Are SeaWorld's orcas enslaved? REUTERS

For the first time in U.S. history a federal judge heard arguments Monday in a case dubbed the SeaWorld Slavery Lawsuit that could determine whether animals like whales enjoy the same constitutional protections against slavery as humans.

Filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), attorney Jeffery Kerr told U.S. District Court Judge Jeffery Miller that invoking the antislavery 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in hope of freeing the orcas is the next frontier of civil rights.

By any definition these orcas have been enslaved here, Kerr said Monday. Slavery does not depend on the species of the slave any more than it depends on race, gender or ethnicity. Coercion, degradation and subjugation characterize slavery and these orcas have endured all three.

PETA argues that the captured whales are treated like slaves for being forced to live in tanks and perform daily acrobatic routines at SeaWorld parks. Three of the wild-captured orca plaintiffs reside in tanks at SeaWorld San Diego and the other two in Orlando.

One plaintiff, Tilikum, has been in the media spotlight before. Tilikum drowned his trainer in front of horrified spectators in 2010, prompting a ban on the Florida SeaWorld employees entering the water to perform tricks with the orcas. Tilikum had been linked to two other deaths.

PETA wants the court to appoint a legal guardian to effectuate plaintiffs' transfer from defendants' facilities to a suitable habitat in accordance with each plaintiff's individual needs and best interests.

SeaWorld's attorney Theodore Shaw called the new lawsuit a waste of the court's time and resources, saying it defies common sense and goes against 125 years of case law applied to the 13th amendment.

With all due respect, the court does not have the authority to even consider this question, Shaw said. Neither orcas nor any other animal were included in the 'We the people' ... when the Constitution was adopted.

Shaw argued that if PETA was truly concerned about the wellbeing of the orcas, they would file an Animal Welfare Act lawsuit. If the case is successful, it could have implications not just on how other marine parks or zoos operate, but on other things like the use of police sniffer dogs to detect bombs and drugs.

SeaWorld accused PETA of using the case to get attention.

While PETA continued to engage in this publicity stunt, SeaWorld San Diego was returning four rescued and rehabilitated sea lions to the wild, SeaWorld stated. SeaWorld remains the standard for zoological stewardship of marine animals and we reject any challenge to the conditions and quality of care for these remarkable animals. The welfare of our whales is enshrined in numerous federal and state laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act.

Few consider it likely that the enslaved whales will win their freedom, but PETA campaigners say they were pleased that the case made it to the courtroom.

Judge Miller raised concerns over whether animals could be represented as plaintiffs in a lawsuit and questioned how far the implications of a favorable ruling could stretch. He will issue his ruling at an unspecified later date.

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