Animal advocates have headed back to court on behalf of Lolita, a lonely orca who has spent decades in the smallest and oldest tank in the U.S. at the Miami Seaquarium, in an ongoing battle to set her free.
Lolita’s advocates had previously asked the court to intervene and stop the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from continuously renewing the Seaquarium’s license to exhibit Lolita, despite blatant violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).
Unfortunately, their case was dismissed in March by a federal judge. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), the judge ruled that because Congress didn’t directly address license renewals when adopting the AWA, the USDA is allowed to rubber-stamp license-renewal applications.
Not only is she being kept in a tank that violates the USDA’s standards for minimum size, but she’s being kept in solitary confinement with no escape from the Florida sun or other weather conditions, which are all violations of the AWA. Even if the Seaquarium did meet the minimum standards of care, they’re still woefully inadequate for orcas and have drawn congressional support for a long-overdue update.
“By failing to administer the law, the USDA sentences Lolita to another year of solitary confinement each time it renews Miami Seaquarium’s license. We will continue to fight to win her the protections she is entitled to under the law,” said ALDF’s Executive Director Stephen Wells.
The real tragedy of Lolita’s story began in 1970 when she was torn from her mother’s side and the rest of the Southern Residents‘ L pod during a brutal roundup in Penn Cove when she was just a baby. She was sent to the Miami Seaquarium that year and has been there since.
Lolita once at least had the companionship of another orca, Hugo, but he died of a brain aneurysm in 1980 after repeatedly ramming his head into the side of his tank in what many believe was a suicide. She has been alone ever since.
In addition to trying to get the courts to intervene, Lolita’s advocates are working to get her listed as an endangered species, along with the rest of the Southern Residents who were protected in 2005. Those supporting the effort believe that her captivity and continued exploitation would be a violation of the rules intended to protect imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act and that the Miami Seaquarium would have to let her go.
In January, the National Marine Fisheries Service responded to the petition, and announced that it was warranted, but a final decision isn’t expected until January 2015.
After more than 40 years in a tiny tank being forced to perform, she deserves to retire in peace. Of the few options available, her advocates are pushing to see the Orca Network’s retirement plan go into effect, which will involve sending her back to a sea pen in her home waters off the coast of Washington, where she will at least be able to experience the ocean and communicate with others of her kind.
The ultimate goal of the plan is to reintegrate her back into her pod, who her mother (L25) is still a part of. However, if she is unwilling, or unable, they have vowed to provide care for her for the remainder of her life. The story about Springer, the first orca who was successfully rescued and returned to the wild, give hope that Lolita would have the same success.
Whatever the outcome of the appeal and the petition for endangered species protection, we can be sure leaving her at the Miami Seaquarium will cause her to continue to suffer and result in certain death. With more than 40 years worth of profits in its pocket at Lolita’s expense, it’s time for the Seaquarium to let her go.
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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