Tag Archives: Captive orcas

Efforts continue to retrieve orca Lolita, despite legal setback

Although the Endangered Species Act may encourage extraordinary efforts to save Puget Sound’s killer whales from extinction, it cannot be used to bring home the last Puget Sound orca still in captivity, a court has ruled.

A 51-year-old killer whale named Lolita, otherwise called Tokitae, has been living in Miami Seaquarium since shortly after her capture in 1970. Her clan — the Southern Resident killer whales — were listed as endangered in 2005, but the federal listing specifically excluded captive killer whales.

In 2013, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) successfully petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to have Lolita included among the endangered whales. But the endangered listing has done nothing to help those who hoped Lolita’s owners would be forced to allow a transition of the whale back into Puget Sound.

This week, the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reiterated its earlier finding that Lolita has not been injured or harassed to the point that her captivity at the Miami Seaquarium violates the federal Endangered Species Act, or ESA.

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Orcas don’t qualify for constitutional protections

Killer whales are not people, so they cannot benefit from full protections provided to humans under the U.S. Constitution.

That was essence of a ruling handed down yesterday by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller. The case was brought in the name of five captive orcas by a group that includes People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

I had not planned to write about this case, because the outcome seemed rather obvious. But I must take note of how seriously Miller handled this constitutional claim. In a seven-page ruling, he reviewed the history of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, and found that it applies only to humans. The following is the conclusion of the decision, the full text of which can be downloaded by clicking here:

“Even though Plaintiffs lack standing to bring a Thirteenth Amendment claim, that is not to say that animals have no legal rights; as there are many state and federal statutes affording redress to Plaintiffs, including, in some instances, criminal statutes that ‘punish those who violate statutory duties that protect animals.’ … While the goal of Next Friends in seeking to protect the welfare of orcas is laudable, the Thirteenth Amendment affords no relief to Plaintiffs.”

SeaWorld, which holds the five orcas, issued a statement noting that the judge took little time to issue his ruling, which “provides reassurance of the sanctity of the 13th Amendment and the absurdity of PETA’s baseless lawsuit,” according to the statement quoted by Huffington Post reporter Joanna Zelman.

A statement issued today by PETA shows no disappointment in the outcome of the case:

“There is no question that SeaWorld enslaves animals, even though the judge in this case didn’t see the 13th Amendment as the remedy to that. Women, children, and racial and ethnic minorities were once denied fundamental constitutional rights that are now self-evident, and that day will certainly come for the orcas and all the other animals enslaved for human amusement.

“This historic first case for the orcas’ right to be free under the 13th Amendment is one more step toward the inevitable day when all animals will be free from enslavement for human entertainment. Judge Miller’s opinion does not change the fact that the orcas who once lived naturally, wild and free, are today kept as slaves by SeaWorld. PETA will continue to pursue every available avenue to fight for these animals.”

Supporters of Morgan’s release celebrate a victory

Morgan, the young orca rescued at sea and nursed back to health in a Dutch marine park, will stay put in the Netherlands while an Amsterdam judge considers her ultimate fate.

Killer whale activists around the world are thrilled that Morgan will not be shipped this week to a marine park in the Canary Islands of Spain, where she reportedly would become part of SeaWorld’s corporate collection of captive orcas.

A judge in Amsterdam District Court ruled today that more research should be done to determine whether Morgan should be set free or stay in captivity. For now, the judge said, Morgan should remain in Harderwijk Dolphinarium but be moved into a larger tank with other marine mammals.

“This is a massive victory,” Wietse van der Werf of Orca Coalition told a reporter outside the courtroom. (Read the story in Stuff from New Zealand.) “This is the first time in history that the export of an orca has been blocked by a judge. It exposes the international trade among dolphinariums as a very lucrative industry.”

The judge ruled that advocates in the case — including Orca Coalition, Free Morgan and the dolphinarium — should work together to find a common solution. Also the Agriculture Minister in Holland, which last week issued a permit to move Morgan, must take more responsibility in deciding the future of the whale and not abdicate his decisions to the dolphinarium, according to the judge.

A statement from Orca Coalition includes this comment from van der Werf:

“Of course the fact that she now remains in the Dolphinarium for the short term is not ideal and it is definitely not a solution. But as she is temporarily moved to a larger tank and we continue to fight for her freedom, this really is an important first step in the right direction.

“It is clear that the judge saw a lot of dubious things in the Dolphinarium’s plans, and his ruling now opens the door to the possibilities of release. The decision today is definitely an unprecendented one and puts a spanner in the works for the ongoing lucrative and illegal trade in these magnificent animals.”

Moving Morgan to the larger tank will allow her to socialize with dolphins that she has heard from a distance.

According to a report by Jason Garcia of the Orlando Sentinel, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment was behind the proposed move to Loro Parque on the Canary Island of Tenerife, where five other SeaWorld-owned killer whales are on display. Many killer whale advocates assert that SeaWorld is eager to obtain Morgan for breeding purposes.

A plan to release the whale (PDF 552 kb) was developed by a group of killer whale supporters, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and Robin Baird of Cascadia Research, both in Puget Sound. The idea would be to place her in a good-sized sea pen, where she would be trained to follow a boat and respond to acoustic signals. Morgan could then be released with observers nearby to see how she responds to other killer whales.

On the other side of the argument is a report (PDF 1.6 mb) from seven killer whale experts who said Morgan was not a good candidate for release, because:

  • She had already imprinted on humans and probably would approach boats, which would create a hazard,
  • She may lack the appropriate hunting skills,
  • There may be a reason, psychologically or socially, that she became separated from her pod, and
  • Returning her to her home region would be difficult challenge because of rough winds and waters.

For background on this story, see my previous entries in Water Ways:

Orphan orca gains attention of whale advocates, Jan. 14, 2011

Morgan, the orphan orca, gets her own lawyer, Feb. 11, 2011

Other news reports:

Dutch News: Morgan the orca to stay in Holland pending further research

Radio Netherlands Worldwide: Morgan the Orca to stay in Netherlands

Death of orca trainer raises questions, concerns

With our widespread affection for killer whales in the Northwest, it is not easy to hear the news about the death of a human who worked closely with these powerful and intelligent animals.

If you haven’t heard, a veteran orca trainer at Seaworld Orlando, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, was apparently petting the whale, named Tillikum, when the incident occurred.

Witnesses told the Orlando Sentinel that the whale grabbed Brancheau by the arm, tossed her around in his mouth and pulled her under water during a scheduled program about 2 p.m. today at Shamu Stadium.

Reporter Jason Garcia of the Orlando Sentinel described how Tillikum, a 12,000- pound male known as “Tilly,” was considered a dangerous whale. Only select trainers were allowed to handle him, and nobody was allowed to swim with him.

Chuck Tompkins, in charge of animal behavior for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, told Garcia that Tilikum worked well with Brancheau. “He knew her, and he liked working with her,” Tompkins was quoted as saying.

But many killer whale advocates were quick to argue that orcas don’t belong in captivity and that their confinement in close quarters can lead to psychological problems for the orcas.

The following are statements from OrcaNetwork of Washington state and Lifeforce of British Columbia, followed by a couple of opinion polls on this issue and links to the most informative news reports.
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