May 19, 2016
Miami Seaquarium is the target of a lawsuit filed in a federal court in North Carolina, over the park’s star attraction, Lolita the orca, living in “woefully inadequate” conditions.
The Miami Seaquarium was purchased by Palace Entertainment in 2014. Plaintiffs, which include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the nonprofits the Animal Defense Fund and the Orca Network, assert that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is violating the Animal Welfare Act by granting a license to the new parent company.
Jared Goodman, PETA foundation director of animal law, told Miami Herald that the license means Lolita will have to remain in her current enclosure.
“Miami Seaquarium’s new owner simply does not qualify for a permit for this facility, when the orca confined there is suffering in an illegally small concrete pit.
“We are asking the court to strip this deplorable facility of its wrongfully obtained license and put Lolita on the path to freedom after more than 45 years of captivity and exploitation.”
Plaintiffs argue that the license is in violation of the Animal Welfare Act, and that Palace Entertainment should not be able to acquire a license, “without improving Lolita’s conditions by providing her with a larger living space, shelter from the sun, and a companion of her own species.”
The lawsuit also alleges that seeing the orca in her current state causes “emotional injury.”
It is not the first time Lolita has been the center of legal action. Activists have initiated at least four lawsuits in the past several years. In 2015, Miami Seaquarium was charged with being in violation of the Endangered Species Act, according to the Broward Palm Beach New Times.
Animal Legal Defense Fund’s executive director Stephen Wells said last year that the protests will continue on Lolita’s behalf.
“Lolita is protected by the Endangered Species Act and deserves to live a life free of harassment, in which she can engage in natural behavior. We will continue to fight to win her protections under the law.”
Lolita was captured off the coast of Washington State in 1970. She is one of the “L pod” members of the Southern Resident killer whales, of which there are 35 individuals left.
The “L pod” orcas are one of three groups, which live around the San Juan Islands and swim over hundreds of miles of coastal waters. A wild orca can easily cover 75 miles in a day.
According to Orca Network, the other two groups, J pod and K pod, combined with Lolita’s family make a total of 83 whales. The groups have their own habits, diet and language, separating them from other killer whale groups around the planet. Their sparse numbers have rendered them an endangered species.
All the whales have names, and are identified and their activities carefully logged by scientists.
Lolita was captured in the month of August, when she was four years old. She was sold to the Miami Seaquarium for $6,000, according to The Dodo.
Lolita’s tank, which offers no protection from the sun, is only 35 feet wide and 20 feet deep. The size of her enclosure amounts to four of her body lengths.
Lolita’s mate, Hugo, died in 1980. She hasn’t seen another orca since then. She shares her enclosure with two dolphins.
At 50 years old, Lolita is the oldest orca in captivity. She was named one of Time Magazine’s top 100 most influential animals of 2016.
In January 2015, thousands of protesters gathered outside the Miami Seaquarium asking for Lolita’s release.
The mayor of Miami, Philip Levine, has even chimed in on her behalf.
“Miami should be known as the beautiful, modern city that it is — not as the home of the smallest orca tank in North America. This endangered animal must be released as soon as possible from the appalling conditions at the Seaquarium and moved to a sanctuary in her home waters.”
A group of scientists is currently scouting for a location for a sea sanctuary for retired orcas, and funding has already been initiated for the effort, which is called The Whale Sanctuary Project.
Miami Seaquarium maintains that Lolita is being well cared for and that moving the orca to a sea sanctuary would be “traumatic.”