Sometimes there are things that make me hold my head in my hands. Sometimes these things are rather meaningless in the grand scheme of life, like watching game show contestants do things that are epically stupid (such as volunteering to be voted out of the tribe on the off-chance you might be able to come back and turn it into an advantage for your tribe.) Sometimes it is something related to the world of medicine, like when presidential candidates or investigative news teams try to demonize vaccines because it makes for good ratings (which happened immediately after the aforementioned reality show uber-gaffe). Sometimes, it is when I see a nugget of an interesting idea go way too far.
Five killer whales are suing SeaWorld because their constitutional rights are being violated. Technically, the legal team from PETA is suing SeaWorld on behalf of the killer whales. (It is very hard for the marine mammals to use their giant flippers to fill out all of the necessary paperwork.) The legal thought process is that the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution (which outlaws slavery) does not specifically mention human beings. Therefore, this amendment applies to all living things within the United States. These five orcas are living things in the the United States and they are being enslaved by this corporation by being forced to live in restricted living conditions, forced to reproduce and forced to perform. Therefore, the constitutional rights of the killer whales are being violated and the courts need to step in. Cue slapping of my forehead.
When it comes to the place of animals in the grand scheme of the world, I mostly straddle the fence. I feel it is very important to protect endangered animals and the ecosystems that support them. I am not a hunter and don’t really see the point of it. On the other hand, I am a loud and proud carnivore. In the end, animals are here on this planet to serve and be of assistance to us. It is our job to be good stewards of them, but in the end, humanity should take priority over the other creatures on this planet. So, when I read a story like this, my gut reaction is to say that this is ridiculous, a waste of time and one large attention-getting PR grab.
However, upon further review, I do give it a little bit of credit on two levels. First, setting aside the initial ridiculous image of the killer whales suing to protect their constitutional rights, it does allow for an interesting thought experiement. What role do animals really play in the grand scheme of the world? 150 years ago the predominating thought was that ‘blacks’ were an inferior race and did not have the same intrinsic value as a ‘white’. Similar thoughts have also been put forth about women and various “savage” indigenous tribes. Thankfully, human civilization has moved past these grossly erroneous convictions. What is to say that we don’t have erroneous thoughts that grossly underestimate about animals? Various primates have been known to communicate, show emotion and show some levels of intelligence among other “human” characteristics. Same for dogs, pigs, dolphins, various birds and other creatures. It is not the exact same question as the ones of race or gender in previous millenia, but it is thought-provoking none the less.
Second, the legal gymnastics that brought this about are fascinating. Talk about thinking outside the box. I never would have dreamed of this as a constitutional question in a million years (and I took one whole semester of constitutional history in college, so clearly I speak with some authority here.)
In the end, my biggest problem with all of this is that the legal ramifications of what would ensue if PETA won the decision they are looking for. A legal decision declaring that these animals were being enslaved could easily have wide-spread implication on all areas of human-animal interactions. Conceivably, all zoos and circuses would be declared as illegal. Or if not, then they all of the animal performers would have to be on the payroll. But what would they get payed in? Being paid in food and shelter would seem to be trending back towards indentured servitude. How about American dollars? But is it fair to be paid in a currency that they have no use for? You might be saying to yourself that losing zoos and circuses is really not that big of a loss and you may be right. Although there is a great deal of conservation efforts that go on at zoos and research into being able to help the animals continue to grow, thrive and survive in this ever more threatening world. What about farms? Farms would seem to clearly be out since not only are the animals kept in captivity but many of them also pay the ultimate price. If that is not a violation of constitutional rights, then I don’t know what is.
Zoos, circuses and farms would appear to be areas that PETA (and probably others) would be glad to be rid of. But what about other areas in which no one seems to be clamoring for change. What about service dogs and other animals? Police dogs? Pet goldfish? Would pet ownership in general be outlawed? It would sure seem to be another form of animal slavery. Dogs, cats, birds and so many other animals not free to go out and live a full and unfettered life, marking their territory, hunting their own food, finding their own shelter and other natural activities would seem to be a violation in the same vein. Digging even further down, if animals have constitutional rights, would that make exterminating pests a crime? Or would the ugly, non-majestic animals get relegated to an exempt category? You can see how all of this can easily spin out of control with just one brief and humorous court case.
Luckily, there is pretty much no chance that these case ever sees the inside of a court room. Problem number one is that PETA and their lawyers are going to have a hard time showing that they have legal standing to bring this case to court, since they are not the ones who’s rights are being violated. The other problem is going to be that at least one of the orcas is not an American ‘citizen’ and they would have no legal standing to be able to sue. (One of the killer whales, Tilikum, is from off the coast of Iceland, per news reports.) There is no mention of the other 4 orcas, but they may be “anchor babies” since Tilikum has fathered many calves. Talk about another can of worms opened up! Now we have to worry about immigration of both humans and animals across our borders. I can just see INS agents tracking a giant school of Cuban tuna approaching American waters or trying to stamp the passports of every single Monarch butterfly that is migrating up to the United States from Mexico in the Spring.
But I think what I look forward to most is when some forward-thinking cats, dogs, goldfish and gerbils form their own super-PAC to make sure that they can lobby D.C. to make sure that their interests are being watched out for in the new world order. Because they know that the big, tough German Shepherds, Rottweilers and guinea pigs will be fine when they are released from their “forced domestication”, but the chihuahuas, house cats and gerbils know that they wouldn’t survive for a minute outside of the comfortable confines of their kind human companion’s care.