PETA is once again turning to the courts in a dispute involving captive whales at SeaWorld parks — only this time, SeaWorld isn’t the defendant.
Along with other groups including the Animal Welfare Institute and the Earth Island Institute, PETA is suing the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a federal agency, over its determination that it cannot require SeaWorld to submit autopsy reports and veterinary records for deceased orcas. If the Orlando-based company did provide such records, they would then be publicly available under the Freedom of Information Act.
The suit, filed Tuesday in Washington, claims that the NMFS isn’t abiding by the conditions in the permits which allowed SeaWorld to import the orca whales, which specified that the whales’ medical history be submitted to NMFS when they die. These reports on the captive orcas, PETA and the other plaintiffs argue, could offer valuable information on marine mammal health that is rarely obtainable from their counterparts in the wild.
The agency’s position, according to the PETA suit, is those requirements were “effectively extinguished” by amendments to laws surrounding wildlife management passed by Congress in 1994.
“The plaintiffs are calling on the agency to stand by the permit conditions that it imposed and ensure that the public and the independent scientific community can examine this information in order to improve marine mammal well-being and hold parks like SeaWorld accountable,” said Jared Goodman, deputy general counsel for the PETA Foundation.
One of the records sought by the lawsuit is that of Tilikum, the whale involved in the deaths of three humans, including the 2010 drowning of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau. Tilikum died of a lung infection in 2017, which PETA argues triggered a requirement to submit his records to NMFS based on the 1992 permit authorizing his importation.
SeaWorld did not respond to a request for comment on the suit. A spokesperson for NMFS told Orlando Rising that the agency could not discuss legal matters.
It’s not the first time PETA has gone to court over Tilikum. In a 2012 case against SeaWorld, the animal rights group argued that he and other whales were enslaved by the park in violation of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The suit was dismissed in a California federal court on the grounds that the amendment only applies to humans.
Even as SeaWorld’s attendance and revenue have rebounded over the past year, PETA has remained a consistent and vocal critic. This has included public displays in Orlando, such as protesters showing a “SeaWorld Kills” sign at the Aquatica water park in and paying for a truck to drive around popular Orlando attractions with a digital billboard resembling an orca in a tank.
“SeaWorld will never fully recover, and PETA will never stop protesting until every animal has been freed,” Tracy Reiman, PETA executive vice president, said earlier this month.