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.
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:
- Feb. 4, 2015: “Lolita joins endangered orcas; her supporters push on for her return”
- Jan. 28, 2014: “Will endangered status change Lolita’s plight?” with links to five earlier blog posts