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Are SeaWorld's killer whales slaves? Judge weighs case

The killer whale Tilikum watches as SeaWorld Orlando trainers take a break during a training session at the theme park's Shamu Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on March 7, 2011.

SAN DIEGO, Calif -- The stars of SeaWorld were the main attraction in federal court Monday.

The animal rights group PETA filed their official complaint against SeaWorld Inc. on Oct. 6, 2011, for allegedly violating the 13th Amendment rights of killer whales, or orcas.

Monday, a federal judge heard the case. The judge did not dismiss the case -- instead, he took it under submission. It is not yet known when he will send PETA his decision.

Though SeaWorld has filed a motion to have case dismissed, the hearing Monday addressed the issue of whether or not the orcas even had standing to be heard.

Still, the fact that the case even made it into a courtroom was a victory for PETA, according to the attorney who represents PETA, Jeff Kerr.

"This is the first time a court has ever considered whether the 13th Amendment applies to the [orcas]," Kerr said outside the courtroom Monday.

In the courthouse Monday, an attorney representing SeaWorld said that PETA's arguments had "no place in a federal courtroom." He added that, regardless of whether animals were being abused, this was not a matter of constitutionality. If PETA were truly concerned about the wellbeing of the orcas, they would file an Animal Welfare Act lawsuit, he said.

"Orcas ... are not human beings. And I need not remind the court that African Americans are," the attorney said, drawing on the intention of the 13th Amendment to abolish the slavery of humans.

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The official complaint submitted in October to the U.S. District Court for Southern California lists five SeaWorld orcas as collective plaintiffs in the case, according to the complaint. Three of those whales live in the San Diego SeaWorld park. The other two live in the Orlando location.

"They were ripped from their homes and families with whom they would have spent their entire lives," said Kerr. "They're denied everything natural to them. They're confined in the equivalent of concrete bathtubs."

Read what Constitution experts say about this case

PETA alleges that the two SeaWorld locations restrained and kept the orcas in “constant involuntary physical confinement,” with no means to escape. The complaint also accuses SeaWorld of depriving the orcas of “their ability to live in a manner of their choosing,” and for “intentionally subjugating” the orcas’ “wills, desires, and/or natural drives and needs of [SeaWorld Inc.’s] own will and whims.”

In response, SeaWorld has stated that the orcas have no constitutional standing, and the lawsuit is a waste of the court's time.

"PETA has once again showed that it prefers publicity stunts to the hard work of caring for, rescuing and helping animals," SeaWorld's spokesperson said in October.

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