Tag Archives: Captive killer whales

Endangered Species Act can’t help Lolita, judge says in legal ruling

When Lolita, a female orca held captive since 1970, was listed among the endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales, advocates for Lolita’s release were given new hope. Perhaps the listing would help Lolita obtain a ticket out of Miami Seaquarium, where she has lived since the age of 5.

Lolita has lived in a tank at Miami's Seaquarium since age 5. Photo courtesy of Orca Network
Lolita has lived at Miami’s Seaquarium since age 5.
Photo courtesy of Orca Network

But a U.S. district judge ruled last week that the Endangered Species Act could not help her. While the federal law prohibits human conduct likely to “gravely threaten the life of a member of a protected species,” it cannot be used to improve her living conditions, according to the ruling (PDF 3.3 mb) by Judge Ursula Ungaro in the Southern District of Florida.

“We very much disagree with the decision, and we will be appealing it,” said attorney Jared Goodwin, who represents the plaintiffs — including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Orca Network.

Over the objections of attorneys for Miami Seaquarium, the judge said the plaintiffs have a right to sue the aquarium, but Lolita’s care and well-being falls under a different law: the Animal Welfare Act.

The judge noted that the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for marine species under the ESA, had previously stated that keeping threatened or endangered species in captivity is not a violation of the ESA. NMFS also deferred enforcement activities to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While the ESA prohibits listed species from being “harassed,” Judge Ungaro said the term takes on a different meaning for animals held in captivity, since the law is designed to conserve species in the wild along with their ecosystems.

The judge took note of the complaints about Lolita’s living conditions, including the small size of her tank, harassment by white-sided dolphins that live with her and the lack of shade or other protection from the weather. But those aren’t conditions to be judged under the ESA, she said.

“Thus, while in a literal sense the conditions and injuries of which plaintiffs complain are within the ambit of the ordinary meaning of ‘harm’ and ‘harass,’ it cannot be said that they rise to the level of grave harm that is required to constitute a ‘take’ by a licensed exhibitor under the ESA,” she wrote.

Judge Ungaro also cited statements made by NMFS in response to comments from people who want to see Lolita released into a sea pen or possibly into open waters. Such a release, “could itself constitute a ‘take’ under Section 9(a)(1) of the act,” she said, quoting NMFS.

“The NMFS noted concerns arising from disease transmission between captive and wild stocks; the ability of released animals to adequately forage for themselves; and behavioral patterns developed in captivity impeding social integration and affecting the social behavior of wild animals,” the judge wrote.

Jared Goodman, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said the judge needlessly applied a separate definition of “harassment” to captive versus wild animals. Conditions at the aquarium are clearly harassment for Lolita, he said, and the Endangered Species Act should provide the needed protection.

The Animal Welfare Act, which should require humane treatment for captive animals, is long out of date and needs to be revised based on current knowledge about marine mammals, he said.

The same plaintiffs filed a new lawsuit in May against the Department of Agriculture for issuing a new operating license to Miami Seaquarium without adequately considering the conditions in which Lolita is being kept. Previously, a court ruled that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service acted properly when it renewed the license for Miami Seaquarium each year, because the law does not require an inspection for an ongoing permit.

That is not the case with a new license, which was required when the Miami Seaquarium came under new ownership as the result of a stock merger in 2014, according to the lawsuit. Federal inspectors should have reviewed the legal requirements to certify that Lolita’s tank and other facilities met the standards before issuing a new license, Jared said. According to documents he obtained through public disclosure requests, it appears that the federal agency simply “rubber-stamped” its previous approvals, he said, adding that a formal review would show that the aquarium in violation of animal welfare rules.

As the legal battles go on, it is difficult to see how Lolita is any closer to being “retired” to a sea pen in Puget Sound where she was born, although Howard Garrett of Orca Network and other supporters have developed a plan for Lolita’s return and even have a specific site picked out. See “Proposal to Retire the Orca Lolita.” (PDF 3.5 mb).

Meanwhile, with SeaWorld’s announcement that it will no longer breed killer whales or force orcas to perform for an audience, a new group called The Whale Sanctuary Project is looking for sites to relocate whales and dolphins that might be released. The project has received a pledge of at least $1 million from Munchkin, Inc., a baby product company. For details, check out the group’s website and a press release announcing the effort. I should point out that SeaWorld officials say they won’t release any animals.

Previous “Water Ways” blog entries:

A tribute to Ken Balcomb and his 40 years of research on killer whales

An open letter from me to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, on the 40th anniversary of the research organization:


Congratulations on 40 years of superb research regarding the killer whales of the Salish Sea and their relationships to all living things. Your unprecedented work has helped us all understand the behavior of these orcas and how quickly their population can decline — and sometimes grow. I admire your steadfast efforts to find answers to the mysteries of these whales and to push for efforts to protect them.

On a personal note, your willingness to take time to explain your findings to me as a news reporter will always be appreciated. The same goes for Dave Ellifrit and all your associates through the years.

I was fascinated with the blog entry posted on Friday, which showed the log book you began compiling during your encounters with killer whales on April 8, 1976 — the very first time you described these animals after forming the organization. The distant words on the page demonstrate how much you — and the rest of us — have learned, and it demonstrates that good research is a matter of step-by-step observations. I hope everyone gets the chance to read these pages, and I look forward to the next installment in the blog.

Thank you for your dedication, and I look forward to many more years of reports from you and your associates at the Center for Whale Research.

With highest regards, Chris.


The Orca Survey Project began on April 1, 1976, under a contract with the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a six-month survey to figure out how many killer whales lived in Puget Sound. Ken was able to use an identification technique developed by Canadian biologist Mike Bigg. By identifying individual orcas, researchers came to understand each of their families, their lives and even their unique behaviors — which I would call “personalities” for want of a better term.

Speaking of personality, if I’m not reading too much between the lines, I see Ken’s scientific perspective mixed with his fondness for the animals in the first log entry about mooring the boat and staying the night in Port Townsend:

“In the evening, we went for a hike into town for dinner and a few beers with the local folks at the Town Tavern. We spread the word and handout of the ‘study’ to all who would receive them. Most folks were takers, but a few were concerned as to which side we were on. People imagine sides of the killer whale controversy — mostly leave them alone, or catch them to show to the folks from Missouri. Our description of a killer whale study by photo technique seemed to sit well with all ‘sides,’ though there were a few skeptics, I’m sure.”

I actually looked over many of these pages from Ken’s log a number of years ago, but for some reason they take on new meaning now as we look back over 40 years of research and realize how far we’ve come in understanding these killer whales — not forgetting how much more we have to learn.

The following log book entry appears to be a description of the first direct encounter Ken experienced from a boat at the beginning of his study on April 8, 1976, as he came upon K and L pods off Dungeness Spit near Sequim.

“We cruised toward the large group of whales, first at 2300 RPM and then reducing to about 2000 RPM as we approached to within ½ mile of the whales. It was very apparent that the whales were initially concerned with avoiding us. They dove and came up several minutes later a good long distance astern of us, toward Port Angeles. We turned and proceeded toward the large group again and, at a distance of about 400 yards, they porpoised briefly and dove again for several minutes.

“Both we and the whales did not behave calmly for the first hour of the encounter. Rain was spoiling our opportunities for photographs, getting our cameras all wet and dampening our spirits. Even at slow speed and with patience, we did not closely approach the group of 25 whales, so we started toward a smaller group a little farther offshore.

“By 10:05, things seemed to have calmed down considerably. By maintaining 1050 RPM and taking slow approaches, we were tolerated by one male in company with a female and a calf about 11 ½ feet. The main group of 25 whales calmed down immediately and resumed a leisurely dive interval of about one minute to one min. 50 seconds down, still proceeding westerly.”

Remember that this was only months after the final capture of killer whales in Puget Sound. (See account from Erich Hoyt for PBS Frontline.) What were the intentions of this boat approaching them? In time, these whales came to realize that Ken and his crew would do them no harm.

If only they could know how much human attitudes around the world have changed over the past 40+ years.

Lolita joins endangered orcas; her supporters
push on for her return

Lolita, the Puget Sound orca kept for 44 years at Miami Seaquarium, has been declared a member of the endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales.

Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami's Seaquarium. Photo courtesy of Orca Network
Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami’s Seaquarium.
Photo courtesy of Orca Network

Advocates for Lolita’s “retirement” and possible release back to her family say the action by NOAA Fisheries is a key step in the effort to free the 48-year-old whale. The next step would be a lawsuit filed under the Endangered Species Act, and advocates say they are prepared for that eventuality.

A news release issued today by NOAA Fisheries plays down the effect of listing Lolita among the endangered orcas:

“While Lolita will now share the endangered listing status of the population she came from, the decision does not impact her residence at the Miami Seaquarium. Lolita is a killer whale that has resided at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970.”

The original listing created an exemption for captive killer whales, an exemption that was challenged in a petition filed in 2013 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

“NOAA Fisheries considered the petition and concluded that captive animals such as Lolita cannot be assigned separate legal status from their wild counterparts.”

NOAA received nearly 20,000 comments on the proposal to list Lolita as endangered, and many expressed hope that Lolita would be returned to her home. But that would go against the wishes of Miami Seaquarium, which does not plan to give her up.

Andrew Hertz, general manager at Miami Seaquarium, said in a statement issued today:

“Lolita has been part of the Miami Seaquarium family for 44 years. Just because she was listed as part of the Endangered Species Act does not mean that she is going anywhere. Lolita is healthy and thriving in her home where she shares her habitat with Pacific white-sided dolphins. There is no scientific evidence that the 49-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive in a sea pen or the open waters of the Pacific Northwest and we are not willing to treat her life as an experiment.”

As stated by NOAA Fisheries in the news release:

“While issues concerning release into the wild are not related to this Endangered Species Act listing decision, any future plan to move or release Lolita would require a permit from NOAA Fisheries and would undergo rigorous scientific review.

“Releasing a whale which has spent most of its life in captivity raises many concerns that would need to be carefully addressed. These concerns include disease transmission, the ability of released animals to adequately find food, difficulty in social integration, and that behavioral patterns developed in captivity could impact wild animals.

“Previous attempts to release captive killer whales and dolphins have often been unsuccessful, and some have ended tragically with the death of the released animal.”

Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a longtime advocate for returning Lolita to Puget Sound, said he expects that concerns raised by the agency can be overcome, as they were with Keiko (“Free Willy”). Following Keiko’s movie career and a fund-raising campaign, the killer whale was returned to his home in Iceland and learned to feed himself. Still, it seemed he never fully integrated with wild whales that he encountered, and nobody knows if he ever found his family. Keiko died of apparent pneumonia about two years after his release.

Howie insists that the situation with Lolita is entirely different, since we can identify her family, including her mother, L-25, named Ocean Sun. The mom is estimated to be 87 years old and still doing fine.

Plans have been developed to bring Lolita to a sea pen in Puget Sound, providing care and companionship, such as she gets now. Then, if she could integrate with L pod, release would be a likely option. In any case, Lolita would have much more room to move about, Howie says.

Getting Lolita listed as endangered is important, he said, because she will be covered by the Endangered Species Act, which makes it illegal to harm or harass a listed species. A court would need to decide whether confinement in a small tank constitutes harm or harassment, he said, but some evidence is provided by the 40 or so orcas taken from Puget Sound that died well before their time.

The decision is certain to spur on the debate about whether the killer whale would be better off living out her life in now-familiar surroundings or giving her a taste of freedom with the risks that come with moving her to open waters.

Howie has been working with PETA attorney Jared Goodman on a potential lawsuit against Miami Seaquarium to improve conditions for Lolita.

“We are prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure that her newly granted protections are enforced,” Jared told me. “I cannot speak specifically about what PETA will do next.”

Jared said he needs to know whether NOAA Fisheries will take any enforcement action before he proceeds with a “citizens lawsuit” under the ESA.

Talk of Lolita’s release into the wild is premature, he said. The goal is to transfer her back to her original home in the San Juan Islands and place her in a large protected pen. Only after determining that release is in her best interest would that idea be furthered and developed into an action plan.

Meanwhile, PETA is preparing for oral arguments in March before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on another case involving Lolita. The organization, along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, contends that conditions in the Miami Seaquarium constitute abuse under the federal Animal Welfare Act. The specific conditions at issue are the size of her tank, her ongoing exposure to sun and her lack of animal companionship.

A lower court ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has discretion to determine what constitutes acceptable conditions, despite written guidelines, when granting permits to zoos and aquariums.

Howard Garrett addressed the issue of abuse in a news release from Orca Network:

“Our society doesn’t like animal abuse, and the more we learn about orcas the less we can tolerate seeing them locked up as circus acts. The legal initiatives that led to this ruling have been brilliant and effective, as the mood of the country shifts from acceptance to rejection of captive orca entertainment enterprises. Things that seemed impossible a year ago seem doable today.”

For additional information from NOAA Fisheries, visit the website: “Southern Resident Killer Whale — Lolita.”

PETA and ALDF issued a joint news release today.

Today’s determination was not a surprise, as I addressed the logic of the federal listing when it was proposed a year ago. My post in Water Ways on Jan. 28 includes links to previous discussions about Lolita.

Will ‘endangered’ status change Lolita’s plight?

The legal stage was already set for Lolita, the last killer whale from Puget Sound to survive in captivity.

Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami's Seaquarium. Photo courtesy of Orca Network
Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami’s Seaquarium.
Photo courtesy of Orca Network

Putting Lolita on the Endangered Species List, along with her wild relatives who were already listed, follows a pattern established over the past decade, going back to a 2001 court ruling about salmon. Now, the National Marine Fisheries Service intends to include Lolita among the listed Southern Resident killer whales. See “Petition to list the killer whale known as Lolita….”

But what the endangered designation will mean for Lolita herself is yet to be seen and is likely to be the subject of further legal battles.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which filed the petition along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, hailed the latest decision by NMFS. The group said in a news release that the decision “opened the door to the eventual release of Lolita.”

Jarred Goodman, who handled the case for PETA, told me that it is PETA’s belief that holding Lolita in a small tank at Miami Seaquarium constitutes “harm and harassment,” which are violations of the Endangered Species Act.

After NMFS completes changes to the listing, PETA has several options, he said, although he is not authorized to discuss specific strategies. Calling on NMFS to take action on behalf of Lolita or filing a citizen lawsuit are among them.

Nothing in the NMFS findings would change anything for Lolita, however. The bottom line is that NMFS could find no legal justification in the Endangered Species Act (PDF 147 kb) or related court decisions for separating the captive orca from wild Southern Residents when it comes to identifying which ones are at risk of extinction.

As NMFS stated in the Federal Register (PDF 273 kb):

“While the ESA authorizes the listing, delisting, or reclassification of a species, subspecies, or DPS (distinct population segment) of a vertebrate species, it does not authorize the exclusion of the members of a subset or portion of a listed species, subspecies, or DPS from a listing decision….

“The ESA does not support the exclusion of captive members from a listing based solely on their status as captive. On its face, the ESA does not treat captives differently. Rather, specific language in Section 9 and Section 10 of the ESA presumes their inclusion in the listed entity, and captives are subject to certain exemptions to Section 9.”

In other words, the original decision not to include captive killer whales in the population at risk of extinction was a mistake.

In finding that Lolita is part of the endangered population, NMFS noted that agency officials agreed with a 2001 court ruling in which a judge determined that hatchery salmon should be considered part of the salmon population at risk of extinction.

Following that logic, the NMFS included captive fish in the listing of endangered smalltooth sawfish and endangered Atlantic sturgeon. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided last year that captive chimpanzees should be included among the wild population listed as endangered.

The ESA does allow captive animals to be treated differently, provided they were in captivity at the time of the listing and “that such holding and any subsequent holding or use of the fish or wildlife was not in the course of a commercial activity.”

For Lolita, NMFS has stated that continued possession of captive animals does not require a permit under ESA and that Lolita can continue to be managed under the Animal Welfare Act. (See “Questions and answers …”)

Advocates for Lolita say NMFS may not have taken a position on Lolita, given the latest findings. The notice only says that holding an endangered animal in captivity is not a violation of the ESA per se.

I’ll continue to follow the case as it moves forward. Meanwhile, here are some past of my past observations about Lolita in Water Ways:

April 24, 2013: Lolita, the captive orca, could gain endangerd status

Oct. 24, 2012: Should captive orcas be listed as ‘endangered’?

Nov. 20, 2011: Legal actions swirl around orcas Morgan and Lolita

Aug. 8, 2010: Thinking of Lolita, the captive killer whale

July 15, 2010: Lolita’s fate could become linked to Gulf disaster

Lolita, the captive orca, could gain endangerd status

Lolita, a killer whale taken from Puget Sound in 1970 and placed in a Miami aquarium, could be reclassified as an endangered species, along with other endangered Southern Resident orcas. At the moment, Lolita is not listed at all.

Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami's Seaquarium. Photo courtesy of Orca Network
Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami’s Seaquarium. Photo courtesy of Orca Network

NOAA Fisheries announced today that PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — has provided adequate documentation to consider whether captive orcas (specifically Lolita) should be listed along with their counterparts still roaming free.

One must not presume, however, that because NOAA has accepted PETA’s petition that a listing will follow, agency officials stressed.

I was under the impression, from talking to NOAA officials last year, that we would soon know whether or not the entire Southern Resident population would be taken off the Endangered Species List, as proposed by Pacific Legal Foundation. But that decision appears to be delayed for consideration of the Lolita petition.

“The agency said to make sure that its review is complete and based on the best available science it would now solicit any new information about Lolita’s genetic heritage and status to include in the ongoing status review,” NOAA said in a news release. “A finding on the delisting petition is due next January.”

PETA filed its petition on behalf of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Orca Network and four individuals. The 33-page petition, filed in January, applies only to Lolita, since the 35 other killer whales captured in Puget Sound have died, the petition notes. Documents — including the Lolita petition — can be found on NOAA Fisheries’ website. I discussed PLF’s delisting petition and provided links to related documents in Water Ways last Oct. 24.

The PETA petition strongly challenges the reasons for ever leaving Lolita out of the endangered population:

“No explanation was offered for Lolita’s exclusion from the listing because no legitimate explanation exists. Lolita’s biological heritage is undisputed. The Endangered Species Act unquestionably applies to captive members of a species, and the wholesale exclusion of captive members of a listed species is in excess of the agency’s authority.

“Lolita’s exclusion serves only one purpose: It protects the commercial interests of the Miami Seaquarium. The Endangered Species Act specifically precludes agency consideration of whether listing a species would cause the holder of any member of the species any economic harm. Thus Lolita’s exclusion violates the act.

“This petition urges the National Marine Fisheries Service to rectify this unjustified and illegal exclusion, thereby extending Endangered Species Act protections to all members of the Southern Resident killer whale population.

“Although as a legal matter Lolita’s genetic heritage is sufficient to merit her listing, this petition provides additional support in four sections. The first section provides the factual background regarding the Southern Resident killer whales’ listing and Lolita’s exclusion. The second section explains the application of the act to captive members of listed species. The third section applies the five factors that govern listing decisions under the act to the Southern Resident killer whales generally and also to Lolita. The fourth section considers policy reasons that support Lolita’s protection, given her significant scientific value to the wild population.”

Should captive orcas be listed as ‘endangered’?

The legal battle to determine whether captive killer whales — specifically Lolita — should be considered part of the endangered orca population has been taken out of the courtroom by parties in the case.

Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami’s Seaquarium.
Photo courtesy of Orca Network

A settlement agreement (PDF 284 kb) was signed two weeks ago between the National Marine Fisheries Service — which enforces the Endangered Species Act for marine mammals — and animal rights advocates who would like something better for this isolated animal.

Lolita is a female killer whale from Puget Sound who has been kept in a tank in Miami for 42 years.

The agreement essentially puts the lawsuit on hold pending a formal petition process under the ESA. Otherwise, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and others in the case would be left to argue about missed deadlines and proper legal notice to the federal government. See U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle’s ruling (PDF 48 kb).

Reading between the lines, I can imagine a conversation between lawyers for the two sides:
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