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Rick’s Cafe: PETA cites 13th amendment to sue Sea World, claiming captive killer whales are ‘slaves’

Oct 27, 2011, 4:48 PM EDT

Tilikum AP

In case you haven’t heard, PETA is suing Sea World on behalf of five wild-caught killer whales, contending that they are being held as slaves in violation of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Yep. This news caused me to sing the following while in the bathtub last night:

When Israel was in Egypt’s Land, let my porpoise go …

Look, you’re having a good laugh over this lawsuit, as rightly you should, I suppose: surely Lincoln didn’t fight a brutal and costly Civil War to free the whales. Or did he? No, he didn’t. And to be sure, I looked up they exact wording of the 13th amendment, and it doesn’t say anything about orcas.

Of course, it doesn’t say anything about humans, either.

The 13th amendment, passed by Congress on Jan. 13, 1865, reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

source:  It doesn’t specify people. Now surely PETA isn’t expecting to capitalize on this loophole with a courtroom Amistad moment. In fact, this is all somewhat disrespectful, in my opinion, to those people whose ancestors actually were enslaved.

But PETA disagrees, and actually they’re already ahead here. The animal rights crusaders have scored some pretty substantial publicity with this slavery gambit, which was the end game all along. Your Twitter comments and Facebook japes are bringing new light to an issue they’ve been hammering on, without much success, for two decades.

Make no mistake, PETA is all in on this Free Willy business. In fact, it was an orca named Keiko who brought the group its first big media splash on the issue nearly 20 years ago. That’s the killer whale that starred in the 1993 movie Free Willy, which, as you know, was about a captive orca that used CGI to jump over a young boy to freedom in the open sea. In real life, however, things were a lot more complicated.

When movie producers first learned of Keiko, it was performing at Six Flags in Mexico City, and had serious health problems. After filming, the Free Willy Keiko Foundation was formed, and enough money raised to free the orca for real. After a long rehabilitation at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Ore., (which I actually visited twice while Keiko was there), Keiko/Willy was returned to the wild, in the North Atlantic, in 1998. He didn’t do especially well, and died of pneumonia five years later. Orcas, it seems, don’t repatriate well once they’ve been in captivity. Among other issues, that native hunting instinct is impossible to teach.

PETA has been on the warpath on this issue ever since. And they kind of have a point: look at this photo taken at Sea World in San Diego, showing the tank where Tilikum, one of the orcas from the lawsuit, is kept during part of its day. It’s barely wide enough for the animal to fit inside it — like me in my bathtub. But unlike me, orcas are highly intelligent and social creatures who sometimes tend to go nuts when confined in small places. And no matter what Sea World tells you, compared to the ocean, they’re small.

Tilikum is the orca, you may remember, who killed Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau in Feb. of 2010, when it pulled her into its tank by her ponytail and refused to release her. Amazingly, that’s the third person Tilikum has killed, the first being another trainer in 1991. The other was a man who sneaked into its tank for a swim at night after the park was closed. Dude, killer whale. It’s the first word.

But amusement park life is no more safe for the orcas themselves. More than 15 have died in captivity since 1987, and although some captive births have been recorded, many calves live no more than a few months. PETA and other organizations such as In Defense of Animals simply contend that the time of parading these mammals for public display has, wait for it … jumped the shark. This 13th amendment stunt is just the latest salvo.

PETA has billed their case as the first ever suit to apply the amendment to nonhuman animals and Jeffrey Kerr, general counsel to PETA, said in a statement, “Slavery is slavery, and it does not depend on the species of the slave any more than it depends on gender, race, or religion.”

SeaWorld, meanwhile, described the lawsuit as “baseless and in many ways offensive,” slamming PETA for comparing the care of animals in captivity to “the abhorrent institution of human slavery.”

Lei-Chala I. Wilson, president of the San Diego Chapter of the NAACP, echoed those sentiments in a letter to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Excerpt:

The fact that PETA invoked the 13th Amendment as the basis of its lawsuit is an insult and trivializes our struggles. As African-Americans, we still suffer from the highest unemployment, under-education, over-incarceration, health disparities and other racial problems. The vestiges of slavery still remain, and PETA’s avenue of legal redress,, to compare the plight of orcas at SeaWorld with the existence of slavery only stands in the way of the healing process. PETA owes each and every African American a heartfelt and sincere apology.

In the same letters section, PETA staff writer Jennifer O’Connor wrote:

We know that these marine mammals have sophisticated social structures and communicative abilities and work together to solve problems. We also know that being jammed into an oversized fish bowl causes orcas to lose their minds. They destroy their teeth chewing on steel divider bars, they alternate between aggression and depression, attack each other, and sometimes they decide “not one more minute” and lash out against their captors … with tragic results.

Not too long from now, society will look back at detention centers like SeaWorld with revulsion and shame. But for far too many animals, it will be too late.

Say what you want about that, but just know that PETA believes in this stuff. And they play hardball. If animals ever rise up and enslave humans — as I’m convinced will one day happen — I hope that we have the moxie to fight for our rights with the same steely conviction that PETA exhibits.

Well, that’s it: my fingers are pruning and I’ve lost my rubber duck. Perhaps I shouldn’t have written this in the tub.

Rick’s Cafe Americain appears on Thursday. Contact:

  1. trbowman - Oct 28, 2011 at 1:02 AM

    This ain’t Sea World, this is as real as it gets

  2. skids003 - Oct 28, 2011 at 8:04 AM

    What has this to do with sports?

    Then again, the NAACP and PETA going at it. Wow, even the liberals are turning against one another.

  3. tejano2k - Oct 28, 2011 at 9:22 AM

    This has nothing to do with Liberal or Conservative, or sports for that matter. The first three words in the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution should take care of this stupidity…”We the People”. Doesn’t include whales. Sorry, PETA. Now, Rick, get on with reporting about REAL SPORTS! Go Packers!

  4. rr4757 - Oct 28, 2011 at 9:08 PM

    yo jockstraps, no worries about whales, PETA, or NAACP. just grab another Bud and watch the some millionaires in tight shiny pants catch a few balls – zzzzzzzz.

    entertain yourselves w/ witty clueless chat while
    the rest of us make it right for marine animals and animals in general.

    grab anutherBud, dude. duh.

  5. moralitydecay - Oct 30, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    Put the whale on trial for the 3 homicides, problem solved.