Rights of Killer Whales?
MR. SAM LITZINGER
From WAMU 88.5 and American University in Washington, it's "The Animal House," connecting you with everything that concerns the animal world. I'm Sam Litzinger. Later on the in program, Dr. Gary Weitzman will check in to address your animal comments and concerns. We talk with one of the world's foremost dolphin experts about the animal's extraordinary intelligence, and we hear how dogs are being used to make courtroom testimony easier for crime victims.
MR. SAM LITZINGER
First, though, when the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution was adopted in December 1865, it was intended to abolish domestic slavery and involuntary servitude. Those who introduced the amendment would probably be surprised to learn that 146 years later, that same mandate is being used to justify constitutional rights for five killer whales, which is what a recent lawsuit filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, also known as PETA, seeks to establish.
MR. SAM LITZINGER
Joining us with more details, PETA's general counsel and senior vice president for corporate affairs, Jeff Kerr. Jeff, glad to have you with us in "The Animal House."
MR. JEFF KERR
Thank you. Nice to be here.
Where'd this idea come from? There must have been a fascinating discussion at PETA when somebody came up with it.
The idea originated with our legal team as a result of some intense legal analysis and research. The idea originated from Professor Laurence Tribe who is a Harvard constitutional law scholar, and is based very simply on the notion that the 13th Amendment is worded broadly, and the plain text of the amendment does not limit it to a particular class of victims, nor does it use the word person, and so the lawsuit stands for the very simple proposition that slavery should not depend upon the species of the animal, which is why the five plaintiffs in the case are the five wild captured orcas at Sea World San Diego and Sea World Orlando.
In what conditions are they kept now? I'm assuming that has to be part of the basis for bringing this up.
By any definition, they're enslaved. First, they were all violently ripped from their families decades ago. They would spend their entire lives with their families in nature, males up to 60 years, females 90 years. They are denied everything natural to them. They are kept in the equivalent of concrete bathtubs that make them aggressive and stress them out greatly. They're forced to perform for Sea World's profit, and they're turned into virtual breeding machines to churn out more performers for Sea World's tawdry shows.
Talk about the 13th Amendment in particular now, because that's the -- I think for legal scholars in particular, that is the fascinating aspect of this. Are we not dealing specifically with human beings in the 13th Amendment?
This historical context, as you related to earlier, is undeniable, and is very well known, but that's the beauty of our Constitution. It's a living document. As our society evolves, it is constantly interpreted and applied to different situations. The plain language of the amendment is not limited to any particular group or individual victims, and does not use the word person, and the amendment outlaws the condition of slavery in all of its forms. It is a condition that is so abhorrent that the amendment declares it illegal anywhere in the United States, period.
Tell us about the legal process that's involved, because as I say, this must have attracted a lot of interest from lawyers and legal scholars around the country.
Well, the lawsuit was just filed on October 26, so it's going to take a little time to work its way through the courts. It was filed in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of California in San Diego, which is where one of the Sea World parks is located, as well as three of the orca plaintiffs, and the court will issue a scheduling order which will govern how and when the case proceeds.
What do you want to happen in the end after the legal process has taken place?
Well, these orcas need to be evaluated individually because they are individuals. We would like to see them in the first instance released to natural sea pens or lagoons where they can be more fully evaluated to determine if it would be possible ultimately to release them back into their natural habitats. After 30, 40 years of degradation, subjugation, and exploitation, that may not be possible, but we at least want them released into an environment that more closely mimics their natural home.
So assuming they can't be released into the wild, what would be the best solution?
To have them kept in natural sea pens or a lagoon-type setting where they can communicate using sound, which is how they do, and they have their own distinct dialects, their own distinct cultures, so that they can express those dialects and those cultures in a way that as close as possible replicates what they would have had in nature.
We're talking with PETA's general counsel and senior vice president for corporate affairs, Jeff Kerr, about this fascinating legal topic. I guess when people hear the word slavery, though, it's going to raise concerns for them because the answer from some people is, how could an animal be a slave?
These orcas are enslaved because of their very condition and what they've gone through, which, by any reasonable definition, is slavery. They once knew freedom. All five of our plaintiffs were torn from their natural environment and their homes, and placed into captivity solely to perform for Sea World's profit, and are constantly bred to churn out more performers. By any definition, that's slavery. It's not about a comparison to any other situation. The orcas deserve their right to be free in their own right.
What is precedent -- legal precedent for the legal rights of animals?
Well, this is the first case of its kind, so we're seeking to establish a precedent. Nobody said it wouldn't be challenging, but anything that's worthwhile in establishing fundamental rights usually is. We believe that the public is increasingly repulsed at this kind of enslavement of these kinds of complex animals who have their own cultures, their own dialects, who live with their families their entire lives in nature. Anybody who wants to read more about the orcas in the complaint at peta.org can see their society and their condition in detail.
Who's on the other side of the argument and what arguments do they make counter to this?
The two Sea World venues that are the defendants, one in Orlando and one in San Diego, and of course, they're owned by the Blackstone Group, which is an international -- major international financial institution. And they simply have been quoted as saying, it doesn't apply, the 13th Amendment doesn't apply to this situation, and we treat them well, which -- and, of course, there are some people who will state that, well, the orcas are better off in captivity than they are in their natural habitat, to which I like to reply, well then, I encourage anybody who puts forward that notion to seek enslavement immediately for their own protection.
I would think your attorney-client meetings must be fascinating. Have you had any?
(laugh) Well, that's where the next friends come in. Obviously the orcas cannot go to court themselves, and so they're represented in this case by what the law refers to as next friends, which are PETA, we have three international orca experts, and two former Sea World trainers, and next friends in the legal context are simply parties who will represent the best interests of the plaintiffs throughout the litigation.
Will this case in the end hinge on the court's decision regarding the legal standing -- the legal status, if you will, of animals? Is that going to be the crux of the matter?
Essentially, yes. It's really that together with, does the 13th Amendment's prohibition against slavery, again, which by its plain text does not identify a particular class or individual victims, is it applicable to these orcas who by any other reasonable definition are enslaved? Our society has progressed to where we should no longer be tearing animals from their habitats and forcing them to perform for human entertainment. The public is ready, the orcas are absolutely ready, and we think the law is in place.
Jeff Kerr is general counsel and senior vice president for corporate affairs for PETA. Thank you very much for being with us in "The Animal House."
My pleasure, thank you.
Coming up later in the program, we'll speak with someone who's written a book about her lifetime of experience working with dolphins, and Dr. Gary Weitzman will fill your ears with advice and counsel for pets and their humans. First though, here's today's Critter Quiz. In the 1960s, there was a popular television show that starred a bottle-nosed dolphin. What was the name of that dolphin, and the show? We'll have the answer just before the close of today's program.
Next week in "The Animal House," using animals to predict what will happen to our environment..
MR. DENVER HOLT
We put some satellite transmitters on the Snowy Owls and what we found is they went and they wintered, some of them over in the Bering and the next season they were over in Russia, and the next winter they were in the Bering in the dark and the cold and the ice. So they were making these large scale movements, you know, in theory, we can monitor Snowy Owls and have an idea of what's going on in the tundra.
That's wildlife researcher Denver Holt who thinks owls are bellwethers for climate change. Find out why next week in "The Animal House."
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