Whether or not it is excessively cruel to killer whales to keep them at Sea World and train them to do tricks is an interesting ethical issue that turns on utilitarian principles: are whales as a species better served by the public learning to appreciate them through close contact in zoos than by having them be accessible only in the wild, and does this result justify keeping some whales in captivity, performing like seals? Good question. What isn’t a good question is posed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal’s lawsuit against Sea World, suggesting that it violates the Thirteenth Amendment to keep performing whales, because the practice constitutes slavery.
It’s a stupid question. It’s a silly question. It’s an offensive question, equating aquatic mammals with African-Americans.
I listened, jaw agape, as a national Public Radio host listened uncritically and supportively to a deadly serious member of PETA’s legal team as he made the crack-brained argument that nothing in the Thirteenth Amendment suggests that it should only be applied to human beings…nothing, that is, except the fact that the Constitution was written to organize human affairs in America and the Bill of Rights defines the rights of human citizens. PETA, shameless and unethical as always, is misusing the court system to get cheap publicity, and creating perfect ammunition for conservative critics who contend that liberal advocacy groups will twist the law of the land into grotesque shapes for their extreme agendas.
CBS described the lawsuit as “an unprecedented and perhaps quixotic legal action.” Perhaps quixotic? There are ice swans in Hell that have a better chance of surviving than this lawsuit. If performing whales are slaves, so are dairy cows, ranch horses, Flipper, Babe, Lassie, seeing-eye dogs, carrier pigeons, bomb-sniffing canines and Alaskan sled teams. All a court decision supporting PETA’s nonsense would accomplish is to launch the fastest successful rush to pass a Constitutional amendment in U.S. history. The guest on NPR claimed that Harvard scholar Lawrence Tribe came up with this “whales can whistle ‘Old Man River’ so they must be slaves too” theory. Now we know why he never got that nomination to the Supreme Court. He’s nuts.
Meanwhile, it is time that human beings gave more serious thought to the ethics of keeping non-domesticated animals in captivity. It doesn’t help that the most vocal opponents of the practice are certifiable wackos, but it is still a subject that needs frank discussion and perhaps an international commission study. The fact that periodically such captive wild animals maul and chomp their human keepers—Sea World knows this well—creates at least a prima facie case that the creatures aren’t all that pleased with their living arrangements.
Learning this the hard way recently was the late Marius Els, who is shown with his beloved pet hippo, Humphrey in the video below. Els rescued Humphrey as a hippette, and kept him as a pet, swimming with him riding him, and treating him as one of the family—until the hippo got fed up with the charade and killed him.
I think Humphrey was trying to tell us something.