Parole Possible for Oldest Captive Orca

Lolita, now almost 50 years old, was a member of the Southern Resident distinct population segment (SR DPS) of orcas when she was captured in 1970 off Whidbey Island, Washington. She has been held and displayed at the Miami Seaquarium ever since, in an enclosure long believed by AWI and others to be non-compliant with Animal Welfare Act (AWA) space standards. Despite complaints to USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service—the agency responsible for enforcing the AWA—no actions have been taken to force the facility to increase the size of her enclosure. Now there may be hope.

Earlier this year, in response to a petition filed by the Foundation to Support Animal Protection, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a proposed rule to remove an exclusion for captive members of the SR DPS. This is significant because the SR DPS is protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Including Lolita as part of this population segment would mean she would be covered automatically by the same protections, including those governing “take” of endangered and threatened species. AWI believes that captivity is a “take” as defined by the ESA, because it disrupts one or more behavioral patterns that are essential to an animal’s life history and its contribution to the population. Lolita’s enclosure is not AWA-complaint and she is not with other orcas—a “harm” according to the Fisheries Service’s interpretation of the ESA.

AWI has submitted comments to the Fisheries Service supporting the proposed rule-making and urging that once Lolita is covered by the ESA, steps be taken to address the “take” that she is suffering in captivity in a non-compliant enclosure. Options for Lolita include increasing the size of her enclosure to make it AWA-compliant, moving her to a sea pen in her native waters, or rehabilitating and releasing her to the wild. Given her young age at capture and more than 40 years in captivity, AWI favors the second option—retirement to a sea pen in her native waters. A proposal put forward by the Orca Network seeks to do just that. In such a pen she would once again feel the ocean currents; be well cared for in an area that far exceeds AWA requirements in every way; not be made to perform or exposed to loud, artificial music and noise; and be allowed to finally find peace.

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