed us forever……

  • Cleia says:

    What else can we do to show we are all in favor or PETA in this case? If the case has lost of publicity, something good may come out of it. Most of the time we are very negative (with reason) bcause we know nothing will happen, but the result will come at the end… the important thing for now is for everyone to show that the well being of these animals matters to us!

  • Watch THE COVE on NetFlix says:

    But PLEASE prepare emotionally BEFORE you watch The Cove. Some will be crushed for weeks, months, deep in your soul. It’s hard to believe humans could be so cruel, so selfish and evil. But search youtube for “Animal Cruelty” – there is a FLOOD of animal cruelty on earth in addition to Canned Hunting and kids taught to kill Mountain Lions and Coyotes for sport as CEO’s such as Bob Parsons of GoDaddy think it’s okay to shoot elephants for fun. In Texas, killing wild Mountain Lions is BIG BUSINESS and I would not hesitate to kill these hunters who kill the most beautiful majestic animals on earth – for fun and money. We, as a human race, with all our infinite supply of non-animal foods SHOULD NOT EVEN BE EATING or killing animals AT ALL. Please, become an inexorable TIGER AND FIGHT THE ANIMAL HOLOCAUST WITH ALL YOUR MIGHT!!!! ~~~~~ Please rescind the Animal Holocaust raging all around us. ††† ~~~~~



  • lsnkittie83 says:

    I would love for everyone to be right, let me say that first but, if you really think that they will free the whales if people stop going to shows, that is naieve!

  • rishi says:

    so bad.i have no comments to say and you are correct Bront Lai

  • Ambrehhh says:

    The reason Tilikum has so much publicity is because he killed some guy who hid at SeaWorld until after closing time, jumped in with Tilikum and they found him dead. PSSSSH! He probably drowned, or died of hypothermia, but i don’t personally think the whale killed him. If it did, well I would too, being cooped up all those years, but killing is never the answer.

  • Fabio s Viani says:

    in Portuguese (Brazil). PETA necessita globalizar-se, os turistas também são de países emergentes (principalmente brasileiros adolescentes – teens). Eles não sabem como é o funcionamento dos parques marinhos. Diversifiquem as formas de apresentar o assunto, os turistas de países emergentes adoram viajar aos EUA. Busquem a imprensa brasileira, pensem em estratégias para um mundo globalizado.

  • grace says:

    if only it was made widely known and the public could see how these whales and dolphins are caught for the mass slavery in the aqariums, and dolphin swimming coves! The murder that is done in order to get young wild caught cetaceans,forced to rely on the same beings who made them orphaned and sold them to slavery while their slaughtered family members are sold for their meat! Dissgusting and horrifying when people pay to see the saddness of wild caught slaves doing living such unatural lives and are expected to act docile while they are slowly driven mad! I hope they all get back at the idiots who think it is acceptable and entertaining. If an “egg” in a womans uterus can have rights, then so should animals,after all we are animals ourselves!

  • Bront Lai says:

    Please do not support any animal show…when the demand stops, so can the sufferings

  • gerrianne says:

    I am grateful for PETA’s efforts and pray that there will someday be a resolution to animal abuse. I will certainly share my distaste for Seaworld and other such “jails”.

  • Salvador says:

    Not far ago we didn’t even recognized that animals colud feel pain! Think about it “judge”.

  • sandra m says:

    As a member of PETA since the 1980s, I’m so glad that this matter was brought before the courts. At the very least, it has raised public consciousness about orcas in the entertainment business. I hope to see the end of orca enslavement in my lifetime.

  • animalsRgr8 says:

    They should have put the Orca in the courtroom to voice his displeasure regarding his horrid treatment!

  • Ellie says:

    First,I don’t believe in animals used for entertainment. Second,If your going to work with a “wild” animal bad things can happen. They are not domesticated, and even domesticated dogs have bitten or killed humans. So the whale in no way should be punished. He should be set free!

  • kayla smith says:

    I understand the fact that orcas are not humans, but personally I feel as though they deserve respect. Orcas live and travel in pods. a giant tank is nothing compared to the ocean. then people wonder why ever so often a orca “murders” a person in captivity! Keyword… “captivity!” if i were an orca in captivity i would too! they are naturally kind mammals to humans in the wild and have never been known to kill a human in the wild either!

  • Ben N Houston says:

    As long as religion continues to dictate morality, animals will always be used for sacrifices, slavery and torture. If the Garden of Eden has any legitimacy with the moral righteous, then it is clear that the animals are closer to God and heaven while Adam and Eve and their descendants are left to our own contemptuous arrogance.

  • Aaron says:

    I’ve noticed there are no critical comments. Will mine get through?

  • Henry says:

    Protégeons les orgues aux maximums et qu’ils soient libre de la liberté.

  • John Winston says:

    Win, lose or draw you finally found a way to bring attention to a profound imprisonment of animals: whale in a teacup. If only this registers at the cash register….

  • Kerri says:

    In response to Susan who seems to think that these orcas deserve a payback because a trainer was killed. Did you know that there are more than 75 million animals killed by humans everyday in the US alone so might I ask when is the humans getting their payback?

  • Murfette says:

    Man’s cruelty to animals is something that I just cannot understand. It seems some would sacrifice anything to make a dollar. I am afraid in the years to come nothing wild will be left for our children and grandchildren.

  • Katie says:

    This is insane. Animals should not be held in captivity like this, I hate zoos, as well as sea world. The owners of these horrible places should be locked in an isolation room for 5 years, while people look at them but don’t talk to them. Maybe then they will see how the animals feel.

  • pv says:

    We will win this!

  • Malcolm. says:

    Mankind + Money = Ethics Go Out The Window.

  • chander kumar soni says:

    please join peta.

  • Meher toorkey says:

    I am greatly saddened, but hardly surprised that PETA did not win theis lawsuit. Justice is never meted to animals, enslaved or otherwise. It just proves that big money, corporations & the judicial system never stand for what is right or ethical.

  • Noelle Revera says:

    I’m absolutely thrilled that Tilikum will at last, hopefully, be returned to the ocean where he belongs. It’s not easy, I know, and he’ll need to be supported while he learns again how to be a whale. Judge Miller should also be congratulated. I’ve heard and seen many judges in my working life, but I’ve never heard one who is so much in tune with the plight of the orcas.

  • Jl says:

    Tilikum should appeal to the SCOTUS. They are partial to non-humans…

  • Omara says:

    I fell so sorry for these poor animals! I am going to turn down any invitations to go to SeaWorld!!!

  • Brina says:

    Please stop the madness already!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Why don’t people Care??????????????

  • Sparks says:

    This is so upsetting. As an individual who has made a personal choice to disavow, circuses, zoos, and rodeos, I simply cannot imagine another mammal living in these conditions. A prison cell for Orcas. I hope a case can be brought on the grounds of personhood. Animal communication, grieving, family units, etc.

  • Dawn says:

    I think it makes perfect sense for animals to have the same rights as people. After all, corporations do. And so do eggs (and in some states “potential eggs”) in a woman’s uterus. I a corporation and an egg can have rights, why not animals?

  • Kisha says:

    The enslavement of Orcas makes me so upset. You would think that after what happened to Keiko all those years ago that people would have learned this is not the way to treat any animal. No one, animal or human should ever be used as slaves. Ever!!!

  • Steve says:

    Obviously this Judge doesn’t care about Orcas and probably doesn’t care about animals either. I applaud you for fling this case. There are a lot of people out there who care about these animals.. The fight for their freedom must not stop….

  • Rudrani Devidas says:

    I am crushed over the outcome, but this will only strengthen my resolve to help animals in need. I won’t give up on love and freedom, on happiness and compassion. Long live the Animal Kingdom in all its glory! I love you all, my friends. XOXOXOXO

  • wendy haynes says:

    Wild Orcas are magnificent animals to behold in their natural environment. Using these magnificent creatures for our entertainment is cruel, torturous, selfish, and wrong.

  • Sakura says:

    @Carrie: I live in San Diego too! I’d like to protest with you as a fellow animal activist, but I’ve got school…. WHY???

  • Saikat says:

    I had actually been to sea-world earlier and at the time i had been tricked into thinking that they are all about protecting Aqua life. I now find myself unable to overcome the guilt that’s been on my mind ever since i came to know about the inhumane activities involved to bring these creatures within captivity.What people fail to realize here, is that NOBODY at sea world cares about the aqua-life. The only interest lies in creating a successful business model for generating revenue.

  • tots says:

    I’m 13 and it’s completely evident that what is going on here is beyond cruel. It doesn’t take an adult to see that.. it just takes an open mind. Many people still have this weird idea that just because animals can’t talk, they can’t feel pain, or think either.

  • Krystal says:

    If only visitors of Sea World who in mass numbers go to see the amazing Orcas could watch a video on how these creatures were captured in the first place and how they are treated afterwards before they see the show! What a difference that would make!

  • Carrie says:

    OMG! I’m so upset that they dismissed this case! I live in San Diego and I plan on protesting this loudly on Sea World Dr. tomorrow! Who’s with me?

  • Susan says:

    So bascially, the courts don’t care that enslaved animals are getting their payback for being held captive by killing their human trainers….I guess that’s fair.

  • Brynn says:

    I applaud you for filing this case, and plan to join PETA today as a result of it.

  • Rev. Meg says:

    I have a neighbor who is determined to let her daughter go on a field trip to Sea World even though I have told her why I did not think it was a good idea. I advised the girl to take a careful look at the Orcas while she was there, and told her that collapsed, floppy dorsal fins are a sign of illnes in the Orcas. I also told her to consider the size of the ocean as compared to the size of the tanks the orcas live in and asked her to imagine spending her entire life inside her home, never going out, being stared at by strangers while she boredly circled her habitat. She is still going, but I gave her something to think about (the girl is 13, by the way).