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U.S. judge dismisses PETA claim that SeaWorld's killer whales are 'slaves'

In this 1998 photo shows famed killer whale Keiko, at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, in Newport, Ore. Animal rights group says SeaWorld whales are entitled under the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery

Steven Nehl/AP/Steven Nehl/AP

Captive killer whales aren't "slaves" and have no right to be set free, a U.S. judge has ruled – quickly tossing out the long-shot legal effort by animal rights activists to have the orcas released by claiming they had constitutional rights.

The case, filed by PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – made a splash attracting widespread attention, just as PETA's blood-spattered anti-fur activists create controversy – but failed to persuade U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller, who ruled two days after initial arguments.

"As 'slavery' and 'involuntary servitude' are uniquely human activities, as those terms have been historically and contemporaneously applied, there is simply no basis to construe the 13th Amendment as applying to non-humans," the judge wrote in a ruling dismissing the case. The 13th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, outlawed slavery. "The only reasonable interpretation of the 13th Amendment's plain language is that it applies to persons, and not to non-persons such as orcas," the judge added

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PETA was unimpressed.

"Today's decision does not change the fact that the orcas who once lived naturally wild and free, are today kept as slaves by SeaWorld," it said in a statement.

The case was controversial, not just for constitutional scholars.

Tilikum, one of the five orca plaintiffs, isn't just a crowd-pleaser at SeaWorld in San Diego.

Two years ago, Tilikum, known affectionately as Tilly by his handlers, snatched Dawn Brancheau, a female trainer, dragged her underwater and thrashed her to death in front of a horrified crowd. It was the third time the big male orca had been involved in the death of a human.

SeaWorld rejected calls to euthanize the 30-year-old, eight-metre long whale, originally captured off Iceland and brought from a Canadian marine mammal attraction. Tilly returned to his public performance and continues to delight SeaWorld crowds

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