Will Lolita the Orca Be Declared Endangered? Decision Expected This Week
Photo by George Martinez

Will Lolita the Orca Be Declared Endangered? Decision Expected This Week

Miami Seaquarium's Lolita the killer whale is quite literally the Magic City's biggest star. For more than 40 years, she has been wowing crowds of tourists and locals with her incredible splash. This week, Lolita, one of the oldest living orcas in captivity, may come one step closer to swimming out of the limelight and -- maybe -- into the open ocean.

According to Michael Milstein, a public affairs officer for NOAA Fisheries, the agency expects to announce this week its decision regarding a 2014 proposal to amend the Endangered Species Act's (ESA) provision affecting Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW). For years, the law has specified that its protections do not apply to SRKW that are captive. This amendment would rectify that loophole and extend protections to this group of whales. Lolita is the only surviving orca to which it would apply.

On January 17, more than one thousand people rallied on Virginia Key, where the seaquarium is located, to take part in the Miracle March for Lolita. Their expressed hope was simple: that the nearly 50-year-old orca will soon be retired and released from captivity.

See also: March For Lolita at Virginia Key Beach Park (Photos)

"I have faith that Lolita will be listed as endangered. After the public opinion expressed through the march and our petition, which has over 160,000 signatures, the NOAA will understand the great weight that their decision will carry," said Zach Affolter, who helped organize the march and is a writer for the nonprofit All For The Animals. "Though it may not result in her immediate release, it is vital that she is protected under the Endangered Species Act because it will give more legal reason to retire Lolita and prevent her from having to perform unnatural tricks until she dies."

In 1970, Lolita, whose original name is Tokitae (meaning "beautiful day" in Coast Salish), was taken from her mother as a calf near Puget Sound in a capture that left at least four other young orcas dead. According to reports, M-80 bombs were used to scare the orcas; the mothers and their calves let out piercing screams as they were separated. The surviving calves from the roundup were sent to parks around the world. However, they all died within five years of the capture, with the exception of Tokitae.

Resident killer whales exhibit one of the strongest family bonds observed among marine mammals, and it is not uncommon to hear of orcas who live their lives alongside their mothers. The Southern resident population, in particular, also has a unique call in which they identify others in family.

When Tokitae first came to Miami, she was intended to be the playmate of a lonely orca named Hugo. However, the two were initially separated because park workers believed they would fight. Allegedly, what seaquarium staff did not know at the time was that the two orcas had come from the same SRKW population, and when Tokitae would cry out in her new tank, Hugo would whistle and call out to her from across the park in their special dialect, perhaps as a way to comfort her.

The two were subsequently squeezed into the same tank, but after a decade of entertaining park guests, Hugo rammed his head into the wall and died. Some animal-rights activists have called it an act of suicide. His carcass was later placed in the Miami-Dade landfill, and his name at the seaquarium has all but been forgotten. No plaques commemorate his life. It is as though he never existed.

Check out a rare clip of a young Hugo here:

Will Lolita the Orca Be Declared Endangered? Decision Expected This Week
Photo by George Martinez

Tokitae, who had come to be known has Lolita at the park (a nod to Vladimir Nabokov's novel of the same name), continued performing the shows. However, she has not seen or heard from another of her kind since, having for four decades swum in a fishbowl-like tank that does not meet federal standards for an animal her size.

In 2005, Southern Resident killer whales, the smallest community of orcas in the eastern North Pacific Ocean, gained protection under the ESA, with whale researchers considering the species to be among the most critically endangered marine mammals in U.S. waters, with a current population of about 80.

However, without any explanation or any notice to the public or opportunity for the public to comment, NOAA Fisheries stated that the ESA protection did "not include [Southern Resident] killer whales... placed in captivity prior to listing, nor does it include their captive born progeny."

Since all of the other captive SRKWs caught between 1965 to 1973 have died and since interestingly none of them left behind any children in captivity, the stipulation applies exclusively to Lolita.

"She should have been listed with her pod when they got the status [of endangered]," said Robin Jewell, head organizer for the Miracle March for Lolita on Sunday. "Instead, her life is endangered every day, being rode around in a tank that violates the Animal Welfare Act's minimum size requirements for an animal her size. Miami Seaquarium and SeaWorld are fighting to keep her there, because they know if she is successful in her recovery, which she will be, that they will have to totally reinvent themselves."

In 2013, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) submitted a strongly worded petition in unison with the Orca Network and the Animal Legal Defense Fund to NOAA Fisheries, urging the government agency to include Lolita as a protected member of the SRKW distinct population segment.

PETA argued that:

"Lolita's exclusion preserves only her commercial value -- a clear violation of the ESA, which prohibits economic considerations as a basis for listing decisions... Lolita, if protected, could contribute significantly to vital research needed to sustain the wild SRKW population. If she remains excluded, Lolita will contribute only to Seaquarium's profit margin."

PETA also pointed out that, on its face, the ESA treats all members of a listed endangered species the same, regardless of whether they are captive. NOAA Fisheries conceded in January 2014 that it cannot exclude captive individuals of an endangered species and warranted a change to the 2005 listing language to include captive individuals.

However, before the organization could apply this finding to Lolita, studies had to be done to prove that she is, in fact, a genetic member of the protected SRKW population. The findings resulted in a proposal published January 27, 2014, to extend protection to Lolita.

"Lolita shares both genetic and acoustic characteristics with the members of the Southern Resident killer whale DPS found in the wild. Based upon this best available science we confirm that Lolita is a member of the Southern Resident killer whale population and as such she should be included as a member of the Southern Resident Killer Whale DPS... Our proposed rule would amend the language describing the Southern Resident killer whale DPS to remove the exception for captive whales, and, if the proposal is finalized, Lolita would then be included under the endangered classification."

To ensure that the final decision would be "as accurate and effective as possible," NOAA Fisheries solicited comments from the public and the scientific community to weigh in on whether the planned amendment was appropriate.

Will Lolita the Orca Be Declared Endangered? Decision Expected This Week
Photo by George Martinez

After one year of deliberating and reviewing comments, the government agency is poised to announce this week whether captive SRKWs will be protected under the ESA. However, NOAA Fisheries stated last January that the information they receive over the course of the past year "may lead to a final regulation that differs" from the plan to classify Lolita as endangered.

If the original proposal by NOAA Fisheries is finalized this week, then animal rights' groups may be able to take legal action to have the Miami Seaquarium retire Lolita from entertaining crowds. Currently, the Seaquarium has not expressed any wishes to release Lolita back into the wild.

If legal recourse is taken and she is released from the seaquarium and transitions well in a proposed sea pen in the San Juan Islands (coordinates: 48.677028, -122.882925), then she may be allowed to be rehabilitated back into the wild to join her kin. However, one critical element to a successful reunion with her family is whether she will able to effectively communicate with other killer whales, using the same dialect she communicated to Hugo in, so that her kin recognize her as one of their own.

The reason whale experts, along with the Miami Seaquarium staff, say they are concerned about this detail in releasing Lolita into the wild is because orcas have cultures in which they learn to catch prey, protect each other, etc. As a result, group membership is key to an individual killer whales survival in the wild.

When Keiko, the orca who starred in the 1993 film Free Willy, was released from his real-life captivity, he sought out the company of humans near the coasts of Norway -- even, according to reports, letting children ride on his back. Despite years of training the whale to live in the wild, Keiko failed to reintegrate with the other orcas and subsequently died by himself (presumably of pneumonia) near a fjord.

While some dolphins (orcas are dolphins) have successfully been rehabilitated in the past, Lolita's circumstances are exceptional because she has been in captivity for so long.

Still, activists are set on her release, mainly because they believe it is wrong for her to be used for entertaining Miami Seaquarium park guests until she dies.

"If Lolita was truly loved as family as [the seaquarium] says, they would give her the freedom to talk with her family once again. They have made billions on her back," said Jewell. "[We want people in authority] to do what is right for this nonhuman person, who, if kept there, will end up in the Dade County dump like Hugo. That's how much of a love they had for him."

If Tokitae is able to communicate with her kin in the Pacific Northwest and her family accepts her, she may be able to successfully reintegrate and reunite with her mother, who is believed to be an 87-year-old killer whale called Ocean Sun.

After a comprehensive rehabilitation that Tokitae is expected to go through, which includes an examination for pathogens she may have picked up at the seaquarium, she may one day swim in her native waters.

Animal rights' activists believe the reunion between the mother and daughter orca will be a "beautiful day" indeed.

"I believe it will be the most amazing thing we will ever witness in our lifetime," concluded Jewell. "Then we will know how intelligent and family bonded these sentient beings really are. Her mother is believed to be Ocean Sun, and she will not have forgotten her daughter. To be Tokitae once again, after calling out for her mother after 45 years with no answer... in that moment her call is answered will be a day that will change humanity."

"I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita." Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

UPDATE: Michael Milstein at NOAA Fisheries has stated that the agency now expects to announce the Lolita listing decision sometime in early February.

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