Earlier this month, the federal government classified Lolita the orca as endangered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sending ripples across animal activists and whale lovers the world over. This meant that the orca, who has been captive and performing twice a day at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970, was one step away from her freedom.
But it's not quite that simple. Several factors could derail those plans.
The moving of Lolita offers several challenges, starting with the Seaquarium. And while advocates are pressuring the park to set the orca free, NOAA would have to declare Lolita a candidate for release, something that may prove tough.
Any future plans to move or release Lolita would require a permit from NOAA Fisheries. Lolita would have to undergo rigorous scientific review to determine if she's healthy enough physically and mentally. This is, after all, an animal that has been held in captivity for more than 40 years.
NOAA's ruling was more about proving Lolita came from an endangered community of orcas called Southern Resident Killer Whale, in the Northeastern Pacific Ocean. But this doesn't automatically mean Lolita will be released anytime soon.
"The main issue here is that we are confident she came from this specific pod," NOAA official Michael Milstein tells New Times. "That was the extent of our classifying her as endangered. The question of whether she will be released is not before us. That would require the involvement of the Seaquarium. If they agreed to release her, a permit would then be required on our part."
Releasing an orca who has spent most of her life in captivity raises many concerns, Milstein says. One of those is her ability to adequately find food for herself. Another is difficulty in social integration. Lolita has been without another orca since her tank mate, Hugo, died after repeatedly smashing his head against the tank in 1980. Behavioral patterns developed in captivity could also have an impact, Milstein says.
One example of an orca released from captivity is Keiko, who was best-known as Willie from the hit 1993 movie Free Willie. Keiko was released into the waters of Iceland, where he had been captured as a baby. But his release came with much controversy. Keiko found it difficult to socialize with the wild orcas, and he had a stronger connection with humans than with his own kind. Keiko would also often swim up to fishing boats to beg for food and was at least once spotted playing with children in the water. Those involved with Keiko's release point to his living for at least five years after his freedom as an indicator that it can be done,. But NOAA deemed the release ultimately unsuccessful because of his dependency on humans and lack of interaction with other whales or dolphins in the wild.
Advocates for Lolita argue that she would be released into a pen built for her in the waters where the Southern Resident Killer Whales currently live. Some even believe her 80-year-old mother lives in these pods. But Milstein does see a lot of Keiko in Lolita.
"There are some similarities in terms of both whales, mainly that they are in captivity for long amounts of time," Milstein says. "Generally, the likelihood of survival for older whales or for those whales held captive for an extended period is not great. The younger the whale, the better. The less human interaction, the better."
Lolita has been in captivity for more than 40 years and has had no contact with another orca since Hugo's death. She has been performing twice a day every day with minimal contact with other dolphins and has been dependent on humans for food, medicine, and care. These would be chief concerns for NOAA if Lolita were suddenly given her freedom.
PETA, which has been calling for the Seaquarium to release Lolita, notes this as a reason for her freedom.
"Since Lolita's tankmate died after ramming his head into the side of their tank more than 30 years ago, Lolita has been the only orca at the Miami Seaquarium. She has no opportunity to socialize or interact with other members of her species, which is excruciating for such a social and intelligent animal," PETA said in a statement following NOAA's initial ruling.
But it's the very thing PETA is arguing that could eliminate Lolita as a candidate for release.