In the history of the animal rights movement, I believe this is the first time the 13th amendment to the US Constitution has been brought into play. The 1865 ban on slavery is the basis for a lawsuit against SeaWorld, filed by PETA on the behalf of five orca whales which, the animal rights group argues, are enslaved for commercial gain by the marine park.
PETA is well known for pushing the boundaries of the animal rights movement, often in controversial ways (like its plan to launch a porn site). The remarkable thing about the SeaWorld case is that the court actually heard legal arguments, elevating the lawsuit from a publicity stunt to a legitimate legal question.
The SeaWorld legal team dismissed the case as a waste of time, the BBC reported, but Jeffrey Kerr, who represents the orcas and PETA, said:
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. By any definition these orcas have been enslaved here.
PETA says that the whales, two or whom live at SeaWorld Orlando and three in San Diego, are kept in small tanks and brought out daily to perform tricks and serve at the pleasure of their owners for monetary gain. Judge Jeffrey Miller heard arguments from both sides for an hour on Monday; he will issue a ruling at a later date. It's perfectly possible (and perhaps likely) that he will then throw the case out.
There are laws on the books establishing animals' rights; animal cruelty is a crime in most places. But do non-humans deserve the rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution? That might be a stretch, but this case is sure to fuel a debate on how we are allowed to treat other species (just as PETA intended).