Attorneys for the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit in federal district court last week claiming that Sea World’s five killer whales are slaves and deserve legal protection. The "plaintiffs" are Tilikum and Katina in San Diego and Corky, Kasatka, and Ulises in Orlando.

"By any definition, these orcas are slaves," Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, was quoted as saying, "kidnapped from their homes, kept confined, denied everything that’s natural to them and forced to perform tricks for Sea World’s profit."

The legal problem for Sea World, according to PETA, is the 13th Amendment to the U.S Constitution. Passed at the close of the Civil War as the first of the so-called "Reconstruction Amendments," the 13th makes slavery illegal. Section 1 is clear about that:

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

What the language is not so clear about is whether the prohibition against slavery only comes into play when you’re talking about humans. A common sense argument is that such a distinction shouldn’t be necessary. Applying the Constitution to whales or other animals sounds uncommonly silly and I can’t image that the possibility of such a thing happening ever occurred to the people who drafted the 13th Amendment.

Silly or not, however, PETA is arguing that the lack of specific restrictions in the language means that the Constitutional ban on slavery can be—and should be—applied across the board. That’s an extreme interpretation and it means that humans, whales, and presumably horses and other animals cannot be kept in slavery.

A Troubling Long Shot

If you think the PETA lawsuit sounds like a goofy hypothetical question on a law school exam rather than a serious legal claim, you’re not alone. Legal scholars opine that the lawsuit has virtually no chance of getting anywhere. No legs, so to speak. Animals are not mentioned anywhere in the U.S. Constitution, after all, and there’s a good reason for that.

But what if the legal scholars are wrong.

Imagine, if you will, the impact on the horse business if PETA catches a sympathetic judge or two along the way and ultimately wins. Under almost any reasonable definition of slavery, everything that we now do with horses would count—buying and selling, breeding, showing, racing, working cattle, pleasure riding, euthanizing when necessary. No activity would be safe and the horse industry would cease to exist.

Applying the 13th Amendment to horses would eliminate the slaughter debate for sure, but at what cost? It would be like using a sledge hammer to kill a gnat.

I won’t presume to know what PETA actually hopes to accomplish with the lawsuit. Whether it’s a serious call for conferring legal rights on animals is anybody’s guess. The organization is well known for sometimes bizarre publicity stunts and this lawsuit may be one of them.

Aside from some obvious problems—the lawsuit doesn’t make any sense and should offend vast numbers of African Americans—PETA has managed to give us food for thought about the relationships we have with our animals. Are those relationships all that they could be? If not, how do we fix the problems? Maybe that’s the real value of the lawsuit.

Is PETA totally off base, or is there a kernel of truth in their argument?