A federal court is being asked to grant constitutional rights to five killer whales who perform at marine parks — an unprecedented and perhaps quixotic legal action that is nonetheless likely to stoke an ongoing, intense debate at America's law schools over expansion of animal rights.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is accusing the SeaWorld parks of keeping five star-performer whales in conditions that violate the 13th Amendment ban on slavery. SeaWorld depicted the suit as baseless.
First and foremost, the action is highly amusing, as all sideshow attractions are intended to be. The political cartoons of swearing in orcas in open court basically draw themselves. More pertinent, however, the action highlights the fundamental incompatibility between the ideology of groups like PETA and a theologically motivated environmentalism. In spite of considering myself a person who is most decidedly for the ethical treatment of animals, I cannot endorse a PETA paradigm which understands the role of animals in creation as somehow identical to that of humanity. However we interpret it, Scripture clearly indicates an economic if not an ontological distinction between humans and animals. We have a different role in the cosmic salvation plan than orcas.
In truth, however, PETA's argument is entirely consistent with the materialist understanding of the world which presents the clearest alternative to a faith-based understanding of the cosmos. Science would have us believe that the difference between Homo sapiens and Orcinus orca is one of human perspective. We see all animals as distinct from all humans only because we are on the inside looking out. An objective viewpoint reveals that the relationship between humans and animals is most like that between cheddar and cheese. If one species of animals has the right to self-determination and is legally protected from enslavement, then it is for Sea World to explain why another species of animals--distinct only in incidental ways--should not be afforded those rights. There are pragmatic or egocentric arguments to explain it, but PETA's argument is by no means as absurd as it appears at first blush. In fact, it likely only appears odd because we have a shared cultural heritage in the Judeo-Christian understanding of humanity. Would Sea World even exist of native shamanism had continued to dominate in the Americas?