Lolita the Loneliest Orca Finally Gets Endangered Species Protection

Animal advocates are celebrating news that Lolita, the lone orca at the Miami Seaquarium, is another step closer to freedom with the announcement that she will now get the endangered species protection already granted to her wild relatives.

Lolita is a member of the Southern Resident killer whales, who live in three distinct pods (J,K and L) in the Pacific Northwest. Her tragic story began in 1970 when she was taken from her family during a brutal roundup in Penn Cove, Wash., when she was just a calf. She has been in a ridiculously small tank at the Miami Seaquarium ever since.

Her relatives, who have yet to recover from the losses they suffered to the captivity industry, were protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2005, but the listing specifically – and inexplicably – excluded any orcas placed in captivity prior to the listing, leaving Lolita out.

In 2013, the Orca Network, Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a petition seeking to have her included in the listing, arguing, among other things, that Lolita is the only captive member of any endangered species to be excluded from a listing decision like this. Ultimately, they hope her inclusion will help lead to her being freed from her current confines in the oldest and smallest tank in the United States.

This week, and in response to the petition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that she will be included in the ESA listing along with the rest of the Southern Residents. The agency stated:

As presented in the proposed rule we find that Lolita’s captive status, in and of itself, does not preclude her listing under the ESA.  Accordingly, we are removing the exclusion for captive whales in the regulatory language describing the Southern Resident killer whale DPS.   The best available genetic information and sighting history of killer whales supports  recognizing Lolita as a member of the Southern Resident killer whale population and, as such, is not excluded from the listed Southern Resident killer whale DPS.

While the ruling doesn’t guarantee her freedom, or initiate any immediate changes, her advocates are celebrating it as another positive step in the fight for her freedom. Howard Garrett, founder of the Orca Network, said in an email that this is a huge breakthrough towards getting her home. He further explained that her inclusion should make her current living conditions illegal under the ESA, which makes it unlawful to harm, harass or take endangered animals, and gives her advocates grounds to sue the Seaquarium, or possibly NOAA, over those violations.

The ultimate goal is to get Lolita back to her native waters off the coast of Washington. While those who want to see her stay where she is are continuing to try to incite fears that moving her will unquestionably kill her, mainstream media is helping them out by perpetuating the perception that crazy animal activists want to plunk her down in the ocean, wave goodbye and let her fend for herself when that is not the case.

The Orca Network has an extensive retirement plan in place that’s been ready and waiting for her for years. The plan involves relocating her to a sea pen where she will be able to feel the current and communicate with her pod. She will hopefully be able to return to the wild and reintegrate with her family, however, if she is unwilling, or unable, they have vowed to provide care for her for the remainder of her life. In either case, it’s far better than any future she could face in captivity.

Some are also spinning Keiko’s story as an example of what could happen should she be released. Her advocates, however, counter that the two are entirely different cases and that depending on how we look at it, Keiko’s release can be seen as a success. The creators of the documentary Keiko: the Untold Story are currently calling out PBS for misrepresenting what happened to him by saying he died after only a year.

In reality, after 23 years of confinement, he spent five years freely and independently in the wild, going from listless in captivity to curious and adventurous in the wild, but a major problem for him was that we didn’t know where his family was.

We know exactly who Lolita’s family is and exactly where they are. She 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. According to the Orca Network, she still calls out in the unique language used only by her family members – she remembers.

The story about Springer, the first orca who was successfully rescued and returned to the wild where she was recently spotted with a calf of her own, should also offer hope that Lolita, who is strong and healthy, would have the same success.

While future legal actions on her behalf have yet to be decided, there’s currently a lawsuit pending on appeal against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) concerning the Seaquarium’s violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The lawsuit argues that 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 now all violations.

According to Garrett, if they win, it’s proof that keeping her in that tank causing her harm and needs to be remedied, but if they lose the violations and harm done will be documented and ready to use in any future lawsuits.

While we wait for the outcome of the pending lawsuit, which is expected to be heard in March, we can help Lolita by ensuring she has a home and family to go to by supporting campaigns to restore Chinook salmon, which the Southern Residents rely on for food.

For more info on how to help, visit the Orca Network and Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s Don’t Let Orcas Be Dammed campaign.

Photo credit: Leonardo DaSilva


Victor Loegler
Victor Loegler2 years ago

Fight against orcas mistreatment by signing my petition:

Miss D.
Shari F3 years ago

You can email SeaWorld directly about Lolita, asking them to release her. Their email address is: I know this is a frustrating situation, but please do keep it polite.

Patricia Harris
John Taylor3 years ago

Please release Lolita back to the ocean where she belongs... No wild animal should ever be kept in captivity...

Carole R.
Carole R3 years ago

She needs to be released. Paperwork doesn't help her much.

S R.
Shari F3 years ago

Regarding getting her released, here are some petitions to sign. Please try and reword some of them and bring them up to date to include this latest news about her being listed as Endangered.

S R.
Shari F3 years ago

'what good is a " classification " if that is all it is a meaningless word to appease the masses.' Silja S.

Hi, I think the importance of this classification is that usually, if an animal is part of an endangered population, that is listed under the Endangered Species Act, then certain restrictions apply to the owning of those animals e.g. they are not usually allowed to be held in captivity, or to be sold. This will hopefully provide some protection to Lolita. She can't be sold abroad to side step the law and, one would have thought, she would have to be returned to the wild. ESA protection is an important first step for her. She was deliberately excluded from ESA protection when the rest of her family were protected so to be listed does actually mean something.

Glennis Whitney
Glennis W3 years ago

Hooray for Lolita.

Jim Ven
Jim V3 years ago

thanks for the article.

silja salonen
silja s3 years ago

okay …. endangered … okay when will she be released? what good is a
" classification " if that is all it is a meaningless word to appease the masses. honestly i am exhausted with the cruelty of humans. the continual abuses we hurl to one another in our daily lives. then to the absolute horror we inflict on animals. my heart which is already cracked, hopes against all common sense that there will be some modicum of goodwill. but no …… what good is a meaningless classification if she is an endangered orca imprisoned in a tiny pool for our useless egos….

Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell4 years ago