Battles over Sea Mammals Hit Courts, State Legislatures

Published May 22, 2015

Washington state Senator Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island) introduced legislation that would make it a criminal offense, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $100,000 fine, to keep whales, dolphins, and porpoises in aquariums.

Ranker’s bill failed to receive a hearing. It was not the first effort to criminalize the ownership of cetaceans.

 “This is about pushing a broader animal rights agenda,” said Jeff Stier, director of the Risk Analysis Division at the National Center for Public Policy Research.

Animal Rights in Court, Legislature

People for the ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other animal activists groups have been working on a broader campaign to end captivity of cetaceans, Stier says.

In 2011, PETA filed suit in federal court in Southern California claiming SeaWorld’s whales were being held in slavery in violation of the 13th Amendment. PETA sought a court-ordered release of the whales “from bondage.” The lawsuit was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller, who found that “the only reasonable interpretation of the Thirteenth Amendment’s plain language is that it applies to persons, and not to non-persons such as orcas.”

A bill offered in the California State Legislature in 2014 included the same penalties as Ranker’s proposal for holding cetaceans in captivity.

Bills banning orca captivity and shows were also introduced in the New York State Senate and Assembly in 2014.

SeaWorld Fighting Class Action Suits

Two class action lawsuits have been filed against SeaWorld in 2015 alleging whales are kept in cramped locations and are drugged and forced into unnatural breeding.

The lawsuits claim to represent consumers who purchased tickets at SeaWorld parks and seek to force SeaWorld to refund customers’ money.

Stier says the push for cetacean rights has gained momentum since the 2013 release of the film Blackfish, which depicted the lives of captive killer whales. CNN aired the film nearly 30 times.

“CNN’s director of public relations, Jennifer Dargan, conceded to me that the film was ‘acquired’ and repeatedly shown by the news organization despite not adhering to any of CNN’s journalistic standards,” Stier said. 

Rights vs. Welfare

Stier says the animal rights agenda behind the litigation against SeaWorld and legislative attempts to ban holding cetaceans for entertainment purposes goes far beyond concern for animals’ welfare.

“PETA, the Humane Society of the United States, and other groups try to trick those of us who care about animal welfare into thinking we should support animal rights,” said Stier. “There’s a difference. Animal welfare means we have an obligation to care for animals. Animal rights puts animals at a morally equal level as humans, and gives the animals rights against being owned.” 

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.