By Jennifer O'Connor – Special to CNN
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the condition of slavery. But it does not refer to a "person" or any particular class of victims.
So, can animals be slaves?
In a precedent-setting case, PETA, three marine-mammal experts and two former orca (killer whale) trainers are suing SeaWorld on behalf of five orcas who were taken from their home by force, locked up, put to work and never allowed to leave - the very definition of slavery.
Corky, Kasatka and Ulises went from exploring the vast seas with their families to a sterile tank barely larger than their own bodies at SeaWorld San Diego. Tilikum and Katina float listlessly between performances at SeaWorld Orlando. Now all five orcas will get their day in court.
The case - the first-ever seeking to apply the 13th Amendment to nonhuman animals - represents a growing trend among a new generation of legal advocates who recognize that society moved away from the outdated notion that animals are unfeeling things a long time ago. It is time for our laws to follow suit.
The lawsuit calls for the five orcas to be released to a more appropriate environment, such as a coastal sanctuary. Protected sea pens would allow these orcas greater freedom of movement; the opportunity to see, sense and communicate with their wild cousins and other ocean animals; and the ability to feel the tides and waves and engage in behavior that is natural to their species.
Orcas in the wild lead rich, complex lives. They are intelligent animals that work cooperatively, form multifaceted relationships, communicate using distinct dialects and swim up to 100 miles every day.
We know that these marine mammals have sophisticated social structures. We also know that being jammed into an oversized fish bowl causes them to lose their minds. They destroy their teeth chewing on steel divider bars; they alternate between aggression and depression; they attack each other and sometimes they decide that they can't take one more minute and lash out against their captors - with tragic results.
These intelligent animals are held against their will. Slavery does not depend on the species of the slave any more than it depends on the race, gender or religion of the slave. The case will be heard in a U.S. federal court in February.
In another case drawing widespread interest, a New York City woman has filed a civil suit against the pet store that sold her a puppy, named Umka, who quickly developed chronic, debilitating medical conditions. The suit seeks to establish that animals are living beings, not inanimate things, and to hold the store accountable for Umka's pain, suffering and medical bills.
The legal system currently considers animals to be "property." If the legal definition of an animal is rightfully amended to recognize that animals feel emotions such as pain, joy, fear and grief, it could significantly affect the level of compensation that could be awarded when a buyer purchases an unhealthy dog born in a puppy mill – a mass-breeding facility in which animals are kept in tiny, feces-caked cages and never given any love or attention or even a chance to roll in the grass.
If successful, the lawsuit would leave pet stores financially liable for selling animals from puppy mills. No matter what the outcome, the issue has focused attention on the miserable lives ofanimals churned out in breeding mills and the far-reaching consequences of buying animalsinstead of adopting them from shelters.
Around the world, laws are being revamped to afford animals unprecedented protection. Last year, Peru's president, Alan García, signed a law banning wild animals in circuses. The decision comes on the heels of the British Parliament's unanimous vote to direct the government to introduce a similar ban. Similar legislation is also pending in Scotland, Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia.
India's minister of environment and forests issued a directive that banned the use of bulls in performances - including cruel races and other abusive spectacles. Spain's Catalonia region outlawed bullfighting. And Puerto Rico's Supreme Court recently determined that a monkey-breeding facility that would have sold primates to laboratories would not be permitted to open for business.
Increasingly, society is regarding animals not as "things" to dominate but rather as breathing, feeling beings with families, intellect and emotions. Hopefully, the laws that support that cultural evolution will follow suit.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jennifer O'Connor.