Orca Advocates Sue Miami Seaquarium in Fight to Free Lolita

While orca advocates prepare to commemorate the brutal roundups and captures of orcas who were taken from their families and home waters off the coast of Washington for public display 45 years ago, a coalition has filed a lawsuit against the Miami Seaquarium seeking freedom for the sole survivor.

Lolita, or Tokitae, was one of the orcas taken during a tragic roundup in Penn Cove on August 8, 1970. She was moved to the Miami Seaquarium later that year and has been there ever since. She is now the only remaining survivor among those who were taken.

Her advocates have been working for years to free her and this past May; they won a victory when she was officially included in the endangered species listing that protects her wild relatives, the southern resident killer whales.

Her inclusion gave them grounds to sue the Seaquarium itself over her treatment and the fact that she’s illegally spent decades in the smallest and oldest tank in North America.

This week the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Orca Network and Orca Network director Howard Garrett officially filed a lawsuit against the Seaquarium, arguing that her living conditions and the fact that she’s forced to perform constitute prohibited “take” under the Endangered Species Act, which includes harming and harassing imperiled species.

“Lolita is protected by the Endangered Species Act and deserves to live a life free of harassment, in which she can engage in natural behaviors,” said Stephen Wells, ALDF Executive Director. “We will continue to fight to win her protections under the law.”

The lawsuit, which was filed in the Miami Federal Court on Monday, covers a number of problems with her current conditions, stating “For more than forty years, Lolita has been unable to swim any meaningful distance, dive, forage, or carry out virtually any natural behaviors, and has been forced to spend the majority of her life at, or just below, the surface of the water, with only animals of other species with which she is not compatible.”

Sadly, Lolita has spent decades living in a tank that measures just 80 feet by 60 feet, or 35 feet if it’s measured with the island barrier in the middle. She herself is long enough to stretch the full 20-foot depth of the tank if she floats vertically.

The lawsuit notes that even if she had access to the entire tank, she would need to make more than 2,300 circles in a single day to cover the distance she might in the wild. Not only does her tank just look absurdly small for a whale, it’s also illegally small under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards for minimum size under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).

She’s also suffered from social isolation having been left without the companionship of another of her kind and has no opportunity to escape Florida’s scorching sun, which former caretakers have said caused burns that led to her skin cracking and bleeding. Constant exposure has also raised further concerns that it may harm her vision.

Her legal advocates ultimately hope that the court will compel the Seaquarium to forfeit possession of her and retire her to a sea pen in her home waters.

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 off the coast of Washington where she will be able to experience the ocean again and communicate with her family. Her mother, L-25 (Ocean Sun) who is now believed to be about 86-years-old is still alive among her pod. If Lolita can’t, or won’t, return to the wild, her advocates have vowed to provide care for her for the remainder of her life.

Along with her legal team, Lolita has amassed quite a following of supporters who want to see her freed from her current confines and returned home. A Care2 petition calling for her retirement to a sea pen has gathered more than 266,900 signatures.

Still, despite legal action and growing public opposition, the Miami Seaquarium continues to defend her confinement there, saying its in compliance with the AWA and that she is well cared for.

The Seaquarium is following seriously outdated regulations, and that doesn’t even begin to excuse it from the harm it’s obviously continuing to cause her, especially considering she is a member of an endangered population of whales and there is a viable alternative for her future. Hopefully Lolita’s legal team will win this round in court and she will be returned home before it’s too late.

For more info on Lolita, the southern residents and how to help while we wait for this case to play out in court, visit the Orca Network, Center for Whale Research and Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s Don’t Let Orcas Be Dammed campaign.

Photo credit: LEONARDO DASILVA

78 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Nikki Davey
Nikki Davey3 years ago

Orcas should not be confined like this.

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Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell3 years ago

Thank you

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Resa G.
Resa G3 years ago

YAY!!! go get em!!! free this angel baby!!

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Lori Hone
Lori Hone3 years ago

So glad they won't let this die until she's free where she belongs

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Miriam O.

Thanks so much for sharing! All I can say is FREE Loita now!!!

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Kathryn Irby
Past Member 3 years ago

All these Seaquarium's, Aquarium's, SeaWorld, etc., etc. should ALL be shut down--permanently!!! I don't believe in the confinement of animals just so Little Johnny can resolve his curiosity!!! Thank you for sharing.

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Natasha Salgado
Past Member 3 years ago

Somehow i'm not feeling very optimistic of the outcome. FREE Loita now.

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Shirley S.
Shirley S3 years ago

Free Lolita now!!!!

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Elaine Bauer
Elaine Bauer3 years ago

I am disgusted and very depressed that she is still living in these deplorable conditions.
These captors are totally lacking in any sense of compassion.
What on earth has to happen in order for her to be released to a humane situation?

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