PETA Suit Against SeaWorld Sparks Questions Concerning Animal Standing

In October 2011, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed suit in U.S. District Court in San Diego on behalf of orca whales kept at SeaWorld parks in San Diego and Orlando. The complaint alleged that SeaWorld is holding the five marine mammal plaintiffs—Tilikum, Katina, Corky, Kasatka, and Ulises—in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition on slavery, after having been removed from their natural habitat, transported to the park’s facilities, bred, and forced to perform. The suit sought injunctive relief, including an order releasing the orcas to a court-ordered legal guardian who would find them a different permanent habitat, as well as a permanent order forbidding them from being held in slavery. PETA argued that although the Thirteenth Amendment prohibits slavery, its text does not specifically stipulate that the amendment applies only to humans.

Despite the federal judge’s dismissal of the case this past February, this case raised important questions about the issue of animal standing. The orcas were themselves the plaintiffs in this suit, with PETA, two former SeaWorld trainers, and three marine mammal experts representing them in court under the next friend doctrine, which allows another person to act on behalf of someone lacking full legal capacity. Usually the next friend doctrine is applied to human plaintiffs, such as infants and mentally disabled individuals, rather than animals.

Although many animal activists and environmentalists have staunchly advocated for animal standing, efforts to expand standing doctrine to include animals have garnered mixed results. Some courts have allowed animals to have standing in court to sue on their own behalf. In Mt. Graham Red Squirrel v. Madigan, 954 F.2d 1441 (1992), the Ninth Circuit allowed an endangered species of squirrel to bring suit under the Endangered Species Act, the National Forest Management Act, and the Arizona-Idaho Conservation Act. The Ninth Circuit also allowed an endangered species of bird to sue on its own behalf under the Endangered Species Act in Palila v. Hawaii Dep’t of Land & Natural Resources, 852 F.2d 1106 (1988). The Northern District Court of California also seemed receptive to the idea of granting animal standing in Marbled Murrelet v. Pacific Lumber Co., 880 F.Supp. 1343 (1995), when it allowed an endangered bird species to seek injunctive relief against a logging company under the Endangered Species Act.

However, other courts have criticized these decisions, stating that the issue of animal standing was not thoroughly examined in the courts’ opinions. See Lauren Magnotti, Pawing Open the Courthouse Door: Why Animals’ Interests Should Matter (80 St. John’s L. Rev. 455 (Winter 2006). For instance, the Third Circuit in Hawksbill Sea Turtle v. Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency, 11 F.Supp.2d 529 (1998), examined the cases mentioned above allowing for animal standing and concluded they lacked “significant analysis” of the issue. Granting animal standing was alluded to but not adopted by the Ninth Circuit in a later case, Cetacean Community v. Bush, 386 F.3d 1169 (2004).  Although the court denied standing to various marine mammals, it did somewhat encouragingly state that it saw “no reason why Article III prevents Congress from authorizing a suit in the name of an animal, any more than it prevents suits brought in the name of artificial persons such as infants, juveniles, and mental incompetents . . . . Article III does not prevent Congress from granting standing to an animal by statutorily authorizing a suit in its name.” Id at 1176.

Although animal standing would necessitate certain modifications to current legal doctrine, it also has the potential to improve our legal system. Conferring standing on animals so they could challenge private and government actions in court would contradict the traditional legal conception of animals as property. However, it could also save time and resources for courts and the parties involved by allowing for less convoluted and drawn-out litigation by acknowledging the real interests at stake, rather than requiring interest groups like PETA to attach the animals’ claims to aesthetic and recreational injuries of humans. Granting animals standing is also consistent with Congress’ intent to protect animals, as evidenced by legislation like the Endangered Species Act, the Animal Welfare Act, and the Marine Mammals Protection Act.

—Caitlin Zittkowski is a Contributing Editor on MJEAL.  She can be reached at czittkow@umich.edu.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.