The Slavery Question

"The SeaWorld system is the best of all seaquaria in the world, but if I was an orca, that would be the last place I'd want to live." (former SeaWorld trainer Jeffrey Ventre)

On February 8, 2012, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller ruled that five wild-captive orcas (Tilikum, Katina, Kasatka, Corky, Ulises) owned by SeaWorld and represented by PETA et al. had no standing to sue for protection under the 13th Amendment. Miller wrote: "As 'slavery' and 'involuntary servitude' are uniquely human activities, as those terms have been historically and contemporaneously applied, there is simply no basis to construe the Thirteenth Amendment as applying to non-humans."

While certainly true that 1864-65 Congress was thinking only of human beings when it passed the 13th Amendment, making Judge Miller's literal reading correct, it is equally true that mid-19th Century knowledge and appreciation of the animal mind was virtually nonexistent. So, an animal's interests needn't have been respected because, quite simply, he had no interests. Today, however, there is a burgeoning animal ethology field providing new insights across the species spectrum. Capacities and abilities once thought exclusively human are now regularly attached to other sentient beings. And the majestic cetaceans (orcas are cetaceans in the dolphin family) are head of the class.

Exploring the Cognitive World of the Bottlenose Dolphin
Dolphin Whistles Offer Signs of Language Ability
Cultural Transmission of Tool Use in Bottlenose Dolphins
Mirror Self-Recognition in the Bottlenose Dolphin
Deep Thinkers
Dolphins Have Their Own Names
Marine Mammals Master Math
Joy, Grief, Altruism...
A Humpback Whale Thanking His Rescuers

Armed with this information, which was mostly unavailable when SeaWorld first opened in 1964, is it that difficult to imagine the psychological suffering of cetaceans in captivity? In "The Orca Project," two former SeaWorld trainers, Professor John Jett and Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, describe that suffering. In short, "...captivity kills orcas, usually at a young age... and... stresses, social tensions and poor health are chronic issues in marine park facilities."

It is no great leap to assert that at least some cetaceans, orcas among them, are more cognitively aware than some humans, including, but not necessarily limited to, the very young, the senile, and the mentally enfeebled. These humans are, of course, protected from being enslaved; indeed, they are the ones most in need of protection. Considered in this context, then, why should such a person, one decidedly unable to understand or participate in a court proceeding initiated in his behalf, be afforded legal recourse while an orca is not? "Because they are not us," which once informed our dealings with other races and ethnicities, makes a mockery of reason and justice.

Some believe that applying "slavery" to animals is demeaning to the memory of those human beings once held as property. But like those humans, each of the 48 killer whales in captivity has an intrinsic worth all her own, a nature to pursue. And no matter how well she is supposedly treated (remember, some slave-owners were called "benevolent"), her worth, her nature, is so utterly negated in "small, acoustically-dead, concrete enclosures." Relative intelligence aside, wild orcas are autonomous. And if owning and completely controlling an innately autonomous being does not define slavery, what does?