Miami Seaquarium Sued Again for Release of Lolita the Orca

Miami Seaquarium Sued Again for Release of Lolita the Orca
Photo by Matthew Hoelscher | Flickr CC 2.0

The Miami Seaquarium is once again facing a lawsuit over its captive orca, Lolita.

On Monday, a coalition of animal-rights activists that includes PETA, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the Orca Network filed a lawsuit against the park saying that keeping the orca in her small tank constitutes a violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As ever, the activists are demanding Lolita be set free and sent to Washington state to live near her family.

Lolita, who has been with the Seaquarium since she was captured in 1970, was granted protection under the ESA when she was declared part of a specific pod — the southern resident killer whales — that had been declared endangered in 2005. The lawsuit claims that the orca being held in her tank and forced to perform for audiences appears to constitute an unlawful "take," which means she's being harmed, harassed, or wounded.

This marks the third lawsuit filed by the activists. In 2011, a similar lawsuit claimed the park violated the ESA against Lolita. That suit was dismissed by the U.S. District Court a year later. In 2012, another lawsuit claimed the park violated the Animal Welfare Act by allowing trainers to ride Lolita during performances and was also eventually dismissed. It was appealed, but in 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal.

But the plaintiffs insist that they have a case, because the orca is officially an endangered species and is forced to live in a confined space that offers little protection or shade from the sun.

"Lolita is protected by the Endangered Species Act and deserves to live a life free of harassment, in which she can engage in natural behavior," Stephen Wells, ALDF's executive director, said in a statement. "We will continue to fight to win her protections under the law.”

The activists say that for her entire time in captivity, Lolita has been able to swim only a few yards in her tank, whereas in the wild, orcas swim hundreds of miles a day. The group has also made efforts to have the orca retired from performing and transferred to a seaside sanctuary off Washington's San Juan Islands, where the southern resident pod lives.

"Decades of abuse, miserable confinement, and chronic deprivation have cost Lolita everything that's natural and important to her," said Jeffrey Kerr, general counsel to PETA. "PETA is taking action now to ensure that the Miami Seaquarium is held accountable for her suffering, and we'll continue to push for her relocation to a seaside sanctuary.”

For its part, the Seaquarium says Lolita is being taken care of around the clock. In a statement following the release of the lawsuit, the park says the allegations against it are not true.

“Lolita remains healthy and thriving after 45 years of residency at Miami Seaquarium,” the statement reads. “Nonetheless, PETA has argued (among other things) that Lolita is being 'harassed' and 'harmed' by remaining at her Miami Seaquarium home and that Miami Seaquarium is not in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act or the Endangered Species Act.”

The Miami Seaquarium statement added, ”Lolita is loved and exceptionally well cared for at Miami Seaquarium, and we believe that her removal from the only home she has ever known, into a sea pen in Washington state (the end-goal of the activists), would be cruel and traumatic." 

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