The Moral Lives of Animals

Inside the hearts and minds of other creatures.

Can an Animal Be a "Slave"?

Are animals protected by the 13th amendment prohibiting slavery?

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PETA, the animal rights organization, is initiating a lawsuit against Sea World for keeping killer whales (orcas) in captivity and using them as trained performers. The PETA argument is that keeping and forcing whales to perform is a violation of the 13th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution prohibiting slavery. PETA argues that the amendment never states that slaves must be human--and that, therefore, the amendment could also cover non-humans, such as orcas.

In the words of a PETA news release, the suit "hinges on the fact that the 13th Amendment, while prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, does not specify that only humans can be victims."

Marc Bekoff, my fellow PT blogger, has recently written about this lawsuit, and I recommend you take a look at his post. Marc seems to be taking a neutral position on the logical validity of PETA's lawsuit, while stating more generally--and positively--that at least it should provoke some useful discussion about the nature of our relationship with non-human animals.

I am all for positive discussions about the nature of our relationship with non-human animals, and in that way I fully agree with Marc. However, it seems to me the PETA's lawsuit could have the opposite effect of what is intended. It could expose PETA to negative publicity, ridicule, and in the end expand the public sense that animal rights advocates are out of touch with reality.

Here is my first objection to the lawsuit. While the 13th Amendment doesn't specify that a slave has to be human, neither does any other part of the constitution. Nor does virtually any law anywhere in the world. If you decide that the 13th Amendment actually should refer to non-humans, then by logical extension you must also conclude that every other item in the constitution and in traditional law more generally will refer to non-humans. Wouldn't that mean that animals of any sort can therefore be prosecuted for theft, trespassing, murder, and so on?

My second objection is that PETA seems to be promoting an argument that NO animal should be treated as a slave. . . . Or do they really mean just no highly intelligent animal, like a whale? If so, what is the cut-off point? When do we decide an animal does not qualify? If we can't make that decision, then we must be equally concerned about, say, worms and protozoa. If, on the other hand, PETA insists a person can make the decision, I would like to know how they would do it--and also who would be in charge. Does PETA's legal concern end with large-brained mammals?

To describe an animal as having been made a "slave" is to use a metaphor: that is, to take an old linguistic construction and use it in a new way. The question is not whether that new way is right or wrong. The question is whether it is illuminating or confusing.


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When I look at chimpanzees in laboratory cages, I do think they are "prisoners." When I watch the video of a smug, overweight and overpaid dot.com executive proudly putting a bullet into a wild elephant, I think: "murder!" And, yes, when I see elephants in chains, I do sometimes think they are "slaves"--or at least, "being treated like slaves."

But I'm making species distinctions, and I don't know how to avoid that. I don't think "murder" when I watch someone kill a mosquito. I don't think "slave" when I see someone walking her dog on a leash. So it seems to me that these metaphors--orginally meant to describe some of the evil ways in which people treat other people--are illuminating when applied to certain animals, ones who are particularly intelligent and emotionally-developed creatures. Animals who, if they could use language, would most probably plead: "Don't put me in chains!" "Don't shoot!" "Let me out!"

Chimpanzees who have learned to use sign language will ask to be let out of their prisons, by the way, and elephants. . . . Well, I can only advise you to look at the recent video clip by Allison Argo that shows an elephant named Shirley, recently freed from her circus chains, and brought to the Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary--where she reunites with Jenny, an elephant she had last seen when they were, briefly, together in the same circus almost 25 years earlier. So eager to touch each other, that first night, these two old friends actually bend the giant steel bars separating them. If you are capable of being moved over the suffering and emotionality of animals, this one will bring tears to your eyes. 

Dale Peterson, Ph.D., has written nearly a dozen books about conservation, natural history, and animal science and scientists.

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