In 1970, seven Southern Resident orca whales were captured in the notorious Penn Cove roundup in Washington’s Puget Sound to be sold into the entertainment industry for display.
The violent roundup, and subsequent coverup of orcas and calves who died and had their bodies weighted down to keep them hidden and avoid having them counted in the “take,” caused public outrage and led to the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, which bans the capture of marine mammals in U.S. waters and it’s not hard to see why.
You can hear haunting cries in the video below, as the orcas are rounded up and separated. Even some who participated still regret what they’ve done.
By 1987, all of the 45 orcas who had been kidnapped from their families in the wild had died in captivity except for Lolita. She has spent more than 40 years in an unacceptably (and illegally) small tank at the Miami Seaquarium where she has been entertaining curious onlookers. She has been alone since 1980, when her companion Hugo committed suicide by ramming his head into the tank wall, which caused an aneurysm.
Animal advocates have been fighting for Lolita’s freedom for decades and have finally had some success with an announcement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that it has accepted a petition filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation, the Orca Network and individuals to extend Endangered Species Act protection to Lolita.
The Southern Resident orcas, which include three distinct pods (J, K and L) that live in Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, were listed as endangered in 2005. As of now, there are only 84 of these orcas in the wild.
Lolita is from the L-pod and, and according to the Orca Network, she still calls out in the unique language used only by her family members. She remembers.
The Orca Network’s co-founder and president Howard Gannet told the Times Colonist that it’s a step in the right direction, but noted that it’s only one of many hurdles in the battle for Lolita’s freedom. He added that if she is successfully listed, it’s likely she would be freed.
“They can’t hold a member of an endangered species captive for business reasons,” he said.
However, Brian Gorman, spokesman for the NMFS in Seattle said that it may not mean her freedom, and may only result in other actions such as making improvements to her living conditions.
In the event that she does get her freedom, there is an extensive retirement plan in place for her new life in the Pacific. Some argue that she may suffer a similar fate to Keiko, but unlike Keiko, Lolita still has family in the wild. There are believed to be at least six Southern Residents still alive who were at the Penn Cove roundup, one of whom may be her mother.
At the very least, Lolita’s advocates hope she will be returned to a sea-pen on San Juan Island, where she will at least be able to hear the calls of her pod and communicate with them. Her advocates hope she can be reintegrated into the wild, but if she is unwilling or unable to go back, they will provide care for her indefinitely.
Any decisions about Lolita’s future are still a long way off. The NMFS has until the end of next January to decide if the petition is warranted, and if they do their decision will be followed by a public comment period.
However, there is a conflicting petition that seeks to remove all ESA protection from the Southern Residents, which will be decided in August.
Please sign the petition supporting Lolita’s freedom.
Photo credit: Thinkstock