Can animals be slaves?
Killer whale 'Tilikum' appears during its performance in its show 'Believe' at SeaWorld on March 30, 2011 in Orlando, Florida. 'Tilikum' is back to public performance March 30, the first time the six-ton whale has performed since killing 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau at the marine park on February 24 2010. (Getty Images)
January 26th, 2012
05:00 PM ET

Can animals be slaves?

Editor's Note: Jennifer O’Connor is a staff writer for the PETA Foundation. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) works to promote animal rights and mitigate cruelty toward animals.

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- represents a growing trend among a new generation of legal advocates who recognize that society moved away from the outdated notion that animals are unfeeling things a long time ago.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.

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Topics: Animals • Human Rights • Law

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soundoff (104 Responses)
  1. dougaussie

    i would have to rate killer whales, dolphins, elephants, dogs, monkeys, cats, as possessing limited intelligence, feelings of care and hurt, learning ability. I hereby declare them alien beings.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
  2. Nytefytr

    Applying a human standard of feeling and suffering to animals is the epitome of liberalism gone wild. I'm sure the various companies that supply meat for the dinner tables of the world will have a thing or two to say – with lawyers to generate talking points and defenses.

    So what's next...banning contact sports?

    January 29, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Reply
    • todd

      We're not applying a human standard we're applying a high-mammalian standard. Mammals are shown to have complex personalities. Use epithets, hyperbole and incongruent parallels to your hearts desire, I wouldn't expect any better. To believe captivity has no effect on semi-intelligent animals is a theory that's becoming rapidly obsolete. Pretending an animal doesn't have an instinct to roam, to explore, so you can have something to do on the annual trip to Florida is horrible.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Reply
  3. adam

    If a company can be seen as a person and treated as such within the laws... then why not an animal? Yet I see this as being one of those slippery slope sort of cases... If these creatures are awarded this same right then whats next.. all pets must be put out side and no longer cared for by humans or forced to wear a leash since that is a form of prisonment ? Kiss that big mac goodbye since you couldnt just around killing the cows now..

    January 29, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Reply
    • SilverGirl7

      The (leash) is a compassion for their protection to keep them from harm.
      We (leash) our own children on walks and congested areas for the same reason.
      To protect them.

      Thank you,

      February 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  4. Flamespeak

    No, as much as we want to assign animals as something more than property, animals should never be viewed legally as anything other than property. Animals do not and should not recieve rights and the same level of treatment as human beings. Animal abuse should not be tolerated and it should still be punished by criminal law, however, if you apply human rights to animals it becomes flawed. When that whale eats a fish, should it be charged with murder? When a dog uses the bathroom outside, is that indecent exposure? The answer to both questions is, of course, no. They are animals not humans and shouldn't be held to the same standard of reasoning and responsibility that humans are held to.

    Keep in mind the source of this opinion piece though, PETA has a pretty god awful history of killing massive amounts of animals personally at their only animal shelter. It is bad enough that a court case was held in an attempt to make them reclassify it as a slaughter house and it had good ground to stand on. If you want to actually support an organization that legitimately fights for animals to be treated fairly and doesn't just use naked celebrities to generate profit, support the ASPCA.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Reply
  5. Doctor of Veterinary Medicine

    As a veterinarian I work everyday to alleviate animal pain, but the basis of this law suit and its underlying intent is what bothers me. I agree that Sea World could do a better job at housing its large whales, but PETA has an agenda to stop animal ownership. Winning a case for animals on the basis of the 13th amendment would mean an end to owning cats, dogs, and horses. I am biased as this would put me out of a job, but there would be no one to care for these creatures. This case won't hold much water in court anyways because suing based on the 13th amendment is absurd. They should sue based on the various animal welfare acts that are in place if they want to get anywhere.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:43 am | Reply
    • concerned

      I'd be less concerned about dogs, cats and horses than what would happen if 13th amendment lawsuits were raised on behalf of chickens, pigs, and cattle. See what happens when there's no meat, eggs, or milk anymore.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Reply
  6. SilverGirl7

    I have never bothered to post on anything before or get involved I'n anything but as I grow older I'm finding that I'n today's instant information age opinions are important and they matter. Right or wrong or stuck I'n the middle they are the becoming the way we not only express our beliefs, but how we impact the world with change.

    We argue too much for the sake of arguing. We get off track of the subject as we try to muddy the issue by branching off into a hundred different directions....non of them revenant to the original question for debate or discussion. Some of the comparisons I see here are downright laughable I'n an attempt to simply "be heard" a rock? Really?

    Why do we have to complicate everything? Why do we have to destroy the question with an answer that is only mouth service to our own ignorance.

    There are many animals I'n our world that are sentient and each and everyone of us knows that deep I'n our hearts.

    There are many animals that are not sentient and are part of our food chain, no more no less.

    For these wonderful sentient beings, whales, dolphins and primates just to name a few. I would much rather stand at a distance and view them I'n their natural environments than I'n a cage at a zoo or a show that lines the pockets of corporations while we laugh and cry at their beauty and majesty....then quietly walk away and forget them while they are lead back to their prisons untill the next show time.

    It is a proven fact that certain species have complex voices, family structure, loving nurturing families, the ability to think, plan and execute group movements vital to their survival. The talk and converse with each other, not just to organize a hunt but also to warn each other of danger, they comfort and minister to their sick, they grieve and they mourn.

    Do I believe that animals should have the same rights as humans where slavery is concerned? Because that is the question correct?

    Yes I believe for some of our sentient creatures they are enslaved for our pleasure and they are enslaved because of their intelligence. Why else would the intelligent creatures draw our attention with such fierceness?

    Eat your cheeseburger I know I will, but please consider the pain and suffering of our sentient friends, because their pain and suffering is as real as our own.

    Thank you for listening,

    January 31, 2012 at 10:42 am | Reply
    • PugetSoundGal

      I agree with you 100% SilverGirl7, and I am not one to post – generally because regardless of the subject, the question is always lost and reading some of the "sound-offs" gets ridiculous at times. Animals should not be used for human entertainment – period.

      February 1, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply
      • SilverGirl7

        Thank you PugetSoundGal,

        I believe there are three categories where animals are concerned. Having said that i think it's rediculas for those who just like to argue rather than approach the topic as a challenge for posstive change by assuming the solution has to be a blanket fix for every animal.

        It would be entirely possible to make these distinctions and apply them.

        1. Our food chain, yes we as humans eat meat (except vegetarians) and I applaud you btw. Our food chain will always be so let's not muddy things up with cows, chickens and fish. They are not sentient.

        2. Pets, those deserving of our loyalty and protection (much like a family child) can be our best friends, protectors and our comfort. I've often thought we could learn so much as humans. You can beat, kick, yell at or starve your friend and one second after that severe beating call your pets name and their eyes will light up with love and adoration, there is no anger or vengeance I'n their hearts, all they know or care about is that "my friend" loves me again. I become emotionally overwhelmed when I think how much better our own lives would be if we could let our pets teach us this simple rule of life. Live, love and be happy.

        3. Our sentient friends whom we share this planet with. They are capable of every thought and emotion that we posses ourselves. Do we understand their voices? Sadly that still evades us. But I promise you one thing, if we could (talk to the animals) if we could all apply a little Doolittle to our lives I think we would grow a little closer to those who are IMO close to if not our equal.

        Thank you,

        February 3, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • NAIMA

      Hello Silver Girl 7- I up grade u to Gold Girl 10 , I totally agree with you and repeat it – the public paying to see these animals in captivity is the main culprit...Am against Attraction Parks like Sea World...

      February 2, 2012 at 11:12 am | Reply
      • SilverGirl7

        Naim a,

        Thank you for your kind words you touched my heart.

        Maybe someday when man is able to think beyond his own worth we might come to realize that we are not the sole inhabitants on this planet and treat all intelligent creatures with the same compassion and respect that we strive to achieve I'n our own lives.

        I hope I live long enough to see that day, that awakening that will enrich all of our lives and make this planet a better place for everyone (and everything)

        Thank you,

        February 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  7. Alan Young

    No animals are not the slaves, they must be treated as like our family members. Also the pets are very loyal for their owners.

    February 1, 2012 at 8:58 am | Reply
  8. PugetSoundGal

    Animal ownership? An orca whale? And that from a veterinarian? Please. Dogs, cats, and the like are domesticated animals – that's why people ADOPT them to become part of their family.

    February 1, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Reply
  9. John Tracy

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    February 1, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Reply
  10. Seth

    February 2, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  11. Barack
    check it out. I'm a student trying to make a dollar. thanks.

    February 2, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Reply
  12. Milay

    Ultimately, it comes down to separating humans from animals. Even if a whale is a "sentient" being capable of feeling certain emotions, certain intelligent behavior, etc, it is not a human and whether or not it is enslaved, it is still an animal. Yes, animals whether as a food source, a pet, or in captivity, deserve a certain standard of treatment but to begin applying an equivalent set of rights to [certain] animals as humans would only bring about more contradictions.

    If this case succeeds (which it won't,) are all animals then slaves? Do certain animals deserve more rights than others? If so, where do we draw the line? Whether or not we define animals as "slaves," I certainly will not ever back setting a precedent for liberating all animals from human captivity, nor considering them our equals. Again, yes there are definitely areas where we need to improve our treatment of them but aside from it's value in drawing attention to maltreatment of animals in general (which if great,) the lawsuit's basis in and of itself is silly.

    Great way to get us talking about animal rights though, which I totally support.

    February 3, 2012 at 7:26 am | Reply
    • SilverGirl7


      I agree with some of what you said, but not all. I applaud you tho for speaking out I'n an intelligent manner because this is how we should talk about change. With calm opinions that stay on track with the topic. This is how we begin to bring about change.

      Politicians love nothing better than an arguement so heated and diverse that it keeps "any" agenda from being organized and single mindedly on track for change. This is a practice humans have used since creation to stall any submission for change. We are our own worst enemy I'n other words. They don't have to shut us down we do that quite well on our own.

      The truth is we are not ready as a species to come together to accomplish great things yet. At least not on a level strong enough that it has become common practice to "seek the truth and apply it"

      I hope someday we will be able to accomplish this, to set aside petty differences and bring about good posstive change I'n all our lives.

      Thank you,

      February 3, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
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  16. Doodle Von Taintstain

    This is ludicrous! Webster's defines slavery as the state of being a slave. A slave is defined as a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them. An animal is not a person. Apparently the writer has solved other more important causes like crime, drug addiction, and homelessness therefore we have monetary resources and idle time for this lawsuit.

    February 15, 2014 at 8:29 am | Reply
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