May 24, 2016
Animal advocacy organizations are back in court in the latest effort to free Lolita, the lone orca at the Miami Seaquarium.
Lolita was once a wild and free member of a family of orcas, the southern resident killer whales, who live in the Pacific Northwest, but her fate was forever changed when she was taken from them during the notoriously brutal roundups that took place in Penn Cove in 1970.
After she was torn from her family, she was taken to the Miami Seaquarium where she has spent more than 45 years in the smallest and oldest tank in North America. She has been alone since 1980, when her companion Hugo died from an aneurysm after ramming his head into the tank wall, in what many believe was a suicide.
Today, she is the last surviving southern resident in captivity.
Her advocates have been working hard to get her out of there for years and there has been some good news along the way, such as her being included in endangered species listing granted to her family in the wild in 2005, but she’s still languishing in Miami.
In the latest effort to free her, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), Orca Network and PETA have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that is challenging the agency’s decision to grant the Miami Seaquarium’s new owner a license to keep her.
The Miami Seaquarium was bought by Palace Entertainment in 2014, and as the ALDF explains, under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) licenses can’t just be transferred to new owners. Instead, new owners have to show that they’re complying with current regulations, and Palace Entertainment clearly has not.
Not only is Lolita being kept in a tank that violates the USDA’s own standards for minimum size, but she’s being kept in solitary confinement with no escape from bad weather or Florida’s scorching sun, which former caretakers have said caused burns that have led to her skin cracking and bleeding.
“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,” said PETA Foundation Director of Animal Law Jared Goodman. “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.”
The ultimate goal is to return her to her home waters off the coast of Washington state, where she may be reunited with her family. Lolita is a member of the L pod and her mother, L25 (Ocean Sun), is still believed to be alive and with the pod, along with a few others who were present the day Lolita was taken.
While some who want to see her stay where she is have been trying to raise fears that moving her will do more harm than good, there is an extensive retirement plan for her in place and ready to go that involves moving her to a sea pen, where she’ll be able to experience the ocean again.
It’s hoped that she will eventually be able to return to the wild and reintegrate with her family, however, if she is unwilling, or unable, her advocates have vowed to provide care for her for the remainder of her life. In either case, bringing her home is far better than the future she faces now in captivity.
With promising changes like SeaWorld ending its breeding program and sea pens becoming a very realistic option for giving retired orcas better lives, we can hope Lolita’s advocates will be successful in getting her back home where she belongs.
While this case plays out, there’s yet more hope that another pending lawsuit arguing her living conditions constitute prohibited “take” under the Endangered Species Act, which includes harming and harassing imperiled species, will help get her there.