The struggle to free the orca Lolita from captivity at the Miami Seaquarium has just scored what could be an important win. Animal advocacy organizations have persuaded the National Marine Fisheries Service to propose a rule that would protect her under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Lolita has been stuck in an unlawfully tiny tank — the smallest orca tank in North America — for 44 years. For the last 34 years she has languished there without any orca companionship. In the wild she could well spend her entire life in her birth pod with her mother, who is still alive and swimming at age 85.
Lolita’s family was declared endangered under the ESA nine years ago, but the government excluded Lolita from that classification. Advocacy organizations have now persuaded the government to take an important step towards acknowledging that Lolita too is a member of an endangered species regardless of her mailing address. Individuals from other endangered species who are locked up in zoos for breeding purposes are no less endangered for having been caught. The same goes for Lolita.
The animal protection groups that petitioned the government to extend ESA protection to Lolita consider this one step towards their ultimate goal of freeing her from the Seaquarium. Orca Network’s Howard Garrett calls it “a very huge first step.”
The petitioning organizations, including the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), argue that the way the Seaquarium treats Lolita may violate the ESA. “She is afforded no protection from the sun, and she’s forced to perform tricks, which may violate the ESA’s protection against harm and harassment,” according to an ALDF press release.
Even if Lolita is freed from her tiny tank, she may not become entirely wild. PETA attorney Jared Goodman says they just want her “transferred to a coastal sanctuary in her natural habitat, where she can communicate with other killer whales.” PETA says the benefits of the sanctuary would include “greater freedom of movement and the opportunity to see, sense, and communicate with her mother, wild cousins, and other ocean animals and to feel the tides and waves.” The sanctuary is in her mother’s neighborhood.
Before the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) agreed to propose a rule to protect Lolita, the agency argued that releasing Lolita could kill her. Spokesperson Brian Gorman said the “history of trying to return large marine mammals to the wild is not a very good one.” Gorman also asserted that the “learned behavior and the experience” that Lolita would need to survive in the wild “has disappeared from her memory.” I wonder how he knows that so definitively, given that Lolita recognized calls from her pod’s members decades after she was taken from them.
The NMFS has changed its tune. In the summary of its proposed rule, the NMFS states, “based on our review of the petition [from the animal protection groups], public comments, and the best available scientific information, we find that” giving Lolita ESA coverage “is warranted.”
Naturally, the Miami Seaquarium wants to keep its star and only orca right where she is. General Manager Andrew Hertz says that even if the NMFS gives Lolita ESA protection she will not leave the aquatic park, because the company already complies with ESA requirements. Hertz also warns that releasing Lolita into the wild could hurt or kill both her and other orcas.
Hertz calls Lolita “an ambassador for her species.” At Seaquarium, ambassador is not a voluntary job — it’s more like a compulsory prison job. It’s not as though Lolita signed up for the lonely, confined life she got.
To submit a public comment to the NMFS about its proposed rule to classify Lolita as a member of an endangered species, go to the Federal Register’s website. It has instructions for submitting comments electronically and by mail. Comments must be received by March 28, 2014.
Photo credit: Leonardo Dasilva