Shamu and the gang have become a revered symbol of America’s finest city — at least according to Ron Burgundy — not to mention one of San Diego’s biggest tourist draws. But now an outside force conspires to tarnish our pride and taint our entertainment with foul accusations. Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has sued SeaWorld for violating the 13th Amendment of the Constitution by holding the orca whales in a condition of slavery. And who, you ask, are the plaintiffs of this case? The five whales.
I’m sure this viral news story has already provided a welcome dose of humor for many readers in San Diego and around the country. But as amusing as it is to picture a 6-ton orca being wheeled into the courtroom in a glass tank, the substance of the complaint and the strategy behind it are worth a more serious examination.
Of course it should be obvious to any rational person the U.S. Constitution only applies to humans. The preamble makes it clear the document applies to “We the people of the United States,” not “We the various mammals, indigenous and introduced,” though apparently corporations are close enough. The fact is, there is no legal basis for the lawsuit, and I think even PETA knows it’s just a charade to get attention.
This kind of wacky publicity stunt has become PETA’s MO. Campaigns with celebrities posing nude, red paint thrown on fur coats and porn websites promoting vegetarianism may make headlines, but I’ve seen little evidence of real change resulting from such tactics.
In fact, it may have the opposite effect, alienating reasonable people and making it harder to understand and contribute to a just cause. You’d expect such a well-known organization to do better than play the naughty toddler acting out to get Mom and Dad’s attention.
However, the lack of constitutional corroboration and PETA’s questionable tactics don’t render the moral core of the argument unjustified. It may indeed be true that the orcas’ conditions — and porpoises, turtles, penguins, otters and other oceanic animals — cause the animals stress, discomfort and poor health. It’s hard to imagine a huge animal accustomed to swimming freely from one hemisphere to the other being happily confined to a small concrete pool. Almost everyone can agree we must take the suffering or well-being of animals into moral consideration. The profusion of pets is evidence enough of our human desire to care for animals — a surprising 63 percent of U.S. households have at least one pet.
And yet, somehow this respect and empathy often stops at furry house pets, or, at most, large, pretty mammals such as polar bears and tigers. The fact that SeaWorld’s whales are large charismatic creatures capable of garnering sympathy may be the reason PETA chose to focus on them. This is the organization’s second mistake. If you’re going to talk about inhumane treatment of animals, there is no reason not to start with the horrendous conditions of animals on factory farms, or other abuses on a systemic scale. Even ugly creatures from outside class mammalia can suffer, thrive and play an integral role in a wider ecosystem. Making the public more conscious of that fact would be much more useful than playing into unhelpful stereotypes.
My final issue with this lawsuit is that the application of the 13th Amendment seems to equate animal domestication with human slavery, and assumes animals deserve completely equal rights to humans. I find this view somewhere between flawed and morally reprehensible. If an organization really wants to make progress, it should focus on education to lay the groundwork for an attitude shift. It should focus on achievable goals that can attract wider support to make real policy changes. A better strategy to help the whales would have been to focus on the facts in exposing their poor conditions, rather than distracting the issue with ridiculous gimmicks that will turn most people off. Sometimes public sentiment and consumer pressure are mightier than the gavel.