A killer whale performs at Sea World in Orlando on March 30. The whale, Tilikum, killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in February.

Story highlights

SeaWorld calls the lawsuit a baseless publicity stunt

The complaint alleges that five killer whales are SeaWorld slaves

PETA: This is the first lawsuit seeking constitutional protection against slavery for non-humans

The U.S. Constitution traditionally grants rights only to humans, not animals

CNN  — 

Lawyers for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals will face off against those with SeaWorld in a Southern California federal court Monday after the animal rights group filed a lawsuit to declare that five killer whales are being held in slavery or involuntary servitude in violation of the 13th Amendment.

SeaWorld has called the lawsuit a baseless publicity stunt by PETA, which is known for provocative advertisements and public demonstrations on behalf of animal rights.

PETA filed the 20-page compalint in October on behalf of the whales – Tilikum, Katina, Corky, Kasatka and Ulises.

A PETA statement at the time contended that constitutional protections against slavery are not limited to humans.

“Plaintiffs were forcibly taken from their families and natural habitats, are held captive at SeaWorld San Diego and SeaWorld Orlando, denied everything that is natural to them, subjected to artificial insemination or sperm collection to breed performers for defendants’ shows, and forced to perform, all for defendants’ profit,” the lawsuit states, arguing that those conditions amount to enslavement and/or forced servitude.

At the heart of the lawsuit is the question of whether a non-human entity can sue for a violation of constitutional rights.

The 13th Amendment outlaws slavery and “involuntary servitude” in the United States without any specific mention that it applies only to people.

“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,” the amendment’s first section states.

In its statement, PETA called the lawsuit “the first ever seeking to apply the Thirteenth Amendment to non-human animals.”

The lawsuit seeks an order for the release of the whales “from bondage” and a permanent order against holding them in slavery, as well as appointment of a legal guardian to carry out the transfer of the whales to a suitable habitat. It also seeks attorneys’ fees and costs.

In a statement responding to the lawsuit, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment said in October that the court case challenges “the public’s right to enjoy and learn more about marine mammals.”

“This effort to extend the Thirteenth Amendment’s solemn protections beyond human beings is baseless and in many ways offensive,” the statement said.

SeaWorld is “among the world’s most respected zoological institutions,” it continues, adding that SeaWorld parks “are fully accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums” with legal permission to display marine mammals.

“PETA has once again showed that it prefers publicity stunts to the hard work of caring for, rescuing and helping animals,” the SeaWorld statement said.

State and federal courts have traditionally understood laws dealing with animal ownership and cruelty as applying only to human actions, meaning the animals themselves could neither be prosecuted nor act as plaintiffs or defendants.

That would include litigation and legislation involving hunting and breeding of animals and plants, as well as zoo and circus displays.

CNN’s Bill Mears and Tom Cohen contributed to this report.