SAN DIEGO -- A federal judge heard arguments Monday in a case that could determine whether animals enjoy the same constitutional protection against slavery as human beings.
Sea World asked U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller to dismiss the case filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Miller did not make an immediate ruling.
PETA named five orcas that were captured in the wild as plaintiffs and claims they are treated like slaves when forced to perform daily at Sea World parks in San Diego and Orlando, Fla.
PETA lawyer Jeffrey Kerr said it was a historic day.
"For the first time in our nation's history, a federal court heard arguments as to whether living, breathing, feeling beings have rights and can be enslaved simply because they happen to not have been born human," he said.
He acknowledged the case is an uphill battle but said he hopes the judge will allow it to proceed.
Sea World attorney Theodore Shaw countered that the lawsuit ignores common sense and almost 125 years of case law involving the 13th Amendment. The issue is not about whether the animals have been subjected to abuse, but whether the 13th Amendment applies only to human beings, he said.
The court would be outside its jurisdiction if it ruled in PETA's favor and granted constitutional rights to orcas, Shaw said, warning that such a ruling would have profound implications.
"We're talking about hell unleashed," he said.
If constitutional rights were granted, the ruling could be applied to all animals, including those kept at zoos and aquariums along with dogs that sniff for bombs and drugs for the U.S. government.
"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."
Kerr replied that African-Americans and women achieved protection of their rights in cases argued before the courts after the Constitution was adopted.